One of the best points in the trip inland to visit Chiang Rai is the opportunity to watch true rural life.
People and animals struggle in hard conditions to produce rice, the main support to life. And the passing by tourists feel part of another world...
With such demand to see the hill tribes, visits to hill tribe villages and hill tribe treks have become a money making business giving rise to many ethical questions over how this is being carried out. There are concerns about the impact of tourism to villages, erosion of local culture and the environment and whether the villagers are getting a fair deal from tourism.
Almost all tour agencies in Northern Thailand advertise tours to hill tribe villages, unfortunately most of these are to villages which have been modified for the tourist, so the experience is not in its natural setting. These villages typically charge an entrance fee and stands are set up inside where villagers sell souvenirs and handicrafts. Even the souvenirs and handicrafts are not handmade by themselves but sourced from town. Some also argue that the hill tribes are being exploited by the company that manages the entrance fees, and do not receive a fair pay.
With a little bit of research it is possible to find tour agencies that offer an authentic and ethical experience of the hill tribes.
So when inside a village what are the “do’s and don’ts” and how do you make sure you a responsible tourist? Here are some tips:
• Always ask for permission before taking photos. Communicate this through body language or ask your guide to help
• If you want to make a donation the proper channels should be used, so talk to your guide as they will know best how to do this.
• Avoid creating a culture of begging by not handing gifts or money out individually
• Show respect for religious symbols or spirit catchers which are often at the front of the village or house
• Support their livelihoods through buying handicrafts they make. This is a great way to help and a more sustainable option than donations
• Dress politely and modestly
• Common sense and courtesy should prevail. Remember a smile goes a long way!
• If you minimise your cultural and environmental impact you can’t go far wrong.
I love walking around local markets and this one is located to the north of the clock tower and worthy of a visit to see everyday Thai life. It was one of the best I saw in Thailand.
Between Th Utarakit & Th Thanalai along Th Suksathit.
At temples you may see vendors who sell bowl full of coins.
"There are 108 bowls at temple. You throw one coin in each bowel. The action would bring you good luck. The rest you can keep them with you for luck as well".
Loi Krathong is one of the biggest festivals in Thailand. It is celebrated around the full moon night of 12th month of the lunar calendar. The people pay respect to the water goddess by floating the krathong onto the river. The krathong is made of banana leaves and the trunk of the banana plant (or styrofoam in modern days) and all sorts of small decorations. They come in all sizes, and can be bought anywhere near the river in the festival area. Before they float it away, they make a wish and light a candle. In Chiang Rai, people usually hire a young kid to take their krathong further out onto the river. In Sukhothai, the krathongs didn't seem to get too far away as there wasn't much wind in the ancient ponds in the historical park.
There are usually firework, parade and beauty contests during Loi Krathong. In Northern Thailand, people also release the huge white hot air lantern into the air.
I was lucky to be able to celebrate the Loi Krathong festival in both Chiang Rai and Sukhothai. While I was in Chiang Rai, I went to a park by the river where the main celebration took place. The kids were certainly having so much fun with the firework, and they sometimes weren't being very careful about where they were firing at. There were tonnes of people in the area. A firework went off in the crowd in close range of people. Luckily nobody was hurt. For sure the best celebration is in Sukhothai. It is said that Sukhothai was the origin of Loi Krathong.
Chiang Rai is the northern-most province in Thailand, and it is the closest to Yunnan province of China. A boat trip up to China take about 2 days on the Mekong River.
You will likely encounter people who can speak Chinese (Mandarin) in Chiang Rai province. Not only in the former KMT soldier villages (eg. Mae Salong), but also in Chiang Rai city and the border town of Mae Sai. Most shop owners there can speak Chinese.
The street signs in Chinag Rai city are triligual: Thai, English and Chinese.
All over the Chiang rai area, and especially in the border areas with Burma and Laos, opium seems to be widely grown and sold. Many hilltribe people - elderly in particular, make regular use of it, and will possibly try to sell you some. In case you're thinking about it, please reconsider? The police regularily pulls out buses and checks people and their belongings - and I don't think you'd like to spend some time in a Thai jail. Our bus from Chiang Mai to Chiang Sean was stopped twice on our way there, and three times on the way back. Everyone on the bus, including monks, were checked - my friend and I, never. Still wondering why...