Bhurr Beaue swiftly and precisely plucks the ripe leaves from the maturing tea bushes. Tugging at her hand-made embroidered jacket is her five-year-old granddaughter. Beaue 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 ten 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. 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 kg of tea and it’s important she fill it as her pay depends on the kilos 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.
Returning from tea picking we stop in the village. A combination of aromas of lunches being cooked on wooden fires drifting 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 – Ananatara 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, prepares a great base 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 such as they have 40,000 muscles in their trunks, 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 high with the elephants its 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 we sip much, much more divine tea.
As I sip it, I wonder if was picked by the lovely Mrs Beaue. •
Things to do
• The White Temple (Wat Rong Khun)
• The Blue Temple (Wat Rong Suea Ten)
• Clock Tower – Chang Rai
• Night markets – Chang Rai
• Dai Tung Treetop Walk and gardens
• Walking tour of Chang Rai
Tourism Authority of Thailand: tourismthailand.org