Rachel Allen supplements her relaxing holiday on the beach with something a little more challenging and off the beaten track in Thailand’s northern region… When people think of Thailand they often envisage relaxing on white sandy island beaches, cocktail in hand, watching colourful fishing boats bobbing in a sparkling, sapphire sea. They think of that beach from ‘The Beach’. But while I had a fantastic time embracing island life, drinking cocktails from buckets and not wearing shoes, my most memorable and rewarding experience in this diverse country was to be had during a two week tour in Northern Thailand.
Setting out from the town of Chiang Rai, I embarked on a two day hill tribe trek with a group of 13 plus our Thai guide Kitty. Chiang Mai’s more laidback sister, smaller Chiang Rai is deemed to be quieter and cleaner, and offers faster access to some key trekking areas with a number of homestay options. We began with a visit to an elephant park which caused a conflict of emotions amongst many of the group. Although it was fantastic to be able to get so up close and personal with these magnificent animals, stroking their bristly skin as we fed them bananas and sugar cane, we were definitely left questioning the welfare and happiness of the animals, some of whom were chained up and controlled with a sharp whack by a hooked stick. After making our introductions with what was to be our transport for the next hour or so we climbed aboard using a rickety bamboo tower and lumbered off to the starting point of our trek. There were two people to an elephant and I was riding with Sarah, a British girl who was my roommate for the trip. The back of an elephant proved to be a great vantage point from which to take in the views of traditional village houses and rice fields backed by the expansive stretch of the jungle hills. We reached base camp and said goodbye to our new big grey friends before settling down to lunch. Our local guides, Tom and Amure, had carefully brought along plastic bags of red curry and individual potions of rice wrapped in waterproof paper – by far the best packed lunch I’d ever had!
Once we were suitably refuelled we started off on the trek itself. There had already been some discussion within the group about how hard going the trekking was going to be. Kitty was continually warning us to be prepared and stressing the importance of pacing but we felt, as most of us were fairly young and fit, that he was worrying us over nothing. How wrong we were! What started out as a leisurely walk through lush green paddy fields quickly turned into a literal uphill battle. The temperature was pushing 30 degrees Celsius and with the humidity it felt much like how I’d imagine using a cross-trainer in a greenhouse would feel. The path was a constant incline, until there wasn’t a path anymore and the machetes came out, thankfully in the hands of our very experienced trek guides who hacked us a path through the seemingly impenetrable tangle of jungle head of us. Tom and Amure were fantastic guides, Amure the straight man to Tom’s joker, keeping us entertained and informed with their vast knowledge of the area. As we battled our way through, occasionally they would stop and hack into a piece of bamboo, scooping out the little white grubs inside and making ominous comments about our dinner later.
After four hours and the workout of my life our efforts were rewarded and we crossed a bamboo gate to a stunning view of hills covered in farm land and jungle, crowned by a rainbow arching across the sky. That view felt like a reward for the labours of the day and all the effort and sweat suddenly seemed worth it. After that it was all downhill as we made our way into the village. As we arrived the villagers flooded out to great us, armed with the freshest bananas we’d ever tasted, the perfect post-trek snack. The village consisted of a number of thatched bamboo huts on stilts and we were shown to our accommodation for the night: rather basic, and I’ve seen phone books thicker than the mattresses we slept on, but once we had a beer in our hand none of us minded too much. Some of the group volunteered for sous chef duty in the kitchen while the rest of us braved the shower one by one, armed with our torches and trying to ignore the cockroaches scuttling about in the corners. The shower was really just a pipe with a tap to turn the stream of tepid water on and off but when you’ve had a workout like we’d had that day even a pipe-shower feels like a luxury!
After a couple more beers it was dinner time, and there was a sumptuous feast of spicy potato curry, fried vegetables, fried chicken, rice and soup. My cooking skills were completely put to shame, this was a far better spread cooked on just two wood fired hobs on the floor of a hut than I could whip up in the kitchen of a Michelin starred restaurant. As we sat down around the table Tom suddenly appeared from the kitchen with a bowl full of the grubs that he and Amure had collected earlier, now deep fried and much less wriggly. Apparently in Northern Thailand these are a delicacy and they were passed round the table, with a shot of moonshine whisky from a bamboo glass to wash it down. The whisky was actually harder to stomach than the grubs, adding weight to the theory that virtually everything is edible when deep fried. As we finished dinner some of the village kids started to appear, shy but intrigued by these new visitors. Eventually curiosity own out over shyness and they clambered up onto the table giggling away as I took photos and showed them their faces on the screen.
The next morning, after a rough night’s sleep broken by the noises of pigs squealing and dogs fighting, we made a start on our second day of trekking. Day two brought its own challenges being a constant steep downhill scramble through jungle and grasses that were often taller than us. Eventually we arrived at a clearing in the jungle where a torrent of white water was gushing down over the rocks. The waterfall opened out into a pool of icy clear water perfect for a well-deserved cool off. While the group stripped off and braved the chilly mountain water for a swim, our guides once again showed off their cooking skills, grilling pork on skewers and steaming rice in pieces of bamboo over an open fire. When the bamboo was removed from the rice, the inner layer stuck to the rice and held it together like a sort of bamboo and rice sausage (is there nothing bamboo can’t be used for?!) After another delicious lunch we were on the home stretch, heading towards Amure’s village for the night. By the time we arrived it had started to rain and we were all soaked through, scratched up and pretty miserable. Earlier in the day we’d drawn straws (made of bamboo of course) to decide who would get which room that evening. Sarah and I were suitably cheered up when we were shown to our private room, with balcony! Yes, it was still very basic, but after the challenges of our trek the luxury of being able to shower immediately and not sleep in a room with 12 other people was on a par a five star honeymoon resort. The few hours before dinner were spent trying to dry out the contents of our sodden backpacks while chilling out on the balcony with a few beers and getting to know our fellow travellers a bit better. Then another tasty dinner was followed by a show of traditional dancing and Thai boxing put on by the village kids in full tribal costume, which we felt was a far better experience than the tourist shows of the popular resorts. Soon enough it was bed time for the children and then sure enough out came the moonshine whisky again, along with a deck of cards for some drinking games. The whisky looked a little suspect, with some kind of plant-life coiled up in the jar but Tom assured us that this whisky was great and you could drink as much as you like without getting a hangover, so we gamely put his theory to the test. Despite it being Tom’s game he seemed to do more shots than any of us and when he disappeared and we heard a sound suspiciously like vomiting coming from the toilet block we took this as a collective sign that it was time to retire for the night.
In the morning, tired but surprisingly hangover free, we bade farewell to our fantastic guides and the villagers. It may have been hard going at times but those two days were an amazing glimpse into a way of life which is fast disappearing from the world and it was worth every scratch and every damp, sweaty footstep. Rachel Allen