What to do on the last full weekend in Chiang Mai, Thailand? Get outta town. As much as I LOVE Chiang Mai, I was aching to get out into the countryside for some therapeutic nature time and do what the Japanese call Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. So that is what five of my TMC classmates and I did. Kana (from Tokyo), Clara (from Skye), Irena (heading back to Romania soon), Oleksii (Ukrainian/Russian) and I got outta town. And what an adventure we had!
I saw a poster at Bird’s Nest Cafe for Lime Leaf Eco Lodge and so I googled them. It looked perfect. Their site emphasized their sustainable practices, with a focus on environmental and community based initiatives, organic farming, and a laid back atmosphere. They offer low key, simple accommodation situated close to Chiang Mai. Lime Leaf is perched high above a valley, on the fringe of a temperate, virgin forest at 1100 meters above sea level in Khun Chae National Park. There is solar power (for limited lighting, charging cameras, phones etc.), a steam tent, a spring-fed plunge pool, billiard table (that’s right!), a swimmable waterfall close by, fresh mountain spring water, wood fire cooking, delicious home cooked food and a fantastic view overlooking 3 mountain ranges and a terraced hillside farmed by the Black Lahu (Mhuser) hill tribe. They arrange guided hikes, cooking classes, overnight camping and more.
Our adventure began Saturday morning with a 7:15 am breakfast at the Blue Diamond and a walk to Chang Puak Bus Station. Kana was meeting us separately at Chang Puak and almost missed us as she initially headed by taxi to the wrong bus station. With open arms, big smiles, hugs and much laughter (as we often do in Kana’s sweet presence) we greeted her at the bus station just in time. Here we caught a yellow taxi that took us to the Nam Lon hot springs. We’d arranged to have Winai, the husband of Noi and owners of Lime Leaf, pick us up to take us to the Eco Lodge.
Some of us rode in the truck cab and the rest of us gleefully rode in the back of the pick up to the point at which Winai stopped where the road ended and the path began that would take us to Lime Leaf. Winai told us to begin walking up the path as he unloaded some food and supplies into the basket on the front of his motorcycle that he would ride to Lime Leaf. We picked up our gear and began to walk unaware of the climb we had ahead of us. As Winai passed us on his motorcycle he exclaimed, “see you up there!” Even though we didn’t know him yet, we could have sworn that he had a mischievous smile on his face and that his laugh sounded a bit devious. We soon all agreed that our impression was true and he could have added the word “suckers!” to the end of his sentence and it would have been entirely appropriate. We were on a 1 km path that went straight up the hill to Lime Leaf. We were exhausted after only a few minutes and this was only the beginning to our trekking adventure.
At the top of the hill was a Lanna Muay Thai Boxing ring and training area guarded by a hoard of dogs. At Lime Leaf we settled in after a tour by Noi who showed us our accommodation. The woman had a large hut that could sleep four to five people complete with a balcony, kitchen area, and a fire platform. The huts were made of wood and bamboo, yet Noi encouraged us to build a (small) fire that night on top of the earth filled wooden box on the balcony. The women unpacked in their hut while Oleksii and I walked to our hut just down the hill. As we were unpacking I heard what I thought must have been seed pods falling from the trees onto our roof. I was wrong, it was the mischievous Irena shooting rocks from one of two sling shots that came supplied with a bowl full of rock ammunition.
Lime Leaf is built into the hillside with steep earthen steps and pathways connecting the main lodge to the huts, gardens, steam hut, and plunge pool. Their handyman/grounds keeper was a kind, comical man who was constantly playing music, singing along, and talking to himself as he worked. Irena could understand some of what he said, such as when he asked us in Thai if we thought he was a good DJ! That comment had us in stitches. He prepared the steam hut by building the fire and filling the steam pot with water and fresh herbs as we were playing billiards up the hillside near the lodge. Noi called it a mountain billiards table which we figured out meant it was totally uneven and in some cases so much so, that if you didn’t hit the ball hard enough you could watch it approach a pocket and then roll away from it in the opposite direction. How they ever got this behemoth of a billiards table up the hillside is beyond me. Between the “mountain” challenges of the table and our skill level as players it took us the better part of the early afternoon to play a few games. We had so much fun I am sure our laughter could be heard by the villagers across the valley.
Once the steam hut was ready, all five of us jumped in to the sweet smell of local Thai herbs in the small, steamy hut. We each took turns twirling Irena’s towel like a fan in front of the steam vent circulating the hot, steamy air to maximize the herbal benefits. We spent hours going in and out, plunging into the spring fed cool pool. Our handyman kept coming back from his gardening work to stoke the fire for us and asking, “my friends. OK?” I am sure he wondered how we could spend so much time in there and if we were cooking ourselves to death.
Until dinner we hung out on the lodge’s balcony overlooking the valley using binoculars to watch out over the landscape and chat with each other about our good fortune to be in the country breathing sweet fragrant air looking out over a sea of green.
Dinner was served around 7:45pm to the ten travellers staying at the lodge. Noi and her daughter (who has two young children) had prepared a feast of fantastic food. Chicken or vegetarian soup, rice, spiced pumpkin, a vegetarian fry, chicken vegetable curry, another vegetable dish and freshly picked, sweet, juicy papaya from their tree. It began to rain during dinner and continued all night. That didn’t stop us from having a fire though.
Clara’s skills at starting fires in damp Scottish conditions on the Isle of Skye came in handy on this cool, rainy evening. Within minutes she had a roaring, but appropriately small, fire going on the balcony.
That night as I began to fade into sleep at the sound of the rain, I had a profound sense of being perched on the side of the hill. The energy of the landscape here was such a contrast to the feel of flat, wide open spaces of the Prairie landscape I live in. I could feel the ground sloping away under me despite the fact that our hut was built level, supported on stilts. I slept soundly and awoke early morning to bird sounds and a misty view over the awakening valley.
Clara made coffee in the morning at the women’s hut despite not finding all the coffee tools necessary, making do with what she found. Later, our caretaker came by to show us where everything else was, but by then Clara and Irena had McGyvered a strong brew of coffee.
After a full breakfast at the main lodge we began our trek through the hills with our thoughtful, friendly, and extremely adept Lahu guide Jhamho. Jhamho means “monkey” and after only a short time with him, we agreed his name was appropriate. He could climb and navigate any trail, or path, clearing brush, cutting each of us walking sticks (two for Kana), and spying a stray sugar cane left in the fields, he cut it up for us to chew on along the way. Spitting out the cane pulp became a great source of amusement. He carved flutes and whistles out of bamboo and some of us spent the rest of the trek trying our best to make some sort of coherent sound come from them. Jhamho on the other hand just put them to his lips and played away. Irena and I began to call him Thai Tarzan, king of the jungle. She was determined she’d found her husband in such a talented man until she found out he was married and had a child.
Kana only brought one pair of shoes and they would have been perfect for strutting the runway in a Tokyo Fashion Show, but were not so great for trekking through the jungle. Jhampho cut steps into the soil on steep declines just in front of Kana so she could traverse down and Oleksii carried her on his back over streams that the rest of us walked through or hopped on rocks and logs to get over. We began to call her Princess Kana. With a little help from her friends Kana went valiantly on and completed the whole 6 and a half hour trek in her high heeled black wedge shoes.
We passed through a Lahu village and had tea at a woman’s home where some of us bought a few items made in the village. We passed traditional wood and bamboo Lahu homes walking around roaming pigs, chickens, roosters and dogs until we became engulfed in jungle again. We walked by land covered in terraced rows of vegetables, while other areas were shaded by black material under which grew rows and rows of ferns. The ferns produce a flower that no one could describe to us but was a big money maker. We joked it might be Opium, once the main crop in this area, but now replaced by flowers, vegetables, and strawberries. We stopped mid day at a cool running stream where we swam and came up with creative yoga poses to do on the rocks in the middle of the stream. While we were having our fun, Jhampo and another guide were building a fire, and making vessels and utensils to cook our lunch of sticky rice, vegetable noodles, mackerel, roasted child paste, and fresh ripe papaya. We sat on a mat of banana leaves cut from the jungle and marvelled at the skills and generosity of our guides. They had been carrying all the provisions for our lunch in a back pack. Water for tea was boiled inside a long piece of bamboo stuck in the fire. We drank the tea from bamboo cups with the bottom end sharpened so we could stick it into the uneven ground while eating. Once we were done Jhamho used a machete to carve each of us a larger bamboo mug and even the bottom of our tea vessels to take home with us.
Exhausted and nearing the end of daylight we once again walked up the steep hillside to Lime Leaf only to pack and walk back down. Noi was taking us and two German travellers back to Chiang Mai in the pickup. Four of us rode in the back of the truck all the way to Chiang Mai which only took an hour and a half.
Two days at Lime Leaf felt like a week, which is the amount of time we wished we could have stayed here. Away from the hustle of the city, the five of us could feel our minds and bodies unwind. The setting was so stunningly beautiful and the people so kind, our weekend of laughter and play was pure joy for us all.
Lime Leaf is now partnering with Arun Thai which makes hand-made massage, spa and body care products – 100% natural, fair trade, sustainable and not tested on animals. They take first-class Thai ingredients and centuries-old herbal traditions and interpret them in a contemporary way for retail, export and wholesale world-wide. When at Lime Leaf I saw bags of black and white tumeric which is part of an organic farming pilot project. The owners of Lime Leaf are also friends with Yao of Bird’s Nest Cafe who supports organic food production, cycling, and pretty much anything environmental and community based in Chiang Mai. I am beginning to get a sense of the vital, creative, and active network of people and businesses supporting each other for positive environmental, artistic, and community based living in and around Chiang Mai. I’ll be back.