South by Southeast: The hill tribes of Southeast Asia

Welcome back to Gadling’s series on backpacking Southeast Asia, South by Southeast. Southeast Asia is modernizing rapidly. These days, malls line the streets of Thailand and WiFi signals and cell phones blanket the cafes of Vietnam. But that doesn’t mean the ways of the “Asia of old” have vanished – in fact, in the mountainous northern regions of Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, a patchwork of hill tribe minorities survive by largely traditional means, subsisting on farming in remote villages. Southeast Asian visitors have a unique chance to learn and help these people through numerous activities, ranging from multi-day hikes to volunteering their time or simply acquiring locally-produced one-of-a-kind souvenirs.

Whether you’re trekking through the pastoral landscapes of Myanmar, helping school kids with their daily English lesson in Laos or shopping for handmade textiles in Thailand, getting in touch with Southeast Asia’s ethnic minority tribes has never been easier or more enjoyable. And though the exploitation of indigenous groups remains a problem, there are increasing signs that tourism offers a great way to help these groups survive and prosper in the years ahead.

Ever wanted to sleep in a traditional village under a blanket of shooting stars? Help a child learn to read English? Drink moonshine with a tribal chief? Keep reading below for our South by Southeast guide to the hill tribes of Southeast Asia.

What is a “Hill Tribe?”
Southeast Asia is home to numerous ethnic minority groups, including tribes like the Hmong, Pa-O, Akha and Montagnards among many others. Though each of these groups encompasses a unique set of customs, beliefs and habits, typically the groups inhabit high-altitude mountain regions too difficult for traditional agriculture. The history of relations between the governments of Southeast Asia and these tribes has not always been pleasant, ranging from outright conflict to racism and deportation. There is, however, a silver lining, as a thriving tourism industry has provided these groups with a new means of economic improvement and sustainability.

Top Hill Tribe Experiences

  • Trekking – the range and quality of trekking opportunities in Southeast Asia is exploding. Typically a “trek” will provide visitors with a multi-day hike through wilderness, a stop at a traditional village and sometimes a homestay. Though there are hundreds of trekking hotspots across the region, some of our favorites are Kalaw in Myanmar, Luang Nam Tha in Laos and Sapa in Vietnam.
  • Volunteering offering your time and talents in a hill tribe village can be a particularly rewarding experience and a great way to move beyond “just visiting.” Check out organizations like Big Brother Mouse in Laos and Starfish Ventures in Thailand.
  • Night Markets – another great way to explore the hill tribe cultures of Southeast Asia is by buying their affordable handmade products. From wildly colorful textiles to elaborate carvings, hill tribe crafts are unparalleled in their quality and detail. Check out the night markets in cities like Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang, where sellers offer all manner of fantastic finds.

Doing It Right
Everywhere you look in Southeast Asia, someone is trying to offer you a tour to visit authentic local cultures. But not all visits are created equal. In some cases, the tours are organized without the tribes’ permission. Even worse, in more popular areas literally hundreds of visitors pass through a village in a given day. The tours feel less like an authentic cultural experience and more like an opportunity to stare at “those strange tribe people.” It’s important if you’re going to experience a hill tribe you do so in a sustainable way and with an organization that ensures the tribes benefit from your visit. Check out companies like Green Discovery in Laos and Akha Hill House in Thailand for good examples.

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.

South by Southeast: Ugly bargaining

Welcome back to Gadling’s series on backpacking in Southeast Asia, South by Southeast. Most visitors in Southeast Asia are on a tight budget. Lucky for you, the prices here are very negotiable. As I’ve learned during the past two months, everything from the price of my guest house, to my tuk-tuk to souvenirs, is up for negotiation. For a traveler living “on a shoestring,” it’s a been a useful skill to master. But sometimes there’s a difference between bargaining your way to a good deal and just plain “ugly bargaining.”

While in Myanmar, I watched in horror as a backpacker haggled with a woman over a dollar of bananas, walking away shouting in disgust that “he’d been ripped off.” In Laos, I listened as a girl berated our minivan driver for “leaving 30 minutes late.” Ultimately, this kind of “ugly bargaining” gets travelers nowhere. When we get aggressive over small sums of money, it makes locals more jaded about their interactions with foreigners. Not to mention the money involved, while small to you, can mean a great deal to a local.

Bargaining in Southeast Asia need not be an “ugly” affair. If done right, it’s an interaction that benefits everybody. You, the traveler, get a good deal and the local merchant earns some much-needed foreign currency. Everybody goes home happy. Wondering how to do it right? Check below for a few tips.

Rule #1 – Everybody Can Win
Bargaining is not winner-take-all. In a good bargain, both the buyer and seller get something of value. Don’t aim to make your bargaining session a contest with winner and losers. You’re trying to make a purchase, not prove a point or show off your haggling-savvy.

Rule #2 – Stick to Your Word
Negotiating for anything is built on trust. If either side feels the other won’t fulfill their terms, it’s much more difficult to agree on a price. Once you’ve settled on an amount, commit to pay for it. Don’t walk away and check elsewhere. Don’t back out. And if you have no intention of completing a transaction in the first place, don’t ask for the price.

Rule #3– Be a Good Guest
When walking around with plenty of foreign currency in our pockets, it’s easy to assume a mindset of superiority. When we shop at home, we expect a particular level of service will come with our purchase. But in Southeast Asia, mass tourism is still a relatively recent phenomenon – English is a second language and infrastructure is often unreliable. When your bus leaves 30 minutes late or the the power is out at the restaurant, freaking out at the staff is poor form. Don’t stand for poor service, but a little patience and a smile goes a long way. It will work out…promise.

Rule #4 – Keep Perspective
Long-term traveling means sticking to a budget. But don’t let your own budget get in the way of the bigger picture. Sure, you might be saving a few bucks, but the gap between your income and the average merchant in Southeast Asia is huge. A week’s wages for you could be more than they earn in an entire year. If you don’t get the price you wanted, consider the extra as a gift for their assistance.

Rule #5 – Smile
Not every bargaining session works out perfectly. Maybe a merchant still managed to get a few extra Thai Baht than you planned. Or you’ll hear another traveler bragging about a great deal that was better than your own. In these situations, remember to smile – a few dollars lost in a bargain isn’t the end of the world.

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.

South by Southeast: Exploring Luang Prabang

Welcome back to Gadling’s series on backpacking in Southeast Asia, South by Southeast. As travelers, we have a tendency to overload our trips with adventure and movement. This is especially true in Southeast Asia – as I’ve discovered in Thailand and Laos, there’s no shortage of motorbikes to ride or zip lines to catch. But if you truly want to understand this part of the world, it’s not a vigorous itinerary you need. Instead, you need to spend a few days on foot, letting the pungent smells, vivid colors and urgent sounds of the Southeast soak into your subconscious. And there’s no better place for this to happen than Luang Prabang.

Located in the sleepy nation of Laos, Luang Prabang is truly a crown jewel of Southeast Asia. This former royal capital, atmospheric river port and UNESCO World Heritage Site has emerged in recent years as one of the region’s newest must-see destinations. It’s not the blockbuster sights that make Luang Prabang such a fantastic place to visit. It’s the simple act of walking and observing that becomes the focus of your stay: exploring fading French villas and evening handicraft markets, sampling the town’s fresh-baked baguettes or watching a procession of orange-robed monks silently march down the road.

This sensory overload is what makes Luang Prabang a must-see for any Southeast Asian traveler’s itinerary. Curious about visiting this underrated Laotian capital of French/Asian style, vivid color and Buddhist serenity? Let’s take a look at some of the essentials and highlights of any Luang Prabang visit. Keep reading below for more.

Getting There
Luang Prabang is located smack-dab in the middle of Northern Laos, making it easy to reach from points North or South. Overland travelers from Thailand will often stop in the Laos border town of Huay Xai, where a two-day “slow boat” plies the Mekong River all the way to Luang Prabang. From within Laos, frequent buses connect Luang Prabang with the nation’s capital in Vientiane and backpacker hub of Vang Vieng. Luang Prabang’s airstrip is also served by a number of Southeast Asian regional airlines including Bangkok Airways and Lao Airlines.

What to Do
Due to its unique location at the confluence of two rivers, Luang Prabang has long been an important religious, political and economic hub. You’ll find the town reflects this historic grandeur, dotted with ornate Buddhist temples and lavish royal palaces. The main highlights include:

  • Wat Xieng Thong – in a city studded with important Buddhist “Wats,” Wat Xieng Thong is perhaps Luang Prabang’s most ornate and well-known temple complex.
  • Royal Palace – until they were deposed by the Lao Communist Revolution in 1975, the Lao royal family made its home in Luang Prabang. Visitors can tour the ornate royal complex, peering into the King and Queen’s teak-lined living quarters. Out back is a collection of vintage cars gifted by the French and American governments.
  • Night Market – as the sun begins to set each evening, Luang Prabang’s main street is crowded with an huge array of vendors, selling everything from grilled fish to locally made textiles to handicrafts.
  • Kuang Si Falls – about an hour’s ride outside Luang Prabang you’ll find an impressive series of waterfalls at Kuang Si, as well as a swimming area and a “Bear Rescue Center” for mistreated animals.

Keep in mind that “seeing the sights” of Luang Prabang is only half the story: the longer I spent wandering this picturesque river peninsula, the more I enjoyed simply soaking in the town’s unique atmosphere. Make sure to leave some time to simply explore without purpose.

Where to Stay
There are accommodation options in Luang Prabang to suit just about any budget and lifestyle, from luxurious boutique resorts housed in ancient French villas to clean no-frills backpacker haunts. For those on the thrifty side, you’ll find plenty of simple and clean guesthouses (under $10/night) clustered around Sisavong Street near the Joma Bakery. Those looking to splurge should check out 3 Nagas, a beautiful mansion nestled in the heart of Luang Prabang’s historic district (rates start at $125/night).

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.

South by Southeast: The Gibbon Experience

As a kid, did you ever fantasize about living in a tree house? Of climbing into your own hideaway stocked with chocolate bars, hanging out with monkeys and doing as you please? If you’ve ever wanted to feel like a kid again, it’s time to visit The Gibbon Experience, a magical realm of tree houses, waterfalls and exotic wildlife hidden deep in the dense jungle of Northern Laos.

The Gibbon Experience is one of the world’s most unique adventure travel concepts. Visitors have the chance to eat and sleep in their own personal tree house, suspended hundreds of feet above the forest floor, immersed in a symphony of cackling birds, humming cicadas and shrieking monkeys. Best of all, guests get around on a series of sturdy steel “zip line” cables, connecting the tree houses to forest paths. It’s the equivalent of waking up in the morning, strapping on a body harness and throwing yourself out a 10-story window. The experience is at once terrifying and exhilarating – a realization of long-dormant childhood dreams.

Not only is The Gibbon Experience great fun, it’s also tourism that’s good for your conscience. The project is pioneering a totally unique model of conservation, sustainable tourism and grass roots local support. If you’ve ever wanted to live out childhood tree house fantasies and help support a great cause, keep reading below for more…
What Is It?
Southeast Asian travelers talk about The Gibbon Experience with the sort of hushed tones reserved for religious visions. But travelers that have braved the long journey to the Laos border town of Huay Xai come back raving about what they’ve seen. For 180 Euros (around $270 USD), guests are treated to a three-day, two-night stay within the confines of one the world’s last great untouched nature preserves, home to tigers, Asian Black Bears and Gibbons, a small species of ape that gives the project its name.

During your stay, you’ll get to take it all in from a bird’s eye view, nested high in the tree tops of one of project’s seven tree houses. All guests have 24-hour access to local guides, unlimited access to the park’s zip lines, three meals per day and basic-but-comfortable tree house sleeping arrangements. Those looking to experience the Preserve’s ample wildlife and scenery can opt for additional guided treks through the jungle.

Welcome to the Jungle
My own Gibbon “experience” began with a brisk hike through the woods, moist green sunlight pouring down through the forest’s dense undergrowth. Thick jungle trees towered above like sacred monuments, trunks knotted with snaking vines reaching for the heavens. In the distance was the faint squawking of mysterious creatures, howling with glee. Soon a tree trunk wrapped with a steel cable popped into view, hiding behind a clump of palm leaves: it was our first zip line.

My pulse raced as I stepped onto the zip line’s rickety wooden platform for my first jump. I clipped my roller cable and safety line onto the wire, took a deep breath and jumped off the edge into nothing. I was now a human tennis ball, served in a giant volley between two distant trees. The metal wheels of my roller sang on the wire with a high-pitched shriek as I catapulted forward at great speed, wind howling and the jungle tree tops whizzing below my shoes. It was a feeling of terror and euphoria rolled into one…as if I had fallen off a cliff and discovered I could float like a bird, all within a few seconds. All too quickly my first “zip” was over, feet landing with a thud on a wooden platform hundreds of feet away.

My tour group headed on to our sky-high accommodations, a colossal tree crowned by a real-life fantasy tree house. The “house” was little more than a large wooden platform encircled by railings on all sides, a thatched roof on top, the tree’s branches jutting up through the center. Inside was a simple array of sleeping mats, hammocks, and a small sink and propane stove. After dark the “house” was lit by two puny solar-powered bulbs. Entering or exiting my “house” required attaching oneself to a zip line, stepping off a platform into thin air, feet dangling above the tree tops below.

So did I encounter any Gibbons? Save a few small geckos and moths, I saw scant wildlife during my three-day visit. But despite the lack of Gibbon sightings, there were signs they were around. Each night, the sun plummeted below the horizon, plunging the jungle into pitch-black night. It was during this darkness that the forest sprung to life, erupting with a sounds of strange hoots and whistles and barks. The wildlife was out there…it just didn’t want to be found.

A New Tourism Model
While I was in the jungle swinging around on zip lines, The Gibbon Experience has been busy reinventing the future of tourism in Southeast Asia. Not only did my visit provide funds to help preserve the fragile jungle ecosystem of Northern Laos, the project is also working to include the people of Laos in the park’s success.

All the guides employed by The Gibbon Experience live in the towns and villages surrounding Bokeo Nature Reserve, and a portion of the profit from each visitor is pumped back into these local communities. It’s hoped this model will provide added incentive to keep this wonderful forest intact for future generations. In Southeast Asia, a region oft-threatened by unchecked development, it’s just the type of model that will ensure visitors can enjoy this special place in the years to come.

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast”

South by Southeast: Motorcycle Thailand

Each year thousands of travelers head for Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand, ground zero for jungle treks, cooking courses and plenty of shopping. But good as Chiang Mai can be, it’s the regions beyond the comfy confines of Thailand’s second-largest city where travelers will find real adventure, an undertaking best-tackled by motorbike.

Northern Thailand’s vast terrain remains one of the country’s last great undiscovered areas, dotted with remote hill tribe villages, breathtaking hilltop vistas and laid-back mountain retreats. The best way to explore this vast region is by motorcycle trekking, an increasingly popular activity for savvy travelers looking to get away from the crowds in Chiang Mai.

There are several reasons why renting a motorbike is the best way to explore Northern Thailand. Touring by motorbike allows you to explore the area at your own pace, unrestrained by the limits of bus schedules and tourist guidebooks – you’re free to “get lost” on your own private adventure. In addition, the region offers an ideal environment for riding: traffic is light and the weather from November to February is mild and dry, with daytime temperatures in the 70’s. Most importantly, motorbike riding in Thailand’s North affords travelers the sheer thrill of area’s curvy roads and gorgeous scenery.

Earlier this month, I decided to try out a motorcycle trek of my own. I would head out from the Northern Thai city of Chiang Rai, riding nearly 300 kilometers southwest towards the lazy mountain town of Pai. Prior to starting my trip, I had zero days of riding experience. Curious to see what happened? Read below for more…


Is It Safe?
Perhaps the biggest concern for anyone considering a motorcycle “trek” in Southeast Asia is safety. We’ve all heard the horror stories of the friend who rented a motorbike on holiday and ended up with a broken arm or worse. These are all valid concerns, but undertaken responsibly, a motorbike trek can be just as safe as a ride in a car.

If you’ve never been on a bike before, take a day or two in a parking lot or a quiet street to get the hang of the acceleration and turning. Learn the rules of the road. If you’re coming from the U.S., keep in mind they drive on the left in Thailand, not on the right. Make sure to also do some research on the type of bike you should rent. I opted for the small but nimble Honda Click. At 125cc, it’s easy to control for beginners and comes with automatic transmission. Lastly, make sure to get a helmet.

Before setting off on my motorbike trip, I grabbed myself a Northern Thailand road map made by Groovy Map from one of Chiang Mai’s many English-language bookstores. The map proved invaluable – not only did it outline roadside attractions like waterfalls, caves and hot springs in both English and Thai, it also listed the condition of the roads as well as ranking them for scenic attractiveness. It’s also worth checking out the extensive itinerary ideas over at Golden Triangle Rider. David Unkovich, who founded the site, provides detailed information on models of bike, destination ideas and how to handle problems along the way.

The Trip

As we departed Chiang Rai, my initial worries about controlling the bike quickly faded from memory. My bike proved easy to handle and maneuver and soon I was tooling around like a pro. My concern was soon replaced by the sheer thrill of riding a bike through the rugged scenery of Thailand, wind racing past my face, humming motor below.

As I quickly discovered, touring by motorbike is just as much about the ride itself as it is about the destination. For every real “attraction” we planned to visit along the way, we spent nearly as much time simply enjoying the ride – leaning into the turns, stopping for scenic photos and chatting with owners at tiny filling stations.

That’s not to say there were no highlights. Some of my favorite sights along the way are listed below. Remember, the real beauty of motorcycle trekking is you’re free to change your itinerary each day as you please. Make sure to throw in your own adventures along the way.

  • Route 1340 – this curvy strip of road, just south of the Myanmar border, was among the most rugged (and gorgeous) I traversed. Plan to be alone, just you and your bike, with nothing but towering limestone cliffs, tiny mountain villages and curvy swithbacks to keep you company.
  • Doi Ang Khang – known among locals as “Little Switzerland” Doi Ang Khang makes a nice day trip from points further south. Stop by to enjoy locally-made handicrafts, fresh organic produce and plenty of killer views.
  • Chiang Dao Caves – Northern Thialand’s vast limestone rock deposits are dotted with plenty of caves. Many cave complexes, like the one found near Chiang Dao, make for an intriguing visit. Make sure to take a tour of the cave’s vast interior by lamp light, including quirky rock formations and plenty of reclining Buddhas.
  • Pai – this once-sleepy Thai hill town is fast becoming a mini-Chiang Mai. After spending a few days racing around on bike, Pai makes for the perfect antidote. Spend a few days enjoying Pai’s plentiful outdoor activities including rafting, hiking and camping. Make sure to stop into town for top-notch Thai and Western cuisine and lots of gourmet coffee.

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.