Chiang Mai province boasts more natural forest cover than any other in Thailand’s north, and there is no end of ways to enjoy it, whether you fancy hiking, bird-watching or river rafting.
Thai people love getting close to nature and there are national parks all over northern Thailand with soaring peaks, cascading waterfalls and enough rare birdlife to fill a twitcher’s notebook. Most have cabins or larger lodges that can be booked for overnight stays, and usually a restaurant and shop on-site.
Khun Tan, to the south, is one of the closest and is accessible by train from Chiang Mai. The train stops right by the park entrance from where it’s a short trek up through teak trees and bamboo groves to the park office – which rents cabins for 150 baht each – and marked trails through the rainforest and up the mountain.
For a glimpse of the elegant mansions of former Myanmar lumber barons, head to Lampang (about three hours by train from Chiang Mai), which became an important center for the international teak trade in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Myanmar teak merchants also sponsored the construction of more than a dozen temples, leaving an impressive legacy. Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao, for example, is decorated with glass mosaic in Myanmar style, while Baan Sao Nak is a house-turned-museum filled with Myanmar and Thai antiques.
A couple of hours’ drive south of Chiang Mai, Doi Inthanon is the country’s highest mountain (2,565m) and you can drive right to the top, pose under the signpost, then drive home. But to experience rare flora and fauna and spectacular views, walk the Ang Ka, a cloud forest trail led by guides from hill-tribes living inside the national park.
Chiang Dao National Park is a two-hour drive north of Chiang Mai. Dao means star in Thai and this mountain range is a real celebrity, all sheer cliffs and impossible angles.
Traveling east, a day out could start with a visit to Doi Sukhet temple with its quirky murals, half an hour’s drive out of Chiang Mai. A little further on, into the hills, is Baan Mae Kampong, a village clinging to the side of a precipitous mountain, with trails through the national park and a choice of lunch stops and eccentric home-stays, John’s Place, for example. On the way back to Chiang Mai, make a stop at the San Kampaeng hot springs, where geysers spout and spray scalding mist.
For a taste of life out in the sticks, a company called Asian Oasis (www.asian-oasis.com) runs all-inclusive two, three or four-day packages that include a stay in a country lodge and a range of activities, from trekking round hill tribe villages, to Thai cookery courses. Accommodation and programs are developed in full cooperation with the local community. At Lisu Lodge, in the Mae Taeng area about an hour’s drive north of Chiang Mai, all the staff are recruited from the local Lisu village and paid a wage equivalent to workers in Chiang Mai, while tribal elders are in on every new development that might affect the community they’re responsible for.
Closer to home, the Queen Sirikit Botanical Gardens (en route to Mae Rim) is Thailand’s oldest botanical garden in a scenic foothills setting; Bo Sang umbrella village is colorful, particularly during the January Umbrella Festival; and there’s not much that beats a river trip on the Mae Ping on a scorpion-tailed boat for tourist cred.
But these are the contrasts that make Chiang Mai what it is, a city now being noticed by the jet set, so don’t leave it too long to make your own trip there.
This story first appeared in the September 2013 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine, where it accompanied this article.