The Lisu hill tribe people probably came originally from Tibet, but now live in the mountainous border regions between Thailand and Burma. Lisu people are also found in Yunnan province in South West China and in Arunachal Pradesh state in India. They represent probably the most authentic hill tribe experience available in Thailand.
The main concentration of Lisu hill tribe villages in Northern Thailand is in the Burma border areas west of Chiang Mai and north of Pai. Here you can experience the real village life of the Lisu tribespeople and even stay in a Lisu tribal village. But you might, like us, prefer to do it just a little more conveniently and comfortably.
We had our Lisu hill tribe experience just an hour north of Chiang Mai at the popular Lisu Lodge, an award-winning eco-business with 24 rooms and entirely staffed by Lisu people and built through a community project aimed at providing culturally appropriate employment for Lisu people displaced by the tourism trade (a lot of Lisu people were attracted to tourist traps around Chiang Mai). All profits from the Lisu Lodge go back to supporting the Lisu village.
The lodge itself is set in a beautiful, lush and green valley in the middle of an area that’s very popular with walking and trekking tours. As well as the Lisu who run the lodge, you’re likely to also encounter Lahu and Aka hill tribe people in this area.
The Lisu Lodge is a great example of what can be done to create both ecologically and culturally sustainable tourism in an area that’s been heavily exploited for commercial tourism for decades. The 24 guest rooms surround a common courtyard area where you eat your meals and where traditional entertainment events are held.
The guest lodges that house the 24 rooms are built in the traditional Lisu style and look a little rough at first glance, but you soon discover the rooms are very comfortable and not lacking in home comforts either. Each lodge has six en-suite rooms sharing a central common area where you eat and relax with other guests. The rooms overlook the gorgeous garden area and there are stunning views out over the valley from the common balcony areas. The beds are king-sized and set on raised platforms with a mosquito net (handy because the rooms are pretty much open air). The common area has traditional Lisu cushion seating around low wooden tables.
We were greeted on arrival with a welcome drink of ice cold lemon grass tea and made to feel right at home. If you arrive early in the day, as most guest do from Chiang Mai, you’ll likely experience the amazing three course lunch and then go for a tour of the nearby Lisu village. In the afternoon, if you have nothing else organised, you can relax and enjoy a traditional Thai massage from the lodge staff. In the evenings there’s more great food and drinks with the other guests at the bar in the common area. Be aware the drink prices are pretty expensive! The local Lisu children will likely come and keep you entertained if there’s nothing special happening. The organised entertainment is a little gimmicky and staged, but fun nonetheless.
If you’re a 5-star hotel type, you may find the night times at Lisu Lodge a little challenging, but for us it was all part of the experience. Being such an authentic and open arrangement, you really can’t keep the bugs out so the staff organise a mosquito net around your bed in the evening. Also the walls between the rooms in the lodge are pretty thin so if you get noisy neighbours you will known lots about them by morning. And in the morning you’ll find it takes a while to get hot water for your shower, but just persist.
The best thing about Lisu Lodge is the location, as it’s a great spot to go cycling or walking through the local hill tribe villages. You can go on organised tours or just go out on your own using the bicycles provided by Lisu Lodge for use by guests. They will even pack you a picnic lunch on request.
Of the organised tours, we recommend the market tour and the guided biking tours where you will cycle through amazing, lush countryside and get a real picture of how people used to live in rural Thailand – growing rice, fishing in the streams, worshipping at the local temple. You can also go elephant riding and white water rafting if you haven’t already done this.
This is one of those places where it’s worth the extra money to hire a local guide to show you the places other travellers just won’t get to see. Go off on an overnight guided trek where you’ll get to experience real village hospitality and see the people going about their day-to-day life.
The best time of year to visit Lisu Lodge is from November to February, during the cooler season. The temperatures at this time of year are great for trekking and cycling.
If you would like to stay somewhere else and just visit the different hill tribe villages in the Mae Tang area, here are some suggested hotels and resorts with online booking:
Papae 32km Coffee Hill and Resort, located in the centre of Mae Tang is a quaint and idyllic little bungalow resort nestled among the coffee plantations about 65 km from Chiang Mai. Aside from the glary tiling of some of the bathrooms, the accommodation is well set up with timber-panelled rooms and family bungalows with their own living room and bedrooms. Each guest room has cable TV, fridge and bathroom. The resort has its own restaurant and coffee shop, plus free wi-fi.
Rawee Waree Resort and Spa, also located in Mae Tang village, is a 5-star luxury resort set in lush surroundings among the rice paddies and with all the creature comforts you could possibly need. As well as being near the Lisu village, Rawee Waree is five minutes from the Mae Taman Elephant Camp (but don’t book through the hotel). The best rooms are poolside and eating in the resort is both cheap and rewarding. Other nearby attractions include the Tiger Kingdom and the Monkey School.