Soft Adventure In Northern Thailand

Learning to cook Thai food

Soft Adventure In Northern Thailand: Khum Lanna

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I’m writing this piece in the sticks in Ireland – surrounded by fields, without a wifi connection and bloody miles from the nearest shop. In some ways it reminds me of Lisu Lodge where we spent the first night on our three day/two night Lisu Lodge and Khum Lanna Soft Adventure tour. The big difference between here and there – apart from the temperature and number of massages on offer – is at the lodge we had transport.


Our options covered inflatable rafts, beasts of burden and, first up, bikes. Deirdre and I are familiar with cycling. Aside from walking it is one of the few activities we regularly do on our travels and consequently are confident in what we can and can’t do on two wheels. Downhill or on the flat, on simple bikes and able to travel at our own pace we are content. Uphill and in a group with younger, fitter people, we start to struggle.

Murat, a quarter of the two French couples that made up our small group, was also assured as to his limits and had already bagged a place in the back of the truck that would go on ahead with the luggage. Not wanting to keep everyone back, Deirdre joined him when confounded by the gears on the mountain bike. My relationship with self-propulsion lasted until tested by the first serious stretch of uphill.

Far from feeling like failures the three self-confident passengers looked on at the suckers struggling up the (not that) steep hill, kicked back and rode on to the elephants that were next up to take our slack.


Elephant Trekking and White Water Rafting

We had been a little unsure about elephant trekking, especially as we were soon to be volunteering to work with these wonderful creatures. While confident in Asian Oasis’s credentials as an ethical business that wouldn’t have put the activity into the itinerary if they had concerns with the elephant camp, we were also aware that there are counter arguments against using elephants in this form of tourism.

Asian Oasis have since been persuaded of the case against elephant trekking as an ethical form of tourism and have recently dropped the option from their tours. In the end we took the elephant ride. Having done so once, and now ourselves better aware of the argument against, we will never do so again but at the time the lure proved too much and it would be disingenuous to claim we didn’t enjoy ourselves in our first interaction with these creatures.

The next time we were around elephants we fed them by hand, but only after putting in a fair amount of sticky effort in the Thai sun preparing their food with an outsized pestle and mortar. This was just as rewarding, and perhaps more so.

The camp is situated by a river. We had already enjoyed a worryingly good look at it from the elephant’s back when our jumbo spotted something shiny – or, more likely, edible – in the foliage over the edge of the dirt track, down from which the ground dropped steeply away towards the water. Our mount showed a not brief enough inclination in investigating its new found interest before it was persuaded not to try tumbling down the slope with us clinging on for dear life.

Elephant riding is no longer part of this tour

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Unable to swim, and claiming she can’t float even with a life jacket, Deirdre had already decided against white water rafting and would make her way onward by road but I was very keen to give it a go, never having tried it before. Via our reliable guide Sunny, instructions were given how to wedge our feet and legs against the inflatable raft, when to paddle, when to lean forward, when to lean back – all with the aim of keeping us in the boat when we came to the tricky bits on the river.

While the rapids wouldn’t have exhilarated our raft guide they were exciting enough for the novices in our group, sending us crashing onto rocks, spinning the raft around and plunging into the foamy waters. A stifled shriek from the back though did suggest something had got our raft guide’s blood pumping and as we turned our heads to find out what a branch morphed into a snake passing in our wake.

Deirdre had been having her own adventures. While the rest of us had battled our way to our lunch stop she had been left behind. Fortunately she hitched a ride in the empty vehicle of another group and on catching up with our driver he gave her a sheepish look of ‘oh yeah, I wondered what that nagging feeling in the back of my mind was about.’

On our way to Khum Lanna, where we were to spend our last night, we passed through another, far busier, activity zone used by other companies. Where we toured our village in a convoy of two ox carts, here dozens clogged the road, along with a traffic jam of elephant riders.

A Frenchman gets in touch with his Vietnamese roots

Cooking Classes at Khum Lanna

The meals had come large and often at Lisu Lodge but at Khum Lanna much of what would end up on our plates would have to be prepared by us. An Irish country girl, I know Deirdre can cook but in 17 years I can count on the fingers of Homer Simpson’s hand how many times she has prepared dinner. I make the meals in our family but am can’t cook to her won’t cook.

Khum Lanna’s cookery classes specialise in teaching northern Thai dishes with lessons punctuated by massages, herbal steam baths and cycling to nearby markets. When we arrived every guest seemed to be prostrate underneath a masseur kneading away any cares from the day.

As neither of us are massage fans (I know, I know – I can almost hear massage advocates shouting at the screen as I type) we instead took time to relax and enjoy our surroundings in a semi vertical position with a coffee or two until called for our first cookery lesson.

Cue some face pulling by a couple of Dutch teenagers and me as we were lured back into a classroom for the first time since either the holidays began (the Dutch kids) or before the Dutch teenagers were born (me).

Thai cookery class

It didn’t take long though until we came around and soon beers (me) and soft drinks (teenagers) started to appear on the table as we learnt how to prepare our ingredients to make soup and a red curry with a side order of spring rolls. While getting the bamboo shoots, carrot and celery successfully into the coating of the spring rolls appeared akin to a witchcraft I couldn’t master, my red curry was pretty fine.

Next day, after discovering what a 5.30am is, we got into the early to rise rhythm of the countryside to visit a local market – again by bike, but on the flat road there were no drop outs this time – before returning to prepare our chicken barbeque.

This is a two part article. Part one can be found here.

Disclaimer: Our stay at Lisu Lodge and Khum Lanna were provided courtesy of Asian Oasis.




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This piece was first published in an older version of our blog which included the following comments:

Maria said: “Red curry with a side order of spring rolls sounds amazing. Nice way to end a day of elephant trekking.”

– we replied: “I was pleased to end the day without food poisoning.”

Sharon said: “An elephant ride is something that the world is waking up to as being wrong. Can you look an elephant in the eye after the ride? But how do you finance their protection?”

– we replied: “You’re right, Sharon, attitudes towards elephant riding are changing – including our own. We have spent time in the company of elephants at ground level and, for the reason you have given, found that more enjoyable. Trekking alongside elephants, rather than on top of them, is the way forward and Asian Oasis dropped elephant riding from their itinerary not long after we spent time with them.”