The Hill Tribes of Baan Tong Luang – Chiang Mai

hilltribe village Chiang Mai Thailand

Arriving in Chiang Mai after a long day of travel from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, the first thing I noticed was the air – it was actually clean. I could fill my lungs without the feeling of having smoked a half pack of Marlboros. I swear, when I get back to Canada people will think I’ve started a new habit – everything I wear smells like smoke and diesel. After two weeks in Bangkok and HCMC (Saigon), fresh air was an incredibly welcome relief.

I took a taxi to the middle of town, about a fifteen minute, 150 baht ($5) ride. My guesthouse, Thapae Garden Guesthouse, is about a seven minute walk to the Thapae Gate and entrance to the old city. Upon arrival I was greeted by Ann, a very nice young Thai woman who would prove to be an indispensable source of advice and support during my stay. Ann also made me killer breakfasts every morning, including fruit-infused muesli thick enough to stand on.

Chiang Mai (CM) has a laid-back, easy vibe that makes it feel almost sleepy when compared to Bangkok or Saigon. When I went exploring the neighbourhood I was basically left alone – an experience I hadn’t had in weeks. Traffic is mellow by comparison to Saigon, and in the evenings it’s cooler than Bangkok by about five degrees (but it will still melt your face off during the days). Birds sing, monks walk down the street, and people seem in a better mood here than in my previous two cities. Nirvana.

Wat Chedi Luang, my favourite temple in CM, right in the heart of the city.

I explored the city, walking in and out of countless temples. There are 81 in Chiang Mai, meaning you can’t cover them all (unless you’re really dedicated and have way too much time on your hands). Once you’ve spent time in SE Asia it’s easy to become “templed out” as the term goes, but I’m really digging the opportunity to explore these holy places in relative tranquility, the crowds of Bangkok and Vietnam long behind me.

After exploring CM for a day I decided to visit the nearby hill tribes. I’ve read about the longneck Karen tribes since I was a kid, so this was one of the things I had really been looking forward to.

I hired a tuk tuk driver named Killi to drive me out to Baan Tong Luang, a hill tribe village about an hour from CM via tuk tuk, but probably 40 minutes by car. Tuk tuks might be slow, especially when climbing hills, but I like the wind in my hair, so I was happy with my choice.

Killi’s a good guy and I used him a number of times during my time in CM. I find it’s good to use a single driver in town if you like and trust them; in Killi’s case it worked out perfectly. He tended to hang around on the corner at the end of the alley where my guesthouse was located, so tracking him down was never a challenge.

 Killi ready and raring to go, just off Thapae Soi 3.

 He dropped me at Baan Tong Luang and waited while I explored the village. The village is a place of controversy as some people view it as a “human zoo”, while others see it as a unique opportunity to learn about different cultures.

After speaking to a number of people at the village, from staff to hill tribe women, the vibe I got was that the hill tribes represented here are honest-to-goodness tribes from Myanmar and Northern Thailand, who chose to leave willingly and create more opportunity for themselves. The village provides access to better education for their children than they would have received in Myanmar, and they make more money from their textiles than they would in other locales. Everyone I met greeted me warmly, people seemed happy, and I didn’t get a “human zoo” vibe at all. For these reasons, I think this is worth a visit if you’re in CM.

The village features members of the Lahu, Hmong, Yao, Padong, Palong, and Aka tribes, providing opportunities for people to learn about each tribe and buy textiles as they make their way around.

The first purchase I made was a handmade wallet from this lovely woman, a member of the Lahu tribe.

She was kind and smiley, and we tried to chat but failed miserably due to language barriers. She gave me an elephant made of a pipecleaner as a gift and I went on my way, wallet and gift in hand. Incidentally, on the tuk tuk ride home I accidentally sat on the pipecleaner elephant. Sadly I no longer have a pipecleaner elephant, but I do have a lovely pipecleaner mouse with a really long nose.

I also bought a few small bracelets from this woman, who seemed very proud of her wares.

The village is surrounded by lush terrain and I quite enjoyed listening to the sounds of the birds, the chickens (chickens everywhere, if you’re a chicken afficianado, this is the place for you), and the kids running around. I also enjoyed this water wheel – it made the place feel like it exists in a simpler time.

The long neck tribe, the Padong, are located near the back of the village, up a hill, near the community church. The church is multi-disciplinary and serves whoever needs it, in whatever religion they prefer.

Inside the church. It’s bright and clean, looking like a nice place to observe whatever religion you might be observing.

Church visited, it was time to get to know the long-neck tribe, the Karens, also known as the Padong. All of the women wear these rings around their necks, from kids…

…to young women…

…to village elders.

 The rings have traditionally been worn by girls beginning at age 5. This custom is a dying one, as many women no longer choose to continue the tradition; those who do so are trying to hold on to their culture while maintaining their appeal to tourists.

You can watch them make scarves and other textiles on site, making for some really unique linens that feel like nothing I’ve ever felt before. I bought something from almost everyone there, making me a popular guy. Either that, or it was my winning smile.

I bought a scarf from this woman, who was making them on-site:

Following a couple of hours at Baan Tong Luang, I was off, the wind whipping through my blonde locks as Killi rode on the shoulder of the highway, being constantly overtaken by much faster cars, trucks, and a motivated cyclist on a somewhat rundown mountain bike.

I enjoyed a night of spicy Thai food that the waitress said wasn’t spicy and then hit bed fairly early as I was getting up early the next day to venture north.

Next up – Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle!

What do you think? Have you visited the hill tribes? If so, what was your impression? Feel free to mention your own blog in the comments – cheers!


    1. Thanks, Shelly! It was a beautiful spot to shoot and the women were wonderful subjects. Loved every minute of my time in CM. 🙂

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