Nestled on the verdant hills near the Myanmar border, the Red Lahu tribe in Doi Mu Puen shares a remarkable connection with tea—a tradition that has transformed lives and landscapes. As part of the Ahpa Tea initiative, an inspiring blend of tea production, community empowerment, and sustainable tourism, the tribe welcomes visitors to delve into their rich tea heritage.
Red Lahu tribal home and its kitchen.
Tea Roots in Northern Thailand
Thailand’s tea journey dates back to the 11th and 12th centuries if not earlier, with fascinating tales of ancient tea trees finding their roots in the northern region. Legends suggest that King Phaya Mengrai, a ruler of northern Thailand’s Lanna Kingdom (1296-1558), planted tea seeds during his rule, shaping the region’s tea culture. Another intriguing possibility links the origins to the Palaung tribe, whose historical migration from Yunnan and the Shan Valley brought tea seeds, settling in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. According to their animistic culture, they relocate about every 10-20 years and regard tea as a sacred tree and plant tea seeds wherever they settle down, writes Rishi Tea & Botanicals (the US), which sources tea from Doi Wawee. The Dai Kingdom, encompassing parts of Thailand, Laos, Yunnan, and Burma, played a pivotal role in spreading tea as a revered food, drink, and medicine, especially for the ancient Dai ethnic people, which consists of 56 ethnic groups officially recognized by the People’s Republic of China, some of them being Tai Yai, Lue, Shan, Tai Dam, etc.
‘Miang’, fermented tea snack, Monsoon Tea Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Ancient Dai ethnic communities are believed to have carried tea seeds and fermentation techniques for pickled tea miang to every settlement. In Chiang Mai area miang is often made from the top half of the leaf, which literally means ‘wrapped tea leaves’ in reference to the way that pickled tea is manufactured and sold. The bundles of tea leaves are then steamed for one and a half hours, and then fermented for three to four months to a year in a bamboo basket covered with banana leaves. Occasionally water is poured onto the leaves whilst they are fermenting to keep them moist.
Villager playing ethnic Lahu flute “kaen namtao”, wearing traditional Lahu clothes.
Somnuek after we have picked some assamica tea leaves near his house.
The old growth tea trees and arbor teas in northern Thailand trace their roots back at least 700-1000 years to these Dai and Palaung ethnic pioneers, who integrated tea into their food, culture, and agriculture. The practice of consuming fermented and pickled tea is widespread in the region. The Chiang Dao, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, and Mae Salong regions in Northern Thailand boast tea-growing villages and forest tea areas. While we focus on Lahu tribe, it is important to note that other ethnic people still produce tea in Thailand, like Han, Shan, Karen, Lahu, and Akha peoples. Hence, Thailand’s tea history is a rich and diverse one, and nowadays we can find some fine quality teas in the Golden Triangle region.
Pan-frying a small batch of green tea in a Lahu home.
Red Lahu village landscape.
The Legacy of the Lahu Tribe
The Red Lahu tribe, particularly the Pu Muen village, formerly Tangtao, unfolds a compelling saga. Originating from eastern Tibet three generations ago, the tribe migrated via southwestern China to Burma. Their journey led them to northern Thailand in 1880 and was marked by resilience and adaptation, when Saenkor’s group resettled at Doi Pha Hom Pok. Pu Muen, the second child of Saenkor, became the tribal leader and played a crucial role in safeguarding the region during the spread of communism in the 1950s. The Thai government established a buffer state and appointed Pu Muen as its leader to protect sovereignty over the frontier, defending the area of Doi Pha Hom Pok. After working hard on several missions, he got sick and was brought for treatment at Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok, where, unfortunately, in 1969 he passed away.
Antoine and Keng on a tea picking mission with Somnuek as part of their culture infused tea tour in Doi Mu Puen.
Red Lahu children.
The responsibility later passed to Jafa Chaikor, his son-in-law, a visionary leader who transformed local agriculture, receiving King’s grace and replacing opium production with tea and coffee. He was a talented man, who could speak and write both Thai and Chinese, thus, he was appointed as the leader of the hill tribe development group in 1964, and after six years, he received patronage from the King and founded a hill tribe shop with His Majesty’s support to represent and promote and distribute hill tribe products.
Somnuek’s father who taught us how to masterfully weave bamboo baskets. He mentioned that he came from Tibet through Myanmar to Doi Mu Puen 53 years ago when he was a kid. Although, he is not quite sure of his own age as people did not keep track of their birthdays back then.
Jafa’s tragic assassination in 1983 prompted his 11 children to serve the Lahu community, and his youngest child, Jirawan Chaikor, aka “Yok”, to continue his legacy. Graduating in Tourism Management from Chiang Mai Rajabhat University, she founded Phumanee Lahu Home Hotel, the first Lahu hotel in Thailand, which serves as a cultural centre and resting place in Fang city before guests travel to Pu Muen mountain to visit the tribe. Under the banner of Ahpa Tea, meaning ‘Father’s Tea’ in Lahu tribal language, Jirawan initiated sustainable practices, fostering community-based tourism (CBT) to preserve Lahu culture, ecosystem and heritage at Doi Pu Muen. It also serves as a vocational training ground providing employment opportunities for young Lahu people looking to gain experience working in the city. Additionally, Phumanee started to host volunteer groups from Singapore to support further community development efforts (e.g. building of infrastructure) in the Lahu villages.
Yok and her assistant Ying getting ready to make silver needle white tea. Ying originally is from Shan tribe, who are Buddhists in Burma.
Tea Education and Sustainable Tourism
In 2017, Jirawan, committed to improving their tea processing methods to maximise the quality of the tea given by King Bhumibol Adulyadej. She completed the Japanese Tea Master course in Wazuka by the Global Japanese Tea Association and sought advice on starting tea tourism from experts like Dr. Pairach Piboonrungroj from Chiang Mai University and Prof. Lee Jolliffe from Canada, the editor of Routledge Handbook of Tea Tourism. Jirawan integrated the following methods: the growing of tea trees, as opposed to slash-and-burn agriculture, as beneficial for the environment; inclusion of local community-joint effort with villagers; sharing knowledge about health benefits and brewing methods of tea to visitors. Yok, a direct descendant of the Red Lahu Tribe, is at the forefront of supporting sustainable tourism, preserving traditional life, and managing a wild tea plantation, where the local hill tribe people pluck the leaves to earn their keep. Adventure, trekking, and cultural tourism as well as volunteering is often a collaborative effort together with Udomporn Tours, who has been supporting Doi Mu Puen initiatives for many years. Mr. Udom Chidnayee is also a vice president of Chiang Mai Tourism Business Association and has been supporting Lahu tribe of this area since 2008.
Doi Mu Puen’s locals sell the plucked tea tips for white tea production to Yok after a day of work in the tea forest.
Tea hand-picking during the tour.
In April 2023, myself as the TEA TEA ME staff, a start-up online platform and app for tea events, tours and education worldwide, visited Ahpa Tea to continue supporting the initiative of sustainable tea tourism and tea education here in Doi Mu Puen. Moving forward, more product research and development will be undertaken to develop additional tea-based products and tea saplings will also be given to other villages to support stability of their income.
Antoine and Somnuek rolling tea leaves.
Antoine on a mission to harvest bamboo and banana leaves in the jungle for cooking dinner. Somnuek taught us how to use machetes for this.
The life of Lahu villagers is tightly knit with tea as it is the main source of income since the King Bhumibol Adulyadej, titled Rama IX, has gifted the first tea bush to the tribe more than 50 years ago. It was an effort to prevent opium production and replace it with tea and coffee. Apart from the organic assamica bushes you can see all around the village, in the forest you can witness truly wild centuries old ancient tea trees also. Tea trees can grow very old, but nobody knows just how old exactly since dendrochronology (or tree-ring dating) is not applicable for tea, the approximate age of a tea tree is estimated when knowing the history of the region or having access to historical records.
Phumanee Lahu Home Hotel.
Some wild species of the genus Camellia show great genetic proximity to tea, and especially to the assamica variety. Such closely related species include Camellia irrawadiensis, which grows in upper Burma and which some scholars maintain could actually be tea, and the endangered species Camellia taliensis, found in the mountainous evergreen broad-leaved forests at altitudes between 1300 to 2700 metres in northern Burma, northern Thailand and southwestern Yunnan. Diversity of Camellia species is greatest in northern Burma, north- eastern India, southern Yunnan, northern Laos, as well as northern Thailand, writes Prof. George van Driem in his book “The Tale of Tea”.
Black Lahu tribe’s village. The tallest bush in the middle of the photo is the first tea bush gifted by the King to replace opium production with tea, serving as a symbol of hope in the village.
The oldest trees in China can be found in Sichuan and Yunnan. The tree believed to be the oldest living tea tree grows at an elevation of 2450 metres in Qianjiazhai, forest in Zhenyuan district in Yunnan. The estimated age of the tree is 2,700 years, its height being 25.6 metres, the trunk diameter 89 cm, and the base of the tree at the roots measures 120 cm in diameter In May 2012, the China Daily reported the existence of an ostensibly even older tea tree on the Burmese border in Fengqing, county of Lincang prefecture. The tree has a diameter of 1.84 metres and is purportedly 3,200 years old. A long trek away from the Doi Mu Puen village in Thailand, researchers recently have discovered another tea tree that could possibly be as old as more than three thousand years, says Yok.
The oldest tea tree in Thailand, or possibly one of the oldest ones in the world. Photo: Jirawan “Yok” Chaikor.
Ahpa Tea: Tea Tour Amidst Tradition and Wilderness
Ahpa Tea, an embodiment of Lahu heritage, thrives in a unique location at an elevation above 1300 meters. With a commitment to zero chemical fertilisers and pesticides and traditional, hand-processed methods, Ahpa Tea embodies the essence of undomesticated Camellia Sinensis var. assamica. The tea is a testament to community involvement, from tea leaf picking to the final product, ensuring a sustainable income for the Lahu community.
Learning to cook bamboo rice and chicken in the traditional Lahu kitchen.
Cooking rice in banana leaves.
A visit to Doi Mu Puen offers a captivating blend of tradition and nature, with Lahu homestays providing hands-on experiences like tea picking and rolling, basket weaving, harvesting bamboo and banana leaves in the jungle, and cooking traditional dishes amidst lush surroundings. Traditional music, dance, and tea tastings immerse visitors in the authentic charm of Lahu culture. Our tour offered genuine cultural immersion and a full Thai tea experience in Doi Mu Puen with the Lahu tribes. We explored the village’s wildlife, even teaching an English class at the local school. A visit to the nearby Black Lahu village, home to the first tea bush gifted by the King Bhumibol Adulyadej, revealed intriguing contrasts in religious beliefs—Red Lahu converted to Christianity, while Black Lahu maintain old pagan traditions.
A book of Christian songs in Lahu language. Somnuek’s wife played guitar and sang some of these.
Phumanee Lahu Home Hotel in Fang, is a living museum of Lahu traditions. The ‘tea bar’ showcases diversity of local teas, and Yok’s sister-in-law’s restaurant offers exquisite Lahu-style dishes infused with tea leaves from Ahpa’s plantation. Sample specialties like Lahu sticky rice (a dish for the Lahu New Year Festival), Thai spicy salad with tea leaves, fried chicken with tea leaves and lime, deep-fried fish with tea, and Lahu chicken-potato soup with lemongrass, among other traditional delights. Hotel offers Fang tours as well like bicycle trip learning about the history, Buddhist temple traditions, local market and its delicacies.
Keng is from a Karen tribe and was our tour guide translating the Lahu local language for us. Photo was taken at a nearby Pu Muen waterfall where we went for a swimming adventure with Somnuek’s wife and three children.
Above the main village, Yok is in the process of establishing a ‘tea education center,’ a beautifully designed space where enthusiasts can delve into the history, cultivation, and tribal life associated with tea. The centre encapsulates Yok’s commitment to maintaining her family’s legacy, as guided by her grandfather Pu Muen and father Jafa, who were recognised by King Rama IX for their efforts in preserving nature and traditional life. While you can already immerse yourself in wonderful tours, expect to see educational courses fully dedicated to the local craft of tea.
Wat Chong Paen temple and one of the monks, Fang city.
‘Ahpa Tea’ tea bar at the ‘Phumanee Lahu Hotel’ in Fang city.
In conclusion, the tea experience with the Red Lahu Tribe is more than a sip; it’s a journey into the soul of Northern Thailand’s tea heritage. As the sun sets over the lush hills, the echoes of traditional music, the aroma of freshly brewed tea, and the warm hospitality of the Lahu people linger, inviting all to savor the richness of a culture intertwined with the leaves of Camellia Sinensis.
I extend my heartfelt gratitude to Gundega Silniece and Prof. Lee Jolliffe for facilitating my connection with Yok of Ahpa Tea and Lahu Phumanee Home Hotel and Mr. Udom Chidnayee of Udomporn Tours and Chiang Mai Tourism Business Association, whose gracious hospitality played a pivotal role in making this collaboration a truly enriching experience. All photos by Katrina Wild unless specified otherwise.