Jungle trekking. Having a permanent film of sweat on your body as you trudge. Like walking through a sauna. You up for this? Let’s not focus on the humidity because trek in the tropics of Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand has so much to distract you. Verdant nature, a chance to meet colourfully-attired hill tribespeople in their zone, doing a night safari, and, as most tours spruik, have a mud bath with and feed a family of small elephants. And food-wise, there are hidden chocolate farms or you just have to try the fruit durian, often served with coconut flavoured rice. The flavour will blow your mind, as these first-time samplers show, but don’t take heed of the smell. It’s been likened to “turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock”, but here’s the back story to that scent. Speaking of offensive stuff, local customs you’d want to follow include not showing the soles of your feet or touching the top of a person’s head and don’t wear your shoes indoors. More insights into the customers and culture here.
- Another world
- Planning a Chiang Mai Trekking Trip?
- Chiang Mai trekking in a nutshell
- Zero in on the maps
- Lowdown on the weather
- Planning a Chiang Mai Trekking Trip?
- Your entry pass
- How to get there
- Sleep like the locals
- What else is there to do?
- Planning a Chiang Mai Trekking Trip?
- Let’s go shopping
Chiang Mai aka ‘New City’ has a long history – it’s a previous capital of the Lanna Kingdom – but today the city is as modern as Bangkok. Millions of tourists gravitate to Chiang Mai each year thanks to the mountains, those hill tribes, classic fusion Lanna-Mon-Burmese architecture and the botanical gardens. If you recall seeing long-necked Thai women wearing a series of gold, you know what we’re talking about. This is opium addiction territory, the famed Golden Triangle. And just to keep it on your radar, while Chiang Mai province borders Myanmar, the refugee crisis from there has seen the Rohingyas flee to Bangladesh and Malaysia mostly.
Speaking of danger, the official advice for travellers to Thailand overall is to “exercise a high degree of caution”, then switch on the red font for “do not travel to [the southern provinces of] Yala Pattani, Narathiwat and Songkhla”. As of November, 2017, we know that martial law operates in 31 districts (usually the border regions). The reason for the whole country getting the raised eyebrow ranking is there’s a high chance of civil unrest, threat of terrorist attack, bomb/arson and other attacks in popular tourist spots, plus theft/scams etc. Specifically for the Thailand-Myanmar border – yep, that’s where you’ll be heading to trek Chiang Ma – there’s been some major kerfuffles between the Burmese military and armed opposition groups as well as Thai security forces clash with armed criminal gangs. Know what’s happening in the area through official instructions and authoritative news. And while you’re in Thailand, you can check out 2G/3G and 4G mobile phone coverage for Chiang Mai here – just select your carrier. There’s a reason it’s called the digital nomad capital of the world. Call 1155 if you’re in danger in Thailand, by the way (more useful info is here).
Chiang Mai trekking in a nutshell
It’s a popular region, so while we hear ‘authentic’ (and ‘antiquated’) a lot, it’s not remote by our books. Whoa, does this region have options – day trips, point A to B or loop treks and waterfall treks. Easy option is to hire a driver (about 3000 Baht) or take a scooter to visit Doi Inthanon National Park (where the Mae Ping River begins) as a day trip. Not travelling with a group means you’re likely to take in more landmarks than they do. Prepare to pay about 300 Baht to enter the park and expect the weather to be cooler than Chiang Mai as it’s higher up, like 2500m above sea level making it the roof of Thailand. BYO food, drink and swimmers (but you won’t be able to swim in all of the waterfalls). Treks are well marked, many shady, and include Angkha Nature Trail, Kew Mae Pan Nature Trail and Waterfall, royal pagodas and the gardens, Watchiran Waterfall, Sirithan Waterfall and Mae Ya Waterfall. Getting the sense of a waterfall theme there? If day-trips are your thing, here’s two US expats’ advice on what to do making Chiang Mai your base (their living costs are around $2,600 monthly, but others have done it for cheaper – under $600).).
The region is home to Thailand’s third-highest mountain, Doi Luang Chiang Dao, at 2,225m. This could be a weekend trek hiking the summit the first day, and heading pre-dawn to Kew Lom Tai to take in sunrise the next. Sounds easy enough to do without a guide/porter, but there are checkpoints on the roads so better to go with the flow and do it through a commercial hiking company and the national park. The Akha Hill Tribe Trek goes from Chiang Rai, takes in the local museum, the White Temple, Mae Suay, the mountainous Doi Chang Village where the coffee grows framed by dense old-growth forests, aka ‘coffee paradise’, then you’ll head to Huai Kee Lek. That’s day one down pat. Give yourself a day to hang out in Huai Kee Lek and explore sacred spots, before the next day heading back to Chiang Rai. Here’s one traveller’s experience of a two-day trek, and the Roaming Renegade’s bent on it – mixed review as it gutted them to see shackled elephants in the jungle altho’ it was a hoot swinging on the vines.
However, most decent sized treks take around the three-day through an organised tour (as we recommend and will set you back between 10,000 and 15,000 Baht). You can choose from a private group, small group, focusing on a visit to the coffee-planation tending Akha Hill Tribe or go for something more adventurous. For a tour to the tribe, try one with a max of six people – it just works better for everyone if numbers are lower. Quiz your tour company not just about numbers, but the type of meals included (they’ll have to sustain you), and hope that your guide will gently discourage begging children from being the focus of your trip. Find out how long your car/bus ride is from your accommo to the start of the trek, too. Not sure which tour to do? Tour Radar give you a cost comparison of upcoming tours and trips (more than 250 in just Thailand alone), offering some discounts. And, if you’re looking to do a more extensive trip to Northern Thailand, say eight to 10 days, that would set you back around about 20,000 Baht to 25,000 Baht.
Zero in on the maps
The website, Map My Walk, would be a good starting point for deciding on a trek route. There’s much choice and elevation details as this site also lists the tiny 2km walks, too. Longer treks are San Sai Noi – Samoeng Loop (118km), Chae Hom Loop (105km), Sumoeng Hills around Doi Suthep (90km), Mae Kuang/Doi Saket Loop 1 (78km) or Mae On Flat Loop (75km). Here’s a link to a whole lot more trekking maps for the area. And, while you’re twiddling your thumbs in Chiang Mai, ask the tourist office for an Old City Walking map.
Lowdown on the weather
Since we were carping on about humidity in our intro, here are the figures to support it. Humidity in Chiang Ma ranges from 60% (in April and May) to a whopping 85% (August and September), which is when you probably don’t want to be trekking there. Basically its more humid from May to January, but you can get 38 degrees C (100 degrees F) from March to May. The dry season is from February to April, but that’s when air pollution rises, too.
Perhaps the idea of afternoon downpours from May to October doesn’t bother you. Most of the rain falls in September. Actually according to the official Thai tourism office, the average temp in Chiang Mai throughout the year is a fairly comfy 25 degrees. So, we’re just going to bury down here in the story that mosquitoes bearing the Zika virus are an issue in Thailand – do what you can to cover up and deflect them. The World Health Organisation’s country profile page will keep you posted on vaccinations needed.
What to pack
Leech protection will come in handy, and something to fend off the stinging insects to worry about (here’s more info about the dangerous creatures of Chiang Mai). Robust waterproof hiking boots will be your best buddy as you’ll need the heel support and some protection from the rain and that said a waterproof camera is useful. A huge water bottle is a go-er too. Pack spare clothes you can ease into after a day of sweaty trekking. Sun protection – hat/visor and waterproof sunscreen – make sense. It can get muddy with all that rain, so a telescopic walking pole is good, too. Light-weight hiking gear such as shorts, tops and a breathable rain jacket should go on your list. So, you’re decked out, but how fit do you have to be? It depends on the trek(s) you choose, but make your life easier and arrive with a reasonable level of fitness, particularly notching those minimum 10,000 steps a day well before you leave home and to break in those hiking shoes first. As a guide you should be able to walk five km with some uphill and not get too puffed out. Anyway, here’s a video of how two non-trekkers fared on their two-day hike.
Your entry pass
We need to flag that it’s illegal to work or volunteer in Thailand without a work permit, too. As a tourist travelling arriving at an international airport and staying for up to 30 days, you can get a ‘visa exemption’ on your Aussie, US or Canadian passport. Same deal if you enter throw a land border and stay up 15 days, but you can only make two entries in a calendar year. Aussies will need a visa if they’re staying longer or not necessarily going as a tourist. Here’s your consulate/embassy link. US travellers will find their visa info here, and Canadians here.
How to get there
Public buses leave Bangkok’s Northern Bus Terminal throughout the day or you book a private ‘VIP’ bus through tourist centres, but even the official tourist office says the latter can be unreliable. Prepare yourself for a 10 to 12 hour trip depending on traffic. With a population of 68 million, Thailand’s got a reputation for having one the deadliest roads on the globe, just saying. An overnight train will take you 12 hours or do the speedy option, a 70-minute flight to Chiang Mai’s International Airport, less than 10 minutes’ drive from that city’s centre. The other form of transportation you’ll have on your list is bamboo rafts – you can actually stand on these and paddle, like wakeboards. It’s more a side trip, so you can do an hour’s tour bamboo river rafting in Chiang Mai.
Sleep like the locals
We slept in airy wooden homes on stilts, futon style mattresses on the floor and mosquito nets. Poorer folks might not have any walls in their homes, just a roof and a floor. Or if top-end is more your style, here are seven villas to get you drooling.
What else is there to do?
When your trek is done and dusted, check out the Kad Suan Kaeo Art & Cultural Centre, glimpse pandas at the Chiang Mai Zoo (maybe Tiger Kingdom, too) or take in the gorgeousness of the ancient Wat Pan Tao temple. There’s an annual flower festival in Chiang Ma from 2 to 4 February, 2018, when you’ll see flower-bedecked floats on parade, tribal people in traditional dress as well as giant exotic plant and flower displays. How’s your hay fever going? If you’re thinking of taking to the water to clear those nasal passages, maybe lay off the jet skis. There’s been “harassment and threats of violence by jet ski operators, particularly in Phuket, Pattaya, Koh Samui and Koh Phangan”, says Smartraveller. Those not perturbed should check their insurance cover and you’d want to have the right policy if you’re hiring a motorcycle, too. You’re up for thousands of dollars in compo fines if you’re to blame and they won’t let you out of the county until it’s been negotiated and paid, yup. Did we mention Thailand decrees the death penalty for particular drug offences and long jail sentences even for small amounts of ‘soft drugs’? And please note, from 1 November 2017 [tobacco] smoking is banned on beaches in certain tourist areas.
Speaking of tourist havens, there’s the Tube Trek Water Park in Chiang Mai that’s pretty awesome for adults as well as kids. Pretty popular – its Facebook fan page has almost 60,000 likes. Great place to cool off, even if you forgot your swim gear (they sell even the iconic Aussie brand, Rip Curl) and its attractions sprawl over 30 acres. Still not sure what to do or see? Here’s a list of the top ten things to do in Chiang Mai and for updated info, the Citylife Chiang Mai website in English has lots of suggestions on offer.
Let’s go shopping
The local currency, the Thai Baht (THB) is easily exchanged for the main currencies in tourist places, major cities and towns plus you’ll find ATMs. One thing we noticed when we were out and about is the lower standard for railings on stairs and balconies – sometimes they don’t even have any railings. To get around, try the shared red taxi, a Songteaw, take one of those nifty three-wheelers, the tuk tuk, to immerse yourself in the humanity of traffic. They won’t always be metered, so you may need to negotiate price with your driver. Keep your diplomatic hat on as they may get narky about the route or the price. Here’s a vid of what Chiang Mai’s like at night. There is a night market and more about things to do via this link.
So, if you’re hot under the collar, perhaps lusting over a Chiang Mai trek, consider yourself duly advised. Just don’t sweat the small stuff.