Coming from the sleepy Koh Jum to hectic Chiang Mai felt like a harsh change of pace (little did we know what awaited us in Hanoi, but that’s another story…). We flew from Krabi and had a super smooth journey, made even sweeter by arriving at Hotel Montha, our home for four whole nights. I unpacked my toiletries, hung up a few dresses and took a bag of laundry to the lady next door who had it all pressed and smelling of jasmine a few hours later. A real treat when you’re living out of a suitcase and everything feels a bit damp. We ventured out to the night market and had an early night.
Early the next morning, we were picked up by Jim, our guide for the next two days on our Chiang Dao Jungle Village Trek. We drove out of the city towards the jungle, stopping at a small locals market for breakfast and to pick up some tofu, mushrooms and morning glory we would later eat for lunch.
Jim took us to the beautiful huge Ban Dem temple for a look around. Look at these colours… just stunning.
We then headed up into the mountains, to a small village called Mae Mae which is home to a Shun population. Many of the people who live in the villages around here used to be poppy farmers, but the former king asked them to change to coffee and tea, to make an honest living. It took many years to change but with help from the Royal Project (an initiative of His Highness King Bhumibol Adulyadej to solve the problems of deforestation, poverty and opium cultivation) Mae Mae and other villages like it are now coffee and tea growing villages. The whole community work together on the plantations, similar to a cooperative.
We were introduced to our host Tam and shown around her home ‘The Treehouse’, where we would stay the night. High up in the canopy, the wooden home really was like a tree house that hugged the side of the mountain. It was completely fascinating to see that Tam and her family were perfectly comfortable, content with life, and seemingly very happy, despite having so little in the way of possessions. It was a beautiful home and very comfortable, with everything they needed, and nothing they didn’t.
Tam showed us what they use for general pain relief. They steep these dried herbs and plants in hot water or whisky and drink.
Another deliciously simple thing they do for general health and wellbeing is to take a teaspoon of this local honey every night. Apparently because the honey is made with the local wild flowers, it helps to protect skin from stings and bites from insects in the jungle.
There’s a tall tree in the village with big nails stuck in it to make a ladder, leading up to the nest. It’s some poor persons job to scale that tree and collect it. Worth it though, it’s the best honey I’ve ever tasted.
After lunch we set off on our trek. Jim and Tam pointed out Touch Me Not’s (so cool when you first see it!), as well as many different species of banana plants and bamboo. We spotted a Tarantula (video on my Chiang Mai Instagram highlight) and briefly visited the village school.
We had a good nosey in an organic coffee farm and were shown how the coffee beans start life as a red cherry with a white stone in the middle. They’re hand picked, soaked, popped from their flesh and the stones are left in the sun to dry. They’re then hand selected and the best are roasted and sold.
Back at the treehouse, we showered, wrapped up warm (it got chilly up there) and cosied up by the fire as Tam prepared a veggie feast for dinner. We ate and chatted with Jim late into the evening, about his life growing up in the temple, his time as a monk, and he taught us how to meditate. I had so many questions for him and for Tam, I kept him talking for hours.
We eventually said our goodnights and headed to bed. I tucked our mosquito net so tightly around our mattress, not for the mosquitos (there weren’t any), but because there was a very large colourful Gecko above the bedroom door! Probably a good thing as they eat the other insects, but there was no way I wanted that creeping into bed with us.
We both had the best night’s sleep we’d had in months… it must have been that mountain air. The next morning, we had banana pancakes and fruit for breakfast and said our thank you’s to Tam as we were headed back to the Barking Gecko office in Chiang Dao.
What I love about Barking Gecko Travel is that they provide low impact, community led tourism, so as to preserve these small villages and to ensure that tourism only serves to benefit the community, not harm it. They do this by only taking small groups at a time, and limiting the number of tourists throughout the year. For someone like Tam, who would at some point like to retire from working on the land, providing a homestay for tourists is ideal work for her, now and in the future as she approaches old age.
The balance is in ensuring that these villages retain their identity and authenticity, and don’t become overrun with tourists at the hands of irresponsible tour companies. A percentage of the cost of of each Barking Gecko tour goes directly to the Mae Mae village and school community. As well as this, Barking Gecko are trying to move towards a zero-waste programme and actively look to limit the use of plastics and general waste wherever they can. It’s up to us tourists to do our research and find the best tour companies that hold the village communities best interests above all else. You can read all about Barking Gecko’s Responsible Tourism policy here.
We hopped on some bikes and went for a blissful ride through the village and the rice fields. Stopping to chat to the locals who were busy making their wares and harvesting their fields. It was a wonderful experience to see what life is like for the people in these villages, away from the big cities.
Jim led us around the back of a house (possibly a bit of an intrusion to be honest) where a husband and wife were busy making bamboo rice. Sticky rice mixed with coconut milk, palm sugar, a bit of salt and a few black beans, stuffed inside young bamboo, harvested only in November. It’s then cooked slowly on a fire, peeled like a banana and eaten like an energy bar. They’re very popular with the field workers, as they’re the perfect energy boosting snack.
We ate a delicious lunch prepared by Jim’s wonderfully welcoming sister, before a trip to a nearby hot spring pool for a soak. A relaxing end to a mind-expanding couple of days that left me bursting with gratitude and appreciation. What a privilege it was to be welcomed into Tam’s home and to be allowed to poke our heads through the window of life in rural Northern Thailand.
Jim completely made the tour for us. He’s such a genuine person with a heart of gold, and couldn’t have been more welcoming to us. He’s so passionate about helping his community, and we left feeling completely inspired by him.
We booked our trek through Travel Hub, check out their other tours if you’re visiting Thailand. Barking Gecko Travel was the tour operator, and I can’t recommend them highly enough! Huge thanks to Travel Hub and Barking Gecko Travel for providing us with the experience of a lifetime. It was a real highlight of our trip and we’ll be talking about it for years to come, I’m sure.