“I’m cooking,” my friend Julia declares and tries to cool herself with a self-made banana leaf fan. “You are boiling, not cooking,” Jatoo, our guide, corrects her. His English is not only excellent, he is also a very brave man; I wouldn’t have quibbled with her over semantics in the state we are all in. We are well into the third day of hiking in the mountains outside of Chiang Mai and after two hours of walking in the brutal heat and with only little warm water bottle left, none of us is in a particularly good mood. Mind you, as it goes when stepping outside of your comfort zone, temporary grumpiness can be a side effect and it seems that Jatoo knows that all too well and, therefore, doesn’t take our moping too serious. He takes it a step further and asks Julia for a cigarette, walking on towards the Lahu village, our final walking destination for the day.

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It all started back on a cold Hamburg winter’s day when Julia and I were planning our pending Thailand trip and decided it was high time we did some hiking together. If you know us at all, you know that we are not ones for roughing it thoroughly, but rather walk and play. Now, this meant that we wanted at least a cold shower and a warm beer at the end of the day. So we decided on Asian Oasis, who offer trips to community-based lodges around Chiang Mai while putting an emphasis on sustainable and responsible tourism. All that with a perfect mix of stunning accommodation, trekking, and cultural activities. Also, the word ‘massage’ repeatedly in the itinerary weighed in their favor.

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After a small episode of food poisoning and summer’s heat wave we are both anxious to get out of Chiang Mai and while a bit apprehensive for our first day of hiking, fresh mountain air sounds too tempting. Unfortunately a lot of the hilly, usually green surroundings of Chiang Mai are on fire and there is a cloak of smoke hanging over everything. No fresh mountain air for us, but once we arrive at Lisu Lodge we are at least rewarded with a peaceful serenity. So much, in fact, that after a glass of cold lemon grass tea, we don’t want to leave. We meet Dolores and Camilla, a mother and daughter from Argentina, who will be our hiking buddies for the next couple of days. All four of us sigh in relieve as we admit that none of us is particularly fit and that we don’t mind taking ample breaks. We pinky swear on it and set off.

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Before we start, Jatoo hands us each a bamboo cane, a woven picnic basket filled with goodies, and a water bottle. Recycling at Lisu is paramount and while the bottle can be refilled, the picnic baskets are filled with banana leave parcels whose packing materials can be dumped anywhere for natural recycling.

Once we get out of the car we have the first problem ahead of us: a very steep hill. We wonder if this was the easy part that Jatoo mentioned we would start with. We huff and puff our way up, already grateful for our canes and for the fact that the road, while less traveled, flattens quickly. As if to motivate us further the first forest encounter we have is some grazing elephants, which makes me extra happy has I had to skip our planned trip to the Elephant Sanctuary due to the food poisoning.

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After an hour, I’m not so happy anymore as we walk uphill all the way and I come to the painful realization that I’m not as fit as I thought I was. With a lot of pauses and patience from our little group, I make it to our lunch stop. I slump down and promise the mountain spirits to renew my gym membership if I survive the weekend. They don’t seem to care and as Jatoo explains to us later, you really need to be careful not to pee on the head of an invisible spirit when in the forest. Always ask him/her to kindly move out of the way. A small token compared to sacrificing a chicken or even a pig after angering the spirits, the established way to mollify them with the help of a shaman.

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Lunch is a silent affair and after climbing a few more quick peaks we are happy for an official nap stop at Pha Daeng, a Red Lahu village. We are kindly invited into one of the houses, offered a hose to wash, and some woven mats to lie down on. There is no Thai spoken here, but even without our fallback words of hello and thank you, we get by just fine. Kids giggle at us and we giggle back, roosters crow, and our host doesn’t seem to mind those dirty and exhausted foreigners that crashed on her floor and seem unable to move a limb.

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With the promise of only a few uphill battles to come, a cold coke at the other side, and somewhat rested we start our home stretch and that one is a real beauty. Except for a nasty fall onto my thigh when I get too eager to cool myself off in a little stream, we manage without further ado and arrive at Lahu Outpost an hour later. Despite the obvious differences in flora and architecture, I feel immediately like I have been dropped into an episode of Little House on the Prairie. Luckily though, I am no Laura Ingalls and am allowed into the house, even in my grim disposition: I am dirty, sticky, and very thirsty. Once settled in, I am incredibly grateful for a hot (!) shower and I dare not complain when I’m getting a cold Chang handed to me (I’m a Singha girl at heart…).

Jatoo, a man of many more talents, busies himself in the kitchen and serves a dinner feast with not only typical northern Thai dishes, but to our delight homemade French fries. After dinner, we are having a lesson in Thai history, etiquette, and royal family gossip before we are off to bed to get an early night.

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The next morning awaits with a magnificent sunrise over the mountains, eggs, and the prospect of hiking only downhills today. Little do I know that this will be worse and I am about to add a blue toe to my collection of scrapes and bruises, which will stay with me for weeks to come.

We start by walking through the village of the Akha tribe, follow streams and rocky paths down the mountain and admire the locals who we come across – they are walking up the steep hills without any shortness of breath but with a child and/or fire food. And while the scenery is yet again stunning, I suffer in not so silent agony once I stub my toe and am not sad once we arrive at the rafting station. Now my arms are called to action and my toe is bathed in cold water while we make our way down the river. It is a bit too tame for my liking due to low water levels but a pleasant alternative mode of transport.

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We finish the afternoon very English, with tea. But before we get to enjoy iced and hot tea with rice crispy treats, we must earn our keep and learn how to pick tea. The most difficult part is easily to throw the little leaves into a pannier and not on the ground and as I have generally bad aim, I decide that I have no future in the tea trade except as a customer.

I also have a future as massage connoisseur and the best part of my day begins when we are back at Lisu Lodge for the night and for outdoors Thai massages. Julia and I have learned the all important phrases – nàk-nàk (harder) for her, boo-boo (softer) for me – just for this occasion and we are in heaven when our lovely Lisu women understand us.

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The night is only interrupted by some stray dogs and roosters crowing (whoever said roosters only crow in the morning was lying, they crow all night long if they want to) and the next morning we make our way through the vegetable garden for some tree planting. Reforestation is a big project at Lisu and we plant seeds of different indigenous trees to grow in their own nursery before we leave for our final destination, the Khum Lanna Lodge.

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For our hike through the bamboo forest I switch to Birkenstocks to spare my toe, but while the hike is mostly flat, we are suffering in the heat and I once again make pinky swears with myself to visit the gym more often as soon as I get home.

We get rewarded with homemade tea out of a bamboo cup in the house of a Lahu woman. Communication is difficult, but she has a grandmotherly way to her, feeding us bananas and more tea while poking fun at Jatoo and giggling. When we leave I try to thank her for the hospitality and she grabs my hands and smiles at me, it feels like a blessing. We share a moment, no language barrier in sight.

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At Khum Lanna, easily the most comfortable of the lodges, we attend our first Thai cooking class and while I would usually complain about having everything cut and ready to stir, I am so tired I don’t complain. We are in charge of our own dinner before we are being treated to another massage, this time with hot herbal compresses which are welcome as I am now chilly, something I wouldn’t have thought possible a few hours earlier.

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I don’t know how but I manage to get up before sunrise the next day for our final activity: cycling and market visits. The road is dark, misty, and quite eery, but the market is already in full swing when we arrive. Bargaining over pig’s feet, ants’ eggs, and my preferred breakfast of sticky rice is going on and the locals don’t seem to mind our curious faces and cameras. If anything they seem slightly amused that we find their wares picture worthy.

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We take our banana leaf parcels with sticky rice to the next market where we have it with coffee roadside style before we shop for curry paste and temple offerings. Today that is bread for the temple’s very own catfish pond. Our offer doesn’t seem to be accepted if the fish are any indication – they just stare at us stupidly while the breadcrumbs hit their faces.

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A final cycle now through the sunlight lit fields, a final lunch, and we are back on the songtaew which is taking us to the airport. We sit quietly, each in our own thoughts. After four days and many hours on my feet, my mind is finally still. Sometimes all it takes is not to pee on a spirit’s head and a blue toe to find serenity and to empty your head completely.

Asian Oasis – thank you for having me! A special thank you to our wonderful guide, Jatoo, for enduring our whining and for getting us save up and down the mountain (I would have left us there!).

All images by Annika, Julia, and Dolores.

This post was written by Annika Ziehen who was a Travelette until 2019. Originally from Germany, Annika has lived in New York and Cape Town and now travels the world full time. She considers herself a very hungry mermaid and writes about her adventures, scuba diving and food on her blog The Midnight Blue Elephant. You can also find her on Instagram here!