Hiking the Northern Hills of Chiang Mai, Thailand:

27 January 2012

By Guest Writer Matthew Nunn
Chiang Mai is a vital and popular node in the tourist network for Thailand and the greater South East region. Travellers come here to escape the tourist centric and crowded Bangkok as well as the picturesque and often lively Southern Thai Islands. Here you can expect to find a more culture rich atmosphere, whereby Chiang Mai trades on the traditional notions of Thai culture, the hustle and bustle of its markets and the historic nature of the ancient City’s walls and moat.

A heavily visited location, it doesn’t necessarily flaunt the jet setter scene of other popular destinations the world over, but thrives on the traveler atmosphere of those looking for a more authentic travel experience. Many enjoy being part of this transient community. For those who feel that Thailand has been pounded a little too much by the tourist footprint in the last 2 decades, the hills that surround Chiang Mai effectively combat this notion. Trekking this area will, aside from your guide, the host village, and your small group, remove you from civilization and any tourist influences.


The Northern Hills offer plenty of isolation for travellers looking to escape the crowd
The hills are well accessed by road, but this consists more of steep, solid solitary access roads rather than a sprawling road network. Consequently, once removed from transportation and heading into the jungle you are entering a stunning, isolated and remote region. This is hiking in its purest form; trails are minimal, there isn’t a sign post in existence and a willingness to clamber, slide, swim and grapple with the environment is required.

This is not to say the trek is unforgiving, but instead fairly challenging for anyone in reasonable condition. Although travel to here is easy, the ensuing time that you spend in the hills is not so effortless. Trekkers pack minimal provisions, focusing on essentials such as; a spare set of suitable clothing, insect repellant, sun screen and plenty of bottled water.

The Hill Region
There are 5 main hill tribes populating the area all with their own unique history and traditions. The Tribes are; the Lahu, the Akha, the Karen, the Lisu and the Hmong. Traditional art, dress and song will vary by each tribe, however they are not alone. There are many other villages and huts dotted around the hills that, due to the vast and remote nature of the location, manage to preserve their isolation. It can be a startling yet welcoming site to clamber over a rock or stumble through a bush and find a wooden hut nestled into the landscape, complete with pigs, dogs and sometimes agricultural land.

Periodically you will stumble across isolated settlements
The inhabitants of these dwellings are also known for having skilled Elephant herders. This is sometimes a contentious issue as degrees of animal cruelty occur in some people’s eyes, but the herders are dedicated to their trade, living and sleeping 24 hours with their animals. In the lower regions of the hills these elephants are often ridden by tourists on trails nimbly navigated by the animals. 

Scaling to the tops of these hills opens up breath taking views of dense lush jungle, allowing you to peek out of the canopy that envelops you at lower altitudes on the hills. If your trek takes you in the right direction you also have the opportunity to see the Thai-Burma border in the distance.

The Thai-Burma Border in the distance
Walking down from these heights will often involve slippery muddy slopes, rushing streams and may require grabbing onto the thin tall trees. Wildlife is pretty adept at concealing itself, but there are several large species of spider present which can often be seen around the villages when you stop to rest. The locals populate the area with their dogs and pigs, as well as the aforementioned elephants.

The environment is dominated by dense, lush vegetation that is only accessible on foot
Following the hills downwards takes you past conveniently located waterfalls for a cool down and as the landscape levels out more and agricultural farms start to pop up, many trekkers then head for a bamboo rafting session. The vastness of the region means you can venture around for an extensive period of time, but there is still the accessibility in place for a brief trip. Heading back to the city of Chiang Mai offers plenty, from tracking down the rich history of this region which has seen many a contest between Burma and Thailand over the centuries, to reveling in the modern Thai culture, something the city sells itself on as the unofficial second city of Thailand.

Author Bio – Matthew completed his first RTW trip in 2011 and has been travel blogging since. He plans to explore the Indian subcontinent in 2012. He is also a regular contributor to Top Travel Blogs.

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