Trekking with a Red Karen Tribe part 2 – Chiang Mai, Thailand

by Mike Still
Trekking with a Red Karen Tribe part 2 – Chiang Mai, Thailand

I awoke shortly after the sun stretching upwards to find my hands tangled in a mosquito net as yesterday’s adventure through the jungle came back into focus.  Unsure of what Tom had in store for us today other than “swimming in a waterfall” I excitedly dressed and wandered about his village, Hwe Yao.  The night before our guide mentioned that all the people in Hwe Yao were happy to see us and photos were welcome.  As an avid photographer this made me grin from ear to ear and I enjoyed showing the locals their profile after snapping away.

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In the early morning I saw kids playing while moms kept a watchful eye in between mundane housework.  This remote town had minimal electricity, no running water and an apparent aura of relaxation and happiness.  Life in the jungle is simple; you have simple needs and when they are met life is good.  During the rainy season food and water are abundant and life is easy.  I’m sure it would be a different story if I came back 6 months from now.


We got back on the road shortly after a breakfast of fresh fruit, eggs and toast with homemade jam and butte_DSC2437r.  On the way out Tom showed us yet another form of “jungle magic” as he grabbed a massive leaf.  It was bigger than my head and mostly green with a reddish hue.  He explained how the Karen people had been living off the jungle for generations as he squashed the leaf into a blood-red dye!

Wandering past rice paddies we waved farewell to Hwe Yao, Tom’s little village.  This would be the last time we saw any of those 175 inhabitants.  By midday we’d be well on our way to Chiang Mai where Brian and were excited to rent motorbikes and embark on an 800km journey along the Mae Hong Son Loop.  Snapping back to reality the trail wound its way up the next hill past more terraced rice paddies as we trekked swatting insects and longing for a pond or river to splash in.

We finally reached the summit of this small hill and found ourselves smack in the middle of two villages.  In the distance you could almost make out the rooftops of Tom’s house; to the left the village where many of his cousins lived.  We snaked our way back down the hill as a refreshing sound slowly began to fill our ears.

Water was near.  It didn’t sound like the roar of a waterfall but we would soon approach a river.  The murmur grew as we descended leaping across a small man-made channel diverting a small irrigation flow before the river finally revealed itself.  The first people we saw on the trail were two locals swimming shirtless with bamboo fishing spears!  Staring in awe I hoped to watch them catch some lunch but it looked like they were just playing so I diverted my attention to the nearby laughter._DSC2626

Another group of foreigners lay sunbathing on the rocks as Tom called us to keep moving.  He promised an even better swimming hole after a few more minutes on the trail.  Scrambling up rocks and down a slick trail the road finally crossed our long awaited river.


A few companions stared at the rickety wooden bridge.  The looks on their face screamed “Are we really crossing that?”  Had the river been any higher it might have indeed been dangerous but Tom nimbly trotted across and we had no choice but to follow.  Its a good thing we did because the calm pond beneath a short waterfall was as picturesque as a picnic can get.

Tom quickly removed h_DSC2497is shirt and dove into the water. This time no one gawked; we all swam and swam.  You could stand at most points in the eddy; getting closer to the falls proved harder than expected as the current threatened to take us downstream.  Everyone enjoyed this leisurely break as Tom began to sharpen his knife.  I swam over and watched him polish the blade using a rock before trimming and cleaning a dozen baby bamboo rods.  He was making chopsticks for today’s banana leaf wrapped pad thai.


After lunch the trail wound over another log bridge before heading back up the hill.  We quickly reached the summit to find cascading rice fields beneath us.  Giddy with excitement I rushed through the trees for a better view.  I’d been dreaming of trekking through rice paddies ever since I arrived in Asia.  Some people dream of genies, I dream of rice fields.  We all have our quirks right?



Rice Terrace Panorama

Rice Terrace PanoramaThe clouds reflected perfectly in the still waters surroundings each sprout.  Later in the trip I would find out that each of those green clumps contains 5kg of rice!  We snaked in and out of the paddies down a beat up dirt road before finally arriving at our destination.  Greeted by water buffalo near a Thai father & son we bought cold water and relaxed in the shade as a troop of elephants strolled by.  Moments later our ride pulled up; we piled in and were off to our last adventure with Tom.

Bamboo rafts waited for us in the shade.  Before I knew it we were floating down the Mae Hwan river and our new guide slapped the shore scaring a snake!  “Keep your hands and feet inside the vehicle” I thought to myself while enjoying this chance to relax.

bamboo rafting (1)

We passed another snake and plenty of light rapids before coming to a couple bathing with an elephant!  Moments later the river sped up and larger rapids quickly approached.  The first rock lodged just beneath us and we shook to a sudden stop!  Our guide jumped off and tried to push but had no luck.  Brian and I reluctantly climbed onto a slippery rock as we teamed up and pushed the raft free before jumping back in.

The rest of our ride was finally that relaxing experience I expected but arguably less fun than the first half of this adventurous ride.

Stay tuned for my posts about the Mae Hong Son loop and remember if you are in Chiang Mai don’t miss a trekking adventure!

Have you ever trekked with a local tribe?  What was your experience like?

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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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