A jungle escape in Northern Thailand
What is it about water that makes us feel the way we do when we’re near it? Whether its waves, or rain, or waterfalls, something about this mysterious beast grabs us by the ears and forces us to stop whatever we’re doing, just so we can feel for that single moment in time, as small as an ant crossing the sea, and as alive as the water beneath it.
This time, we find ourselves surrounded by waterfalls; too many to count, and all a stone's throw away. We’re just outside of Chiang Mai, in a small district called Mae Rim, and after a few nights in the centre of Chiang Mai we’re glad to be in this lush jungle home. Central Chiang Mai certainly lives up to its reputation of being the more genteel, cultured older brother to Bangkok’s giddy cocktail of traffic, food and vice. Suffocating as we did so many times in the back of a Tuk Tuk in Thailand’s capital city, we were pleased to reach this northern bastion of calm, even if this meant enduring the more frequent daily downpours. But once we’d had our fill of street food and night markets in central Chiang Mai, we headed away, up windy mountain roads and past local fruit sellers en route to our next stay, Sukantara Cascade Resort.
The impression Sukantara makes on you as soon as you get there is overwhelming. After all, it’s not everyday someone builds a hotel that quite literally straddles a series of ever-descending waterfalls in the middle of the jungle, with roaming peacocks and gigantic spiders and multi-coloured furry caterpillars that look like tiny cats.
Sound is a powerful thing, and when you combine the power of flowing water with the cacophony of jungle creatures all trying to outdo each other sonically, you get something so striking, and so lasting, that I can still hear it now, even though I’m miles away. Sitting under the covered pavilion outside our villa, watching the children swim in the pool against this sound playing on repeat around us, we couldn’t help but laugh. We’d spent countless hours playing waterfall music on the ipad to our sleeping babies in their infant years, and now here we were, with these two miniature versions of us, no longer babies and with all the personality and attitude and brilliance that young children possess, playing on the Indiana Jones styled rope bridge, diving to the bottom of pools, tasting local food in the jungle and making each other laugh, a lot. A precious moment that reflected our stay in this rather lovely hotel, helped along by this rather lovely setting.
And of course, there is the food. Food is life as far as we’re concerned. And whilst we’re far from the world’s most knowledgeable when it comes to eating, we like to think we know our Thai food fairly well. It is after all, our most visited South East Asian country, and where we chose to honeymoon many moons ago. But Lanna food is new to us, and in this hotel, we had one of the most memorable meals of our lives. Lanna food is from Northern Thailand, and is a different beast from Isaan food, which hails from the North East. Isaan fare is incredible stuff, so much so that we use to trek all the way from our Sydenham home in London, to Esarn Kheaw, a small restaurant in Shepherds Bush where the owner would always bring out a box of toys for the children whilst their parents stuffed their faces. But Lanna food took us completely by surprise, and we were lucky to try the ultimate in Lanna cuisine - a Khantoke feast put on by the hotel. Khantoke is the small wooden round table that Lanna food is normally served on for celebrations, and with the hotel hiring local chefs, we were able to try the real stuff. The hotel needed 24 hours notice to knock this up, and you can see why. With dishes like Sai-Oua, a spiral Thai sausage packed full of flavour from that holy combination of Thai ingredients like galangal, kaffir lime and lemongrass, to Nam-Prik-Num, essentially a dip of roasted green chillies that wasn’t hot at first, but that build in momentum as you spooned the stuff over sticky rice. It’s always a good day when you get to try a new curry, and Hang Le, or northern pork curry with ginger, was as good as it sounds, stewed down so that it melts into the sauce. And if you’re going to eat pork curry, then it would be sinful not to do this without an accompanying dish of pork crackling, because you know, pork crackling.
If life isn’t meant to be filled with moments like this, sat with your family having dinner on the wooden floor amidst the smoke from the mosquito coil and the din of the darkening jungle all around, then I don’t know what it’s meant to be filled with. Other than pork crackling of course. Lots and lots of pork crackling.