For those looking for more "active" places of interest, the opportunities for top quality trekking in Northern Thailand are quite outstanding. There are many different tour companies, offering countless different Trekking options, you just need to decide what you want to do & go for it!!
Tours go from just a single day right up to a month in duration, and from the "countryside stroll" bracket, right up to almost "military style" training!!
Over the last few years, trekking has become an integral part of the visit to Northern Thailand for thousands of tourists, along with the history & charm of Chiang Mai & its people, trekking has become a major drawer for the region.
Trekking in Northern Thailand provides its visitors with memories that will stay with them forever, it really is an unforgettable experience, I actually have a couple of friends who after trekking around Northern Thailand for a couple of weeks promptly went home, sold everything up and now live up in the mountains north of Chiang Rai, and confided to me recently that they had never been happier, it’s that good!
Chiang Mai as the major city in the region, is also the “hub” for all the trekking orientated activities. The mountainous ranges that surround the city, offer lush un-spoilt tropical jungles & wilderness containing numerous wild plants & flowers, including hundreds of varieties of wild flowering Orchids.
The area is also home to the Hill Tribes People ,who although are officially migrants originally arriving from mainly Myanmar & China, have scraped an existence in these mountains for over 200 years. The Hill tribes people are proud of their Chinese heritage, but also of their Thai nationality,consequently in schools the children learn in Thai in the morning and Chinese in the afternoons! In the North of Thailand trekking adventures provide the perfect opportunity to view first-hand the traditional lifestyles of the major groups of different ethnic hill tribes including the Lisu, Karen, Long Necks, Akha, Lahu, & Hmong hill tribes. Many of the treks are actually built around the hill tribe villages & people all which adds up to a fantastic adventure for both the visitors & the locals.
A good trekking guide will help explain the traditions, the unique tribal and spiritual beliefs and their rituals.
While the increasing popularity of trekking has seen some commercialisation of these ethnic groups, this does not need to detract from experiencing their unique culture and gaining an understanding of the hill tribes’ history, traditions,culture & values.
Providing that you are reasonably fit, not heavily pregnant, or a child under 6 years of age, and that you don't mind 'roughing it' a bit, then Thailand trekking is just right for you.
The treks undertaken are completely safe and the trekking is generally well organised, with registered guides leading you along well worn routes.
Chiang Mai as the trekking centre, is the place I suggest you use to book your trek, DON’T book anything on the internet, DON’T book anything until you arrive !, there are MANY different tour companies / shops offering EVERY type of tour & timescale imaginable.
Many of the guesthouses also double up as trekking tour specialists. Several of the trekking companies also have smaller satellite offices located around the main tourist areas of the Night Bazaar, Thapae Road & the eastern areas of the old city. Please check out both the Google Map for the centre of Chiang Mai & the rather fabulous Interactive Photographic Map of Chiang mai centre!!
You need to take time visiting several of the different tour companies to ensure you get EXACTLY the mix of activities that you want, don’t take notice of taxi drivers, tuk-tuk drivers, songthaew drivers or anyone else that is likely to be making money from their recommendations!!
The main areas that the trekking tours operate in are Mae Hong Son (12hrs), Pai(6hrs) & Chiang Dao(3hrs) all north-west of Chiang Mai & Chiang Rai(6hrs) north of Chiang Mai.
Pai is also a good alternative as a base, as it is located between Mae Hong Son & Chiang Dao and offers quite a substantial range of various treks from this small town located on a plateau with mountains all around, this is quite a popular alternative to the bustle of Chiang Mai.
Pai really is an enchanting place, with a lovely winding river running through it, and lots of Homestay properties that follow the course of the river.
A few suggestions & tips to ensure you get the best from your trek:
1. What is the right size of trekking group?
It should always be less than 10 people, ideally 6-8 is a nicely balanced group size.
2. Who is the leader?
Trekking alone in the mountains around Northern Thailand is NOT advised, use the services of a registered guide, all registered guides have to undertake a month’s training at the University of Chiang Mai before receiving certification.
Make sure your tour operator confirms that they are also registered with T.A.T.(Tourism Authority of Thailand) before handing any money over. The T.A.T. has strict guidelines the agencies must follow to insure the trekker receives the best service with good reliable guides.
You could also ask to see recommendation letters from previous satisfied “trekkies”, this is common practice and they are used to it.
3. How long are the treks?
It's really up to you, the shortest ones are just a few hours, the longest ones can be a couple of weeks, the most popular are the one & two day treks, the one day treks are typically for the people that don’t want “too much culture” ie staying out overnight, sleeping on a mat, covered by a mozzy net, eating “local” food!!
The two day treks are definitely for the hardier types who have more of the “explorer” instincts. But again it really depends on what you want from your trek you can include white-water rafting, riding elephants, bamboo rafting, jungle trekking, kayaking etc, etc.
4. Where will we stay?
Accommodation & food on ALL overnight treks is “basic”, thats half the fun, beds typically are mats made of straw with just blankets & a mosquito net to cover you, food is typically rice (with everything), fish & vegetables. It is a good idea to take chocolates, snacks & fizzy drinks with you as you will be burning a lot of energy, and some people will not take to the local food as well as others.
5. What will I need to take with me?
Things to bring(you can get all of these things cheaply in Chiang Mai)
- Small backpack / rucksack
- Warm, weatherproof clothing (particularly from Nov. to Feb)
- Sun block
- Lightweight raincoat / plastic poncho
- Sandals (Teva or Teva-style is good for walking through the river - as long as you don't need ankle support these are good for the whole trek for most of the year.)
- Sturdy weatherproof footwear with good grips (not essential if you are happy walking in Tevas).
- Socks (for the evenings)
- Long trousers / pants are good for parts of the trek (the ones where you can unzip the legs are ideal)
- Torch / Flashlight (+ extra batteries)
- Insect Repellant
- Some people like to bring along a cotton sheet / cotton sleeping bag liner for sleeping in / under.
- Money for soft drinks / beers / handicrafts / tips (small notes can be useful)
6. What is the best time of year to go?
Chiang Mai area generally has excellent weather throughout the year, however avoid June – October as that is the rainy season, outside of that period is fine, if you choose December or January make sure you take plenty of spare clothes, it can get very chilly during the winter nights !!
7. How to choose which trek?
You need to first of all decide what you want included, also do you want "rigorous" trekking, or something "easier" more like a ramble.
Ensure you get exactly what you want, don’t be hurried or pushed by the agents, there are plenty to choose from. Don’t just go for the cheapest trek, weigh everything up carefully, if its too cheap corners are cut which will usually result in a disappointing result.
8. What will it cost?
Costs vary tremendously as you would expect, but purely to be used as a guide(based upon 6-8 people): 1x full day tour - typically 2,500/3,000thb/person 2x full day trek - typically 2,000thb/person/day 3x full day trek - typically 1,500/2,000thb/person/day
But remember, its not about getting the cheapest price, its ALL about finding the right ingredients within the trek that you want, along with the "demands" of the trek to meet your own fitness levels.
By following these simple guidelines & suggestions will hopefully ensure that you take home lots of fond memories of your time in Chiang Mai “Rose of the North”.