Chiang Mai Trekking, everything you need to know.
Those of you that look further than the beaches of Thailand know that there is so much more beautiful nature to enjoy here. In Chiang Mai, the mountain- and hill-country features amazing trekking, natural beauty and incredible sights. Sure, Doi Suthep next to the city gives you a taste, but go a little further and be amazed. This blog is your road-map to where the best trek and hiking opportunities in Chiang Mai lie.
Around and about Chiang Mai province
The city of Chiang Mai is located in a valley that is flanked to the west by a large mountain-range. Go north and it takes you to Chiang Dao and Pha Daeng National Park. Go south and the ridge leads you to Mae Wang National Park. Then, directly south of that, Doi Inthanon National Park. The peaks dive into flowing hills and into peaks again, covered by a thick jungle canopy and dotted with farms and rice paddies. Contrasting with the busy inner city, the country-side is sparsely populated by the local Thai and the many hill-tribes such as the Hmong and Karen.
These three parks are all within driving distance of the city and sport amazing hiking trails, excellent for short and long treks. Added bonus is that they are all higher up, so a great way to escape the heat. But how do they compare? They're all great but to help you make a choice, we have put Doi Inthanon, Mae Wang and Chiang Dao trekking options side by side.
The definition of a National Park: Doi Inthanon
Doi Inthanon is home to the Karen and Hmong hill-tribes that grow coffee, macadamias and strawberries on the mountainside. Moving into Thailand over the past centuries, they prefer to live high up. Trekking around the mountain, trails go around and through their farms and plantations. You see farmers go about their business and probably will have a couple of lazy oxen moo at you as you pass.
The park features some of the most stunning views, waterfalls and nature you'll find anywhere in northern Thailand.
In Northern Thai dialect, Doi means 'mountain'. Doi Inthanon, at 2,565 meters (8,415 feet), is Thailand's highest mountain. The park is a 482 km2 preservation area, established in 1972, to protect the unique make-up of the area. This includes the local hill-tribe population. Hmong and White Karen villages dot the mountain and surrounding hills, its inhabitants holding on to traditional culture and skills. One such skill is jungle foraging, which the better trekking guides can instruct you on. Their respect for nature allows local species to survive. Wild monkeys and gibbons, two rare goat-antelope creatures (Goral and Serow), several rare flowers and plants and others are allowed to flourish. The better trekking- and sightseeing-tours support the tribes and help the government generate income to upkeep the park.
Trekking and sightseeing at Doi Inthanon
You don't need to be a hardcore hiker to experience Doi Inthanon. If you just want to see the sights and do a short hike on the Angkha nature trail, then we recommend the Doi Inthanon – Full day sightseeing day trip. You will see the impressive Wachirathan waterfall and drink the freshest coffee at a White Karen village. During a short hike on a board walk that lasts about 20 minutes, you will follow a fresh mountain stream flanked by trees covered in moss, flourishing because of the year-round humidity in the park. A visit to the beautifully decorated twin pagodas, dedicated to the late King and Queen, is included. Of course, visiting the summit and Thailand's highest point is as well.
Alternatively, if you opt for the Doi Inthanon – One day eco trekking and sightseeing tour, our expert guide Boom will take you on a 2 hour hike on the Pha Dok Siew trail. On this trip, she explains how tribal villagers apply traditional skills in the forest to make medicine, tools and forage for food. We will walk past viewpoints, rice fields and coffee plantations.
A similar option is the Heaven Trail and Maeklang Elephant Sanctuary day tour. On this trip you visit the Maeklang Elephant Sanctuary Sky Camp in the morning. This beautiful elephant sanctuary is in Doi Inthanon National Park at an elevation of 1000 meters. The elephants roam free around the park and have lots of space to do what they love the most: eating and bathing. You will be able to feed the elephants, bath them and observe their daily routines. After lunch at the Maeklang Sky Camp we will continue to Doi Inthanon National Park to visit the King and Queen Pagoda’s, the highest point of Thailand and hike the Kew Mae Pan Trail, also known as the “Heaven Trail”, because of the fantastic views. Out of season we will hike the Pha Dok Siew Trail instead.
For those that love hiking: multi-day trekking tours
At Doi Inthanon, especially the two- and three-day walking trips are worth it. You stay the nights at local Karen hill-tribe villages, where you cook and eat together and enjoy the night chill by a campfire. We think its the perfect way to slow down and enjoy the sights to your heart's content. Excellent guides, such as Ada, Pong, Pat, Juy, Watt, Peck or Khum from the Maewin and Family Trekking, have the experience and knowledge to ensure you have a great time. By the way, did we mention the swimming in waterfalls along the trek? Our walking trips explore the northern side of the national park and therefore don't visit the summit of Doi Inthanon.
Another great guide is called Rambo, and he is your Sherpa on the Exclusive Jungle Trekking tours. It is the much more adventurous option. We recommend particularly the two-day option, which includes a lot and treks through the border area between Doi Inthanon National Park and the Mae Wang National Park. The one-day trek goes through the Mae Wang area. On top of everything that the walking trips offer, these tours include a visit to an elephant sanctuary and taking a bamboo raft down the river.
Doi Inthanon is an important symbol to the Thai people. The Twin Pagodas near its summit testify to that. It also means it receives many tourists, particularly around Thai national holidays. So if you are looking for something more off the beaten track and secluded: Keep reading!
Mae Wang National Park
Located directly north of Doi Inthanon, Mae Wang National Park covers an area of about 700 km2. Like Doi Inthanon, the area is covered with several types of forest. At different heights and humidity-levels, the types of trees, plants and wildlife can vary greatly. Pay close attention during your trek and you will see the jungle change around you. And ask your guide what to look for, of course!
The Mae Wang area waterfalls are numerous and beautiful. For example, the Khun Puai Waterfall, a three-story 45-meter spectacle, is also the source of Mae Wang River. Of course, you can take a nice refreshing swim around and in the waterfalls during our trekking tours around Mae Wang. The Mae Wang river is excellent to travel by bamboo raft, and it’s something we offer as part of our two-day exclusive jungle trekking tour here.
Water has done a lot to shape Mae Wang National Park. This has also produced some impressive caves, that you also visit as part of your trek.
At Mae Wang: Elephants included (but no riding)
We include short visits to elephant camps as part of our trekking tours at Mae Wang. Both our one and two-day tours include these. At Joining Elephant Sanctuary, you feed, play and bathe with the elephants. Be assured, at PM Tours we only do business with small, ethical elephant sanctuaries, such as Joining. You can read more about our policy and about other elephant sanctuary tours in our Top 3 Elephant Sanctuary blog. We hope that by supporting the sanctuaries around the Mae Wang area, elephant riding by tourists will become a thing of the past.
The two-day Mae Wang Trekking experience includes an overnight stay at a Karen hill-tribe village. After a day of trekking, you're served with a delicious dinner while you rest your feet and enjoy the view.
A hidden trekking gem at Chiang Dao
We like to say that Chiang Dao is probably Thailand's best kept secret. From the first time we visited it, we fell in love with how 'untouched' it is. Though trekking isn't exactly mass-tourism, Chiang Dao Wildlife Sanctuary (how Pha Daeng National Park is aptly called) is special. The town itself is, for lack of a better word, 'cute'. Small, cozy, simple and undisturbed, it is in a small valley surrounded by hills and mountains. It's settled on the lower slopes of Thailand's third highest mountain, Doi Luang (2225m), directly to the west.
The area is populated by a diversity of hill-tribes, such as the Akha, Karen, Lisu, Lahu, Palong. You will see their villages and farms as you trek through. Besides coffee, they grow cassava, corn and a variety of fruits such as papaya, mango, longan, and (pine-)apple. Many of the traditional hand-crafted items you will find in Chiang Mai's markets come from these rural communities.
Experience Chiang Dao’s spectacular wildlife
As you hike, you see spectacular views of surrounding peaks, impressive waterfalls and traditional hill tribe villages where time seems to stand still. You can enjoy the beauty of the rain-forest in its amazing diversity. This trek will offer you a more authentic experience than any other. First, because you probably won't see any tourists here. The hikes are not for pure beginners and you do quite a bit of walking on sometimes challenging paths. The wildlife is undisturbed, meaning you have a good chance to see wild pigs, deer, monkeys, gibbons and snakes.
Second, because our guides are from this area and you visit their own villages. They know the area and wildlife intimately and immerse you in it. For example, they show you which plants to eat as they forage them for dinner. During the two-day tour, you spend the night in a home-stay with beautiful panoramic views all around. You wake up and take in the view of mountain mist rolling through the valleys below. One of the best ways to fall in love with this part of Thailand, we think!
Doi Inthanon, Mae Wang, Chiang Dao: which one is for you?
Visiting Doi Inthanon National Park is a plunge into the beauty of nature, here too there is some beautiful traditional architecture (the twin pagodas) but it’s the wildlife, its sounds, smells and sights that you will be telling people about. The trekking options are diverse and not so challenging, from tours that include sightseeing to elephants and eco-courses.
Trekking in the Mae Wang National Park will let you see more different natural environments. It also includes some cool geological sights, because of how the Ping river changed the landscape. If you look forward to taking swims in the local waterfalls this is the trip for you. And don't forget the optional bamboo raft trip down the river!
When you're looking at the more challenging but rewarding trek, Chiang Dao is for you. Mostly 'off the grid', your trek through the Chiang Dao area is your best chance to see unique wildlife. Further reward is the almost total absence of tourists on the paths. The intimate atmosphere and great setting really makes you forget about everything not directly around you.
We hope this blog will help you make a good choice! Of course, you are always welcome to ask us any questions about all these options!