Tammy Gouldstone takes a walk on the greener side of Northern Thailand with a group called Chiang Mai Hiking Group. She tells Gaia Discovery of her nature-filled experience at the Doi Suthep National Park.
As many travellers to Chiang Mai, I enjoyed what the city had to offer but wanted to look at more than just the temples, handicraft markets, street food stalls, trinket shops and think about joining holistic courses. I had heard about the wonderful national parks in Northern Thailand, specifically walks in the mountains near Chiang Mai - but how to get there?
There are no maps, no signposted paths, either. However, if we are really curious about the greener side of this destination, we need to look beyond the tourist track and inquire as to what the locals do. Most visitors to Chiang Mai will go up the nearest mountain to visit Doi Suthep, the famous temple or Wat as it is called in Thailand, or possibly will embrace the 10 day meditation at the Doi Suthep Meditation Centre.
On a clear day, you can enjoy an amazing view of the valley of Chiang Mai, the city and watch planes taking off from the International airport. On your way down, you can even take in a waterfall or have a picnic. However, I was interested in going beyond the beauty and chaos of the temple site, where there is another world as you go further up and over the temple mountain deeper into the Doi Suthep National Park.
As luck would have it, I met one of those seasoned long stay travellers who knew the local scene and directed me to the website for the Chiang Mai Hiking group. This is a group of people that have been hiking this national park and others in the vicinity of Chiang Mai for years. They know the trails well. If you are ready to get up early on Sunday morning, let’s say for a 7am to 8am meet up depending on the destination chosen, to meet a group of relaxed and friendly hikers then the Chiang Mai hiking group is your best bet.
On any given Sunday morning hike, you may meet a long term traveller taking some time in Chiang Mai to live like the locals, someone on a short stay to complete one of many holistic courses on massage and yoga, a foreigner who has been living and working more than 20 years in Chiang Mai, someone in town for a few days over the weekend, or a someone who has made this a retirement plan...and more. All are welcome. It’s a fantastic ambiance. During the week, and often on a Thursday morning, there are a few people who go on a mid week exploratory hike with the GPS to prepare for Sunday.
Here’s how to get started: Just a few days to a week before the hike, check out the website and find out about a suggested hike posted by one of the volunteers. You will have everything you need to know about area covered (ie: villages, coffee/lunch break, level of difficulty...) including what to bring.
The hikes are free except for the cost of the transportation contribution for fuel when car sharing or the cost of song taews (public mini trucks) split between participants. This is from the meeting point to the start of the actually hike. As the meeting point is usually at the bottom of the mountain, it takes about 20 – 45 min to get to the departure point.
Ah, if you are lucky, there may even be a delicious local coffee break at the start of the hike. A fresh brew has been produced from the beans cultivated in this mountain range. The hikes are a good time to get in touch with the flora and fauna outside of Chiang Mai, meet new people and sometimes get some good tips about what to do when you get back to the city or even for another hike nearby. At some point there is always a break as we go thru a village for a good local coffee or tea...and course a lunch break.
I remember that first Sunday morning hike which I had only found about on the website at 11pm the night before. I asked myself if it was worth getting up so early to maybe join a bunch of nice, retired folks with their walking sticks? Or maybe those die-heart hikers that are looking for endurance hike and don’t take the time to “smell the flowers”, look at the scenery...or even stop for a coffee?
I was pleasantly surprised. The meeting point was clearly indicated and I was greeted as if I was a regular! On that particular day, there were a few cars, so we split up and drove for 45 minutes into the depths of the Doi Suthep National Park. Ooh this was exciting after spending weeks in the city! After about 20 minutes, the road became one way with two way traffic that was fun. We had to often pull over to let a random hill tribe pick-up go by, on their way down the mountain for the weekly shopping...and also the random moto cycler wanting to keep up the momentum.
I was relieved to get to our destination as I was actually a bit nauseous from all the twists in turns in the road as we got up to a higher elevation. However, once we started walking, it was well worth the ride. The scenery was an abundant mixture of tropical plants and trees with random pines and plenty of amazing twisted ficus trees. And my new hiker friends seemed to be more of nature buff group that enjoy telling you about a tree, plant or flower, taking time to snap a shot than focusing on racing through the paths trying to keep within a certain time frame.
Yes, there were a few of the old timers with special hiking/walking stick. These were the ones who had stories to tell and are often the ones who organize the weekly hikes. In these parts, the few villages are populated with Hmong people. They go about their daily business and pay very little attention to the infrequent hiker traffic. Even the children, are not prepared to ask for a pen, candy or money. However, the ambience is one of conviviality.
We are welcomed in the villages all the time. Our much needed coffee break accompanied by a few rice biscuits, which I thoroughly looked forward to during my 1st hike, was also a great way to support and interact with the community. So there’s a little taste of hiking in Chiang Mai. Go see for yourself...and enjoy!
Don’t forget to bring along a couple of litres of water, snacks, lunch, sun block, hat, walking stick, whatever you need, before you embark on a visit of one of many trails in the Doi Suthep National Park.
After the trip, a trip report and photos will be posted on the website for all to share. You can also submit your comments and photos too!
Photos by Tammy Gouldstone. Tammy runs Tamarind Consultancy and can be contacted at tamarindconsult AT gmail DOT com.