What is that one thing that all of us travelers look for in a destination? What makes us feel fulfilled? Assuring us, that we have arrived! After all that enquiry we made. ‘Authentic experiences’ – is not a cheap term my friend, and it doesn’t come easy.
However, let me divulge to you a hidden treasure up in the hills of Northern Thailand that shall surely make you feel like you belong. And it comes easy and cheap! Thanks to the truly chilled out host of this homestay, who is one amongst the first people who opened their homes to travellers.
In this authentic homestay in Chiang Rai, the past and present generation of Lahu and Akha Hill tribe will be hosting you. Food available to your taste and preference – vegetarian as well as non-vegetarian, modern as well as tribal – as you like.
Our very kind host provides pick up and drop from the main Chiang Rai city at a very nominal cost and you shall thank me once you get there!
Our Hosts from the Hilltribe of North Thailand
The heads of the family – father and mother, belong to the Lahu and Akha tribes respectively. They migrated from Burma as many others of their tribe, more than 50 years back. With limited means of livelihood available up in the hills for their children, they eventually are trying to fit into the modern world near the city.
The main host is the eldest son of the family, who having spent his childhood as a tribal kid in the hills, has a special affiliation towards preserving his culture. Therefore, the beginning of this authentic tribal homestay. Mr. Tepthai also tried to coach and include his siblings and cousins into the venture, but like most young people, they wanted to settle into the cities.
Therefore now, Mr. Thep himself with his wife (occasionally) takes care of all the arrangements of the homestay personally. Including trekking to the tribal villages nearby, to the waterfall, spending a night in the forest, cooking in the Bamboo etc. etc. His dedication, involvement and simplicity is evident in the way he takes care of his guests.
The Accommodation – an authentic Homestay in Chiang Rai, 30 minutes drive from the main town
There is a choice in the accommodation available – dorms and private cottages on stilts over the stream. We went for the cottage, because at such a good price, why shall we forego a private view of the stream over our balcony.
The balcony was roomy with a small bed in it and still leaving space for a Yoga mat to fit in. Few mornings when we weren’t dead tired post the trekking, we would do our Yoga there.
The room is basic, but with very good quality firm mattresses. The shower-room was a permanent structure and very roomy, with hot shower. The whole offering made for more than what we expected for such a nominal price.
Mr. Thep very fondly remembers when he built these cottages with his own hands, and also swears never again because it was such a task! 😊
There is a common area where you can sit and work or relax and the dining table is just besides. Hot homecooked food is what is served on this table, always!
The Food – Tribal and Modern, as you like it
Depending on how many people are travelling, the family prepares food as per their liking.
Me and my friend were vegetarians, and it wasn’t funny how much variety Mr. Thep served us even then. He made eggless pancakes for us for the first time in his life 😊. Arranged for a variety of vegetarian options from tofu to tender bamboo shoot to locally found mushrooms – making sure it turned up tasty and never less than 2-3 varieties on our table.
Needless to mention, if you are non-vegetarian, the options can be in zillions. You are in Thailand after all! And with all those special tribal recipes and spices, you are in for a treat!
Good thing is that on somedays you can have pancakes for breakfast, and on some traditional rice porridge. And when the kitchen is free, you can even go in and cook something up yourself, with whatever is available in the house. One lazy afternoon, we cooked ourselves and also offered the houselady who was ecstatic to eat the new style of food we had cooked.
This is the best things about this place, it is truly a home away from home. No pretenses, no inhibitions – just be mindful towards the family as you would normally and you shall feel at home here.
The Village – A glimpse of Rural and Authentic Thailand
For when you want to step out and take a little stroll around the house, you shall meet the friendly folk of this village. Not intrusive at all, the villagers are very simple people with tons of naughty kids in the vicinity and even in the house on weekends, to have fun with.
There are no options for eating around, but then you don’t need them with a fully functional kitchen in the homestay. Also, you can ask Mr. Thep to bring you fruits or any other necessities when he is headed towards the city – he shall oblige with a smile.
The Experiences – If you are wondering while there, what to do in Chiang Rai, think no more.
Head over to this village just 30 minutes outside of Chiang Rai. Even if you aren’t staying here, spending one full day doing this trek and bamboo food experience is worth it! All the better, if you can stay a night.
Trek to the Northern Thailand Hill tribe villages of Lahu and Akha –
This trek is mostly uphill, so brace yourself for some good exercise. It will be a good idea to start early, else the sun can soak the energy up. We were accompanied by the kids of the house, who were there on the weekend and it was a delight all the way. The girl was called Mai and three boys were Ko, Khom and Ae. They were eating wild fruits and berries plucking here and there, and we just followed! Even leaves!
You shall be crossing some really beautiful scenery on the way, rice paddy fields and vistas over mountains – all there to cheer you up, while you trek uphill. You can see this area is preferred for social activities by different organizations. For example, the day we did the trek, youngsters from Youth Corps Singapore were there to give the local labor a hand in constructing a village road.
Once in the village, you can see the stilt cottages and the village way of life all around. You might also come across one or two little shops selling small hand-made bags and trinkets. Do support if you can, as they aren’t sitting in the middle of a commercial street.
Again, don’t expect any traditional costumes, which are fighting for survival amongst hill tribes all across South East Asia. With the industry revolution and factory cloth easily available, even the tribal folk go for the easier options instead of hand woven or hand dyed fabric. Well this is another story for another time.
Trek to the Huai Mae Sai Waterfall –
The trek towards the waterfall from the villages shall take you through the best scenery of Northern Thailand. From open meadows, wild streams, rice paddies to green and dense forests, the landscape is surreal wherever you see.
You shall be going downhill to uphill and the tracks may not be well defined, which only means that you are going off the beat, so be happy about it. The tracks may also get slippery and tricky in between so be careful about it.
Apart from the waterfall which is like a hidden treasure, the scenery leading you up to it is more than enough to make it a worthwhile experience. Carry a change of clothes, as you would certainly like to take a dip.
The plan was to stay in the jungle and cook a meal with whatever is wildly available, before heading towards the waterfall. However, because the of impending rain, the bamboos and the leaves to make food in were collected to be used later in the evening.
Cooking in the Bamboo, a Tribal cooking experience –
Preparing a full meal in a jungle is an art only tribals take in use whenever required. Mr. Thep still makes sure to take his kids once in 2 months to the jungle and stay there for a minimum of 2 nights, cooking in Bamboo and sleeping in tents made of leaves. So his children are well exposed to their roots and can carry the heritage if it interests them.
As for us, it couldn’t have been possible to stay and cook in the jungle because of the Monsoons. So, a fire was lit for us in the house grounds itself and dinner was prepared the jungle style – in the bamboos.
Rice were filled and wrapped in bamboo leaves placed inside the bamboo, water poured from on top. For curry, potatoes, onions and carrots were chopped and put inside the bamboo – filled with water and coconut milk. And the bamboos put on fire. Cooked until the bamboos turned black, the dinner was served fresh with a locally grown mushroom vegetable cooked separately.
The rice turned out to be full of aroma from the bamboo leaf and the coconut curry… the subtlest I ever had! It was pure bliss.
Thai massage? This is traditional Akha Tribal massage
This we shall call the cherry on the top. From the middle of nowhere, an Akha lady shows up, just before we were finishing dinner. Turns out she is the village masseuse and was visiting the homestay for potential customers.
Just what we needed after a long and tiring day from the hill trek. Finishing dinner, ready to crash out – we were more than pleased to have our back and legs massaged for a steal! (so we tipped her nicely). Just when we were screaming with joy speaking of having a Thai massage, she corrected us by letting us know that this was not a Thai massage.
It was a traditional Akha massage, which was very different and distinct in style from the Thai massage. Well she indeed knew what she was doing, as she could find the problem areas in our bodies without even mentioning. So the session went into full body massage on its own – but no extra charges mind you!
And when Mr. Thep served hot steaming Thai Tea just after the massage, I knew, I have arrived! My Thailand experience was complete, and I just closed my eyes to sit back and enjoy the Thai Tea in my hand.
Things to be remembered –
- The place is set amidst a forest and a stream, carry an insect repellant in case you are sensitive.
- Wear shoes with a good grip on the trek
- The family is not intrusive at all and minds their own business. However, it shall be a good idea to dress modestly.