It was almost 3pm and we were bone-tired from our half-day jaunt to the hill tribe village of Maesapok, Thailand, in the scorching heat, in the thick of monsoon season.
Our funky van – its colourful lights gave a Saturday Night Fever vibe – manoeuvered through bumpy roads and tight corners that led us to a mysterious house, located 30km off Chiang Mai. Slowly, the humming of the town became faint.
Meeting Arjan Sompong, a former monk turned tattoo artist, better be worth the drive, I thought.
I don’t subscribe to spirituality but a strange calm and tranquil energy trickled down my spine as I entered the house. Statues of deities and monks adorned the room we were directed to, as Sompong sat crossed-legged, patiently waiting for us.
This was all part of our Airbnb Experiences media trip to the quaint and idyllic northern Thailand province of Chiang Mai, where we were taken to off-the-beaten-track locations to learn more about the people, culture and food.
At the house, our friendly Airbnb host Nikom began translating Sompong’s story about the yantra or sak yant tattoo. The traditional Thai tattoo art, now famously known as the “Angelina Jolie tattoo”, were inked by monks onto the arms of Thai warriors before they left for war.
The tattoo designs are typically ancient geometrical symbols, as well as animals and deity forms, followed by a line or two of ancient script. It is believed that the tattoos acted as protection against enemies, giving the warriors power and luck.
“The history of the yantra tattoo dates back 100 years and it is based on Thai culture and the Thai people’s way of life,” said Nikom.
The ink is applied using steel rods, a more common practice today compared to the more traditional means of using a sharpened bamboo stick. There are no modern tattoo machines.
Nikom shared that these tattoos are only inked on specific parts of the body, each having specific rules that one needs to abide by. Also, recipients of the tattoos are not allowed to drink alcohol before and after getting inked. These rules still apply today, though perhaps not everyone follows them anymore.
Before we parted ways, Sompong blessed us with holy water.
Release your inner Gordon Ramsay
Anyone can whip up a meal from recipes they get from the Internet or cookbooks but I believe nothing comes close to experiencing the art of cooking as learning from a seasoned chef.
Thai food lovers who are curious about the cuisine and the ingredients can check out some cooking lessons at Air’s Thai Cooking Class, which is featured on Airbnb’s Experiences page.
Standing at my station holding a cooking pot in one hand and a ladle in the other, I regretted not taking my grandmother’s cooking advice more seriously.
Like a true cooking novice, I took 10 steps back and shielded myself with my left hand as I stir-fried chunks of chicken for my Thai green curry dish while the oil splattered.
Clearly, observing our cooking instructor Chef Chanrat Karatna, better known as “Air”, during his demonstration did not stick in my anxious mind.
“You have to eat what you cook, it’s not my fault if it doesn’t taste good,” Air said as he examined my pot with a stern look, before bursting into laughter.
The chirpy bald chef divided us into three groups and each team was tasked to cook pad Thai, green curry with chicken and tom yum goong.
Interestingly, not a single dish was seasoned with salt.
The secret behind the flavours of Thai food – besides galangal, as I had come to learn – lies in fish sauce.
“The most basic lesson about our cooking is learning how to use this sauce. You must understand where the flavour of the food comes from,” Air revealed.
He gifted us a book filled with some 20 pages of authentic Thai recipes authored by him, complete with tips on ingredient substitutes to recreate the dishes.
Soaking in the tribal life
Here’s another way you can ensure your trip to Chiang Mai is different: Visit the tribal villages.
Beware, though, as the newly-built rocky, winding road uphill into the Karen villages may cause motion sickness for some (not me, thankfully).
Treacherous journeys into the jungles of Baan Lan Kham in a 4WD vehicle are certainly more bearable when you have a Korean counterpart playing Oppa Gangnam Style.
Our enthusiastic tour guide Hommeang Mongkorn, or Pat, spoke of the Karen tribespeople and their history prior to Thailand’s civilisation, as we drove by Chiang Mai’s beautiful and mountainous subtropical countryside.
Electricity was only accessible at the village last year, while the one-track mud road was completed just recently.
On arrival, villagers greeted us with bright smiles and welcomed us into their traditional stilt bamboo houses that had the most basic necessities – a traditional cooking stove fuelled by wood, old mattresses and an almost dilapidated fridge.
“Their primary source of income comes from selling honey. Sometimes, they’d sell off their buffalloes and cows,” Pat said as we observed a villager demonstrate how they harvest rice in their padi fields.
According to Pat, as the place hopes to attract more tourists (which in turn would generate more income), villagers are being trained to become better hosts.
We were treated to a sumptuous traditional meal prepared by the villagers. We had rice, scrambled eggs with pumpkin leaves and long beans, chicken cooked with tender rattan (yes, rattan!), duck egg omelette and an exceptionally spicy chilli-herb paste.
We washed down our meal with homemade distilled rice wine.
Take a hike
“Be careful of anacondas!” our guide yelled out.
It’s hard to say whether he was serious or he was in the mood for a prank as the scrawny tribesman wore a smile the entire time.
We were at the Maesapok Royal Project, created by the late Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej as a way to support the Karen tribe.
“Everyone employed to preserve this forest are people from the Karen tribe. Many of us don’t have an education. So, to help the tribe, the royal family gave us jobs, mainly to preserve our culture and make us prosperous,” Nukul, our Airbnb host, shared.
She took us on a short hike through Maesapok’s lush jungles, which eventually led us to the waterfalls.
To take a closer look at how one of the many communities of the Karen hill tribe live, Nukul loaded us into a Rod Daeng (a passenger vehicle commonly found in small towns in Thailand) and off we went to meet the villagers.
The tribespeople in Maesapok sell scarves and baskets for a living. One scarf takes a week to complete and sells for 200 Thai baht (RM24).
Whether it’s discovering fascinating nuggets of village life, taking hands-on cookery lessons or learning about traditional art, Chiang Mai has plenty to offer to an intrepid traveller who’s on the prowl for adventures beyond devouring tom yum soups and sunbathing on sandy beaches.
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