Thailand is naturally a popular destination for backpackers. Beautiful idyllic islands, crystal clear waters and the odd crazy beach party. The majority of this frivolity happens down south however, Northern Thailand has just as much beauty to offer, albeit beauty of a very different kind.
Chiang Mai is nestled in the mountain ranges of the Thai highlands. At it’s base is a big city full of bars and markets, while the city’s main temple Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is rather impressive and worth the trek (or bus ride) up the hill. It’s the vast area surrounding Chiang Mai though that offers the most to visitors, and there is no shortage of Chiang Mai trekking tours on offer.
Editor’s note: If you are trekking in Chiang Mai be sure to check out our guide on where to stay in Chiang Mai.
My Chiang Mai Trekking Experience
A friend and I rocked up at Spicy Thai Backpackers, located just outside of the city center keen to get out and explore. Having heard wildly varied reviews of local tour companies around these parts, we knew we had to choose wisely. After a few days of hanging out with the manager of our hostel we figured he seemed trustworthy enough to ask for recommendations. It just so happened he himself was running a tour, so we asked how was different to others. He told us simply, ‘it does not exploit anyone’.
Many trekking tours promise a chance to meet ‘the real locals’ with brochures showing photos of women with metal rings around their necks and guys with spears through their cheeks. While true that these rituals are practiced by many of the mountain tribes, a lot of the time it is simply done to bring in the tourist money. They are almost putting on a show, for visitors to gawk at, and this was certainly something we wanted to avoid. We knew there was quite a lot of poverty in this area, but figured there must have been a better way to help out. Our hostel manager said that we would round up bags of donated clothes and take them to some of the less fortunate villagers who live in relative isolation, so we joined his tour.
Our Chiang Mai trekking group consisted of me, my friend and around 8 other backpackers…all guys! We all loaded into a big 4×4 truck and made our way outside the city. Once out on the quieter open road, we were offered the chance to sit on the roof. This was quite an exhilarating experience, we were going fairly fast and the view from up there was stunning. I felt safe doing this until unbeknownst to the driver we passed under a pretty low hanging tree and I got a bit of branch in my face. I got down shortly after that.
We pulled over next to a river and saw two inflatable rafts. Our guide hadn’t really informed us much about the trip, we just knew we’d be visiting the area and the rest was left for a surprise. Turns out he was about to take us white water rafting! We could have easily driven to our next checkpoint but the guide decided this way would be a lot more fun. And it was. We divided up into two teams and the water race began. The rapids weren’t too crazy, the levels were fairly low, but the scenery was incredible and almost made me forget I was still in Thailand.
This little river ride took us to our camp for the night. We still hadn’t done any trekking, but the day had been awesome so far. We asked what was for dinner that night and the guide replied ‘fish’, but we hadn’t seen him buy any, in fact, we hadn’t even seen any shops. When he drove us down to a lake and handed us rods and bait we realized what he meant. This was obviously how the locals did their grocery shopping, so we weren’t going to argue. We caught about 10 fish between us, I think I caught one and the guide the other nine, but at least we had enough not to wouldn’t go hungry. Oh yeah, we also had a go at trying out fried insects-a local delicacy over there. YUM.
The next day we rose early and made our way, this time on foot, further up into the hills. Our guide was well known around these parts, he was from a big family who was popular in the area. They knew whenever he brought tourists to the villages, it was always with the best of intentions and every spot we visited he was welcomed with open arms. It was amazing to visit these towns. You could see there was not much money in the area; people’s homes were often wooden shacks, there wasn’t always electricity or running water, but you could clearly see these people looked happy. A world away from our western lives and our western needs; they had a roof over their heads, they had food and they had each other, and really that’s all you need.
We handed out clothes and exchanged gifts as we visited each village. It was great to meet the locals and you could tell they were just normal people living out their everyday lives, not putting on a show for us. We met one guy whom I will never forget. He was a local basket maker, a job he had been doing for 40 years. Here he was, as always, sat outside his hut weaving baskets from bamboo he had cut down days before. He had a huge smile on his face as he worked. Our guide said he does this every day in the same spot, and when he has enough baskets someone takes them down to the market to sell them. He doesn’t make a lot, but enough to get by. His nickname is ‘the happiest man in the world’. I asked why and our guide said ‘he just really really loves making baskets’, it really was that simple. Just do what you love and you’ll be happy.
We ended our two-day tour with a fairly grueling trek uphill. The track took us to a viewpoint where we could look out across the glorious mountain range, and marvel at its natural beauty. There were no other tour groups around, it was a very peaceful and rewarding experience. We worried about how we would get back down, but it didn’t matter once our 4×4 truck pulled up, driven by the guide’s sister who’d also brought us all nice cold beers. A great end to a great day and an amazing adventure.
Related: Trekking in Thailand Top Tips
Chiang Mai Trekking Cost
Varies depending on the length of tour and activities involved. Expect to pay at least $100 for a decent two-hour tour though.
What to Bring for Trekking in Chiang Mai
All trekking tours will vary, but remember you’re up in the mountains and you’ll likely be walking lots bring;
- Pack for all weather conditions. It will be hot in the day and cold and probably rainy at night.
- Decent trekking shoes.
- Snacks/water – Most meals will be included in the cost of your tour but a little chocolate bar here and there never hurt anyone.
- mosquito repellant
This was an awesome way to explore ‘the other side of Thailand’, it should definitely be added to your Thai itinerary. Picking the right tour here is crucial though, speak to other backpackers and find out their experiences first. Whilst I can highly recommend the tour with Spicy Thai Backpackers, this is not a regular excursion, just something the manager operates when he has time. If it’s not running he will recommend another decent operator. The things you want to ask before signing up are which villages you go to, what will you see and how are the locals treated? These are people who do not deserve to be exploited, they are not circus freaks for us to go and take photos of, they are people just like us and they should be respected as such. While your money may be helping them make a living, find out how it is distributed before signing up.
Related: Ultimate Thailand Packing List
The other thing you should avoid is any groups that also offer elephant tours. No matter what anyone may tell you, elephants used in this industry are treated very poorly. They are separated from their mothers at an early age and often beaten into submission so they are tame enough to offer rides. The golden rule when travelling through Asia is to avoid any activity that involves animals. There are however numerous animal shelters that help animals rescued from this industry. The Elephant Nature Park is a reputable elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai so please go visit them if you’d like to see some elephants on this trip-or go eat some bugs instead.