Thailand, or “The Land of Smiles,” is one of the most well-known tourist destinations in the world. It’s not difficult to understand why. The hospitable culture, turquoise beaches, lush jungles and $1 street curries will quickly steal the hearts of many.
Although vast numbers of tourists experience the nightlife of Bangkok, temples of Chiang Mai, and beaches in Phuket, few venture into the surrounding forests. This is unfortunate, since there are so many opportunities throughout the country for remote, intensive, and unique trekking experiences throughout Thailand.
Trekking in Thailand: The Basics
You Need a Guide
For many of us raised in North America, this sentence is cringe-worthy. A guide? For a three day backpacking trip? When I first moved to Chiang Mai, Thailand, my frustrations were the same. I feel I am a fairly accomplished backpacker, at least accomplished enough to feel entirely competent taking care of myself and navigating through outdoor environments.
The situation is entirely different in Thailand. Not only are guides strongly recommended for safety reasons, but many remote areas simply will not allow foreigners to enter without a local guide. Most are residents of nearby hill-tribes, and therefore the trekking industry is their communities’ main source of economy.
Allowing travelers to be independent would destroy the local economy that is already graciously welcoming visitors into their homeland. So yes, you will need a guide.
But once you overcome this mental obstacle (if it was one to begin with), you will realize that having a local to guide you through dense terrain (terrain that is impossible to navigate on a map unless you read fluent Thai, and could even find a map of these regions to begin with), and eventually bring you to their home village, you might not be thinking too harshly of the idea.
You Will Not be Camping (Most Likely)
Another aspect of Thai trekking foreign to many North American backpackers is the fact that instead of finding a place to set up camp each night, you will be staying in local hill tribes. In the Chiang Mai region, where a majority of trekking tours take place, these hill tribes could be the White Karen tribe, Hmong, Lisu, or Akha, among many others.
In my own personal experience, I had the opportunity to stay in two Hmong villages and one White Karen village.
Weather and Seasons
Seasons in northern Thailand vary greatly depending on when you visit. The three main seasons are cool season (October through March), hot season (March through June), and wet season (June through September). Cool season will be the most comfortable season for trekking, but also the busiest time of year, so planning in advance is crucial.
Having trekked in Mae Wang in early March, the weather I experienced was quite warm in the daytime. Night time temperatures were cool enough avoid constant sweating, but certainly warm enough to still be wearing a short sleeve shirt.
The season to avoid is burning season. From March through May, nearby farmers burn their rice fields in order to prepare for the monsoon season. All the smoke from rice field burnings in northern Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam eventually comes and settles in the surrounding valley of Chiang Mai.
Air quality index levels can reach dangerously high levels, and individuals are forced to stay inside or face severe health complications. Aa a result, it is not the greatest season for planning a trekking tour.
The scenery around Northern Thailand is diverse, rich, and bustling. The main forest types are deciduous and evergreen, and therefore you will see a wide variety of tree and animal species. Scenery also depends on climate. In the summer months, the forest will be much drier after the hot and smoky season. Conversely, after monsoon season, the forest will be buzzing with life.
Most treks are two or three day endeavors, covering between 20 to 30 miles. However, you do not need to carry camping gear or food, as tours cover food, and you will not be camping. Therefore, your pack will be very light. Depending on the route you take, there will be significant inclines and steep downgrades.
Trekking through the Thai forest is not a walk in the park. However, the brevity of the experience and lack of a heavy pack makes this doable for most individuals who have some baseline of athleticism.
Traveling Ethically and Mindfully
Despite the fact that trekking through Thailand is a phenomenal experience, it is the responsibility of the traveler to do their own homework in order to understand if the trekking tour company is ethical or not. Unfortunately, plenty are not. If any promote elephant riding, stay far away.
For more info you can read this article on finding an ethical elephant sanctuary.
Elephant riding is incredibly dangerous and harmful for these magnificent creatures, and only occurs in the hands of abusive owners. Make sure you do not mistakenly let your wallet support this.
In addition, it is essential to make sure your overnight stays in the local hill tribe villages are ethical. Similar to elephant riding, if a trekking company promotes staying in a “Long Neck Village,” steer clear. This village has become exploited by the tourism industry because of their unique appearance.
Since they originally migrated from Myanmar, locals in this village are not granted Thai citizenship, and are therefore forced to remain in their area, and only receive a small amount of money from tourists purchasing their goods. The majority of the money paid by tourists goes to big companies who exploit the local villagers. It is not sustainable, and exemplifies the negative effects tourism can have on local economies.
In other words, do your research on the trekking tour you decide to take. Make sure that if a community has decided to incorporate tourism into their economy, it is solely their decision.
Staying in a hill tribe gives you exposure to meeting some incredible Thai families, but remember that their village is not a guesthouse, and must be treated with respect in order to sustain a positive relationship between foreigners and locals.
Ethnic Hilltribe Trails – This is a great guide on understanding how to find an ethical trekking company.
Trekking In Thailand Without A Guide
If the idea of hiring a guide is not in your budget or itinerary, there are plenty of options to go hiking and camping in the region. Don’t plan on anything longer than one night, and be aware that you will be in designated campgrounds. However, there are still plenty of independent outdoor recreation opportunities in northern Thailand.
Located in the heart of Chiang Mai, this trail begins at the bottom of Suthep Road, and snakes along a dense, wooded trail to Wat Doi Suthep, the iconic golden temple atop the mountain that overlooks the city. Along the way sits a smaller temple, where you can visit a waterfall while observing monks tend to their daily life.
If you continue from this temple, the trail crosses the windy paved road and continues on the other side, leading up to Doi Suthep. The trail takes roughly five to six hours roundtrip, depending on how much time you spend at the temple.
Home to the highest peak in Thailand, Doi Inthanon is roughly an hour north of Chiang Mai. Here you can experience a cloud forest, and walk through a dense, misty canopy above you. There are plenty of day hiking opportunities in the region. Many trekking tours also begin in the Doi Inthanon region and travel outwards.
Doi Suthep National Park is no more than thirty minutes from Chiang Mai, and is home to plenty of waterfall trails and one campsite. Huay Kaew waterfall is one of the more popular hiking routes in the park, but there are plenty of other waterfall trails close by.
The last time I hiked in Doi Suthep, I learned the word “waterfall” in Thai, and asked a local family at the base of the mountain for directions. All of a sudden, I found myself being led by a cheery Thai grandfather through the back of his restaurant to a small trailhead that ended up leading to four different waterfalls. Don’t be afraid to ask.
Doi Suthep, like many other national parks in Thailand, does have campsites available for use. Tents and sleeping bags can be rented at the park or ahead of time through an online reservation website.
Experiencing the outdoor recreation northern Thailand has to offer provides tourists a more comprehensive understanding of the beautiful country, and hopefully, a wider passion to help preserve these incredible natural lands.