Living with the Lahu: Lime Leaf Eco Lodge, Thailand
THE story goes that when British TV adventurer Bruce Parry arrived replete with a BBC camera crew to the village of Doi Modt north of Chiang Mai, Thailand, the first thing on his mind was a sampling of the local delicacy. The Black Lahu hill-tribe, who migrated from China to northern Thailand two centuries ago, have feasted on the hand-sized blue tarantula since first setting up home in these mountains, but on that day, their appetites were lacking.
In stepped Winai, who co-runs a homestay and eco-lodge perched on a steep hillside above Doi Modt. He admits to being reluctant, and the bungling camera crew required 17 takes before finally landing on a satisfactory sequence of Parry and Winai eating the enormous spiders. Winai explained in his typically charismatic manner as we recouped our breath after a gruelling climb through the clouds to the Limeleaf eco-lodge that it was the first time he had tried the creatures – after 17 spiders, he wasn’t in a rush to return to them.
We were spared the ordeal; instead, chef Chris Richards-Jones, who has partnered with Winai in the venture, offered up a suckling pig marinated in Thai herbs that we watched, sitting mouths agape on a deck that juts out over the mountainside, sizzling over a fire for six hours. Around a kilometre below us in three villages running along the floor of the valley the Black Lahu were preparing for Chinese New Year, and pigs in their dozens were being primed for a feast.
Part of the ethos of the lodge – beyond its ‘eco’ bent – is to utilise and learn from the Black Lahu, whom one sees breezing up mountainsides on which the less able would fear to tread. Villagers charge customers to carry up enough buckets of ice and food to last the duration of the stay at Limeleaf, thus providing a source of revenue in an area where infrastructural development was long neglected by the Thai government.
Until nine years ago, this valley was the also the final bastion of legal opium growing in the Kingdom, and as ever, substitute farming has been problematic and slow to take root. Chris and Winai urge visitors – some of whom pass through for only a night, others who use it as a retreat to write and soak up the dramatic landscape – to learn about their neighbours: treks have an educational component and are offered on the periphery of a region where the industry has drawn criticism for its crowding of mountains and exploitation of once-isolated ethnic minorities – their trips, Winai says, are done sporadically, and on a small scale so as to minimise damage to the landscape and its inhabitants.
The steep mountainsides that encircle Limeleaf are draped in thick forest, interspersed with crop fields and tiny villages. Closer to Chiang Mai and you’re bound to bump into another crowd of backpackers traipsing the hills, but here the sense of serenity that envelops the lodge stretches out into the surrounding landscape. Chris says that in the right season, visitors will bask on the deck above a thick blanket of cloud that only the tallest peaks can puncture. Ultimately, the nature of the stay remains largely up to the customer, and if requested Winai or Chris can drive the hour back to Chiang Mai, an offer that negates the stress of planning how to exit this hidden valley.
Article by Francis Wade
For more information on Limeleaf eco-lodge, visit their website – http://www.limeleaf-thailand.com – or call Winai Somwong on +66 (0) 844060947.