It was rather last-minute, the decision to come to Chiang Rai. I'd planned two weeks in Thailand - the first alone and the second with my friend Carolyn who was working in Bangkok. I was due to spend the first week at an eco-village near Udon Thani, but that fell through.
No regrets! After 4 months in Bali, which have flown by (and which I will get round to blogging about at some point!) I flew to Bangkok and then on to Chiang Rai on Saturday 8th March. Let the adventure begin!
I'm picked up that evening at Chiang Rai airport by a man named Pi, and driven in a 4 wheel drive pick-up truck, via several convenience stores to stock up (which provides an indication of how remote the guesthouse would be) to the Bamboo Nest guesthouse (http://bamboonest-chiangrai.com).
On the way, I ask Pi if I can rent a bike while I'm up there and, when he's stopped laughing, he says "wait till you see the roads up there first. And no, there are no bikes!"
Sure enough, 50 mins later we are crawling up an almost vertical crevice-filled dust track in the dark. OK, I get it. We stop at a tiny shop in the hill tribe's village for one final bit of grocery shopping. A family's sitting outside. They all ignore me sitting in the truck, apart from a little girl, who waves and blows kisses.
We pull up at the Bamboo Nest in the dark. At the small, open air restaurant, I'm served a delicious cashew vegetable rice dish by Noi (Pi's sister and the owner). I chat with Pi and a smiley Nepalese guy who's also on holiday, and quaffing copious amounts of rice wine with Pi. I err on the safe side, and stick with a can of Thai beer which, incidentally, is WAY nicer than Bintang (Indonesian beer).
Ready for bed, I mosey down the hill.
The back of my hut has a concrete foundation and bamboo walls. That's where my bathroom is. (It's a Western-style toilet, cousin Lucy. With both options: loo roll and water spray.)
I walk down to the front and up the creaky bamboo stairs onto my creaky bamboo balcony on stilts. I try to imagine what the quiet, unlit valley will look like. I can just make out the outlines of nearby banana trees thanks to the light of the stars.
Once inside, I see holes between the slats in the floor, walls and ceilings, and the whole place creaks little "hellos" when I walk around in it. It feels safe and cosy. I part the mosquito netting and climb into my lovely double bed.
Sunday morning I awake to the sound of birds tweeting. My nose is cold! I nip out of the nice warm bed to open the shutters on each side and the door at the front, and go back under the covers to enjoy the sights and sounds of the morning valley in peace. I can see right down the hill, over some farms and across to 2 or 3 layers of misty hills. It feels good to be chilly for a change!
A fabulous day is in store for me once I head up the hill for breakfast.
I meet an adventurous English family who've decided to stop "living safely" and are trekking round Asia for 3 months with their lively 5 and 7 year old boys, Charlie and Sam. They like it so much at the Bamboo Nest that they've stayed for two weeks. Noi is wonderful with little Charlie and he really likes her too. A lovely connection.
I also meet a nice Aussie couple who are doing a day trip with Pi, and they're happy to have me tag along.
As the sun rises over the hilltop, the heat immediately hits us. Once Pi is ready (Noi tells us he seems to spend an inordinate amount of time preening himself each morning), we trek through the bamboo forests, up and down tricky paths, thankful to be in the shade most of the time.
I apply a rule which I find useful just about everywhere I've been: keep your wits about you! When you spot an eye-level piece of pointy bamboo and smugly duck to avoid it, you trip over a piece which straddles the path.
We stop for lunch in the middle of the forest, and Pi and his helper, Boi, start cutting down various types of bamboo. I didn't know there were so many types! They build a fire. Marinaded chicken breasts are speared and left to roast. Sticky rice is stuffed into the hollow bamboo sticks and sealed in with leaves. Banana leaves are washed in a little stream, and mini pineapples are cut up with an enormous knife and laid out on the leaves.
Val, Steve and I watch admiringly and talk about Bear Grylls' TV show. To be fair, we do try to ask questions and test out whether we could help, but we get the impression the guys would rather just get on with it themselves!
It's a mouth-wateringly lovely lunch. And no, I don't end up getting sick afterwards, despite the potentially dubious hygiene.
The washing up is easy. We throw the bamboo sticks and banana leaves into the bush. Voila.
More hiking, a boat trip, a photo opp on a very dodgy rope bridge with overpopulated motorbikes carrying whole families, no helmets, whizzing past, and more hiking. We pass a bubbling 56 degree C hot spring (no swimming there!) and puff, pant and groan our way up the hill, through the forest and the dusty village of huts on stilts.
Once more, we don't sense that the hill tribe villagers are oozing with hospitality. A grandmother with a baby does smile at me when I wave at the baby. The rest of them sit in the shade looking at us like we're from another planet. Which, I suppose,we are. They stare blankly whilst we coo at some puppies. And the larger dogs watch us walk past and only get aggressive after we've left their territory, which makes crossing the village easier than it could be.
Back at the Nest, I collapse in my hammock till dinner. I relax completely, in the way you can, when you're physically exhausted. I enjoy watching indefatigable fairy-like dragonflies whirl around in front of my balcony.
Evenings at the Bamboo Nest are spent eating and chatting in the open air restaurant and then you migrate to the nearby bonfire prepared by Nok, the other owner. He's a tiny, wiry man who is a fountain of knowledge and very friendly.
There are times in life when you meet people who you know instinctively are good, hard-working people who you'd like to spend more time with. Nok and Noi are in this category.
And the way they treat their dogs speaks volumes. Those dogs never flinch. Unlike most of the nervous creatures I've seen here and in Indonesia. (I've got photos on my camera and will post them once I have access to a computer. Don't hold your breath!)
The next day, the English family leave, and I get tears in my eyes when Harvey, the small dog (his Thai name wasn't as easy to remember so little Charlie gave him an English nickname) runs down the hill after the truck. He clearly doesn't want the boys to go, and they don't want to leave him either. But Burma beckons.
After I've had my boiled eggs, crispy bacon, crusty bread and fresh tropical fruit (yum), the three of us go on another hike. This time to the waterfall, which is about 45 mins away, if you don't get lost. We have some near-misses but we soon learned we need to follow Harvey and the big dog, who'd skipped breakfast to accompany us. It's a pretty impressive waterfall and we enjoy the cool spray while we have a little snack and photo break there. I manage to get phone reception at last and send a happy birthday email for Max, my nephew, who's turned 5. Gulp! Where does the time go?
We wander a few km through the scenic tea plantations to the other hot spa. This one's been made into a swimming pool but it's being cleaned so I can't go in! Bummer!
We have lunch in the cafe and Steve chats with a bunch of Canadian men about motorbikes, guns, hunting wild boar and living in Chiang Rai. Val and I revert to stereotype and go shopping for tea and teacups.
The only down side of visiting Northern Thailand in March is the smoke in the air, which apparently comes from the Burmese farmers slashing and burning. Apparently the Thai government has reduced it here, but it's still standard practice up in Burma. By the morning of day 3 my eyes are stinging so I decide to head into Chiang Rai. It might be just as bad, or worse, in town, but at least pollution is par for the course there. I make a mental note that if I'm ever around here again, I'll come back to see what it's like in another season. Pi and Noi both mention that they like it best around July to October when it's greener and there's no smoke. I bet the views across the valley are even more stunning too.
On the morning of our departure, I get a confirmation of that nagging feeling I had each time we went through the hill tribe village. Trouble's afoot.
I'm in the restaurant where Nok and Noi are doing some DIY, when a staff member comes through looking a little nervous, and mumbles something to Noi.
A few seconds later, a group of men, women and children from the nearby village appear. And they don't look happy.
There's a pretty tense atmosphere, and Noi and Nok talk to them for a while about the dispute. They're still talking when we say our goodbyes and get a lift into Chiang Rai from Pi.
For me, it was a reminder not to idealise too much. The place is like a little paradise on Earth, and Nok and Noi are lovely, hardworking people. But it looks like they have some challenges to deal with. I won't detail it here. It felt a little like a scene from an Asian Marcel Pagnol book. I wish them the best of luck.
- my visit to Chiang Rai town, the White Temple, the Golden Triangle and the House of Opium (a museum!).
- Bangkok and Koh Phangan
Link to a stranger's blog which includes a nice description of Bamboo Nest:
"Slash and burn":
Interesting to learn abit more about this. It seems to be the easiest, cheapest way to clear a piece of land so you can grow good on it. Important for subsistence farmers who don't have the cash for machinery to plough fields and cut down trees.
But it's causing deforestation and desertification of the land. As we've seen this Winter in the UK, if you remove trees, there are no plants and roots to keep hold of rainwater. In the UK, that led to flooding when it rained. In tropical areas it can also lead to flooding, but if the temperatures rise too, it can lead to the land becoming desert-like and nothing more will grow there.
Here's one of the articles I found which gives some more info on "slash and burn agriculture".
Bye for now! I'll try and post the next instalments more quickly! I've received some complaints :-)