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!