The key to a successful homestay is not the house, but the host. Stylish decor and comfortable beds are one thing, but what creates lasting memories is the interaction with the homeowner, being invited into their world. Personality is what resonates. And in the case of Thai homestay operator Somket Silphisuth, that's the personality of a TV star.
A MasterChef host, to be specific. If ever there was a woman born to inspire budding cooks, Somket – or Aoi as she is commonly known – has all the prerequisites: patience, sense of humour, entertaining banter and natural culinary ability.
And then there's her kitchen – an open-sided, undercover workspace that would leave Matt Preston salivating with gastronomic anticipation. Six individual cooking stations, a demonstration table, a preparation area and two commercial-style wok burners – a veritable Thai restaurant in a rural, domestic haven.
An overnight stay in Aoi's home in the village of Baan Mae On, 45 minutes from Chiang Mai, is the highlight of Intrepid Travel's Real Food Adventure, a five-day journey into the flavours of Thailand's delectable, delicious cuisine. From tasting exotic fruits at markets outside Bangkok, to tackling the mysteries of street food and visiting restaurants frequented by locals, this gourmet adventure has not only spiced up our taste buds, but left us greedy for more.
For the Northern Thailand component, we've been promised a Khantohk feast – a traditional spread of Lanna dishes, served on a pedestal tray with cushion seating. But at Aoi's home there's no such thing as a free meal: everyone is expected to pitch in and help – even the guests.
"You eat, you cook," Aoi jokes, handing me a mortar and pestle filled with bulbs of garlic, shallots, dried chillies and coriander. "Use your muscles, pretend you're hitting someone you don't like. That's it! Pound, pound!" she instructs, her round, black-fringed face upturned into a permanent, contagious smile.
Several hours earlier, we had met Aoi outside her house, cradling a pink shopping basket draped with a tea towel. "We're gathering ingredients for tonight's dinner," she told us as she jumped in our mini-van and gave the driver directions.
Our first stop, however, seems a little ominous. "These people are catching tadpoles," Aoi explains, pointing to some villagers wading through a flooded paddy field carrying wooden-framed nets, rhythmically dipped into the muddy water as they scoop up their haul. The matriarch, scarf tucked under a broad-rimmed hat to protect her weathered face, steps up proudly to reveal her catch, fat, black and wiggling in a small wicker basket slung over her shoulder.
Fortunately, juicy tadpole is not on tonight's menu; but at the next stop, we help pluck dusky, long-stemmed sajor-caju mushrooms, ingeniously cultivated in bottles and stored in a dank shed on an organic farm. We also return with clumps of fresh coriander, garlic and ginger, ready to commence our masterclass in Northern Thai cooking.
But first, we settle into our accommodation for the night, an airy loft in a teak, barn-like structure, with mattresses strategically placed on the floor beneath pastel-coloured mosquito netting. It's simple, but cool and bug-free, with the promise of a bracing, cold shower to shake away the cobwebs in the morning.
Meanwhile, Aoi has called in the troops to assist with the preparation of our evening meal. A single mother of two, Aoi also lives with her mother, her brother and his two children, and it's all hands on deck with chopping, pounding and stir-frying in a heart-warming display of family co-operation.
On the menu tonight are 11 dishes, including several sticky rice-based desserts, artfully wrapped in banana leaves and tied with string. But first we are to prepare some sauces, nam prik ong (a tomato chilli dipping sauce) and a green chilli dipping paste, the perfect accompaniment to our freshly-picked tempura mushrooms and spring rolls, before launching into the main dish – gaeng hung lay gai, an aromatic chicken curry made with masala curry paste created from scratch.
Like most Thai cooking classes, a recipe book is pre-prepared for the keen student; but the intimacy of this class is soon apparent as the conversation turns from stir-frying to personal chit-chat. Suddenly it's no long a cooking demonstration, but a bunch of girlfriends sitting around shooting the breeze as we prepare a collaborative meal. It's how cooking should be: fun, social and interactive, with presentation secondary to camaraderie and effort.
Aoi's association with Intrepid is a long and happy one, developing from trek leader in the mid '90s to occasional homestay host. Her little hospitality business, which she launched full-time in 2006, is about sharing her passion and culture with overseas guests, as well as boosting the local economy and supporting village enterprise.
This community spirit is revealed as we enjoy the spoils of our kitchen shenanigans. Sitting cross-legged on cushions before a ridiculously over-catered meal (considered we'd been snacking as we cooked!), we are treated to a musical performance, courtesy of some local children and their music professor. Afterwards, we are ushered into a fairy-lit garden, where the girls give a giggling display of local hill-tribe dances on a makeshift stage of tatami matting.
Our hosts then invite us to join them letting off a khum loy lantern, a traditional symbol of prayers released into nature. Standing side by side, we watch, mouths agape, as the large paper lantern quietly expands before rising gracefully into the starlit ether.
We stare into the sky until it is a mere pinprick in the Milky Way, our collective wishes floating on thermals of goodwill and happiness.
FIVE OTHER INTREPID TRIPS TO THAILAND
1. Explore Northern Thailand: Eight-day trip from Bangkok to Chiang Mai via the historic former capital of Sukothai. From $873.
2. Sail Koh Tao to Koh Samui: Four days sailing the idyllic waters of the Ang Thong Marine National Park. From $647.
3. Thailand Family Holiday: A 12-day trip for families visiting Bangkok, the River Kwai, and Chiang Mai, including a visit to the Elephant Nature Park. From $1345.
4. Thailand Hike, Bike and Kayak: A 12-day active tour of Northern Thailand. From $1550.
5. River Kwai and Ancient Kingdoms: Visit the ancient cities of Ayutthaya as well as Kanchanaburi and the famous River Kwai sites. From $575.
GETTING THERE Thai Airways flies from Sydney to Bangkok daily, visit thaiairways.com.au.
From Bangkok, we caught the overnight train to Chiang Mai, a fun and comfy trip that costs from 881 baht (A$34).
STAYING THERE Aoi's homestay is part of Intrepid Travel's Real Food Adventure – Thailand, an eight-day culinary journey costing from $1015 per person (excluding airfares). See intrepidtravel.com/thailand/real-food-adventure-thailand-85576
The writer was a guest of Intrepid Travel.