Travelogue: Trekking in Chiang Mai

According to a friend who lives in Chiang Mai, there are four main reasons to visit this city – cooking, elephants, motorbiking around, and trekking.  And trekking is the most famous, and one of the biggest reasons tourists have come to Chiang Mai over the years.  And so, I booked a trekking tour!  For only ~$50, I spent three days trekking around Chiang Mai, with 7 new friends.
Chiang Mai trekking - panorama view

To be honest, the trekking was easier – and a lot more enjoyable – than I expected.  On my 3 climb of Mount Rinjani in Indonesia, it was a pretty serious climb every day, with maybe 8 solid hours of climbing per day (plus an extra 4 hours for the sunrise hike to the summit).  In contrast, here in Chiang Mai, trekking is easy, even relaxed.
Chiang Mai trekking - sunset

The trek started off on a high note – with an elephant ride!  It wasn’t a full on elephant camp (where you can ‘train’ the elephants and swim with them), but a half hour elephant ride was still an amazing experience.
Chiang Mai trekking - elephant riding 2

Sitting on top of the elephant and having it walk is a strange experience – it’s like riding a horse, but much more unsteady, as the elephant bounces up and down.    Sitting on that platform (and not straddling the elephant’s neck), you can feel every step.  It’s especially tricky when the elephant goes uphill or downhill – you find yourself sitting on a slanted surface, holding on for dear life.
Chiang Mai trekking - elephant over river Chiang Mai trekking - elephant view from top

And with every five steps it takes, it begs you for food, for bananas.  And of course, there are vendors ready, selling you bananas and bamboo cane for the elephant’s enjoyment.  I rather felt bad for the elephants – to milk the most money out of tourists, I bet the elephants are kept hungry before tourists arrive, so they beg the most for food.
Chiang Mai trekking - elephant feeding 1 Chiang Mai trekking - elephant feeding 2

Oh, and we also walked through a shallow river – at which point, the elephant promptly had itself a drink, and then sprayed those of us on its back – for not feeding it enough bananas, apparently.

And of course, you have to make sure you don’t drop your camera – otherwise, the elephant will happily stomp it into the dust.  I’m pretty sure warranties do not cover acts of elephant.

Elephants!  Including some ridiculously cute baby elephants!

The other folks in my group also had lots of fun riding on the elephants – including one adventurous girl who moved from the seat onto the elephant’s neck!

And with that elephant ride, day 1 of the trek started!  The trail it self was pretty easy and stress-free:

And the scenery was also quite nice!

And although we spent a long time hiking, it was interspersed with a lot of rivers and waterfalls.  Rivers were easy to cross – just walk across the tree trunk!  I was all fancy and didn’t bother to use the handrail.

And of course, where there is a river, there is a waterfall.  We stopped, rested at, and jumped into three waterfalls just on the first day!
Chiang Mai trekking - day 1 waterfall 1 Chiang Mai trekking - day 1 waterfall 2

We also came across a… lime orchard?  I picked a couple, and added them to my bottled water.  Amazingly refreshing.
Chiang Mai trekking - day 1 orchard Chiang Mai trekking - lime tree

And at night?  We didn’t bring tents, sleeping bags, or camping equipment, so the guide brought us to one of the hill tribe villages, where we slept in a separate building.
Chiang Mai trekking - night 1 local village 1 Chiang Mai trekking - night 1 local village 2

The local kids were very friendly.  And we had a fireplace!  It got surprisingly cold at night, so we huddled around the fireplace, and listened to the two Kiwi girls talk about growing up in hippie communities in New Zealand.  Apparently, if you mentioned “the hippie school” in NZ, everyone knows what you’re talking about?  Lots of singing, art, and other self expression early on in elementary school, with formal education not starting until later.  I’m rather jealous!
Chiang Mai trekking - night 1 local kids Chiang Mai trekking - night 1 fireplace

Oh, and did I mention food was included?  Dinner and breakfast:
Chiang Mai trekking - dinner Chiang Mai trekking - breakfast

The next day, day 2, our trekking continued!  It was still a very comfortable walk, and the hike went through several villages.

The views were quite nice.
Chiang Mai trekking - day 2 scenery 1 Chiang Mai trekking - day 2 scenery 2

Also, river crossings?
Chiang Mai trekking - day 2 bridge crossing 1 Chiang Mai trekking - day 2 river crossing 1

And just like yesterday, there were a lot of waterfalls:

Five of us climbed up onto the waterfall, and did the macarena!  Unfortunately, the event was not captured on film, but here’s another shot of us frolicking in the waterfalls:
Photo 2014-03-15 13 55 58

Lunch was at one of the waterfalls – where the guide put on a snorkel, jumped into the pool, and used a spearfish to catch a couple of fish to accompany our fried noodles!  We had plenty of time, so we had a relaxed lunch, jumping into the pool and climbing up the waterfall.

One of my new friends only booked a 2 day trek (I originally did the same, then extended to a 3 day once I discovered how awesome it was), so we had to part.  But we parted as bros.
Chiang Mai trekking - day 2 portrait with Atzedo 1

Oh!  The guide found for us some kind of an edible underground spider- which he proceeded to catch, grill, and eat.  I was incredibly tempted to try a bite, but couldn’t risk my silkworm cocoon allergies flaring up in the middle of a trek.

And just like the first night, we passed the night in a local hill tribe village.

It was right next to a river and pool, so we spent the evening lounging about – and shopping!  Some villagers were selling silk scarves and native vestments, so I got myself a very nice new scarf – the 4th one I’ve purchased on this trip!

That night, we had music, we had dancing, we had a raging good time.
Chiang Mai trekking - dancing in the moonlight

On the third day, we set out to finish our trek, and the scenery was again quite nice.
Chiang Mai trekking - day 3 scenery 1 Chiang Mai trekking - day 3 scenery 2

And as before, river crossing and waterfalls.  The last waterfall was a good 10 meters high – and I jumped it.  It was scary as hell – climbing onto the ledge, gingerly climbing to the top amongst a pile a dead leaves, hoping that I wouldn’t slip, then gathering up your courage to jump into the waterfall with a piercing battle cry…

And finally, to cap off this trekking adventure, we went on a bamboo rafting adventure!  Or rather, it would have been an adventure during the wet season.  During the dry season, the boats are rather unimpressive – always getting stuck, moving very slowly, and being very disappointing in general.  Still, I can see how awesome it would have been during the wet season – floating down the river, stopping at bamboo platforms on the side of the river to buy snacks and rest in the shade, joining all the kids in a huge water fight…

All in all, this trekking thing was pretty awesome.  A former trekking guide confided in me that there are four types of trails, so you should make sure you pick a good one.
1) the most popular trail to the Northwest of Chiang Mai, filled with trekkers.  You’ll have lots of company, but not much of a sense of solitude

2) A less-traveled trail to the Southwest of Chiang Mai, with a bit more solitude.  I went on this one, and quite enjoyed us.

3) A rougher trail to the Northeast of Chiang Mai, requring much more trekking, but quite deserted.

4) A cheap (but cheating) trail that simply doubles back upon itself, and doesn’t really pass through any interesting sights.  Avoid.

Bits and bobs:
– A pig.  On a leash.  Chained beneath a raised house.  Only in Thailand, I suppose?
Chiang Mai trekking - pig on leash

– I’m not sure what these two Swedish girls are doing.  It doesn’t look like a Swedish massage…
Chiang Mai trekking - Helena and Sofie

– This is how you get changed when you don’t have a changing room.  Being a hippie may also help.
Chiang Mai trekking - getting changed

– Nice hats!
Chiang Mai trekking - Sofie and Pip with hats Chiang Mai trekking - Sofie with hat

– Where did my hat go?  Who stole my hat?
Chiang Mai trekking - cowgirl Helena

– That horse is a little bit too small for you, even if you’re a hippie:
Chiang Mai trekking - pip riding horse

– Tiger balm ointment is pretty ubiquitous in southeast Asia, but this is the tiger balm plant!
Chiang Mai trekking - tiger balm plant

– The guide showed us this tree and its back – extremely flammable, apparently, and great for starting fires!  For, you know, cooking.
Chiang Mai trekking - easy to burn tree

– We encountered a lot of anthills – both traditional anthills and ant colonies in trees.  One of the trekking members had this thing, where he always had to poke at these ant colonies.
Chiang Mai trekking - ants on tree Chiang Mai trekking - ant hill poking

– Oxen?  Oxen!
Chiang Mai trekking - oxen 1 Chiang Mai trekking - oxen 2

– Jonathan the adventurer:
Photo 2014-03-17 10 54 13

3 thoughts on “Travelogue: Trekking in Chiang Mai”

  1. There is so much terrible treatment of the elephants here. These intelligent and gentle animals are not built to haul tourists on their backs. Google “Why elephant trekking is bad”
    If you want to spend time with an elephant check out Elephant Nature Park (Chiang Mai, Thailand) and their associates.
    If you see chains on the animals where ever you end up run, don’t walk, away.
    You got an afternoon of fun and animal abuse. The elephants get a lifetime of pain with broken legs, hips, and backs.

    1. I’m agreeing with you here – it’s a very shady industry, elephant riding. To be fair, I didn’t sign up for elephant riding- I thought I was doing a trek, and got surprise elephants.

      But as a side note, be wary of the “eco-friendly” elephant parks – a friend who works in the industry in Chiang Mai confided in me that the elephants are really treated about the same in those places, it’s just that they’re a lot better at doing PR and marketing.

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