Suddenly I was there. I was sitting on an elephant, and it was beginning a steady lurch down the slope. My feet rested behind its ears, feeling the tough hairy skin, sensing the movement of its shoulders, as it lumbered along the jungle tracks. An unexpected wave of euphoria put the biggest smile on my face.
I had been so apprehensive, but now I loved it!
Roots of Asia run tours for women, tours for lesbians, and customised tours in Northern Thailand, Bali and Nepal – even running one in Spain. Accessibly priced, they are focused on meeting local people, mindfulness, and getting off the beaten track.
There were lots of smiles of delight on our Green Mindful Tour in Northern Thailand, with Roots of Asia. Gertrude and Veronique are two energetic young Belgian women who have lived in Thailand for several years. Otherwise known as Cat and Nici, these two have crafted a tour in their part of Thailand which introduced us to both adventure and culture, along with a mindful respect for the environment and for the local people. I had booked for this tour as soon I read the mouthwatering description. It was all I hoped for, and more.
The tour, especially for women travelers, included trekking through dense jungle to hill tribe villages, bathing wrapped in our sarongs in hot pools, and getting totally drenched bamboo rafting down a river.
We crouched in the back of a ute as it chugged up perilous mountain roads to find coffee and macadamia plantations, and we walked up jungle paths to Doi Suthep temple as the sun set over Chiang Mai. And Cat and Nici led us to the best massage I have ever suffered- in a forest clearing in a tiny village in the mountains.
Although it was the high season for tourists, Cat and Nici had chosen places and guides who kept us off the beaten track, and into authentic and quite remote settings, where we saw very few other tourists. Early one morning we crossed the dusty square in the middle of an Akha village, to see several old people, all dressed in traditional clothes, sitting on a low wall. ‘They are waiting for their pensions’, said our guide. ‘They like to get dressed up for such an important event.’
To complement the exhilaration of the outdoor activities, the tour included daily sessions of Qi Gong, an Eastern meditation practice. Each morning in an eco-resort near Chiang Rai, we stood in a circle on the cool grass, slowly stretching and moving and wakening our awareness. The sun would come through the branches overhead, and the day would begin. Cat taught us the Qi Gong principles, and provided excellent notes so we can continue to learn at home.
Back in Chiang Mai, it was time to immerse ourselves in Buddhist meditation. A two hour introductory session at Wat Suandok, then a short ride to a rural retreat centre. We changed into our loose white clothing, and went into silence. Our multi- lingual monk sat at the front of the meditation hall and taught us how to meditate- sitting, walking and even lying down. I only fell asleep once! We chanted the daily prayers , in Pali, kept our feet pointing away from the Buddha, and tried to keep our minds clear. I still cannot sit cross legged though, but does not matter. The two days were a challenge, but a wonderful opportunity to learn and appreciate the insights and practices of Buddhism .
The Green Mindful Tour had a skilful blend of sightseeing, immersion in Thai culture, mindfulness and eco consciousness . Over the 3 weeks, we felt that we had got to know some of Cat and Nici’s friends, and to see how they are working to conserve and enrich this land.
I think of Adul, who has built a straw bale house, and lives off his organic garden. I think of Nok and her Austrian husband Rudi, with their fish ponds, fruit trees, and garden studios. And there is Fern’s family, where we slept for two nights in an Akha village. We saw their rice fields, and fruit plantations, and heard their plans to build a restaurant on top of a mountain.
Thai food has always been a favourite for me but eating it in Thailand expanded my tastebuds no end. Cat and Nic made sure we discovered the tanginess of green papaya salad, the sweetness of mango and sticky rice, and 101 ways of cooking tofu. We spent a brilliant day at Sammy’s organic cooking school, pounding spices for particular curries, chopping herbs and greens, and producing six different Thai dishes.
So many activities, so well chosen by our energetic leaders. With only six in the group, four of whom were Belgian, Cat and Nici were able to be flexible and creative, and they were very generous with their time, conversing with us all in English and Flemish, and translating with patience and humour.
They both speak Thai, and clearly love their adopted home. They run popular tours for young people in the summer, and are currently designing tours in Bali. On all tours, they enact the principles of respecting and conserving the environment, and working with local hosts who use sustainable practices.
This commitment included using local transport, not private tour buses, so our modes of travel included the ubiquitous red song-theuw, or red bus of Chiang Mai, public buses, pick up trucks, bikes, and our own two feet. Similarly, our accommodation ranged from sleeping mats on the floor of a bamboo hut, and a dormitory in an Akha village house, to spacious fan cooled rooms in beautiful garden studios, to the ultimate in comfort at the Eco Resort in Chiang Mai, complete with swimming pool.
As I slithered off the elephant at the end of my jungle ride, I could not stop smiling. It was all I had hoped for, and more, just like the Green Mindful Tour. Thanks to Nici and Cat for their vision and commitment to providing a unique style of travel for women. Thanks for a fantastic time.
Ceridwyn Parr articles on Women Travel
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