JUN­GLE STALK

Mark Pear­son en­joys a bam­boo bar­be­cue ban­quet on a trek in hill coun­try north of Thai­land’s Chi­ang Rai

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

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.

Check­list

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

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