Trekking Chiang Mai, Thailand (Hill Tribes and Waterfalls)


One of the most memorable and cultural experiences I ever had was trekking Chiang Mai, Thailand. The hill tribes were fascinating. They live off the land and are the humblest, happiest people you would ever meet. The many cascading waterfalls along our journey were beautiful and mesmerising and we even found a beach along the way. The lush green paddy fields were a real sight to behold.

I was amazed by the intriguing lifestyle of the Karen tribe who live in the mountains on the border of Thailand and Myanmar. Their genuine happiness, family bond and humble lifestyle is the simple life but clearly a wonderful and happy existence. They need nothing but the land and each other to survive. It really opened my eyes to what we see as important in life and what really is. These people don’t have any ‘material’ goods and had probably never needed for them. They were so welcoming and friendly. They played guitar and sang with us and really made the trip so much more memorable. A wonderful happy vibe with contagiously happy smiling faces. They don’t call Thailand “the land of smiles” for nothing. If there is one thing you do on your trip to Thailand, let it be trekking Chiang Mai 🙂

We had arrived in Chiang Mai the day before embarking on our 2 day trek in Chiang Mai. The night train left from Bangkok and it was 10 hours but overnight so we slept on the train. It was very comfortable and well set up. The beds get pulled out from the top and bottom whenever you want to sleep at night and then you wake up an hour or so before arriving at your destination the next morning, fresh as a daisy. They even serve breakfast on the train which is ideal. We had a great night enjoying a few beers on the train the night before and met some other fun backpackers too. When we woke up and got ready, the stunning views from our train windows were a sight to behold. Lush greenery and rainforest like terrain with paddy fields and sunshine. We knew Chiang Mai was going to be the beginning of a beautiful journey.

Chiang Mai trekking - waterfall

When we arrived at the train station we were able to get a pre-arranged bus to our hotel and head directly to the town we were staying at. It was all very well organised as we had set up the trip via a government-ran travel agency for creating itineraries. We had been advised to go there as they are the cheapest and most reliable tour operators. They got us a fantastic deal on the night train, accommodation, tour and trekking so it was nice to be organised and not just scrambling to find accommodation and transport. We do normally just wing it but this was a deal we couldn’t pass up!

On the bus we met some more backpackers and were staying at the same hotel as them so we were happy to be socialising with them. We arranged to have dinner together and visit the famous night market that evening in Chiang Mai. The night market was really huge and had so many cool handmade souvenirs, bags, scarves, jewellery and just about everything you could want. They had a huge range of street food vendors too so it was all very cultural and a really buzzing vibe, with locals and tourists bustling throughout. I loved the night market and picked up a gorgeous bag and some pretty handmade earrings to remind me of the unforgettable Chiang Mai.

Night market Chiang Mai

We decided not to drink that night and head to bed early. Wise move! Since we knew we were starting off on the trek to see the waterfalls and hill tribes the next morning early. We hopped on the bus with a bunch of familiar faces the next morn and were brought to the starting point to meet our trekking guides and be shown the itinerary etc. We were briefed on what was involved including sleeping on a mat in one hut! We were a bit worried about it but actually it was more of a padded thin mattress and it was quite comfy in the end!

Chiang Mai waterfall with me in photo

We set off and it was fairly hot so we had plenty of water and only a smaller light backpack to carry with some basics like change of clothes and camera etc. We had left most of our stuff at the hotel in a secure luggage facility til we got back. The tour guides were great fun and really friendly, chatting and joking the whole time so I stayed up front with them as they were really interesting and able to tell us about the area as we went along. The first day was hard, 3 hour walk and then another 2 hour walk and a lot of it was uphill but we had some extremely worthwhile stops along the way at the various waterfalls and we could even get in for a swim and cool down. Wow!

Group of trekkers bathing at waterfall on rock

Trek view of mountains

river and waterfall chiang mai

When we reached our first summit, we met with one the the Karen hill tribes. They were the first tribe we met and they lived at the top of a mountain in isolation from the outside world. They were weavers and the only money they made was through weaving scarves, blankets and bracelets as well as some leather work. The tourism really helps them to have money and once a month or so, one of the villagers makes the long trip by a little old motor bike down the mountain and into the nearest market for any necessities. They also sell things like cans of beer, bars of chocolate, crisps and stuff to the tourist in order to make a bit of extra money so the awesome thing was, we could buy beer and snacks in the middle of nowhere! This was just a pit stop as we were moving on to the next tribe a couple of hours away in order to rest, eat and stay for the night. Surrounded by banana trees, they live in wooden huts and live off the land. They bathe in nearby rivers and enjoy family life in the mountains.

wooden ladder on river chiang mai

We bought some bracelets and scarves and watched them weaving as the tour guide chatted to them in Thai. They don’t speak English obviously! However, their welcome was so friendly and warm so we didn’t have to speak to acknowledge one another. Wonderful and happy people who we will never forget. We were excited to meet the next tribe as we set off again for another couple of hours trekking the Chiang Mai mountain. A couple of hours of breathtaking scenery later, we arrived at the home of the next tribe and felt the warm welcome immediately. The children were all laughing, running and playing and everyone just seemed so happy. What a wonderful place to live in such paradise, it was no wonder. No phones, tv’s, computers, just each other and their beautiful surroundings.

Campfire at hill tribe stop Chiang Mai trek waterfall River Chiang mai waterfall Chiang mai

We met only one or two other people along our journey apart from the hill tribes, who were locals. It wasn’t touristy at all which made the experience so much richer and more cultural. It really was the best cultural experience I have ever had while travelling! I felt we were experiencing the real Thailand. Our group were good fun so we really enjoyed each others company and sang songs around the camp fire at night. It was awesome!!

Paddy fields
Paddy fields, Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai trekking A gorgeous beach we stumbled upon in the hills of Chiang Mai Cooking pumpkin for our Thai curry

Above you see our tour guide cooking pumpkin curry for our dinner. It was literally one of the nicest curry I have ever eaten! They served us dinner on tin plates and we sang and drank the night away. Here are the huts we stayed in. Very basic but so cool. What better way to travel than living like a local? Haha no electricity but plenty of running water!

As you can see, most of the huts, walkways and buildings are built from bamboo. It is a fantastic resource and an extremely strong material so luckily it is plentiful in the area. On the trek back down the mountain we would get to experience bamboo rafting which looks like great fun and it is!

Crazy tour guide doing some dangerous stunts!

Climbing rock face and navigating waterfalls is just another days work for our tour guide. Don’t even think about trying this! Thankfully our experienced tour guides were well trained and highly skilled.

We couldn’t wait to check out the bamboo rafting and we challenged each other to a race. Although the others had a head start, we had a faster guide on our raft so we overtook them and sped to the end haha. It was a great fun experience and at the end there was a big dip down a mini waterfall which was exhilarating and no one on our raft fell off so we did well. Then we had the opportunity to do a cliff jump into the water which was very adrenaline-fuelled. I was scared out of my mind once I got to the top but I went for it anyway and it was totally worth it!

Bamboo rafting, Chiang Mai

All in all, trekking Chiang Mai was one of the most memorable travel experiences I ever had and it will always have a place in my heart. I would love to go back some day as a family when my kids are old enough. I have to say, the hill tribes and waterfalls were the best highlights of the trip for me. We had so much fun with our group too, you have to go if you get a chance. You only live once!

Sadly, a lot of the Karen tribes had to flee during fighting on the border of Thailand and Myanmar, over the religious temples and land. Amazingly, some of the Karen people became refugees and got sent to Limerick in Ireland! I watched a documentary on it when I was back home in Ireland and couldn’t believe it, they ended up being housed there and it filmed them arriving in a house for the first time ever. They had never seen a washing machine or oven before. I was sad for them that they had to leave their beautiful land but also happy that they seemed to settle in extremely well. I was glad that we were able to welcome them as they welcomed us. Apparently they have a great community there and are thriving now. Mad!

Let me know if you go trekking in Chiang Mai or if you have been and what were the highlights of your trip x

If you want to travel and save money, you will be interested in reading this

One of the most memorable and cultural experiences I ever had was trekking Chiang Mai, Thailand. The hill tribes were fascinating. The waterfalls were epic!

Get post alerts :


Get post alerts :

Reply your comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: