Exploring the forests and tribal settlements on foot with a local guide has become immensely popular over the last decade, particularly with Chiang Mai's influx of young travellers. Travel shops advertise a range of trekking options, from a basic overnight hike to arduous week-long safaris. The recipe is usually the same - basic accommodation in consenting hill tribe villages, mixed with varying degrees of soft adventure such as sectors on elephant back or exciting stretches of white water rafting. These itineraries vary from the memorable to the mundane, and some routes have suffered from tourism overkill, with a foreseeable negative effect on both authenticity and hospitality. There are still however a number of dedicated and eco-friendly operators who operate less-frequented routes, and a well-chosen trek can be a hugely rewarding experience.
Chiang Mai's tribal settlements are a separate fascinating study, with their origins in different parts of Asia, and correspondingly very different beliefs, languages, customs, laws, dress and traditions. Individual descriptions are well beyond the scope of this web site, but Chiang Mai's larger bookshops stock some excellent coffee-table publications with stunning photography enhancing the thoroughly absorbing text.
The Tribal Research Institute recognises ten hill tribes or Chao Khao (mountain people) most with origins in the Tibetan Plateau. Best known are the Karen, whose numbers are thought to exceed 300,000 in Thailand, (and several million in Burma) In addition to the Sgaw Karen and Pwo Karen there are several related subgroups including the oft-photographed Padaung, or "long-neck" Karen. The Akha are easily recognised by the women's distinctive "mini-skirts" and strikingly colourful headdresses of beads, old silver coins, and feathers. Other tribes include The Lahu who are specialised forest hunters, the turbaned Lisu skilled in silver jewellery, the Hmong (or Meo) with their love of embroidery and batik, and the Yao (or Mien), who brought their culture from far-off China. The Lawa (mentioned above) were known to have lived in Thailand before Lanna but some archaeologists postulate that they have ancestral roots in Micronesia, perhaps 2,000 years ago. Other lesser-known groups such as the H'tin, Khamu and Mlabri are thought to have origins closer to the Golden Triangle.