Mark Pearson enjoys a bamboo barbecue banquet on a trek in hill country north of Thailand’s Chiang Rai
IAM staying with my wife and daughter at Akha Hill House in the highlands north of Chiang Rai in northern Thailand, an hour’s flight from Bangkok and a bone-rattling ride into the hills. The chief of Doihang Apae Village, Apae Amor, last year won the Thailand Tourist Guide Award for establishing this budget ecoresort adjacent to his hill tribe settlement.
The 102 Akha people who inhabit the village are traditional nomads, their tribes spread throughout northern Thailand, Tibet and Burma. Today they live in permanent villages, dependent on income from agriculture and tourism, though they retain many of the traditional skills of their former existence.
This morning we are setting out on the Bamboo Barbecue Trek, the first adventure of our three-day stay. The narrow trail from the house rises so steeply that within a few minutes we have a picturesque view of bamboo huts clustered on the sides of the lush tropical hills. Our trekking group of eight consists of six tourists, our guide, Apa Yesaw, and his masterly assistant, Apui Lupa Mayer, who we call Mr Lupa.
The Bamboo Barbecue Trek leads through the Lam Nam Kok National Park, west of Chiang Rai. The reason for its name soon becomes apparent.
There is a strong bamboo theme to this five-hour hike from the moment Mr Lupa steps into a stand of bamboo and, with a few neat strokes of his machete, delivers to each of us a handy walking stick to help our balance. We soon need the assistance as the track leads us along the edge of steep outcrops and over fallen logs, slippery mud patches and rocky creek beds.
The first hour of steady climbing tests the mettle of even the fittest of our group, so a rest under a bamboo hut is a welcome relief. We realise almost immediately that the purpose of the stop is not to give us a break, but to allow Mr Lupa to climb into the undergrowth to source a key ingredient for our lunch.
He returns within minutes, carrying some freshly dug bamboo shoots that he and Mr Apa proceed to slice with their bush knives on to a large banana leaf, before wrapping them to carry on our journey.
A challenging creek crossing is no problem for our able hosts. They simply cut three thick stalks of bamboo from the forest and place them across the rocks to create a makeshift bridge, which we all cross safely.
By late morning, Mr Lupa has made occasional off-trail forays to collect dead, dry bamboo for firewood. When we reach a second bamboo shelter, beside another creek, Mr Apa invites us to relax while he and Mr Lupa prepare our barbecue lunch.
That’s when the bamboo theme becomes truly apparent. Once the fire is under way, three very thick trunks are trimmed for use as cooking vessels; the base of the pots is formed by the solid sections found at the joins in the bamboo stalks.
Again, the banana leaves come into play as a base for preparing the food. Our guides have carried most of the ingredients with them: the fresh vegetables and herbs grown by the now agrarian Akha people. Cabbage, tomatoes, chillies, and coriander are all chopped into the mix with the bamboo shoots, along with freshly sliced pork to add substance.
A touch of modernity surfaces as Mr Apa breaks open several packets of rice noodles and presses them into the mixture before stuffing the culinary creation into the bamboo cooking tubes, adding water from the creek and sealing the canister with crushed leaves. The three vessels are then carefully placed on the fire.
While the food is cooking, Mr Lupa sources yet more bamboo stalks, slightly narrower than those used for the cooking pots, which he carefully carves into mug-shaped containers to hold our meal. Crouching beside a rock, he then neatly whittles eight sets of bamboo chopsticks to serve as eating implements.
Our anticipation is mounting and the gourmet bamboo stew, when it is served, is no disappointment. It is a delicate blend of Asian flavours with a tinge of smoke from the fire and a hint of bamboo from, well, everything. We follow the food with a cleansing cup of bush tea, made from leaves Mr Lupa has plucked from the forest.
The return hike takes us through another hill tribe settlement — a sleepy Yao village — and offers us the chance of a welcome dip in a mountain pool under the cascading Huai Kaew waterfall, just a 10-minute walk from our village base.
By mid-afternoon, we judge it the perfect time for a hot shower and siesta in our comfortable mudbrick — and, of course, bamboo — huts.
At dusk we re-emerge to stroll to the top of the village and enjoy a cool Chang beer on the balcony of the Bamboo Bar, with the sound of the gushing waterfall in the distance and the sun setting over the tropical valley. My daughter even shows her ingenuity by using a small tube of bamboo to massage my sore back muscles after the gruelling walk. It’s the perfect end to an exhilarating and enlightening adventure.
Chiang Rai is 940km from Bangkok. Akha Hill House, 97/7 Doihang Muang, Chiang Rai, is 23km from the town, an hour’s drive. There is a free pick-up from bus station and airport. Rooms from 120baht ($4.25) for a single bed with shared facilities to 1500baht a night for a suite. More: www.akhahill.com.
For the chop: Apui Lupa Mayer, left, prepares drinking cups for the weary trekkers, right, who find the terrain tough going