Photo: Just keep walking.

Hilltribe trekking from Chiang Mai

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Once upon a time if you wanted to go trekking in Thailand you headed to Chiang Mai, and if you travelled to Chiang Mai it was usually because you were intending to go on a trek. Things have changed.

Chiang Mai has become a destination in its own right with a wide range of alternative activities on offer, and at the same time, many alternative trekking destinations such as Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son and especially Pai, not to mention neighbouring Laos, have opened up. Tastes have also changed and the traditional three-day trek with inclusive elephant ride, bamboo rafting and overnight in remote hilltribe villages doesn’t have the same cachet among backpackers that it did 20 years ago. One-day programmes are now at least as popular.

Left right left right... Photo taken in or around Hilltribe trekking from Chiang Mai, Chiang Mai, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Left right left right... Photo: Mark Ord

Travellers today perhaps aren’t as prepared to rough it in a basic bamboo Lisu hut as they used to be, and prefer doing day hikes out of a chic boutique hilltribe lodge instead. It’s also worth noting that remote villages and untouched wild areas just don’t really exist anymore. Back in the day, Chiang Mai villagers seemed genuinely surprised to see foreigners, and we once trekked through some pretty wild areas including fields full of opium poppies—now long gone.

These days while it’s well-tamed adventure, it can still be a great experience. Some popular budget spots as well as top-end hotels and resorts may have their own in-house guide and programmes, but there are still quite a few specialist trekking operators around town.

There is not always a bridge on hand. Photo taken in or around Hilltribe trekking from Chiang Mai, Chiang Mai, Thailand by Mark Ord.

There is not always a bridge on hand. Photo: Mark Ord

Popular choices for trekking these days are districts such as Mae Wang, Mae Taeng and Chiang Dao. The three-day, two-night format is popular, alongside one-day programmes, and they generally include some bamboo rafting (the Taeng and Wang Rivers are both ideal in this respect) and overnight stays in hilltribe villages. Mountain biking, ziplining or bathing with elephants are popular inclusions.

Selecting your trek is like choosing a cookery school, and at the end of the day, regardless of itinerary or guide, success or failure can boil down to group dynamics. Most trekking operations have websites so have a look through then pop into the corresponding office for a chat and more details. Take your time, and try to meet the designated guide beforehand. There won’t be a huge difference in prices for similar programmes, so you can disregard a few baht more or less.

Wide open spaces. Photo taken in or around Hilltribe trekking from Chiang Mai, Chiang Mai, Thailand by Stuart McDonald.

Wide open spaces. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Note that whatever the website or brochure may say, there are no un-trekked or undiscovered areas, and there is no "jungle" trekking as jungle is not an ecological system found in north Thailand. All trekking programmes should include return transfer, board and lodging for the duration of the tour and drinking water, but won’t include tips to staff or hire of any specialist trekking equipment.

One of our favourite agents, offering gimmick-free, classic-style trekking programmes is Chiangmai Trekking With Piroon. They offer set departures or tailored treks which they can adapt to any fitness levels or age groups, so they are one of the few operators to target families as well. They propose one-day, two-day and three-day treks, mainly in the Chiang Dao area. Their three-day, two-night version includes bathing with, but not riding elephants, bamboo rafting and nights in Lahu and Karen villages and costs for two or three people are 5,000 baht each, four or five people are 4,000 baht each and five to 10 are 3,500 baht each.

As with most of these trips you won’t know at time of booking the final group size or exact price. A similar but private tailored tour costs for two to three people 6,000 baht each, four to five people 5,000 baht each and more than four people, 4,000 baht each. Full programme details and information can be found on their website or pop into their Old City office.

Off for a wander in Nan province. Photo taken in or around Hilltribe trekking from Chiang Mai, Chiang Mai, Thailand by Stuart McDonald.

Off for a wander in Nan province. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Another popular bunch offering a huge range of trekking and mixed activity programmes is Green Trails. They organise join-in or private trips with a choice of themes being either the natural world—flora or fauna—with national park treks, or others emphasising cultural/hilltribe life. The latter come in two- or three-day versions with overnight stays in Karen villages in Mae Wang district. The former tend to be one-day hikes within the nearby national parks of Doi Suthep-Doi Pui and Doi Inthanon. All trips have a minimum of two and maximum of 10 participants, and prices vary accordingly.

Roughly speaking, the three-day version goes for 2,000 to 4,000 baht per person and one day is 1,000 to 1,200 baht. In high season, the latter have scheduled departure days. Their website is comprehensive, though one drawback with Green Trails is that they don’t have a downtown office. You are more than welcome to visit them but the office is in a business park out on Mahidol Soi 6 near Wiang Khum Kham. Perhaps it’s not so important for a shorter trek but if you’re considering a three-day trek, call them and you should be able to meet up in town with one of their staff.

Chiang Mai Trekking With Piroon: 12 Ratchaphakhinai Rd, Phra Singh; T: (053) 115 906;(081) 961 1015;
Green Trails, Chiang Mai Trekking and Hiking Tours: 111/70 K-Park Business Mahidol Road, Nong Hoi; T: (053) 141 356;

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