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Taking to Thailand’s hills with a tribe of entrepreneurs

AKHA VILLAGE, ThailandIt was truly a bamboo banquet: cooked on, cooked in, eaten with and eaten out of bamboo that our guides had cut down during a…


It was truly a bamboo banquet: cooked on, cooked in, eaten with and eaten out of bamboo that our guides had cut down during a day-long jungle trek using bamboo walking sticks.

Staying here in a hill tribe village in the far northern corner of Thailand, near the Golden Triangle of opium fame, has been a unique experience — inexpensive yet very comfortable and certainly off-the-beaten-track fascinating.

Although the 1,500-metre elevation brings temperatures down to a reasonably comfortable low 20s overnight, the rainy season summer pushes them back up to the hot and very humid 30 range during the day.

We made an early start, but I was soon sweating as six of us led by guides Apa Yesaw and Abui Mayer climbed a steep heart-starter — almost a heart-stopper — narrow trail out of the village and into the tropical jungle, green and lush.

After an hour or so, we took a welcome breather while Yesaw cut down some bamboo to make a narrow footbridge across a stream, and Mayer went looking for bamboo shoots for lunch.

Around 11 a.m. we came into a clearing with a shed and a stream nearby. “We’ll have lunch here,” said “Mr. Apa” — the way the locals introduce themselves and talk to visitors.

We weren’t that hungry, but lunch was to take about an hour to prepare using the traditional method of cooking with bamboo.

First, the guides gathered dead bamboo to make a fire. Then they felled new bamboo trees about 10 to 12 centimetres in diameter and cut them into metre-and-a-half-long sections so that each section had a natural internal base because of the way bamboo grows in segments.

Into each tube they put a variety of vegetables they had brought in their backpacks from the village, as well as the bamboo shoots, plus a few eggs and some water from the stream. (In a country where most people drink only bottled water, I reassured myself that boiling the stream water in the bamboo cooking tubes would probably kill any impurities.)

After adding some spices and plugging the top with a lid of banana leaves, the guides put the food-filled bamboo tubes into the fire, leaning the tops against a cross-piece of bamboo.

While lunch was cooking, Mayer cut slightly smaller bamboo, about six to eight centimetres in diameter, into mugs, then whittled chopsticks out of another piece of bamboo.

When he judged one of the cooking tubes ready, Yesaw spread a large banana leaf on the ground and emptied several packets of instant noodles on to this “platter.”

He then tipped the steaming food and liquid from one of the cooking tubes on top of the noodles, and folded over the banana leaf.

By the time the rest of the food had been poured out on to other banana leaves, the instant noodle and vegetable mixture was ready to eat.

The meal was absolutely delicious.

After lunch, Yesaw harvested some native tea leaves growing nearby and boiled up a brew in a clean bamboo cooking tube. We rinsed out our mugs and he poured us cups of jungle tea, which had a very mild flavour.

While the rest of the group set off up another steep track to visit another hill tribe village, I headed back to our village with Mayer.

Along the way, we stopped so I could spend a refreshing half hour in the pool at the base of a roaring three-tiered waterfall — an experience the others enjoyed when they returned a little later.

It was a delightful ending to our jungle trek and bamboo banquet — all for $25 per person. That was reasonable for us, but very profitable for the village.

“We decided to build some guesthouses to attract visitors when we were told we had to plant our hillside rice fields only every other year so the ground could recover, and that cut the village’s income in half,” said Apae Amor, the village chief.

He won Thailand’s Tourist Guide Award last September in recognition of the Akha Hill House project.

“Ten per cent of the guesthouse profits go to the Akha hill tribe education project and school,” he said. “This is the only locally owned and managed hill tribe retreat in the Chiang Rai province.”

Accommodation costs range from $3.50 a night for a single room with shared bathroom facilities to $40 for a V.I.P. bungalow with private bathroom, hot shower and air conditioning.

Meals are served in a communal dining area. As the evening mists rise from the valley, guests and locals gather around a campfire at the uncovered end of the bamboo platform.

One of the most expensive lunch/dinner dishes is $1.50 for fried vegetables with chicken or pork and cashews (a large bottle of beer is the same price).

Most of the dishes are less than $1.

An American breakfast of eggs, toast, juice and tea or coffee tops the menu at $2.50, while banana or pineapple pancakes with honey go for $1.20 and a glass of fresh mandarin juice is 75 cents.

You can have an hour of Thai massage for $2.50, and bargain with the villagers for hand-woven water bottle holders, beadwork and other handicraft items.

Amor picks up and drops off visitors free in Chiang Rai, 23 kilometres away, usually in the back of his four-wheel-drive pickup truck.

It’s a two-hour drive and once you leave the main road, it’s a very bumpy, often deeply rutted narrow track that takes you back in time as well as back into the hills.

Tea and rice grow in the fields. Except for occasional cars or pickups and small motorbikes, electricity and new water tanks, people live here much as they always have.

Other attractions in the area: a day’s outing for $28 including an hour of elephant riding (friendly and a bit bumpy until the final stretch which is a smooth cruise in a river), lunch by the elephant camp and a visit to a large manmade pool fed by a hot spring (probably not worth it, especially in the hot weather).

Chiang Mai, a three-hour bus ride or 45-minute flight from Chiang Rai, offers great markets and shopping, a hilltop temple, monkey school and village of long-necked women.

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Travel writer Mike Grenby teaches journalism at Bond University on Australia’s Gold Coast