Trekking with a Red Karen Tribe – Chiang Mai, Thailand

by Mike Still
Trekking with a Red Karen Tribe – Chiang Mai, Thailand

After a week in paradise Brian and I jumped on a plane for Chiang Mai ready to play with elephants, trek through the jungle and spend a few days on motorbikes.  We quickly found the backpacker area near Tha Phae gate in the old City of Chiang Mai and grabbed a room.

Finding a room in Chiang Mai
Its easy to walk down the road and find a room.  (at least it is during the Wet Season)
Air Con Private rooms (2-beds) 600 baht and up
Fan Private rooms (2-beds) 250 baht and up
Dorm Beds 150 baht and up
Walk in, ask if they  have room.  If they don’t have space ask if they know anywhere with a room available.
These prices are less negotiable than elsewhere in Thailand but its still worth a try!

After checking in we promptly booked a 2 day trip into the jungle for the next day.  The rest of our evening was spent researching the Mae Hong Son loop by discussing it with other travelers and local expats.  Our goal of 5 days on the loop was quickly becoming a possibility but we kept our focus on the current adventure ready to meet the Red Karen hill tribes near Chiang Mai.

The next morning we were picked up by a truck, stopped at a market and by 10am were staring at elephants!  The first stop on this 2-day jungle adventure was an elephant camp.  It quickly became apparent that this was a cheaper camp; I was appalled to see mahouts with hooks in their belts and even watch one brandish a whip!   I had an internal debate about whether to jump into the metal bucket seats atop each pachyderm but decided that I’d buy a bag of fruit & sugar cane and feed them while making my decision.


Although I saw hooks I only saw gentle prodding and couldn’t find a hint of blood or any scars on any of the half-dozen elephants.  The seats atop each beast didn’t appear to be too uncomfortable and when I came close probing trunks came right to me like a hand reaching out to say hello.  Placing banana after banana in trunk after trunk I realized I wanted t o spend as much time with these majestic creatures as possible and jumped into the next seat.

Booking an adventure in Chiang Mai
You can book an excursion at any hotel/hostel and dozens of places on the street.
Before you arrive research the options and decide what you want to do (elephants, trekking, zip lining, waterfalls, etc.)
I recommend shopping around and asking other English speakers that you meet what the best ones are.
The only reason to reserve before you arrive is if you are doing a really popular one like Elephant Nature Park or at a popular time
This is true for most places around South East Asia

After all, the point of this excursion was the trekking not the elephants.  If you’re thinking about doing an elephant trip in Thailand make sure you do your research. We got roped into a package deal without even realizing it and would have gladly skipped the elephant camp for more time with locals or hiking through the jungle.

Thinking about heading to Chiang Rai instead?  You’ll want to read some of the best things to do in Chiang Rai before planning your trip!


Moments later we found ourselves at a trail head with our Red Karen guide, Tom.  Tom was a fun loving 28 year old who grew up in a village not far away.  Having learned English from tourists he now possessed fully functional English conversation skills and loved to have fun.  Moments into our hike he found a small clearing and pulled out a dozen banana leaf packages brimming with fried rice.  Eating in the jungle means eco-friendly; everything came from a local hole in the wall establishment, was positively delicious and 100% biodegradable!Jungle Fire Magic

After lunch Tom led us further into the jungle stopping a handful of times to show us some “jungle magic.”  The first trick began by crushing a white rock with the butt of his slingshot before he lit the makeshift gunpowder on fire in a giant fireball!_DSC2125

Shortly after his magic show Tom brought us to a beautifully misty waterfall!  The next few hours were spent relaxing in the best shower I’d had in Thailand while trying to not fall on the slippery rocks and logs lining the path through the deluge._DSC2181_DSC2202

After rinsing all the grime and sweat away we started back on the trail and quickly realized it had been a futile effort.  Seconds later we were drenched again and longing to be back in the cool water.  Sensing our desires Tom called out that we would stop at another waterfall. Tomorrow.

Tonight it was time to meet his tribe and explore the village.  Another hour down into a valley and back up a hill took us past viewpoints and rice fields as the afternoon sun beat down when suddenly we rounded the corner and Tom pulled out his slingshot!_DSC2300_DSC2280

A giant grin spread across his face as he mocked on the kids down the road when suddenly his daughter noticed him and sprinted his way!  We had finally arrived and were in for a treat.  Later in the evening we ate the best Thai food I’ve ever had and joked with some of the village elders long into the night swapping tales by fire and starlight.


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Mike Still
Mike is a travel enthusiast, photographer and teacher. He loves adventure travel, meeting the locals and exploring new culture. As an outdoor enthusiast you can often find him hiking mountains or exploring forests trying to capture the beauty of mother nature. In 2013 he founded as he left his home in America and has been teaching or traveling around the world ever since!

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