When I boarded the plane bound from Copenhagen to Bangkok, I didn’t know quite what to expect from my first trip to Thailand.
Fast-forward a week and I’ve been bowled over by the sheer cultural diversity of the country and the kindness of its people. As my time in Thailand draws to a close, I’m already certain that it won’t be the last time I find myself touching down at Suvarnabhumi Airport .
The last seven days have been a whirlwind of new friends and adventures, which have opened up my mind in a way I never thought possible. So, what was my mission in Thailand, and what have I been up to over the course of the week?
I was invited, along with 43 other talented young vloggers and bloggers, to explore rural Thailand. Our mission? To experience authentic life in unique Thai villages and communicate these experiences to the world.
We want to show potential visitors that there is so much more to Thailand than just Bangkok and beaches. So where did I go to experience this hidden side of Thailand?
I was lucky enough to have the chance to experience village life in Hloyo Community, a small village located in the northern Thai province of Chiang Rai. The area is known for its diverse hill tribe cultures, in addition to some seriously jaw-dropping scenery.
Hloyo itself is home to approximately 300 individuals belonging to the Akha hill tribe, a group traditionally known for their elaborate traditional dress and skills in farming, foraging and traditional crafts like woodworking.
What is it like to visit Hloyo community?
The answer is; it's surprisingly easy. The village is located approximately 60 minutes from Chiang Rai and is easily accessible via private car. Tour providers such as Local Alike also offer specialised trips to hill tribe villages.
Visitors to Hloyo can stay in an Akha mud house; gorgeous accommodation constructed out of local clay and rice husks. The walls are decorated with quirky designs made from recycled glass and the rooms also feature a panoramic view of the forest and a pretty nifty roof that can be opened or closed at the push of a button.
Staying in a mud house puts you right in the middle of the community, so you can play with the local children, chat to villagers and really immerse yourself in the day-to-day life of the community.
An authentic Akha welcome
Whilst staying in Hloyo community, I quickly stopped feeling like a tourist. It's a place where it is easy to immerse yourself in daily village life.
So what did we get up to in Hloyo?
On our first day in Chiang Rai, we explored the golden Wat Phra Kaew, before moving on to the quirky Wat Rong Khun. Visiting the temples and the Art Bridge allowed us to see the bold, artistic spirit of a unique city which has soaked up the spirit and creativity of the surrounding hill tribes.
In the afternoon, we drove into the lush mountains, arriving in Hloyo community to be greeted by a whirlwind of traditional food, music and dance. Even across language barriers – many older Akha cannot speak English or even Thai – I was bowled over by the kindness shown to us.
Our second day in Hloyo allowed us further immerse ourselves in the daily life of an Akha village. I loved the serenity of Hloyo; waking up to the sound of birdsong and enjoying a cup of Arabica coffee on the terrace as I watched the comings-and-goings of the villagers.
My stay in Hloyo really gave me the opportunity to connect with nature, and we learned from the locals how to prepare traditional Akha meals from ingredients grown around the town or foraged from the surrounding forest.
The villagers were also kind enough to share their local expertise with us, allowing us to try out a range of traditional Akha activities, including woodworking and jewelry making.
Day 3:Another day, another adventure! This time round, we jumped on the back of a truck, speeding through the valley towards the Lahu village of Jabusee.
I immediately fell in love with the rickety houses, perched up precariously on wooden stilts. The locals welcomed us warmly with a steaming cup of green tea and stories of the Lahu way of life. We were also treated to a traditional wrist-binding ritual designed to protect us against evil spirits during our foray into the forest.
Bamboo walking sticks in hand, we set off into the hills to learn about how the Lahu survive in the wild, trying out key skills including cooking with bamboo chutes and catching fish from the nearby river.
On Day 4 we traveled to Down Town Mae Salong, to meet its Chinese community and learn more about their history and culture.
We found out about the community's flee from Yu-Nan province (China) after being pushed back by the victorious communist forces. We heard accounts of the abject poverty of the initial Chinese settlers in Mae Salong and discovered how the tenacity and entrepreneurial spirit of the locals has transformed it into a bustling provincial town dominated by the tea industry.
Tea-tasting, horse riding and some delicious hot pot were the order of the day in this little piece of China in Northern Thailand.
On our final day in Hloyo Community, we bid a fond farewell to our hosts and headed back to bustling Bangkok - a world away from the slow pace of village life.
The village really got under my skin and it was hard to leave without knowing when I'll return. Our hosts, Yohan and Kalamae gifted us a mango tree on our final morning, which we planted before we left.
In 5 years, this plant will bear fruit for the local community to eat. Who knows? Maybe we can return to Hloyo some day and try it ourselves.
My experiences during Thailand Village Academy have been about two things.
Firstly, I've connected with people from incredibly diverse cultures. The experience has taught me that you don't always need language to establish a connection. We couldn't always communicate verbally with the villagers in Hloyo, but they showed us kindness and respect regardless. After a few days, you really do begin to feel like a part of the extended family.
For me, the week was also about comfort zones. It was about exploring a new country, experimenting and understanding that things don't always have to be perfect; sometimes just trying is enough.
It's been an eye-opening few days, which have passed by all too quickly. But Thailand Village Academy and the people of Hloyo community have given me something incredibility special; memories that will stay with me forever.
So thank you to our hosts, Yohan and Kalamae, as well as Joe and Jane- the best guide and travel companion I could have asked for. You've made my first visit to Thailand incredibly special and one thing is for sure - it certainly won't be the last.