Many first time visitors to Thailand and Indochina hope to doa trip, but unfortunately too many leave disappointed with the experience. Here are some pointers to help you achieve the experience you’re after…(While this is Thailand focused, many of the points hold equally true elsewhere in the region).
Every man and his dog in northern Thailand runs a trekking company. Some years ago the TAT tried to clean up the industry with some success, but there are still a few seat of their pants style operators around. Remember just because your guesthouse says they organise trekking doesn’t mean that they organise trekking — it often means they are selling you a place on a trek that is run by a separate company. Grilling a guesthouse manager about a trek that they have no control over is generally a bit of a waste of time. I’d say go to the source when shopping around — ask “Do you run your own tours?”, if they say no, go elsewhere, and if it means the guesthouse will throw you out because you’re not trekking with them, so be it — they obviously don’t deserve your money anyway. Does the agency you’re talking to appear to be professional? Can you see comments from past groups? Can you talk to a returning group? How does the agency treat you? Do you get the ipression they want your business? Are they corporate or family run? Both can be good (or bad) a family run business will often have a more down to earth feeling, but “down to earth” can easily become shoddy.
While the guesthouses are often middle-men, the guides are often freelance, meaning that just because your mate Jack did a trek with XYZ tours and the guide, Lek, was excellent, doesn’t mean that Lek will be leading the XYZ tour you book yourself on. Try to meet the guide beforehand. If the agency is evasive in this regard, go elsewhere. The guide will play an important part in determining the type of trek it will be — are you more interested in guzzling home-made wine, smoking pot around the campfire and snogging a few of your fellow trekkers, or are you more interested in the ethnic makeup and power relationships within a tribe — will the guide be able to provide you with the experience you are after? (many guides will be happy to snog you 😉 ) You’ll never know unless you meet them first.
The group can make or break the trek and thankfully most guesthouses will show you a list of who is on a trek beforehand so you can have a rough idea of what you are getting yourself in for. Sex, age, nationality are all listed normally. If possible try to meet beforehand, but often that isn’t feasible. Try to hook-up with like-minded souls before booking a trek, then you’re safe. If you are able to meet beforehand, find out more regarding everyone’s expectations — why are they trekking? why are you trekking? There is little point keeping secrets as by the end of five days walking around in the sticks together, you’ll know more than you probably want to know about them all (and they about you) anyway. If the group isn’t to your liking, drop out and go find another trip.
Why are you trekking? If it is to see remote ethnic groups who have never seen a foreigner before, stay at home and buy a copy of National Geographic. If you are doing an organised trek anywhere in Thailand, rest assured you and your group will be very familiar to the people you visit and be prepared for a touristic experience. High expectations of an untouristed experience with no commercial pressure to buy anything are likely to lead to severe disappointment. After all you have paid money to be taken on the trip — a commercial enterprise in itself — don’t find yourself resenting the fact that the people in the village hope to make some money out of you. Likewise if you are uncomfortable in the voyeurs seat, then trekking is most likely not for you — perhaps do a trip that involves just walking and caving but none of the “canned” hilltribe experiences — Nan is a great option for treks of this kind.
This is often a case of less is more. Seeing five villages in a day is neither comfortable, enjoyable or particularly interesting. One or at most two tribes a day is more than enough. How long will you spend in a village if you visit during the day? Will you be able to participate in village life in anyway (eg planting rice, changing a roof, gathering wood etc etc).
You’re on a “trek” after all and a fair amount of walking is a good thing, though you don’t want to be walking ten hours a day. Go through the trip in detail before signing up — how much walking is there each day? Are there long breaks? What is the terrain like? Will you be mostly walking through rice fields, jungle or along a main road? How much driving is required to get to where the trek starts? If you’re driving for more than a couple of hours to get to the starting point, consider starting the trek from further afield. How much food is supplied? Will you be expected to buy food? Will you be supplied with as much water as you need? Do you have special food requirements? if you do, be sure to say so. What villages will you be staying in? Which tribes will you be visiting?
The treks are generally moderately strenuous, though this does vary. You should be of at least an average fitness level. A good pair of boots is a good idea, though people continue to go trekking in flip flops. Take the bare essentials and use the safety storage at your guesthouse for the bulk of your stuff — there is really little need to take a laptop with you on a hilltribe trek. Trekking generally doesn’t have porters, so you will need to carry everything you take with you. Take sunscreen. In cool season, take warm clothes and MAKE SURE warm bedding will be available in the evening — warm bedding is often better than sleeping bags as the latter can get very crusty and yucky if not cared for, a huge pile of blankets is far better in my opinion.
Rafting and elephant riding are the two most common add-ons to a trek. Personally the novelty of riding an elephant wears off after about 3 nanoseconds, and the rafting is more like floating — don’t envision a Sunkosi experience here — I prefer to walk and take my time and would never opt for either of these options. A trek without elephant riding and rafting is also cheaper.
We previously submitted this to the Lonely Planet Thorntree — you can see the orginal post here.