Let me be clear from the outset: I don’t like hiking. I’m not the person planning their holidays around great hiking trails, strapping on their boots for a quick 12km hike on a Saturday or staking out my local adventure store for an epic sale on hiking boots. That ain’t me. I’m usually at home, where it’s safe, bundled up in a blanket like a human burrito, thinking about my life choices. But here’s what I love about my job; it forces me out of my comfort zone and I often do things I would never normally do otherwise. Which is exactly what happened when the guys at TourRadar asked Matt and me to join a 5-day trip hiking through Northern Thailand with G Adventures.
Here’s my review of our epic Ban Jabo Hill Tribe Trek, what went down, some photos from our trip and, hopefully, some great insight and information for anyone thinking about doing a Thailand Trek themselves. But, before you keep reading, you should watch this super fun video from the trip! As you can see, we had a LOT of laughs, made some awesome new friends and experienced some very…. interesting….. things:
How does the trip work?
Our Ban Jabo Hill Tribe Trek kicked off in Chiang Mai. We arrived in Chiang Mai on day one and headed directly from the airport to the hotel where we checked in, had a shower and a quick nap. In the evening we met our tour leader and the rest of the group in the hotel lobby. Our tour leader helped us all break the ice and talked us through what we could expect over the next few days. He also went through a few essentials that we would definitely be needing and helped us figure out where we could get them if we didn’t have them. We got a good night’s sleep then met the group again in the hotel lobby the next morning, climbed in our private vans and headed out to the trailhead.
It took a good few hours to get to the trailhead with a toilet break in the middle. The road was extremely windy and I took travel sickness medicine to make sure I wouldn’t get sick. We arrived at the trailhead, met our two local guides and set off into the jungle of Northern Thailand. They led us to our first stop, for lunch, then we continued on until we reached a local village where we spent the night. We followed the same format on day two and three, hiking and stopping for lunch then hiking to the village for an overnight stay. The last day of the trip we watched the sunrise then met our private vans and transferred back to Chiang Mai where we all said our farewells and went our separate ways.
Was the hiking really hard?
The first day of hiking was hard and it got easier each day afterwards. Day one was made especially hard for me because I was very tired, jetlagged and also super drowsy from the travel sickness medicine I took. Those three things combined with intense heat and the largely uphill hike to create a rough day for me. But, I made it through even though I hadn’t trained for it and am in no way an experienced hiker. I felt much better when those who had trained said they found it tough too! So, I guess the takeaway is if I can make it, anyone can make it.
Days two and three were much easier and although my body hurt, I found I warmed up quickly and was starting to get used to it. I’m not saying I’m a hiking convert but I really did enjoy myself, particularly on day three when my body had accustomed to the hiking. The hardest part was probably carrying all our gear in our backpacks and coping with the heat. It’s important you pack light and drink lots of water throughout the day to ensure you stay hydrated. It was great hiking as a group because the morale really does help you get through it, whether that’s talking and sharing stories or simply having a whinge to someone else. At the end of the day, it felt great to collapse in a heap at our homestay and enjoy a nice, cold drink!
What’s the accommodation like?
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with the accommodation as you can’t really bring up online reviews of homestays in the remote villages of Northern Thailand! We spent one night at a hotel in Chiang Mai and the remaining three nights at homestays in different villages. The Chiang Mai hotel was just your normal, mid-range spot. It was really comfortable and spacious, close to great food and easy to get to and from. To make life easier, I would recommend booking an additional night at the hotel for the last day of the tour. That way you don’t have to worry about moving hotels, you can just arrive, go up to your room and rest.
Each of our homestays was a little different from each other but they were all very basic but also clean, comfortable and very much appropriate to the remote villages we were staying in. At each village, we broke off into groups of three or five and slept in a large open room at the homestay. We each had our own mattress with clean bedding, a pillow and a mosquito net. The mattress was comfortable and while the pillow was initially a tad solid for me, I found a few blankets added the necessary amount of cushioning. Being remote villages, there are animals roaming around including roosters who crow through the night into the early hours of the morning. A good pair of earplugs helped fix this issue!
The bathrooms were basic and, again, totally appropriate to the situation. Two of the bathrooms were housed separately from the accommodation in a shed-like space. The first consisted of a squat toilet and large vessel of water which you throw on your body using a hand-held bucket for showering. The second had a western toilet and basic shower head with running water. The remaining bathroom was a shared space within the homestay with a western toilet, basic shower head and running water. Honestly, as basic as they were, each one was totally fine and after a big day of hiking, you really don’t care!
What’s the food like?
The first day of the trip, in Chiang Mai, we were invited to either meet up and have dinner with the group or head off and do something solo. We were really tired so headed off for dinner close to the hotel followed by an early night. The rest of the time our meals were prepared for us by our incredible homestay hosts who did a really great job of preparing lots of delicious, fresh food. You may be wondering if it’s safe to eat the food in such a remote place as you can’t guarantee the food preparation conditions. I have a stomach so sensitive it’s like paper tissue in a hail storm and I didn’t have a single moment of tummy distress!
The meals were all delicious and were served up more than we could possibly have eaten. Meals usually consisted of steamed rice, two vegetable dishes and one meat dish. Both Matt and I are vegetarians and our hosts had loads of food we could eat. The sudden change from the food I usually eat to a totally different style of food was a big change for my tummy and I would’ve liked to have had some muesli bars with me to snack on when I needed food my tummy recognised.
Other than hiking, what do you see and do?
The tour itinerary lists quite a few different sites and activities and we found our itinerary was fluid than set in stone. For example, I think our itinerary mentioned we’d play football with local kids at the village on day one but we actually did this on day two and they were very skilled adults, not cute lil kids! Of course, that’s not a problem at all, it was just funny to see the look on the boy’s faces as they realised they were squaring off against other very capable men and not playing a sweet game of soccer with children. So I would definitely say it’s a good idea to keep in mind the itinerary can be fluid and not to count on certain things happening on certain days as things can move and change.
We learned a lot along the way with our local guides stopping to show us some of the unique ways people use the land to survive in such remote areas. Our tour leader was very knowledgeable and shared lots of information on village life as we went along as well as at the village each day. We met locals who shared a bit about village life through our tour leader and we were able to wander around the village to see and experience local culture for ourselves. I definitely think staying in the homestays was a great experience, we really got to see just how hard the women work, see the family dynamic and get a sense of what life is like. We visited some interesting spots too, including the incredible Tham Lod cave which is easily the most incredible cave I’ve seen in a long time!
What should you take with you?
Like I said earlier, you carry all your gear in your backpack all day and if you overpack you’re going to be really sad when you’re up to kilometre 10 on day two! So, be sure to pack as light as you possibly can. I’ve put together a really detailed packing guide which steps through everything you need to pack and a few things not to worry about bringing. I asked the group on the last day of our trek what they were happy they brought and what they wished they hadn’t and all of those things have been included in the guide! Read: What to pack for a jungle trek or hiking trip in Thailand.
I was absolutely terrified of the Ban Jabo Hill Tribe Trek before it started. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the group, that it would be so hard I’d have to drop out, that I may get a funny tummy from the food and have a rough time. It turns out, all my fears were just fears! Yes, the hiking was challenging but you’re part of a group and you get this sense of team comradery that inspires you to keep going when it gets a bit tough. Without this trip, I would never have visited the three incredible villages we got to see and explore. I would never have met the incredible women at our homestays who took care of us and invited us into their homes. I would never have seen that part of Thailand or experienced the interesting, unique and authentic culture of Northern Thailand’s Hill Tribes.
It was definitely a challenge but even I made it and my natural state is, ‘Human Couch Burrito,’ which should indicate that pretty much anybody else can make it too! It’s not a trip I would have thought to do, which is why I’m so glad my job pushed me to experience it. I had a great time exploring a new place in a new way with new friends! Best of all, the trek is actually really budget friendly so it’s perfect for a wide range of travellers and their varying travel budgets. If you’re keen to experience authentic Thai culture in a unique way, the Ban Jabo Hill Tribe Trek may just be perfect!