My fabulous Thai takeaway
Published 24/04/2010 | 05:00
A little hill-tribe boy, naked as the day he was born, plonked himself down at the top of the waterfall and was propelled in a gush of foaming water until he reappeared, laughing raucously, in a pool beside me.
After several hours hiking in the searing sun, I was having a refreshing soak to ease my aches and pains while being thoroughly entertained by the sight of this little imp throwing himself at the mercy of the rushing falls.
Treading water in the shockingly cold mountain river, surrounded by a wild-banana forest, I congratulated myself for choosing my freezing plunge over the uninspiring alternative that was on offer -- a bucket shower.
We were three days into an adventure holiday in northern Thailand. My group of nine was preparing to check into its home for the night: a bamboo hut on stilts, built on the side of a mountain overlooking a patchwork valley of rice fields.
Our trip began in Bangkok, where I stepped out of Suvarnabhumi airport only to be assailed by such ferocious heat and humidity that I considered turning around and taking the first flight home.
Rivulets of perspiration were running down my back as my nostrils filled with a heady mix of spices and exhaust fumes synonymous with the Thai capital. But the mild choking feeling soon subsided as the charms of the beautiful Thai people, the vividly coloured foods and the ornate temple architecture worked their magic.
Our hotel, The Viengtai on Rambuttri Road, was a street away from the famous backpacker destination of Khao San Road, so I took off for an hour's meandering.
Thronged by hundreds of people, Khao San Road used to be a major rice market, but today it's lined with market stalls selling everything from handbags and T-shirts to CDs and cut-price jewellery.
Bargaining is expected by the vast majority of vendors, with the exception of the food carts where the fare is usually a fixed price. A euro is worth approximately 50 Thai baht. I had a fabulous sit-down lunch of fried rice with chicken and vegetables for just 80 baht (€1.60).
Forget your local Thai takeaway: to experience the real thing, you have to watch your food being cooked fresh in front of you at the side of the road.
I was reluctant to eat from the carts at first, turned off by the sight of scrubby dogs and cats roaming around among local women hunkered on the ground washing their utensils, but hunger soon got the better of me and, despite my misgivings about the culinary hygiene, my stomach remained untroubled.
Leaving Bangkok, we took a one-hour flight to the ancient city of Chiang Mai, the capital of northern Thailand.
Set 700km north of Bangkok in Thailand's highest mountains, it's a 12-hour train ride by night (and costs about 700 baht (€14), giving you plenty of time to snooze in the air-conditioned bunks -- or party.
When we arrived, our first physical trial was a four-hour bike ride around the city. Negotiating the streams of traffic was a challenge in itself, given the complete lack of any recognisable rules of the road. The only rule at play seemed to be whoever blinks first loses.
However, once we pedalled our way out into the suburbs, following the Ping River downstream, the gridlock subsided and dozens of colourful temples appeared on the horizon as we made our way into the rural outskirts.
We cycled down side roads, passing schools and orchards, and through winding country lanes, where dogs snoozed in the sunshine. Then on through a teak plantation leading into a former leper colony that is now a rehabilitation centre, we arrived at the temple ruins of the former capital of Lanna.
The cycling tour was some 30km, but the bikes were comfy and, with plenty of water stops along the way and a cool breeze, it felt like only a fraction of that.
That night we stayed in the home of a local woman, Aoi, who is seen as a Mother Teresa figure in her village. After an evening of singing and dancing performed by local children we eventually headed for our beds, comprising light mattresses under mosquito nets.
At the crack of dawn, we awoke to bring alms to the monks at the local monastery. Two teenage monks, barefoot and dressed in saffron robes, accepted our food before singing us a Buddhist blessing. By this stage, I was in need of a blessing myself because our hill-tribe trek was looming large in my mind. The thought of climbing a mountain in Thailand's sweltering heat and humidity was beginning to make me nervous.
However, trekking through the banana forests, past massive bamboo and teak trees, was a sublime experience -- very hard work in spots, but gratifying during well-earned breaks gazing over a valley of paddy fields or beside a gushing waterfall.
There was no discernible track for much of our journey so we relied on our guides, nicknamed Superman, Superboy and Spider-Man, to show us the way. We climbed steep rocky paths, zig-zagged over watery rice fields and clung to makeshift bamboo bridges over mountain streams, while the lads chattered and laughed between themselves and, sometimes, at us.
Later, when our joints were aching, we toasted our climb with moonshine made by our hosts in the Karen hill tribe. All nine of us, ranging in age from 27 to late 50s, had tackled the hill trek and loved it. Now all we had to do was hike back down.
Our hosts, the villagers of Baan Khun Puay, are a farming people who grow enough food to sustain themselves and make intensely coloured hand-woven clothes to sell at the weekly market to trekking tourists.
The Thai uplands are home to more than one million Karen people, subdivided into four tribes: red Karen, white Karen, Dong Su and Padaung. The latter are also known as the 'long necks', because their women wear dozens of brass rings around their neck in an attempt to stretch them. Local belief dictates that the longer the neck, the more beautiful the woman. However, a woman who is found guilty of adultery is severely punished by the removal of the rings, an act that can prove fatal as the neck muscles are severely weakened by the rings and can collapse.
Our hosts, the white Karen, lead a simple life in bamboo huts on the mountainside and survive without any of the trappings of western culture that we expect: cooking is done over an open fire; bathing is in the river; toilet facilities are as basic as they come.
However, that simplicity threatened to self-destruct when many of the men, including our guides, became addicted to opium, which used to be grown in the region. Now that the opium industry has been outlawed, many of the tribes have turned to tourism and vegetable production as an alternative source of income.
The adored king of Thailand is credited with improving living standards for many hill tribes by setting up farming projects with guaranteed prices for the farmers.
A number of the men in the tribe we stayed with were helped by Aoi, our hostess in Chiang Mai, to give up the drug and become porters for guided treks. Intrepid Travel, the company we travelled with, helps these people create a sustainable future by promoting tourism with a gentle footprint.
Instead of simply visiting remote regions to 'Westernise' their culture, the philosophy is to experience the real hill-tribe culture while respecting their customs.
In order to comply with Thai and Karen traditions, we swam fully clothed in the river, hiked in long-sleeved shirts and below-the-knee shorts, remembered not to point our feet at our hosts, left our shoes outside huts and refrained from patting children on the head.
Compared with other holidays, where steak, chips and karaoke bars are the order of the day, this complete immersion into Thai culture was such an eye-opener.
Still high on endorphins when I return to Bangkok, I threw caution to the wind and venture into one of the city's many tailors. I'm getting married soon, but still haven't braved any bridal shops. All week my inner recessionista had been tap-dancing on my brain, telling me I would never get better value than in the Thai capital.
And so, an hour later, I came out with a receipt for a custom-made Thai silk wedding dress for a snip of what it would cost in a bridal shop. When I walk down the aisle I'll be wearing a divine handmade dress I designed myself in a bustling city 6,000 miles away. How's that for an adventure?
Sorry I can't share it with you, but that would be breaking tradition.