Homestays in northern Thailand

Homestays are springing up across northern Thailand, offering an authentic slice of Thai life. Andrew Spooner checked in with a Shan family
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The Independent Travel

There's an old traveller's saying that the best places are the hardest to reach. During the fifth hour of a gut-churning series of switchbacks, steep drops and gaping potholes, I'm hoping this little homily is true. With each twist and turn of the journey along this northern Thai road my stomach flips, my head spins and my bones judder. The driver grins maniacally as he wrestles his minivan around each corner, stopping occasionally to smash a hammer into something at the back of his vehicle.

With its ethnic diversity, plunging skyline and thick, impenetrable forests, northern Thailand has always seemed apart from the dynamic cut and thrust of Bangkok. The distinct Lisu, Akha, Shan, Karen and Hmong peoples populate this tapestry of hills and valleys - a series of ancient mountain principalities, many of which didn't become part of Thailand until the 20th century. With a soothing ambience it's easy to see why northern Thailand is becoming a fixture on most visitors' itineraries.

When I first visited the north 17 years ago, it was a tiny motorcycle that took me to the elusive spots that have now become thronged with "boutique" guesthouses. Even Chiang Mai, now home to several luxury hotels, had an air of dusty charm. And if you headed into the hills it felt like the Wild East - bullet holes peppered each and every road sign, while the Thai army often buzzed overhead in helicopters looking for heroin warlords.

These days the region is much safer, though there is still a genuine sense of adventure in completing the seven-hour journey from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son. My driver, eager to get on with his return journey, deposits me outside the cold, deserted airport on the edge of town. I'm tired, hungry, tetchy and still have another two hours' drive to my final destination, the Shan village of Muang Pon.

I sit on the kerb absorbing the smells of a nearby fried chicken stall and chat to the security guards in a mixture of broken Thai and English. After what seems an age of mangled syntax, a battered Toyota Camry swings into view. "Mr Andrew?" says an anxious-looking woman as she climbs out of car, "I am very sorry for being so late."

I'm introduced to both driver, Khun Miaow, and passenger, Ood, and we set off into the night. "Are you hungry?" asks Ood. "Would you like banana roti?" she says and hands me a warm, sweet-smelling wrapper. I quickly forget how tired I am as I devour the first of three rotis, each filled with butter-fried, condensed milk-smothered bananas. It's perfect comfort food.

Both Ood and Khun Miaow are ethnic Shan. They run the Muang Pon homestay project where I'll be spending the next few days. Homestays are springing up all over northern Thailand, a welcome relief from the alienated world of hotel chains and backpacker lairs. Rather than traipsing through the remote communities of the north on hackneyed "hilltribe" treks, tourists are now offered a chance by several villages to have a genuine encounter with their culture.

I'm staying in Ood's engagingly ramshackle wooden house, on the edge of the village, just opposite the school where she works as a teacher. For those with notions of colourful tribal people living at one with nature, the Shan is going to be a disappointment. The villagers of Muang Pon, with their satellite TVs, Toyota and Nokia, are a modern bunch. But they are still distinctly Shan, with a different language (most speak perfect Thai), cuisine and history.

"We came to Thailand from Burma 200 years ago," says Ood. To the north of Thailand sits what is now known as the Shan State - an autonomous region of Burma, with its own flag, national anthem and government. Known in Thailand as the Tai Yai (the Great Thai), records show that Shan history stretches back 2,000 years.

With my body aching after my long journey, Ood's suggestion for my first day is masterly. "Would you like to go to the hot springs?" she asks. We jump on a pair of clunky 125cc Honda motorcycles for the half-hour journey to the Karen village and the location of the springs. The road winds through thick, verdant forest, skirting along a swirling river, and reveals something of the ethnic diversity that peppers this part of Thailand. We cross a bridge and arrive at a series of huge, steaming concrete tubs of sulphurous water.

Just by the wide river that marked our route, the hot springs turn into a stream. At the confluence, where refreshing cool meets searing heat, is the bathing spot. With a backdrop of green woodlands and azure skies, the setting is almost perfect. The gentle pulse of running hot water soon soothes away the last knots in my muscles, easing my mind into a semi-comatose state. Rousing myself for the trip back to Muang Pon is tough.

Later that afternoon, I take a stroll around the village, discovering a bakery, some noodle stalls and a couple of small shops. The Shan houses are built almost entirely from dark wood, propped up on stilts with long, sloping roofs. Chickens, children and the occasional scrawny mutt mingle with rows of bright flowers.

Dinner at Khun Miaow's is a giant river fish steamed in ginger and chilli, with sweet, sticky rice on the side. Delicious. "Do you like your homestay?" asks Khun Miaow, as I devour my meal. I nod emphatically, and ask how long the programme has been set up. "We started a year ago. Lots of people come. Now we have six houses and room for 40 people. All the money we make stays in the village."

The next few days are spent touring waterfalls, flower-filled valleys and noble temples. I enjoy the captivating rhythms of village life and the generosity, kindness and humour of Ood, her family and Khun Miaow. On my final day everyone gathers as I board the minibus to Chiang Mai.

I have another long drive back to Chiang Mai but I'm not bothered. Muang Pon is certainly hard to reach but it is, without doubt, an authentic slice of northern Thailand. It is worth every bump, judder, stomach flip and head spin.

Andrew Spooner travelled to Chiang Mai with Travelmood and the Tourist Authority of Thailand (0870 900 2007; thaismile.co.uk). Travelmood (08700 664 556; travelmood.com) offers return flights to Chiang Mai from £473. A night at the Muang Pon Homestay (00 66 53 684644; kunlaya_mall@hotmail. com) is 500 baht (£7) half-board. Andrew Spooner is the co-author of Footprint Guides 'Thailand'

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