Emma’s field notes from Thailand

Reflections on a recent research trip to Chiang Rai, Krabi and the Golden Triangle

They say that research is ‘easy’. You can punch any search query you like into Google, scroll the images, bury your head in a Wikipedia page. A vague image of the place begins to emerge – wobbling, a little hazy. You can almost feel the edges of it, trying to put yourself ‘there’ – feel the ground under your feet, the scent of lemongrass and salt on the air.

Yet, being there is always different. You can colour in the outlines. Everything obtains a new weightiness. It’s why we do so much fieldwork – sending our people out into the world so they can firm up and flesh out their knowledge. To give substance to the mind’s image. You’re sat there at a formica table in the belly of – say – Bangkok, a steaming bowl of kuay teow neua resting in front of you. Somebody has shifted the dial of the radio, gently. You start writing notes in the pages of a small, square book. This is where the research really happens.

And this is exactly what it was like for Emma (from our UK team), who we just sent – alongside her family – to Thailand. The research trip of dreams.

This is her story.

Thailand family travel

Meeting with a Lahu hilltribe

Chiang Mai feels like a busy, proper metropole – an eight-hundred-year-old city high in the mountains of northern Thailand. But our journey there was anything but bustling. A remote road trip along winding byways; wrapped around the hillsides like bracelets. Dust rising from the wheels, the green rhythm of the jungle as it slipped past the window.

We had time to stop, to break the journey – making a detour to Chiang Rai, and to spend time in a Lahu hill-tribe village. With them we broke bread (actually – broth, noodles, vegetables) – a meal that was served on the banks of a river, the entire feast cooked right in front of us. Red chilli paste. Flicks of flame and smoke rising through the trees, across the water. Bamboo vessels, bamboo utensils. Sam, our local guide, taught my son how to make a flute from the grass and palm stems that shaded the waters.

After eating, we explored the village itself – stopping to meet an eighty-year-old shaman. She guides the village, providing insight and blessings. My children were taught how to play the local music – and how to dance to it. The steps. The rhythm. They paid their respects by sweeping the floor of the temple, lighting candles.

Crucial aside. There wasn’t a single moment where I felt like a sore-thumb, a box-ticking ‘tourist’ hurrying by. We were there for as long as we needed – and had all the time in the world to get to know the people of this faraway corner of the world.

Thailand family travel

To Chiang Mai

Arriving finally in Chiang Mai – after our heady pitstop in the hills – we joined up with Tana, our local guide. She was an energetic and absorbing host, taking us first – an essential rite of passage – to give a food offering to the monks. It was here that I learnt why Thai people are so welcoming of children; believing their spirits to be pure. I also discovered that many people bring their new motorbikes and cars to be blessed by the monks – a spiritual safety mechanism. My daughter wasn’t into wearing her monk-blessed bracelet, so we had our stroller blessed instead.

And because getting about on wheels is the bread and butter of the city, we took our tour of the city – heading to the thriving night market – by tuk-tuk. My son was absolutely overjoyed.

It’s easy to feel like a local here. You slow down, you get involved. Tana made sure there were plenty of moments where we could take part in the vibrant lifeworld of the city; joining the locals in candle making as they prepared for the upcoming Yi Peng Lantern Festival. This is a big deal – a way to release negative energy and to ensure good luck and good fortune for the people of this community. Later, brushing ourselves down, we got stuck into what I am reliably told is the best mango sticky rice in the city.

Thailand elephants experience
Thailand elephants experience

The golden triangle

Our next objective was the Antara Golden Triangle – right on the border of Laos. And because derives and detours were the heart of this trip, we stopped first at a beautiful tea plantation. I am – it is safe to say – a defiant fan of green tea. Fittingly, everything about the place was green – the croissants, the ice-cream, and Mai – our guide’s – personal favourite: a matcha cream crepe cake. Delicious, of course. We sat in side-by-side with immaculately dressed travelers from China and Japan who’d come to the same revivifying place. All relishing the experience.

Fed and watered, we made our way into Antara. The star attraction here is the opportunity to walk with elephants – these friendly, deeply empathetic giants. My son asked our guide a stream of fascinated questions, taking a particular shine to one of the elephants in particular – Kamoon. It was a strangely moving experience, life affirming; watching as these huge, affectionate creatures enjoyed themselves as they bathed in the river. For me, it remains the crowning moment of our journey. Something I’ll never forget.

Before departing, we paid a visit to The Opium Museum – a surprisingly fascinating place that is soon to undergo some quite extensive upgrades and renovations. Getting inside the cave systems and exploring the exhibitions was something we all enjoyed. Educational, interactive.

Thailand family travel

Conservation in Krabi

From highlands and jungles, we descended to the islands and coral reefs of the west coast of southern Thailand. Krabi is an outrageously, deliciously beautiful place. Eye-popping, exotic. The sights are for sore eyes indeed: dramatic limestone ‘karsts’ (like towers of stone rising from the sea), shimmering waters, the drooping heads of palms. It is quite transcendent.

For starters, we gave one of Black Tomato’s Field Trip experiences a spin – spending a truly insightful day with Mark, a sustainable tourism advocate who introduced us to the vital mangrove restoration work that is taking place in this region (alongside new developments in sustainable crab catching).

Later, we joined up with Hadna and Haba – two brilliant sisters who’re changing the face of sustainable farming in this sublime region. We visited their family’s organic farm, learning all about their inspiring work and ambitious plans for an on-site agricultural learning centre. Together, we chatted and picked tree fruits before carrying these fragrant wares to their mother – who prepared a crowd-pleasing lunch right by the side of the water. On a nearby bee farm – which the community has been nurturing for a decade – we got to stick a straw (carefully) into one of the ‘stingless’ beehives to taste the honey (surprisingly banana-ish).

Properly, the region’s ecosystem is a dialogue – between the sea and the interior. We got to experience the beauty of these waters on a deeply fun kayaking expedition. Everybody loved this – something we repeated, later, on the butter-yellow sands of Krabi beach, and a ‘grotto’ lunch in the shade. The best part? Our ‘transfer’ here – at Rayavadee – was by sea tractor.

Thailand beach

Something for the senses

I’ve not written much – yet – about where we stayed, our hotels. But the standout had to be Six Senes Yao Noi. It’s enormously beautiful, but – best of all – it has plenty of ‘eco warrior’ kid’s activities and experiences. From recycling and composting to flora and fauna identification and goat-feeding. Our villa – which we had entirely to ourselves – lent everything an air of the Swiss Family Robinson.

Thailand family travel

Final thoughts

Thailand truly is the perfect destination for families, with something to appeal to every age and interest. Our value – as a travel ‘designer’ – is the ability to weave a red thread through these often-enormous destinations; giving you the highlights while taking you closer to the details and deeper into the unknowns. We were always supported by an excellent, amiable local guide, and there was always something for us to see and do. And we covered a lot of ground.

Should you plan your own trip to Thailand with us, it really is a blank slate – and my journey may look very different to yours. That’s the kernel of the benefit of Black Tomato. You’re never given something off-the-shelf. Your trip is always built from the ground up.

Tempted by Thailand?

Thailand is a place of brilliant contrast – and our Travel Experts can’t wait to show you around, from Bangkok to Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. Click the link below to find out more.

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