We leave Tha Ton around 11am and travel east for about an hour in a small village bus called a songthaew which cost us 50 Baht each … roughly AU$2. We are heading for a small village high up in the hills of northern Thailand called Hloyo.
Leaving Tha Ton the road runs east alongside the Kok river for a while before it turns north east and starts climbing. The songthaew stops every now and then for people to hop off or on. It isn’t long before we reach the turn off to the Thai/Chinese community called Mae Salong. About ten minutes later we reach our drop-off point to Hloyo and the Akha Mud House where we will be staying. The driver offers to take us one kilometre up the very steep hill for an extra 50 Baht each. It is well worth it! None of the other passengers seem to mind the short detour.
Hloyo is situated in the infamous ‘golden triangle’, once the centre of the opium trade in this region. A very narrow road winds its way up the hillside to the top of the village. You can imagine how difficult travel would have been back in the days before sealed roads … and how easy it would have been to evade police and army patrols. Even today there are a myriad jungle trails through the hills and valleys.
One of the first things to catch our eye as we arrive is the sight of still-green broom heads placed out in the sun to dry. The making of broom heads from the narrow leaves of reeds collected along the rivers seems to be a common occupation here. In one spot a ten metre stretch of the road is largely taken up by broom heads only just leaving enough room for our songthaew to get by. Later we see people turning, rolling and shaking the raw broom heads to make sure they thoroughly dry out. (When we get to Mae Salong we see plenty of them for sale in the markets.)
Before we explore further we need to check into our room. Ten years in the making, the Mud House was built by Yohun, the young and energetic leader of this community. During the building stage he worked in the tourism industry in Chiang Rai to earn money to fund his dream. He now runs it with the assistance of his sister and his parents. His mother does an amazing job cooking the meals … amongst other things. We start taking a closer look as we are led to the room where we will be staying.
The buildings are constructed of rammed earth (a beautiful rich red brown ‘mud’ colour) and old glass bottles. Walkways, stairs and ramps are all made from bamboo. In fact they make almost anything out of bamboo, including all the bowls and dishes for food, cups for tea and the pedestals for the wash basin in the bathroom.
Two young children demonstrate their skills on bamboo stilts while we are waiting the reception area. We are also introduced to Rambo the dog who, we find out later, makes it his job to escort guests around the village.
Yohun is one of those people who is constantly on the go and his mind never stops. He spent a period studying agriculture in Israel before working in Chiang Rai. Apart from the time he devotes to serving his community he is working flat out to extend the number and type of rooms on offer. He is building a ‘chalet’ set in the jungle hundreds of metres away from the village where guests can truly enjoy the isolation in this fairly remote place. At the same time he is building some open-roofed rooms so that guests can enjoy watching the stars whilst lying in bed. I’m not sure what will happen when it rains.
After we have deposited our bags in the room we decide to explore some of the village. Yohun tells me that people here live into their eighties and nineties but many young people leave the village to work in the bigger towns and cities. I read somewhere that the Akha people migrated to this area around the beginning of the 20th Century to escape persecution in China. This village was settled about 80 years ago and Yohun is their tenth leader.
Hloyo village scenes
We buy some mountain bananas from an elderly woman. When I pay her I spot her husband sitting inside by the cooking hearth and I ask if I can take some photos. He and a few others that we saw in this area eat betel ‘nuts’ which stain their teeth and gums a dark red colour. The betel nut can be consumed dried, fresh or wrapped up in a package known as a quid. Although the exact preparation varies across countries and cultures, the quid is usually a mixture of slaked lime, a betel leaf and flavourings such as cardamom, cinnamon and tobacco. Apparently eating a betel nut is akin to drinking six cups of coffee and its long-term use can lead to oral cancer.
Almost all the villagers grow their own produce and the food we eat is cooked from the freshest ingredients you could imagine. On our first night we agree to have the traditional Akha feast which Yohun’s mother cooks for us and we are overcome with the variety of flavours of the dishes. It was wonderful.
In the morning we eat rice soup, a deliciously light broth with fragrant herbs which Julie declares is her new ‘favourite breakfast’. They also grow their own coffee at the Mud House and we thoroughly a cup or two each morning.
Our room faces the morning sun and a long, deep green valley stretching towards the distant mountain ranges which merge into the sky delineated only by the faintest blue, mauve and grey outlines. Far below us the river glints between the steep sides of the valley.
At night the bamboo walkways are lined by lights and the rooms nestle into the shadows on the hillside … all is quiet apart from the few burst of conversation and laughter from the villagers.
It gets quite cool here in so we request an extra blanket and we are quite cosy within the thick mud walls. In the summer it gets as hot as 35 degrees Centigrade, and I imagine that the mud walls keep the rooms fairly cool.
Another current project, the Akha Museum is under construction.
This is the kitchen where Yohun’s mother prepares such delightful meals.
At work in the kitchen
The jungle track which leads to the new ‘jungle chalet’ which was under construction when we were there.
Boys playing games on their mobile phones
Village recycle centre. Glass bottles are used in the construction of the Mud House.
Akha woman in traditional dress
Our next stop is Mae Salong, just twenty minutes up the road from Hloyo. We are catching another songthaew to get there and Yohun offers us a lift down to the road. As we are saying goodbye to Yohun and his family we meet James and Suzannah, fellow Australians, who are in the area. We will catch up with them later in our travels.