Thailand Part 1: Hiking Northern Thailand {On Becoming Comfortable Being Uncomfortable}

The night air was thick with the particular type of darkness you only experience when you pull yourself up and away from all but the most remote of places. In my case, that darkness belonged to northern Thailand.

Thailand travel guide, including hiking the beautiful mountain ranges and villages in the north. From wellplated.com | @wellplated

It had taken me three days of picking my way through thickly forested jungle, slippery, muddy paths, and the occasional mountain stream to reach the tiny hilltop village where I was spending the night. I shifted uncomfortably on the bamboo floor, tucked my mosquito net around my sleeping mat for the third time, and closed my eyes slowly, savoring the warm, satisfied feeling from that evening’s dinner: sticky rice, fragrant curry, bamboo soup, and spicy minced pork. It had been one of the best meals of my life, and I ate it out of a plastic bowl on a floor mat.

As I lay quietly, images of the past few days’ events flipped through my mind like a slideshow. Not the pretty, set-to-music, wedding sort of slideshow—this was more like the steady, rhythmic ones my sixth grade science teacher played in class. Click. Click. Click through the slides. The images burned brightly and silently in the dark. They taught without words. Sometimes, you need to see to understand.

Northern Thailand waterfall

If you’ve ever traveled in a developing country like Thailand or Vietnam, the incredible places I had the pleasure of visiting for two weeks, you might agree with me that it is impossible to board your return flight without a mixed set of emotions.

Northern Thailand - Village Homestay

That night in the bamboo hut, set in a tiny village whose primary livelihood was farming rice and pineapple on steep mountain slopes, mine were more mixed up than the three different dishes our jungle guide, designated snake-killer (his services in this regard were blessedly never needed), and cook prepared for dinner that night. I was both exhilarated by the splendor of the mountains—northern Thailand is unquestionably the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen—and exhausted by them.

Northern Thailand Hiking—Tea Plantations

Although I felt honored to experience a tiny fraction of life in this tiny village that few will ever visit, I was also forced to admit that, in that moment, a large section of my person would have gleefully opted for the Holiday Inn. I mourned the absence of an actual toilet, while being proud of myself for surviving without one. I had been too shy to participate in the local soccer match, but when a little girl from the village wanted to sit beside me on my mat and press the button to turn the pages of my book, I didn’t hesitate.

Small village soccer match in Northern Thailand

The funny thing I’ve discovered traveling in developing countries is that the aspects of them that drive me most batty are also the ones that make the journey most worthwhile.

Hiking in Thailand — Hilltribe village

I’ve also learned that the parts of the trip that I anticipate will be my favorites often are not. Thailand and Vietnam were articulate reminders of this truth in ways large and small. One little example: before hiking, I’d left our last major city bummed that we didn’t have another night to enjoy its packed restaurant and bar scene, only to be floored by the meals that Ado, our aforementioned machete-wielding chef, prepared on a single gas burner with groceries he carried in a schoolboy backpack. His food was the best of our entire two-week trip. Every night, I ate myself silly and licked the pan clean. No matter how much Ado served, I was always hungry for more.

Hiking through northern Thailand - our guide and cook

In short, I loved Thailand. I loved Vietnam too (perhaps even more), but we’ll get to that in a later post. And the parts of the trip that made me hesitate? The squat toilets and the lack of mattresses and the fact that for 17 straight days, every meal HAD to somehow involve rice? I needed those aspects to love Thailand too.

Northern Thailand hiking - Banana leaf noodle lunch

I knew going into this trip that parts of it would make me uncomfortable. I anticipated the sore shoulders from carrying my backpack for hours each day, the chill of showering from a single hose hung over a bucket, and even the frustrations of dropping from my operative Western speed of 1,000 mph and constant connectivity to one in which the minutes are long and the cell phone signal bars are short.

Northern Thailand Scenery

Anticipation and experience, however, are different beasts.

Northern Thailand hiking trail

The days we spent hiking were my hardest of the trip. They were also my favorite. In fact, I wrote the majority of this blog post in an actual paper notebook with an actual pen on our flight home. I didn’t want to forget a thing before I arrived home to tell you all about it.

Breathtaking mountain scenery in northern Thailand

Hiking was actually the second leg of our trip (we began with Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and the Golden Triangle), but I wanted to describe it to you first because a) it affected me the most directly, and b) it represents the mix of positive and negative emotions that permeate any trip to a developing country.

Rice farming in northern Thailand

The people we met, the scenery we encountered, and the flavors we tasted in northern Thailand were awe-inspiring. The reward was worth every step.

Beautiful scenery in northern Thailand

HIKING IN NORTHERN THAILAND: Planning Tips & Tidbits

  • Although I knew I wanted to hike through northern Thailand, I am by no means cool enough to plan or navigate by myself. Many tourist business exploit ethnic groups in northern Thailand for monetary gain. To ensure that we were not supporting unethical practices, I worked with Intrepid Travel, a responsible, sustainable travel company with which I’ve traveled in the past, to plan Ben’s and my itinerary and airport transfers. Intrepid assigned us two (for lack of a better word) chaperones: our local guide, who translated for us along the way, and Ado, our chef supreme. Intrepid did a fantastic job overall, and if you are looking for help planning an off-the-beaten path adventure and aren’t too fussy about your lodging, I’d recommend them. (NOTE: This post is not sponsored. I just think Intrepid did a great job for us!)
  • We carried all of our belongings for 3.5 days. If you do something similar, please pack lighter than I did.
  • We stayed in three different villages total (always on the floor of a bamboo hut).

Accommodations in hilltribe village in northern Thailand

  • No, we really didn’t have flushing toilets, warm water, or traditional showers.
  • Yes, we had easy access to safe drinking water and, happily after a long day of hiking, a refrigerator of cold beer.
  • Ado really did carry a machete. Primary uses: cutting back branches so we could pass through densely forested trails; picking herbs, vegetables, and even flowers to add to our dinner; teeth cleaning.
  • Friendship bracelets gifted to Erin: 1
  • Goals scored in village soccer match by Ben: 2
  • Pineapples consumed in transit: 4,572
  • Times I openly questioned my own sanity for choosing jungle hikes and barebones accommodations for my vacation: 1 million.

Hiking in Thailand - A brief guide

  • Regrets: ZERO

If you’d liked this post, don’t miss the rest of our Thailand and Vietnam adventure!

About Erin Clarke

I’m fearlessly dedicated to making healthy food taste incredible. Wearer of plaid, travel enthusiast, and firmly convinced that sweets and veggies both deserve a place at the table. MORE ABOUT ERIN…

39 comments

  1. Erin, thanks for sharing about your trip! I’ve always wanted to travel to Thailand for reasons I can’t quite articulate, so I was eager to read about your experiences. Also, the extent to which you kept up your blog while you were traveling is incredible, and definitely a testament to your skill and work ethic. Welcome home!

  2. Okay first of all, I absolutely adore the way you write. But you know that. I love your honesty, humility, and the insane ability you have to string words together to depict it all so perfectly. This trip sounds like a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I have so been looking forward to reading your posts. I also have an immense amount of respect for you and Ben for not doing this trip like I see so many folks doing it. What an unforgettable experience. Thanks for sharing with all of us. :)

    PS: Glad you’re home so I can text you anytime I want. In fact, I just did. ;)
    PPS: Is it weird that I teared up a little reading this post? Probably.

    • Rachel, this means so much to me. Thank you, THANK YOU sweet friend. We were so fortunate to have had this opportunity. I wouldn’t trade it for the world!

  3. Amazing pictures – plus the way you describe things makes me feel that I was “along for the ride”. I can’t even imagine the no mattress thing going on for that length of time but if that’s what comes with the adventure, then you just do what is required. Like you said “no regrets” – that’s all that matters in the grand scheme of things. Personally, I’d be hard pressed to be thrilled not having ice cubes for my old fashions! So glad that ultimately, the trip was a success.

    • Chris, if I’d had access to an Old Fashioned, I DEFINITELY would have wanted an ice cube :) In all seriousness, thanks so much for taking time to read this post and for your kind words. It means a lot!

  4. Erin, Your writing is lyrical and beautiful – I’ve been looking forward to these posts since you returned. You have an amazing way with words. Thank you for sharing your trip to a part of the world I hope to visit one day. And by the way, you did a fantastic job with your blog when you were away. I’m once again blown away by your delicious recipes that have become a dinner staple! Can’t wait for the next installment of your trip!

    • <3 Sue, thank you so, so much. I love to write, so the fact that you took time to read my words means more than I can say! Thank you also for the kind words about keeping up my blog. I didn't want to lose touch, and now one of my favorite parts about being back is being able to correspond in "real" time again.

  5. This is such a heartfelt, well-articulated post! Gorgeous photos, and thank you for sharing your experience with us! My twin sister and I traveled to Cape Town, South Africa in May 2008 as part of our then community college’s travel abroad program. We were there three weeks, and it really was an incredible trip but one that showed just how fortunate we are to live in the US. It was eye-opening, and while I valued the lessons learned, I certainly was happy to get home. Looking forward to reading more from your trip!

  6. Loved reading this! Also obsessed with the pic of you two at the end. Framer! 

  7. This post is the best!! I can’t remember if I told you this in my last comment or email, but I spent a summer of high school teaching English in Northern Thailand and did a similar trek to the hill tribes, only we had the help of an elephant for part of the way! I have a fear of pineapple, so remind me one day to tell you the story of a night I spent in a tree top hut trying desperately not to be rude. LOVE YOU!

  8. TEETH CLEANING???!!!  Via machete??!!  Do tell, please! :)  Wonderful write-up and pics, wow, you 2 kids are tough, the lack of flushing would do me in. Looking forward to more fascinating recaps!

  9. This sounds like an amazing trip. You did it! Thank you for sharing you heart about your struggles and victories. I had tears in my eyes while I read it.

  10. Your trip sounds fantastic. You did such a good job of describing your feelings and experiences. I am a 67 year old fan of your’s and you brought me right back to when I was 28 and backpacking through Central America, living on $5 a day. I slept in a hammock and ate yogurt and granola and I, too, missed the luxury of a functional toilet. Instead of rice at every meal, it was “frijoles” or refried beans. I got so sick of that dish, that and cilantro which I still dislike. The trip and the people I met were priceless and you took me back there with your travelogue (my trip was 40 years ago)!!
    Thank you so much and Merry Christmas from Canada. 🌲🇨🇦

    • Liz, thank you for taking time to leave this kind note. The fact that this post took you back to a special time in your life means so much to me. If you slept in a hammock you were tougher than we were! :) Wishing you a very Merry Christmas too!

  11. What a beautiful story. I am much to fearful to travel to an exotic place but reading your story made me a little less so. I’m too used to my creature comforts but the idea of being in a slower paced place where people are living life so basically is beautiful and appealing.

    Thank you for sharing this. It has given me something to think about:)

    • Heather, thank you so much for the kind words and for sharing so honestly. We definitely enjoyed our comforts during other parts of the trip, but I’m glad we pushed ourselves for this section. If the right travel opportunity comes up, I hope you are able to take it. If not, there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to travel in style too!

  12. SO much fun to read and so very well written! I can’t wait to hear more about your trip!

  13. Omg that is amazing! Such a beautiful place, never got to go hiking there though. I recommend the floating markets (:

  14. Your writing makes me wish you wrote books, which I would anticipate and wait breathlessly for each and every new one to debut! That said, I could not do what you did and I will live vicariously through your fabulous descriptions and incredible pictures. So glad you enjoyed it and I can tell through your words that you did. I’ll enjoy reading more as you share!

  15. Loved to read about your trip and the amazing pictures! Thank you for sharing!

  16. Wow, what an incredible experience! I’m heading to Vietnam and Cambodia in two weeks and will have a month to travel around the two countries. I went to Thailand for a month 2 years ago and loved it as well, as challenging as parts of trips like that can be. I wish I’d blogged about our trip to Thailand but this time I’m actually taking my laptop and plan to post as we go. Thanks for sharing!

    • Deryn, have an AMAZING time. If you go to Hanoi, you must have egg coffee at Cafe Pho Co. Climb all the way to the top to sit. You won’t regret it! I wish we could have fit in Cambodia as well. I’ve heard it’s wonderful. Safe travels to you!!

  17. Oh, the memories you bring back, talking about this trip.  I have not hiked anywhere in Thailand, and I think I’m too old to be suddenly sleeping on a mat on a floor.  One of the things I remember with a smile, from our stay in Bangkok, was when one of our tour guides assured us that squat toilets were introduced by the Burmese (the people who are responsible for all the headless Buddhas in Thailand).  I think that due to our lack of experience in Asia, we believed her.  One thing that’s good to know is that if you’re traveling with a bunch of older, heavy women, being able to use a squat toilet gets you out of the very long, slow lines of women waiting for a western-style toilet, which is not common in Asia.  Another lesson I learned this year in Indonesia was that even if it looks and sits like a western toilet, if there is a bucket of water nearby, it’s gravity flush.  

    This trip for you was nice for getting to know the people and the culture, something that most tourist trips don’t do.  Taking cooking classes is another good way to do that, but not nearly as scenic, even when you like markets as much as I do.  I can hardly wait to hear about the rest of this trip.  I’m especially interested to know why you like Vietnam perhaps better than Thailand.  Maybe you have an advantage in not having your classmates die in the Vietnam war.  I didn’t want to go there the first time we were scheduled to go, but have always been very glad every time we’ve visited.  Vietnam is a very uplifting country, and I enjoy it, but it doesn’t quite have the special place in my heart that Thailand does.

    • Susan, that story about the squat toilets is too funny (and it’s true; the line for the “Western” toilets is MUCH longer). We did take two cooking classes, and I ADORED them both. Definitely a highlight of the trip. Thanks so much for your comment. I’m looking forward to sharing more about the trip soon!

  18. Erin, this is such a beautifully written post about your trip. Not only are is the scenery breathtaking, but the images of your experiences painted in my mind by your words, are too! I am looking forward to hearing even more about your trip! Thank you for sharing this experience! xo

  19. Erin, ditto to everybody’s else’s comments!  I love your writing and it brought back memories of our trip there a year ago!  I can totally relate to the mixed feelings part too!  What an unforgettable and amazing and impactful experience/trip.  I’m so glad you had a great time!  

  20. Wow, what a post! I just read parts 1 and 2 of you trip and I’m seriously ready to book a trip to Thailand. Looks incredible! Though, the lack of toilets is making me pause. :)

  21. This post absolutely fills my heart with joy. I have come to love traveling in developing countries for all the same reasons. Its a step back and an eye opening experience all at the same time. It’s a disconnect and somehow finding a deeper purpose. It’s a struggle that shows us how amazing we all really are. And the food never disappoints. I am so so very excited for you after reading this (even on puppy announcement day)!
    Cheers to the next adventure.

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