Thursday, 9 August 2012
Akha Hill House, Chiang Rai, Thailand
July 14 - July 19, 2012
We sat in the back of a pickup truck as the noise of Chiang Rai faded behind us and we meandered into the countryside upwards into the hills. As we neared the Akha Hill House we were forced to stand with hold of the bars as the concrete road was now a muddy dirty path curving around the mountainside and there was not even a pretence of a bench in the back of the pickup. Rising steeply we were soon surrounded by tea plantations growing up the mountain side and after a final low gear assault up a 45 degree slope we finally arrived to our second hill tribe experience.
We were quickly ushered to our room; a private bamboo bungalow with en-suit bathroom and balcony built just off the top of a ridge line, overlooking a steep valley. Not a single sound of traffic interrupted the peaceful air of the place. A common lounge and dining area near reception and the kitchen overlooked the valley on the other side; to the right of us, more bamboo huts lay nestled in the hillside. Clouds hung amongst the lush jungle which surrounded us and a freshwater stream babbled along the valley floor. Bamboo furniture and low tables with pillows on straw mats made for a very comfortable, relaxing place where we spent days writing, resting and relaxing, enjoying fabulous local flavours like Akha chili paste, fried banana flower or their potato coconut soup.
Many guided trekking options were available but we first opted to venture out into the jungle on our own to feel the jungle for ourselves. That evening we walked to the bottom of the valley before turning on one of its flanks and climbing a steep rocky path into the bamboo jungle to a stunning three tier waterfall about 10 minutes from our new home. The monsoon now upon us, we soon found ourselves in torrential downpour, soaking us in moments. Taking advantage of the solitude we swam in the pools as the rain poured down stronger than I have ever felt before.
The second day our trail lead us up through the small Akha village in search of a path into the hills beyond. Julians initial intention was to cross the hill opposite our hut, hoping to muddle our way through to the hot springs our hand-drawn map showed as being on the other side. As we began to run out of "our" ridge line and still a hundred metres below the top, we ran out of road. Two women emerged from their homes and directed us through "back" gardens to a small, barely noticeable path carved into the dirt, traversing the hillside and up to a saddle opposite the home stay, as the best road to take. With the waterfall to our left we dropped down into the forests on the far side. We crossed multiple rivers and found evidence of campfires and bamboo cookery. Apparently we had stumbled upon one of the guided treks offered back at base and these were points at which jungle crafts we taught. Bamboo; the ultimate in versatility is used for fuel, for steamers to cook in, drinking vessels, plates and even the cutlery. Bring along some rice and catch the fish in the local waterways you have the beginnings of a delicious diner.
Upwards we trod through dense forests and out onto a grassy plateau that soon lead to a small village of about seven, single room homes, seemingly deserted; an ox and some chickens the only evidence of life shown on our map as "Chinese Village". Another group of nomads and minorities that have been forced or have chosen to make their home here in the borderlands.
Julian examined the local map and chose a side path into the jungle which clearly is not often used; pushing aside vines and plants and crouching under fallen bamboo my anxiety got the best of me as I pictured the poisonous creatures that live in the SE Asian jungles. Images of scorpions and snakes flooded my mind as I tried unsuccessfully to convince Julian that perhaps we were venturing out of our depths in unknown jungles. Pushing forward it wasn't long unit we found ourselves back at the rivers we had previously crossed having just wandered in a complete circle. We repeated the 600 metres or so that took us back up to the Chinese Village and this time took the more distinct road back up to the ridge line. Once more on the far side of the valley from our accommodation, we followed a track left, dropping steeply back into "our" side as the afternoon downpour commenced. The road snaked back and forth, but always down until we came upon another small path to our left, returning us to the top of the waterfall.
Hiking ridge lines in the tropical heat had us smelling worse than a durain fruit and we eagerly stripped off to bathe in the cool waters. Julian had seen a spot he wanted to photograph me on the previous evening which had looked decidedly dodgy to reach with the flood waters of the rainy season pounding down the falls and it wasn't long before I found him climbing the falls on the other side to reverse our customary roles.
After spending the next very rainy day writing and reading we woke on day three to not so heavy clouds and ventured off again into the countryside. This time turning off our previous trail almost immediately now we been shown the pathway across the valley from our hut. Local people worked along the ridges of these hills planting and they happily pointed us on our way up and over a pass and down towards the Lacu tribe. Whilst the Ahka people tend to the tea plantations the Lahu tier the hillside for paddy fields. A community of homes scattered amongst the rice and in the distance people worked bend at the hips, knee deep in water as they planted.
The path dropped down into the village beyond of perhaps a few hundred people. Some smiled and waved, others stared and some ignored us completely. A child ran out from his hut, hid behind a pillar a watched us pass. Dropping down to the valley floor a set of natural hot springs bubbled up from the earth alongside a broad, fast flowing river. Set within manicured grounds we had strolled in through the "back door". Various signposts to the spas pointing nowhere we had no idea if there were supposed to be bathing pools or not. Confused, we examined some information boards and the hot spring pool and then returned to the road and followed it home, stopping for a plate of Pad Thai before ascending the steep road up for six signposted kilometres, diverting to the waterfall once more and arrived drenched in sweat and wanting nothing more than submerse in the cool, swift stream one last time before our departure the following morning.
This week has allowed me to feel fit and healthy again; hiking, swimming and hours of yoga rejuvenated my mind and body and despite wanting to stay in these hills for the next year as we anticipated the next leg of the journey. The ride back into town was an adventure in itself. 12 people piled into the back of a pickup truck clinging to the roof rack as we followed the same steep winding road to town. Back in Chiang Rai we set our plans into motion for transport from northern Thailand through Laos en route to Vietnam in hopes of reaching the northwest corner of VIetnam; to Sapa by a week Saturday for the weekend hill tribe market another destination suggested to us by our couch surfing host in Bangkok, Songwoot.