Hill Tribes & Moonshine – Mae Hong Son Trekking

Mae Hong Son trekking

Along the way

The mist crept silently across the mountainside, enveloping blade upon blade of wild bamboo as we trudged along the mud-soaked trail. Listening to the metronomic rhythm of our feet – suck, slop – my mind fell into a peaceful state, pulled back only by the sound of a tumbling cascade minutes later.

Bamboo trees, glistening with morning rain, now closed in over our path. Stooping beneath this forest tunnel I arrived at the falls to witness a frog take a supersonic leap into a fast-flowing river. It was a marvellous hop, hopefully not suicidal. Continuing, we made our way to a small valley and set up camp for the night.

Mae Hong Son trekking
Our intrepid party

A fine day’s walk

 This was to be our night in the forest. It was a celebration, as not only were we in the far north-west of Thailand in Mae Hong Son – a notoriously mountainous and misty part of Thailand – it was also Hara’s birthday, the Italian trekker who had joined my partner and I on this five-day forest excursion. And sure enough, soon after our guide Ghee and his brother had set up a cosy bamboo camp, a bottle of local moonshine was brought out for the occasion.

It had been an eventful day, consumed by several curious incidents. Firstly, we spied a rather large hornbill perched in the forest (a rare sight), Hara’s friend Max absconded in search of opium (renown in these parts), and my camera had jammed attempting to take photos of the Karen people (with their permission), a tribe indigenous to these parts. A laughing tribesman told me, after we spent the night in their village, that his tattoos were cursing my efforts.

Perhaps they were.

Mae Hong Son trekking
A Karen woman and her son

In any case, we drank, we talked, we mused over the day’s events and soon found sleep. The next morning we awoke to a tropical bush breakfast of fresh pineapple, roasted eggs and green tea before Ghee’s brother passed us some walking sticks he’d sliced from bamboo. Today, apparently, we were going to need them.

Mud & hill tribes

 Shortly after setting off, the rain returned, demisting our view but turning our path into a veritable swamp. After about three hours of sloppy travelling, we arrived at another Karen village, where we wrung out our socks, slurped hefty bowls of spicy noodle soup, inflamed our hearts with a few nips of rice wine and ploughed onwards.

Mae Hong Son trekking
Entering a Lisu village

The next five hours or so saw us ducking and weaving branches, leaping logs and navigating walls of solid mud before we arrived at a Lisu village, another indigenous tribe and our home for the night. Interestingly, unlike the Karen people, the Lisu appeared to rely solely on agriculture, cultivating nearly all their land. The Karen community also seemed more relaxed than the Lisu’s, however both villages were interesting and hospitable in their own way.

Mae Hong Son trekking
Mid-morning buffalo mud party

Setting out early next morning, we came across a herd of buffalo bathing in pits of muddy rainwater, grunting amicably. Unfortunately I disrupted their party, as they fled into the forest at the sight of my shiny Nikon. Continuing, we soon came to a ridge, perched high above an expansive valley which overlooked our town camp for tonight. It was a wonderful sight. We could even see Mae Hong Song – a mere freckle in the distance.

River & moonshine

Staggering into our last night’s camp, we were in a filthy state, like wastrels of the bamboo plains. After a shower, the three of us sat and ravenously ate our bowls of green bean curry and rice before imbibing a little more moonshine. Ghee seemed to open up this night, his lips finding the bottle more than usual.

Mae Hong Son trekking

Our final day’s trek required some solid river navigating. Like incompetent water rats, we inched our way down the river, now full after the heavy rains. The river was our path home and at times we crossed it, or walked on a trail above when it was especially dangerous (and we could). It was here that we spied a tarantula hole, and fortunately for us, the occupant was at home.

Mae Hong Son trekking

The foliage had now become dense and lush, small canyons formed, and sunlight sprayed obliquely onto the river and forest with fine Mae Hong Son showmanship. Several river crossings later, we emerged onto an emerald green rice paddy with a mountainous backdrop.

Mae Hong Son trekking

After a pleasant countryside walk, we found ourselves spluttering uphill in our smoke-ridden tuk-tuk, gagging for dry clothes, a nip of rice wine and more incredible experiences in this wonderful country.

Fast facts & tips: Mae Hong Son lies roughly four hours north-west of Chang Mai by road. Enquire at the Mae Hong Son Guest House for treks in the region, which are best tackled in the dry season. Keep good shoes and wet weather gear handy.

Anything I’ve missed? Let me know of any tips you have for trekking in the region.

2 thoughts on “Hill Tribes & Moonshine – Mae Hong Son Trekking”

  1. What an incredible place for a hike. And thanks for showing me a photo of the tarantula. Staying in the province that named the creep, it’s good to know which of the locals to avoid.

    • Hi Mette,

      It was incredible. How interesting that the spider was named after Taranto! Thanks for that. Although I suspect they’re possibly misunderstood creatures? Maybe you should give a tarantula a cuddle while you’re there 😉

      Thanks for stopping by,



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