In addition to Thailand’s many beautiful beaches and islands, it is also host to lush forests and mountainous regions, particularly in Northern Thailand. I knew that I definitely was interested in going on a multi-day trek into the countryside, but there were a variety of options available. I wanted to avoid the more “touristy” ones that include stops of elephant riding where the elephants aren’t treated well, and the Long Neck Karen tribe, where women wear brass coils to elongate their necks. Some of these tours treat these people like a zoo and come to gawk and take pictures of them, something that I wanted to avoid. I came across an option to go trekking in Doi Inthanon National Park, which appeared to be geared more towards nature- moderate hiking and visiting waterfalls. I went ahead and booked the longest one available-3 days and 2 nights sleeping in a local hillside village.
I decided to go into this trip with low expectations. If I could get a few days of being away from the cities and people and seeing some of Thailand’s beautiful nature sights, I would be satisfied. Quite often with trips such as these, a person can read into the proposed itinerary used to entice people to book the trip and get distracted by the many adjectives. Sometimes a tall and roaring waterfall might not be as tall as you were led to believe. I am guilty of this as well, and have been let down when the actual experience falls short of what I had envisioned. Luckily, this new mindset worked out well for this trip, as I had a blast!
I was picked up from my hostel in Chiang Mai early in the morning, although an hour later than I was originally told, (but this is Thailand, after all). The group size, the maximum allowed of 12, was also larger than the number of 6 I was told the evening before. I chose to not off these two things to deter my trip and introduced myself to the other trekkers as we rode in the bed of a pickup truck out to the countryside of Doi Inthanon National Park, where we would begin our hike.
In the group of 12, I was able to bond the most with 2 German guys who work for their army and were 30 years old, Johannes and Dirk. Time and time again, almost all of the Germans I have met have been kind, polite, and most importantly fun! Having such good interactions and making friends in such short spans of time has caused me to add Germany to the ever lengthening countries to visit.
After about 2 hours of riding in the truck, we arrived at our drop off spot. There we met our guide for the next few days. He was a short Thai man named Tama, and he greeted us with a grin stretching from ear to ear. We then started on our first hike, heading off into the jungle. This first stretch of land, the trees were mainly bare, stripped of their leaves. After a short bout uphill, the terrain soon turned downward. I actually prefer hiking uphill versus downhill, as it is more difficult to find proper footing as one heads down a hill or mountain.
After about an hour of hiking downwards, we reached our designated lunch spot, near the base of a waterfall. While not very tall in stature, about 3-4 meters high, it was sufficient to properly drench a person if they stood directly under it, which Tama promptly did. After drying off a bit, he handed each of us our lunch, fried rice neatly wrapped up between 2 banana leaves. While simple, it was very delicious.
After relaxing for a bit and digesting our lunch, we resumed our hike, with our next main stop being the local village where we would be spending the night. This village, home of the Red Karen, is where Tama lives, along with his wife and 3 year old daughter. This hike took only about two hours, including the frequent stops that we had to make for the less fitness inclined members of our group. Tama used these frequent breaks to explain to us the different trees, plants, and insects, we came across. He even showed us a type of edible ant, and after seeing him pop them into his mouth like candy, I tried a couple myself. Surprisingly, they were a bit sour, but not bad.
We reached Tama’s village around 4:30, and our accomodation was actually pretty nice. There were 12 mattresses with pillows and blankets on raised platforms in a small wooden hut. There were even mosquito nets to protect us while we slept, although they had to be shared. Dirk, Johannes, and I used this free time to wander through the village of about 400 people. The Red Karen tribe speak their own language, which is very different from the Thai language. They had several modern luxuries, including satellite dishes, which were visible on the roofs of the homes. One old man even invited us into his home, proudly showing a crucifix in his home. Many of the hill tribes in Thailand are Christian, in contrast to the Buddhist majority in the cities and towns. This is due to the many missionaries that have visited them over the years, and their isolation from the mainstream Thai culture.
That evening we enjoyed a meal of red curry and rice cooked by Tama’s wife and relaxed around the campfire, admiring the bright starry sky.
After a breakfast of hard boiled eggs, toast, and watermelon, we left the village around 10am. After about an hour and a half hike, we reached another waterfall, which would be our resting spot for lunch. This would also be the point where the people only doing 2 days would be heading out of the park to return back to Chiang Mai. Surprisingly, this included all 11 other people! I would stay with Tama until the end of my trip tomorrow, and we were soon joined by 4 others, a German couple from Frankfort, and 2 French sisters from Toulouse.
After brief introductions, we then headed out towards the next village, where we would be spending the night. This portion of the trip was my favorite hiking part, as the path grew dense with trees and brush. We had to hop over several small boulders as well as cross several rickety (but cool looking) bridges over water.
Three hours later, we arrived at the next village, home to a different Red Karen tribe. This village was pretty similar to the previous one in terms of size and population. The added benefit of this spot was that it was close to a small stream. There were also 2 “pet” dogs that preferred to stay near the area, since the trekkers were friendlier to them than the village people. Tama explained that this was because the dogs were full of energy and would chase after their chickens and other animals.
The dogs stayed with us the duration of the evening and took refuge by the camp fire when the temperature dropped that night. While only having 5 people around the campfire was a lot smaller than the night before, I appreciated being in nature a bit more with less people.
We had a similar morning as the day before, with regards to our wake up time and breakfast. Our “trek” today would only be about an hour long. This one provided a bit different scenery, as we walked along a road past some local farms and rice paddies. The two dogs also accompanied us on this leg, running around and even rattling some of the domestic buffalo by getting too close to a calf. Tama explained that they usually come along for the hike, and know when it is time for them to return to their “home”.
As a parting gift, Tama fashioned each of us a cup out of a bamboo stalk. First he chopped the stalk into pieces, and then used the side of the knife to whittle it down until what would be the rim of the cup became smooth. I really appreciated this souvenir as opposed to the ones I’ve purchased at the local craft markets due to the sentimentality behind it. Bonus-it’s also very practical!
Our last portion of the trek was a short ride on a bamboo raft. While this sounds fun and entertaining, I can assure you that it was not. That day was particularly cold and cloudy, and while the rafts floated, they often dipped a few inches into the water, soaking your clothes. The water was very cold and would have been pleasant on one of Thailand’s many humid days. One of the French girls actually fell into the shallow waters. She scraped her knee pretty bad, but otherwise was unhurt. After the 45 or so minute ride was up, we quickly changed into dry clothes before catching a ride back into Chiang Mai.
Tama really helped to make my trek an enjoyable experience. He was constantly smiling and laughing, and was always in a good mood. It proved to be contagious and helped me to keep my positive mindset. I really think that keeping a positive mindset in what ever you do in life, while difficult to do, can go a long way in improving happiness and satisfaction.