Petra O’Neill has a close encounter with an elephant, goes white water rafting and meets the locals while staying at Lisu Lodge

Known as a base for adventure sports including trekking, cycling and elephant rides, Chiang Mai and surrounds with its mountainous terrain, is also home to many hill tribes including Lisu and Akha, originally from Tibet. Lisu Lodge has been on my wish list of places to visit ever since I became aware of it being awarded the prestigious Conde Nast Traveler Magazine (2001) Eco-tourism Award. It was while engaged in a tree planting activity offered in conjunction with the Himmapaan Foundation that I learnt how Lisu Lodge came to be established. John Davies, then a tour guide from the UK, built a small lodge as a base for mountain trekking. His aim was to promote sustainable community based tourism and preserve traditional customs and skills, and by so doing was at the forefront of the ecotourism movement. Now part of the Asian Oasis collection, Lisu Lodge has continued to build on the core values of sustainable tourism. Working in partnership with the local community, Lisu Lodge provides training and employment, offers activities centred on engaging with the locals, provides guests with meals that reflect northern Thai cuisine, with most ingredients sourced locally and through its nursery and tree planting, has achieved the reforestation of large tracts of land.

An hour’s drive north of Chiang Mai, Lisu Lodge is nestled in a green valley with views overlooking lush terraced rice fields and hills. On arrival I was provided with a delicious lunch of several tasting dishes and rice served on a low lying table laid out before me. I was then taken on a guided walk to Lisu Village with Sonny, meeting villagers including the wife of the Sharman or spiritual healer, apologetic from the Sharman being indisposed, having been given too much rice wine the night before in gratitude for achieving a successful outcome that compelled the quantity to be drunk approvingly. Providing an opportunity to experience local customs and culture, I saw women sewing the traditional designs used on their clothing, some of which is for sale if you show sufficient interest. Next morning I enjoyed a leisurely bike ride along winding country lanes past farms to visit an Akha village.  A girl followed close behind skipping with her younger sister and a group of elderly women were making their way to their stalls with beautifully ornate bags, bracelets and necklaces for sale to passing tourists en route to the elephant camp. While ox cart rides and other activities are offered, I enjoyed an elephant ride with the gentle elephant and young offspring that nudged its mother as it walked alongside pausing periodically to drink and splash water as we followed the river’s edge. I thoroughly enjoyed this trip highlight. After relaxing with a picnic lunch provided by the lodge, I joined others to commence a journey at high speed downstream, my first experience white water rafting. Exhilarating, the small Thai boy seated in front of me shouted with excitement.

While Chiang Mai is surrounded by many beautiful resorts and lodges, Lisu Lodge set in a beautiful tropical landscaped garden, is an example of how tourism when sustainable and low impact can be of enormous benefit to those with whom they work in partnership. And as I ended my final day there, with gentle strokes from a Thai massage, I reflected on how tourism can be a positive force.