CHIANG RAI, Thailand — The Kok River is a cocoa-colored expressway into the heart of hill tribe country, rushing down from Myanmar and through Thailand's northern mountains to the city of Chiang Rai. Its banks and the surrounding slopes and valleys shelter hundreds of villages of a half-dozen major tribes — Lahu, Lisu, Karen, Hmong, Yao and Akha — which in turn are subdivided into many smaller groups.
These communities range from secluded mountain hideaways reachable only by foot or four-wheel drive to roadside attractions where tribal people dressed in elaborate traditional costumes pose for photos and peddle handicrafts to busloads of tourists.
The hill tribes and their unique culture have been on the backpackers' Southeast Asia itinerary for decades. This has led to widespread exploitation by unscrupulous tour operators and also rampant drug abuse and prostitution. In recent years, luxury resorts also have sprung up.
So if you're looking for some sort of primitive time-capsule village, you're out of luck. But this remains a place of breathtaking natural beauty, with a fascinating blend of cultures coexisting at proximity, and there are a growing number of opportunities to visit the hill tribes on their own terms.
One of these is Akha Hill House (www.akhahill.com/), a rustic guesthouse operated by an Akha community in a mountain hamlet 14 miles west and 5,000 feet above Chiang Rai. Village headman Apae Amor runs it and employs many of the villagers. A portion of the proceeds goes toward tribal educational programs, he said. It's also highly affordable. The most basic rooms at Akha Hill House start at about $10 a night, and free transportation is offered to and from Chiang Rai in the back of a pickup truck.
Or, you can opt to go by water, as I did. I caught a long-tail boat from the public dock on the outskirts of Chiang Rai for a noisy hourlong ride up the river, called Mae Kok in Thai. The once-a-day public boat costs about $3.25, though you could spend a lot more chartering a private boat that would stop wherever and whenever you want.
As the boatman chugged up a waterway swollen by monsoon rains, I sat near the bow and took in a landscape in a million shades of green: fields of corn and rice planted at impossibly steep angles; limestone peaks covered in jungle growth. There were small villages of bamboo-and-wood houses, people fishing the shallows with nets, a huge white Buddha looming over a bend in the river.
I was dropped at a grassy field containing a steaming hot spring and the headquarters of Lamnamkok National Park, which encompasses the surrounding hills. My destination was a three-mile uphill walk from there. "Follow signs," the website said. Easy enough.
After a half-hour search, I finally found a single hand-painted sign pointing up a dirt road toward Akha Hill House and started walking. It was the last sign I saw.
But if I was lost, it was a pleasant kind of lost. The road snaked through fields and forests. Grazing water buffalo looked up from fields, and chickens scampered away as I passed through Lahu and Karen villages.
The home stretch was a quadriceps-busting climb along a stony brook, past flooded terraces of young rice plants to a Lahu village where the road suddenly dead-ended. A narrow path continued through open fields, offering panoramic views all the way to Myanmar. Finally, after cresting a saddle between two forested summits and descending through coffee and citrus groves, I arrived at Akha Hill House.
The guesthouse sits at the edge of an Akha village, perched at the head of a curving valley on the slopes of Doi Hang mountain. Most houses are still made of traditional bamboo, raised on stilts with covered outdoor platforms. But a few concrete houses have appeared, and a handful of satellite dishes even poke from the thatched rooftops, signs that despite the Akha's reputation as the most impoverished of the hill tribes, this particular village is more prosperous — and modern — than some.
The accommodations are rustic. My room was a mud-and-wood shack with an electric fan, cold-water shower and mosquito net draped over the bed. But it was perched on a steep slope with a spacious balcony that offered an amazing view. The common area has cold beers and inexpensive food that's especially tasty after a long day on the trail.
The Akha share this lovely vale with a Chinese village where some of the wooden houses are decorated with red paper lanterns. Together, the two villages have no more than a few hundred people living among rushing streams, hillside orchards and a sprawling tea plantation.
These days, tourism pays the bills. Apae Amor and several other village men are registered guides who can arrange mountain treks of up to seven days by foot, elephant or bamboo raft, as well as sightseeing tours of the temples, museums and other sights of Chiang Rai province.
I, however, came for fresh air and solitude.
The beautiful Huai Kaeo waterfall is a 15-minute walk from the village through the dripping jungle. The falls plunge over three drops, each with a swimmable pool at the bottom and plenty of big rocks to sit on and read a book or listen to the sounds of the forest.
The Akha are perhaps most famous for their traditional dress. The most decorative of the hill tribe costumes, it is highlighted by colorful embroidered fabrics and headdresses intricately decorated with beads, feathers, shells and silver coins. These days, you are more likely to see Akha women in traditional dress selling trinkets at the Chiang Mai night bazaar. Most here dress in sarongs and flip-flops; the men wear T-shirts with logos of their favorite English football teams.
This is not a place where the outside world has been kept at bay, nor is it a tourist trap where bygone village life is re-enacted for the benefit of visitors. But it is a wonderful place to spend a few days relaxing amid stunning natural wonders and learning a little bit about a vanishing culture. That is, if you can find it.