Bamboo Nest de Chiang Rai

Another Bamboo Nest Chalet

While we were passing through the hills north of Chiang Rai on our boat ride south from Tha Ton we enjoyed the scenery so much that we started looking for a quiet place to stay for a while before we cross the border into Laos. We found a small place in the hills that looked just the job. We couldn’t find out much about it on the Internet but the few reviews we found were all very positive. I phoned and left a message and it wasn’t long before Nok phoned me back and we were booked in. Nok told us where and when to meet her at the ‘old bus station’.

So here we are, mango smoothy in hand, waiting for Nok at 4pm at Bay No. 1 at the bus station. She arrives just after four but we have to wait a while for everyone else to arrive. There are seven of us plus Nok to fit into and onto a dual cab Ute. Three of us try and fit into the back with all the luggage but it is quickly apparent that this won’t work, especially as we expect some of the roads we will be travelling on to be fairly rough. After we voice our concerns Nok trots off and organises a songthaew for us and we get underway. After a while we are driving alongside the Kok River and we start recognising places that we passed in the boat a few days ago.

Travelling with us in the songthaew is Michael from Toronto, Canada. After a few stops for Nok to buy some supplies we cross the Kok River and drive past the national park headquarters and the hot springs which we visited on our way down the river. Then we start heading up into the hills which get steeper and steeper. The songthaew struggles to reach a small village where the driver announces that he can’t go any further and we have to walk the last 500 metres. We climb out and quickly see why. The last section up to the Bamboo Nest requires low range in a four wheel drive and it sure has us puffing! The country is fantastic and we stop to enjoy the view and catch our breath at the same time. Our bags travel in style in the back of the Ute.

We are quickly checked in and briefed on the honour system for drinks and snacks and the serving hours for breakfast and dinner. We take a short stroll down to our bamboo chalet and check it out. Wonderful! A verandah with a bench and a hammock and we can lie on the bed and catch part of the view across to the mountain rice paddies and the green hills beyond. Almost all of the chalet is constructed out of bamboo including the hammock. The floor of the bathroom is concrete and the roof is thatched with palm tree leaves, but that’s about it. A mosquito net hangs over the huge bed and there is a low bench where we place our backpacks. Two bamboo-shuttered windows frame views of the hills and the banana plants. Otherwise the room is free of clutter.

At dinner we meet Michael’s wife Tracey as well as Margrit from Holland, Sue from England, and Luc from Belgium. We are all of a similar age and it is fun catching up on everyones travel stories. Luc has been traveling extensively for several decades and has visited many countries in every continent. Sue and Margrit both lived in Kenya for a while and that’s where they first met. We enjoy chatting about the places we all know there. We also enjoy the small fireworks display from the village below where they are celebrating Chinese New Year.

The next day we decide to relax and catch up on our reading plus some writing for the blog. We have brought our coffee plunger and a supply of ground coffee and there is plenty of hot water available so we are set. Luc visits the village and the rest of the mob walk up to the waterfall. It is so peaceful sitting on the verandah and we manage to get quite a bit done. After a while Luc gets back from the village where he has been plied with Beer Lao and offered two women as prospective wives. He soon trots off to his chalet to sleep it off. We enjoy a light lunch and the others get back a little later. During the afternoon we have a brief nap down in our chalet. We leave the doors and windows open to let the breeze waft through.

In the early evening we stroll back up to the dining area. After the hustle and bustle of Chiang Rai the contrast of this sleepy hill village with its far flung vistas is a wonderful change of pace. We stand on the patio which looks out over the chalets to the rice paddies in the valley and the hills beyond and breath deeply. The gardens are rich with tropical flowers, banana plants and there is a fireplace on a bamboo platform off to one side.

That evening another couple, Bill and Paula, arrive after traveling cross country from Chiang Mai. They are from England and Paula is another amateur photographer so we have a couple of sessions chatting about photography.

The days begin to blur into each other. We spend time reading and writing with afternoon naps when we feel like it.  I am up early in the morning taking photos of the mist-filled valleys. We get some exercise walking back down to the village in the morning and in the evening to take photographs. We are greeted as we pass through the village and the kids often stop to look at my beard. The odd firecracker goes off but otherwise it is pretty quiet.

We are having such a relaxed time we decide to stay a fourth night and our decision comes with an added bonus. In the evening we are treated to a demonstration of how to cook sticky rice in bamboo. Lengths of green bamboo are cut just below one joint and then a couple of feet above to create a long thin receptacle into which water and rice are placed. The open end is sealed with green leaves and then several such bamboo sticks are stood in the burning fire. The bamboo doesn’t burn because it is so green but the rice inside cooks pretty quickly.

Once the rice is cooked the tough outer layer of the bamboo sticks is removed with a sharp knife so that the remaining bamboo can be easily split and peeled back to reveal the sticky rice. It tastes great and there is plenty of other food to go with it.

We could so easily stay a little longer but we both know that we have some other great places to visit in Laos which is where we are headed next.

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Hloyo, an Akha Village in Northern Thailand

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Akha Mud-House

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.

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Hloyo, an Akha Village

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.

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Akha Mud-House construction

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.

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Bamboo Construction at Akha Mud-House

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.

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Bamboo Stilt Walking is second nature

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.

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Our room at the Akha Mud-House

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.

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Strolling around with Rambo the one-eared dog

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.

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Old Akha Man in Hloyo

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Kitchen hearth in Hloyo

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.

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Akha Banquet at Akha Mud-House

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.

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Drying coffee beans in Hloyo

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.

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Sunrise at Akha Mud-House

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.

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Akha Mud-House at dusk

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.

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Museum (WIP) at the Akha Mud-House

This is the kitchen where Yohun’s mother prepares such delightful meals.

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Kitchen at Akha Mud-House

At work in the kitchen

The jungle track which leads to the new ‘jungle chalet’ which was under construction when we were there.

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Jungle track leading from Hloyo

Boys playing games on their mobile phones

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Boys playing on their phones in Hloyo Village

Village recycle centre. Glass bottles are used in the construction of the Mud House.

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Recycling Centre

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.