Nestled in mountains 1 hr from Mae Sariang town, are Lawa and Karen hilltribe villages where you can stay overnight at a homestay.
From Mae Sariang it is a very scenic drive along winding roads up to the mountains which are 1,200m above sea level. With stunning vistas along the way and views of rolling mountains and paddy fields. These villages are not well known about so it is an authentic experience of Karen and Lawa hilltribe culture.
The homestay is with hilltribe families in their traditional wooden/bamboo stilt houses, conditions are basic but it offers a genuine insight into how they live.
The Lawa hilltribe is hardly talked about, but are thought to be the first inhabitants of Northern Thailand long before the Karen or mainland Thais arrived. Over the years their history has been lost but due to their ancestry here remain an important but often overlooked group.
The mighty Salawin River which stems from the Himalayas and flows through China and forms part of the Thai/Burma border remains a great natural wonder unknown to many foreign tourists to Thailand. If you are exploring Mae Hong Son province and pass through Mae Sariang town one item on your travel schedule should be a long-tail boat trip down the Salawin River. This can be done on a 1 day trip from Mae Sariang town. From Mae Sariang town you will need to get to ‘Ban Mae Sam Laep’ a Burmese village on the banks of the river where boats depart. To reach Ban Mae Sam Laep you can take a local songtiaw, hire a car or motorbike. Currently the road to Mae Sam Laep is in particularly bad state, landslides and fallen trees mean sections of the road are badly damaged and filled with potholes. The road is at its worst during rainy season when it is impassable with anything less than a 4WD so be prepared for a bumpy ride.
The village of Mae Sam Laep has a distinct Burmese feel to it. Bamboo stilt houses with teak leaf thatched roofs perched on the cliffs of the river banks are a curious sight. Many of these houses have been swept away by floods in former times. Here the women wear the popular ‘Thanaka’ or ‘Sandalwood’ herb sunblock on their faces a common sight in Burma. Most locals here look like Indians whose ancestors probably originated from Bangladesh and crossed into Burma before later generations came to Thailand.
As an unofficial border this area has a certain mystique. After arriving at Mae Sam Laep long tail boats can be hired for 1,300bt with a maximum group size of 6 adults. Depending on the season, the boat will either go upstream or downstream. It is 2 hour boat ride, stopping off halfway at either Ban Thata Fang or Man Sop Moei village which is a good lunch stop and chance to see the Karen Skor village. The views along the river are spectacular passing the occasional fisherman, other boats carrying locals and hamlets along the banks.
The best months for the boat trip are during the winter (Nov,Dec,Jan,Feb) as the sun is more temperate with blue sky. The summer months can be unbearably hot with smoggy skies from the burning of the forests that happens during March and April. Rainy season can have murky grey skies, and drizzle not the best conditions for showing off the great views of the river banks
Learn to make funky handmade jewellery from a local artisan. For a half day workshop (including lunch) you can learn how to make 3 items (bracelets, necklaces) from beads, cotton cords and a variety of pendants. Create your own designs, style and colours. Lots of fun!
Mae Sariang can be reached by public bus from:
From Chiang Mai:
Public buses depart daily from Arcade bus station. Approx 4.5 hr journey time. Fan buses depart; 13.30, 15.00, 20.00, 21.00. Air con buses depart; 11.00, 21.00
From Mae Hong Son:
Public buses depart daily from Mae Hong Son bus station. Approx 4 hours journey time. Fan buses depart; 08.00, 14.00, 20.00, 21.00. Air con buses depart; 06.00,10.30, 21.00
Take the overnight bus to Mae Hong Son which stops off at Mae Sariang. Approx 12 hrs journey time. Air con (VIP) buses depart 15.00 and 18.00. Fan buses depart 20.45
There is no operating airport, and Mae Sariang cannot be reached by rail.
If you don’t want to be restricted by bus times, and want the freedom to explore off the bus route then another option is to hire a car and driver. Rental prices range from 1,500-2,000bt/day, to hire a driver is an extra 400-500bt/day for those not confident with driving the windy mountain roads. A tour guide is 800bt/day who can be an invaluable source of information and make your trip a very educational experience. They can also assist in time planning, arranging practicalities (hotels, restaurants etc), translation and generally ensure smooth running of the trip.
This is a recommended way to explore the hidden beauties and cultural spots that surround these less touristy towns which cannot be accessed by public transport. Also recommended for families travelling with children.
As a tourist one of the key attractions in Northern Thailand are the hill tribes. Their old ways of life and culture inspire curiosity and wonderment in many.
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.