Since no outlying villages have licensed accommodation and at the time of writing no home-stays or Kalaw style overnights in monasteries are permitted, any trips are for the day only – meaning you are still really limited to the immediate environs of the town to which you have to return every evening.
Your route requires a starting point that is accessible by motorbike, tuk tuk or truck from town and then makes sure you can get back to your hotel before nightfall. This doesn't leave you with many options (other than how far you think you can reasonably walk during the intervening period), and in high season some of the routes and villages can see a lot of visitors.
Classic routes tend to be those where several different minority villages can be visited on one trek and fall into two basic categories. There are whole day hiking programmes for the more energetic (bear in mind there will generally be a lot of hills involved), or easier programmes involving short hikes and two or three transfers in-between by vehicle.
Common day treks include hikes at the western end of the valley to the Lisu (known locally as Lishaw), village Pang Yao or the White Lahu (Lahu-Si), settlement of Pang Pack while south of town off the road to Tachileik you can hike to a group of Akha villages. There are also Akha and Wa villages en route to Loimwe which involve less walking time but a longer drive.
For shorter, easier hikes the Pin Tauk district north of Kengtung is popular. Hikes begin at an Akha village at the foot of the hill and can include a series of Enn villages depending upon how far you wish to walk. The unusual Enn tribe villages are a popular destination so again during high season they can get busy and visits will unavoidably include a show of local handicraft souvenirs. (That does go for a lesser and greater extent for any accessible villages though and to be honest you can't expect the locals to devote time to you, offer you tea and show you around their houses for nothing!)
Other easy hikes can be done in the Dhat Zoam Doi area taking in Akhu and Enn villages.
There are other possibilities and gently prodding a local guide to think outside of the box may provide you with some less well beaten routes, especially if you're not concerned with seeing 57 ethnic groups in one day. A good guide is essential and experienced ones will already have relationships with many villagers allowing for better contact and interaction when you arrive.
The majority of the hilltribe peoples speak their own language plus Shan but not Burmese so make sure you have a local Shan guide. Your guide should also be able to advise on suitable gifts and sweets for kids is not one of them! Pens and pencils are fine but ought to be offered directly to a school teacher for distribution, however very few of these villages have schools. Our guide suggested we buy herbal medicines -- tiger balm and so on, in the market -- which we gave out to heads of families.
Some villages can have quite complicated etiquette for visitors so follow your guide's instructions closely. Locals are generally friendly but shy so be discreet and polite and don't go shoving cameras into people's faces no matter how photogenic they may be. Polite requests are essential and if people seem uncomfortable then please, show some manners and desist.
Respectful, low-key visitors will keep disruption of the local culture and village life to a minimum and make future visitors more welcome. (We recall when the remote Lao town of Muang Sing and its surrounding hill-tribe villages opened up for tourism in the mid 1990s: the locals, initially genuinely curious and welcoming had by five years down the line put signs outside their villages saying 'no tourists please'!)
Very few villages have any food options and only larger ones have village shops where you can buy drinks. Again guides can help you pick up picnic lunch fare in the market or your hotel can organise a lunch box.
As we mentioned organising a guide in advance through a hotel can make life a lot easier, though you'll have to pay a small commission. If you are organising treks once there then you can try contacting one of the trekking operations such as Win Tours (T: (084) 22 447;(09) 525 2091) or Harry's Trekking. The latter is the best option for finding other tourists to form a group with and obviously that'd be cheaper though you may have to wait around a day or two, especially in low season.
Guide rates can start from $20 per day though that doesn't include their expenses; transport and meals and it's not worth skimping on costs and ending up with a mediocre guide. If you're organising in advance then the aforementioned Harry's or the midrange Princess Hotel have the best reputations though any hotel can do it and all would generally use the same pool of guides anyway.
By Mark Ord
Last updated on 10th February, 2014.