Chiang Mai Trekking
[Author’s Note: Please excuse any spelling mistakes or grammatical incoherence. After my trek I spent 27 hours in transit from Chiang Mai back to Hat Ton Sai in the province of Krabi. Although I did have a full night’s sleep last night, I am still a bit loopy from all that sitting on a bus, and have the added stress of paying 3B/min for dial-up ‘net access. Apologies for the rush job.]
After spending almost two weeks in Bangkok, there was little in the city of Chiang Mai to hold my interest. So I did what any other sane person would have done, and signed up for a trek at the first agency I walked into. For 2,000B I would head out on a three day trek, attend cooking school for one day, and receive a complimentary massage and night’s accommodation at the cooking school.
The morning of the trek I was to be picked up at 9am from my guest house. Around 9:30 I was approached by a young thai guy (Eddie, one of our guides) who was there to pick me up. Before jumping on the back of his motor bike he asked that I had to keep my price a secret. The trekking portion of the package had only cost me 1,300B for three days but it seemed that there were several other people doing a two day trek and had paid something like 1,600B through the agency they booked with. I promised to keep quiet… at least until after the trek… and we headed out to meet the others.
Twelve of us (2 Germans, 2 Austrians, 3 Japanese, 2 Calgarians, 1 Englishman, 1 Welsh girl, and myself) crammed onto the benches in the back of the covered pick-up truck and drove an hour out of town to begin our trek with a short elephant ride. The ride was interesting but not soemthing I’d be in a hurry to do again. It was like riding an elephant at the zoo, they basically just took us around a small path covered with elephant crap. It was interesting to see how agile the jungle elephants are. They were able to walk narrow and steep paths, and at times I had to use both hands to hold onto the seat to keep from falling off.
After a quick lunch we began the actual trekking portion of the trip and hiked for about an hour into a small waterfall. The water was frigid but we all jumped in for a quick splash and dunk under the falls before drying off and resuming our hike. The trail wound through the jungle and back and forth over narrow log bridges that crossed the river. The trail opened up at various high points to provide rewarding views of the rolling hills of Doi Inthanon National Park. At one plateau, the trail led us through a field of wild sage and the air was filled with a wonderful spicy smell.
An hour or so hike and we were at the Karen tribe village where we would spend the night. The village was pretty much what you would expect from a native thai village: old style huts on stilts; chickens, pigs, cows, dogs, cats, and kids running around unchecked; but there were a few modern touches as well. The first thing I noticed when entering the village was that a couple of the huts had solar panels mounted outside. The second oddity I noticed was the large Christian church which stood prominently at the entrance to the village. According to our guide, 80% of Thais are Buddhist, but about 80% of the Karen hill tribe people have been converted to Christianity.
That night we were entertained by our guides and some of the local villagers with a campfire and some native songs… as well as some not so native songs like Hotel California and Beautiful Tonight. We were also treated to a taste of the local rice wine… a slightly less refined version of the Japanese Sake. By 10pm we were all exhausted and crawled into our mosquito nets and sleeping bags in the large hut set aside for us. The next morning Eddie guessed that the night temperature had been about 10 degrees Celsius, but we all agreed that it had felt much colder.
Since i was the only one who signed up for the 3 day trek, the other 11 people in my group split off while my guide, Jackie (as in Jackie Chan), and I went our own way. Again, we hiked to a waterfall but I wasn’t overly
motivated to swim and just waded in a bit. That hike took about an hour and then we walked about thirty minutes to our lunch stop… where I ate an uninspired meal of instant noodles with tomato and green onion and then sat for five hours. I was getting fairly frustrated until I realized that time we killed here was time out of the heat of the day and that we would just be sitting around camp if we weren’t sitting in this village. And I did get a lot of writing and reading done. When we finally left it was only about a twenty minute walk to our night’s stop. This time I had the hut to myself so I grabbed an extra of the thin mats and an extra blanket. It was pretty cold the previous evening (woke up shivering) but I was much more comfortable this night.
The next morning I was served two hard boiled eggs and no less than fourteen pieces of toast for breakfast. Being alone they still made me food for 4 or 5 people. Go figure. A short hike with a few stops at villages and then we came to another waterfall where I swam and waited for some two-day trekkers to meet up with us. When the five of them arrived and had their swim we hiked out, had lunch, and then went rafting.
There was one guide and three of us tourists per raft and I was the lucky sucker that got to help steer. They gave me a pole and had me stand on the back of the flimsy bamboo raft and I had to push us around rocks and in the deeper areas. The “rapids” were nothing major but still really fun in such a simple raft. I did manage to get my pole stuck at one point and took a rather spectacular fall while trying to hold on to it and pull it out. Fun fun. At one point we arrived at a short narrow section between two rocks where a large red and white sign asked us to “Please leave the raft for safety.” The three of us jumped off thinking this was the end of the line but when I noticed our guide poling back into the current I mimed my joining him and he nodded quickly and motioned for me to get back on. I took up my position at the rear of the raft and prepared to navigate the tight channel. As we approached I realized that the first drop was much larger than it had looked from the shore. While still only about two feet high, it was quite a challenge to stay upright with each of the six loosely lashed bamboo poles moving in different directions under my feet. It was easy going after the first drop and turn though and we were soon out on the other side and picking up our passengers. At this point the guide had me switch to the front and I’m proud to say that I only got us completely hung up on a rock once.
From here it was back into town where we dropped off the rest of the group and I was treated to my free massage. I had had a thai massage while climbing on Ton Sai and I found this one to be much better. It still amazes me that we pay good money to have these Thai people twist us into pretzels, crack joints we didn’t know we had, and knead our muscles to a rubbery pulp. But I’ll be damned if it doesn’t feel good afterwards.
I’ll be writing about cooking school once I’m able to upload some of the photos I took but for now I’ll just say that it was one of the highlights of my trip. If you’re in Chiang Mai then I highly recommend the Chiangmai Kitchen Cooking School (contact Teng Trairat Kittiyoungkun, email@example.com).
I booked my trek through a company called G.T. Eco Tour (phone: (66-53) 215825, 357456) who books for other companies. From what I can figure there are really only a handfull of companies which actually do the treks but hundreds of guest houses and travel agents that will offer to book them for you. If you are planning to go to Chiang Mai for trekking then be prepared for a rather mundane experience. The treks are aimed at those who are looking for a leisurely stroll and unless you book a private guide for a group you will not be doing anything overly strenuous. Also, don’t expect to see a lot of wildlife or get a ‘real’ tribal experience. Many of the tribespeople were wearing modern clothing and several of them drove motorbikes. From what I’ve heard and read, you are better off to go further north to Mai Sot or Chiang Rai to book a more exotic trek to see the famous long-necked women of the Karen tribes.
Do as much research about your trek as possible and try to go with a company that you can get a recommendation for. Search around on travel websites to see if there is any one trekking company that has a reputation for giving a good tour or consider going off into the park on your own. Several people will do a one day cheesy tourist rafting/elephant ride package and then rent camping gear to explore Doi Inthanon park at their own pace.
Whatever you decide, shop around for the best deals. Most treks should include everything you need except water and other drinks which are provided for you at several shops. By booking a combination package like I did you can almost always get a better deal than booking a trek and cooking class individually.