Northern Thailand’s hill tribes turn a new leaf

Experience Thailand’s high life beyond the paradiscal beaches and glossy skyscrapers. Known for its notorious opium trade in the late 1960s, the hill tribes of northern Thailand are working hard to recover from their dark past with the help of Local Alike, a community-based tourism enterprise.

MEET ACHAI

Meet Achai

“The jungle is my supermarket,” jokes Phetcharat Wiboonsrisakul, during his daily walk along the hilly jungle trails close to Suan Pa, a village in the Chiang Rai district.

Achai, as he is affectionately known, prepares every meal from scratch using fresh vegetables, spices and fruits from his “backyard” —  the rolling green hills that extend as far as the eye can see.

The tourism community leader of his village, Achai is from the Akha tribe — one of the six main indigenous communities that reside in the hills of northern Thailand.

He is part of a recent influx of locals who have returned to the hills looking to make a living in a region once plagued by border disputes, opium cultivation and addiction.

With support from initiatives by the Thai royal family, the villagers are geared up for a revival, and community-based tourism is the region’s new beacon of hope.

AN ELEVATED EXPERIENCE

Shopping in the “supermarket” with Achai was the start of my three-day journey organised by Local Alike, during which I would visit Suan Pa and Pha Mee, two of the Akha villages that dot northern Thailand’s imposing mountains.

Achai earnestly shared some of the secrets of the Akha, pointing out to me different medicinal herbs for muscle pains and insect bites, and continually thanking the spirit birds for replenishing the flora in the jungle.

The trek — which can be customised according to guests’ fitness levels — culminated in lunch prepared and served in a raised bamboo hut, where I witnessed “lam pla”, a traditional way of cooking in bamboo over an open fire.

With its gorgeous surroundings and vibrant cottage industries like coffee, weaving and pottery, the future of Suan Pa’s determined community looks rosy.

RESPONSIBLE TOURISM

The seed for Local Alike’s involvement in Suan Pa was planted when its CEO, Somsak Bookam, and Achai first met and discovered a mutual desire to preserve culture and nature by working hand in hand to provide meaningful travel experiences.

Founded in 2012, Local Alike assesses each community’s needs and their readiness for tourism. Those selected receive support in creating unique experiences for travellers that Local Alike then features on its website, which also manages the booking and payments.

Prices are determined by each community, which keeps 70 per cent of revenue generated from each booking.

Akha homestays are not uncommon, but Suan Pa is not ready to offer them yet, and I was glad to see that they did not feel compelled to open their houses for tourism’s sake. There is a disturbing trend of commercial tour agencies compelling villagers to be fully decked out in traditional Akha dresses and vibrant headgear — something I too, expected to see, only to have this perception debunked.

“Many of the tribal people now prefer to wear more modern western clothes as they are lighter and more comfortable. The culture has evolved and we respect that — rather than forcing them to wear their traditional clothes all day just for gawking tourists,” shares Krishna Manowang, nicknamed Bic, my Suan Pa guide.

As for concerns that tourism may dilute the Akha tribal culture, Phakakan Rungpracharat, the tourism community leader at my next stop, Pha Mee, allays this fear.

“When we share our traditional ways with people from outside, they show appreciation. It makes us feel proud when they share our photos and videos. It encourages the younger generation to continue holding on to their roots,” says Phakakan, who goes by Maew.

ETHICAL TRAVELLING, LASTING IMPACT

village

Pha Mee, named after the famous “Bear Mountain”, is home to one of the latest communities to join Local Alike’s network. More bustling than Suan Pa, new homestays, coffee shops and souvenir stores have emerged to add a bustling vibe to the gentle charms of the village.

With its stunning mountain vistas, Pha Mee seemed ripe for tourism but Maew’s efforts were not fruitful until she joined hands with Local Alike, whose expertise helped bridge the gap between the community and tourists.

A stay at Pha Mee is a chance to work alongside locals trying your hand at making traditional coffee, picking oranges in the orchard and painting dried gourds, which are smaller versions of ones that were once used by villagers as water vessels.

“When I was working in the capital, I had some pretty awful tasting coffee. That is when I realised how tasty our home brew is. Why not share it with a wider community?” says Maew, as she demonstrates making coffee with a bamboo “drip machine”.

village

Akha tribes still practice their ancient rituals and all entrances to the villages have protective “spirit gates” — marking the division between man and the spirit life. Sacred sites are off limits to visitors, who must content themselves with viewing replicas at the village’s cultural centre.

The centre also features an iconic giant Akha swing, part of an ancient tradition that takes centre stage during the annual harvest thanksgiving celebration in August. Bachelors show off their swing skills to impress those they are courting.

village

Inspired by the success of Suan Pa and Pha Mee through partnership with Local Alike, Bic hopes to someday bring positive impact to his own hometown, guided by his belief that we are all “same same but different”. “Only upon venturing out, and appreciating other cultures, will one have the perspective to look into your own and appreciate the true value of home.”

Local Alike was one of the winners of Singapore International Foundation’s Young Social Entrepreneurs programme in 2014. Through mentorships, study visits, and opportunities to pitch for funding, the programme nurtures social entrepreneurs of different nationalities, to drive positive change for the world.

Located in northern Thailand, picturesque Pha Mee is home to the Akha hill tribe community that’s hoping to tap the power of tourism to improve the lives of its people and preserve their cultural heritage.
New homestays, coffee shops and souvenir stores have emerged, lending a bustling vibe to the town, which boasts stunning vistas of the surrounding mountains.
Local tourism leaders like Maew (pictured), are determined to preserve the authenticity of their culture, even as they embrace the chance to share their traditions with visitors, and develop sustainable livelihoods for the community.
Working with community-based tourism enterprise Local Alike, Pha Mee offers travel experiences that allow visitors to learn about local history and cottage industries like coffee cultivation and brewing (pictured), with the assurance that a significant part of the proceeds are channelled back to the community for development.
Northern Thailand was once plagued by border disputes, opium cultivation and addiction. But a visit by the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej brought a change in fortunes when the communities were introduced to alternative crops, namely coffee.
Aside from enjoying coffee and Pha Mee’s natural beauty, visitors can also take part in activities like painting of gourds, which are smaller versions of ones that were once used by villagers as water vessels.
Akha cuisine is a highlight of the region, prepared using the ample fresh ingredients found in the area. You’d be hard pressed to turn down seconds.
Even as tourism has brought a commercial feel to some parts of the region, traditions have been protected. All entrances to the villages have protective “spirit gates”, such as the one pictured above, marking the division between man and the spirit life. Sacred sites are off limits to visitors, who must content themselves with viewing replicas at the village’s cultural centre.
In nearby Suan Pa, the local community has also begun working with Local Alike to develop travel experiences, drawing on the beauty of the lush jungles that surround the village.
Hikes, which can be customised to travellers’ needs and preferences, bring visitors to spots only locals know about, such as this waterfall. Photo by Krishna Manowang
The reward for surviving the jungle hike is a delicious lunch cooked the traditional way. Food is stuffed into bamboo and cooked over fire, creating a smoky, aromatic delight.
The jungle is Achai’s supermarket, who cooks with the vegetables and herbs he finds on his daily walk. Also grown locally is cocoa (pictured), another crop that the Akha have cultivated as a more sustainable option.
Homestays, such as this one, are rustic and may appear rundown to guests from more affluent countries, but they reflect the simple lives of the local community.
Locals like Bic have begun moving back to their hometowns to work as guides and manage the development of sustainable tourism in their communities.
By working with Local Alike, they hope to bring more visitors to the region, in a way that will uplift the community as a whole.
Photo Credit: Upneet Kaur-Nagpal

Text: Upneet Kaur-Nagpal

Tap to view more photos

THE DIFFERENCE YOU MAKE

By exploring communities like Suan Pa and Pha Mee through Local Alike, you help to support responsible tourism led by the local community members, and fuel sustainable livelihoods. It also helps to foster cultural exchange  and encourage the preservation of traditions.

Seventy per cent of the money from each booking goes to the local community, while the remainder goes to Local Alike. Both contribute five per cent of their revenue/profit to a fund that is used to support community education, environment and livelihood improvement initiatives.

As of 2019, Local Alike has worked with 100 villages in 42 provinces and created over 2,000 part-time jobs.

GETTING THERE

The best place to begin your journey is Chiang Rai, northern Thailand. There are now direct flights from most major cities in the region.

Consider spending a night in Chiang Rai town, as the tours begin very early in the morning. Most of the villages are about an hour’s drive from there and a pick-up service from your hotel is included in the tour package.

Both Pha Mee and Suan Pa aren't findable on Google Maps but we have indicated their coordinates on the map on the left.

TRAVELLER'S NOTES

The temperatures in the highlands vary from hot and humid days to cooler evenings, so pack accordingly — bring warm layers to keep the chill away and comfortable walking shoes for the jungle treks.
The best months to visit are between November to February. Avoid the rainy season between May and October.
Please ask the locals for permission before taking their photographs as some believe that the camera captures their souls.
The people of the hills take great pride in their cuisine, so please be gracious and accept their kind offers during meal times. Although, it is unlikely you would refuse the offer since the food is so delicious!
With the  Myanmar border close by, turn off the auto time zone adjustment features on your devices to avoid switching to Myanmar time, which is 30 minutes behind Thailand time.
Accommodation can be quite basic so come prepared to enjoy the rustic way of life. Bring your own toiletries if you are particular.

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