Vacations & Travel - - Contents - BY DANIELLE LAN­CASTER

The ter­raced hills of north­ern Thai­land pro­duce black gold – tea leaves – as well as a host of cul­tural ac­tiv­i­ties and an in­cred­i­bly beau­ti­fully re­sort that is home to res­cued ele­phants.

Mrs Beaue plucks the ripe leaves from the ma­tur­ing tea bushes swiftly and pre­cisely. Tug­ging at her hand­made em­broi­dered jacket is her five-year-old grand­daugh­ter. She is one of many Akha women tend­ing the steep ter­raced tea fields in the hills of north­ern Thai­land.

To one side is Laos and to an­other Myan­mar in what was once the world’s premier opium-grow­ing lo­ca­tion – The Golden Tri­an­gle. To­day the fer­tile soils that once bore vi­brant blood red pop­pies to form wasted minds, pro­duce 10 types of first-class tea, in­spi­ra­tion and cul­tural di­ver­sity with food, arts and crafts.

There are seven hill tribes within Thai­land hid­den only a short dis­tance from the na­tion’s daz­zling cap­i­tal, Bangkok. For­get the beaches and re­sorts and get high in the hills as the new shades of Thai­land fas­ci­nate and charm you. Not only do food, art and cul­ture stim­u­late your senses, you are in touch with na­ture and the sim­ple yet serene way of Thai life that en­tices vis­i­tors like my­self, drawn to holis­tic travel ad­ven­tures such as this.

Back to the duty of pick­ing tea, as it is an im­por­tant one. Mrs Beaue and I can’t un­der­stand a word we say to each other, but I quickly learn which are good leaves and which are not. Her bas­kets, tied and bal­anced pre­cisely on her back, slowly fill with thou­sands of tiny tea leaves. Each bas­ket can hold six kilo­grams of tea and it’s im­por­tant she fill it as her pay de­pends on how much she can pick. Her sil­ver head­dress of baubles and beads silently glis­tens even un­der the over­cast sky.

The jour­ney to the plan­ta­tion, 1367 me­tres above sea level on Mae Sa­long Moun­tain, was not with­out its own ad­ven­ture. The road hugs the hills through vil­lages and is of­ten one way. There is no road rage how­ever, as ev­ery­one hap­pily gives way. My prayers of no on­com­ing traf­fic are ap­par­ently un­war­ranted. Chil­dren wave as we pass by, amused

it seems with the vis­i­tors to their hill home. All around, hills dip and rise, most cov­ered in more neatly tiered rows of tea.

After re­turn­ing from tea pick­ing, we stop in the vil­lage. A swirling com­bi­na­tion of aro­mas of lunches be­ing cooked on wooden fires drifts across the fields and our grum­bling stom­achs make us choose a lo­cal café where we in­dulge in a va­ri­ety of authen­tic Akha dishes. Savoury soups, stir-fried veg­eta­bles, chicken, eggs and an ar­ray of dishes soon pla­cate our ap­petites.

Fog hangs far off in the hills early the next morn­ing sig­nalling a good day ahead to un­cover more Thai de­lights. A short road trip via an E-Tuk, a lo­cally made ve­hi­cle, takes us to Jin­naluck where we join the lo­cals mak­ing our own sou­venir piece of Saa pa­per from mul­berry leaves. Mine is dec­o­rated with flow­ers and pa­per but­ter­flies. Lunch is clas­sic north­ern style food at Hern Auy Kham restau­rant.

Heaven in the hills

I pinch my­self as we drive into our ac­com­mo­da­tion for the next two nights, Anan­tara Golden Tri­an­gle Ele­phant Camp and Re­sort, as it is even bet­ter in re­al­ity than it looks on­line. Once checked in, I can see ele­phants from my se­cluded deck.

I count one, two, three and soon am up to six. Anan­tara Golden Tri­an­gle Ele­phant Camp and Re­sort, nes­tled in­side the green hills of the Golden Tri­an­gle, is a great base from which to ex­plore the re­gion and learn more about these gi­ants of terra firma.

The ele­phants beckon. They are on their own time frame for their walk and forage and won’t wait for us mere hu­mans. The slow walk along­side these mighty beasts as their leath­ery feet gen­tly tread on and off the well-worn path af­fords each of us a lit­tle spe­cial time with the mas­sive beau­ties.

Join­ing us on our walk is Plum, a 19-year-old ele­phant and Beau, now in her 30s. In to­tal, 22 ele­phants roam the grounds and our guides tell us many in­ter­est­ing facts: they have 40,000 mus­cles in their trunk, can see down the cen­tre of their trunk, and they don’t like per­fume.

Each of the dames has been res­cued from street work and now live with their per­sonal ma­houts at Anan­tara. It is easy to tell them apart: Beau has a hole in her left ear.

After a nat­u­ral high with the ele­phants it’s time for a mas­sage and more tea, be­fore ex­pe­ri­enc­ing fur­ther lo­cal of­fer­ings. Door after door opens to new sights, tastes, and lo­cal en­coun­ters.

We visit and learn to weave in a Ban Hat Ban Hat Bae Thai Lue vil­lage and make can­dles. We shop at the lo­cal mar­kets quickly learn­ing the eti­quette of bar­gain­ing, dis­cover the se­crets of Thai cook­ing and in­dulge in its boun­ties, dine at restau­rants along the mighty Mekong River and sip much, much more di­vine tea.

As I sip it, I won­der if was picked by the lovely Mrs Beaue. •

Open­ing im­age: High in the hills, Mrs Beaue picks tea with her grand­daugh­ter. The hills, once filled with pop­pies, now yield lus­cious tea. Right, from top: Be­hind each door we dis­cover the de­lights of north­ern Thai­land — from food to art, to cul­ture and crafts;Up close and per­sonal with the ele­phants at Anan­tara GoldenTri­an­gle Ele­phant Camp and Re­sort.

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