Photo: Just keep walking.

Hill-tribe trekking from Chiang Mai

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Time was when trekking was the be all and end all for Chiang Mai and if you wanted to go trekking in Thailand you headed up here and if you travelled to Chiang Mai it was because you were intending to go on a trek—things have changed.

Photo of Hill-tribe trekking from Chiang Mai

These days the city has become a destination in its own right with a wide range of alternative activities on offer plus a burgeoning bar and restaurant scene. Secondly many alternative trekking destinations such as Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son and especially Pai, not to mention neighbouring Laos, have opened up and become popular. Thirdly tastes have changed and the old style, traditional three day trek with inclusive elephant ride, bamboo rafting and overnight in remote hill-tribe villages doesn’t seem to have the same cachet among backpackers that it did 20 or 30 years ago. If you trawl through agents’ offerings or search the web then one day programmes are now at least as popular.

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 hill-tribe lodge instead. Finally those remote villages and untouched wild areas just don’t really exist anymore. At the risk of showing our age, when we first purchased an organised trek out of Chiang Mai villagers seemed genuinely surprised to see foreigners and we trekked through some pretty wild areas including fields full of opium poppies.

These days it is well-tamed adventure but it can still be a great experience and trekking brochures do still crop up amid guesthouse and travel agents’ pamphlets among the cookery school, Sedgeway tours, spa treatment and zipline ones. 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.

Destinations which originally would have been concentrated in areas relatively close to the city before moving to less touched areas farther afield such as Soppong, Mae Salong, Tha Ton and so-on have now moved back closer to Chiang Mai as the former areas get “trekked out”. Agents have had to look harder to find suitable areas and so popular choices these days are then formerly overlooked but less distant districts such as Mae Wang, Mae Taeng and Chiang Dao. This also cuts done costs and travel time making programmes more attractive.

The old three day, two night format is still popular, alongside the aforementioned one day-ers and still generally include some bamboo rafting, (the Taeng and Wang Rivers both being ideal in this respect) and overnight stays in hill-tribe villages. Elephant riding obviously features less these days but the addition of mountain biking, ziplines or bathing with elephants is on the rise.

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 will have websites these days so have a look through, pick up some brochures, then pop into the corresponding office for a chat and more details. Take your time and think carefully and try and 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; it’s not important.

Note, whatever website or brochure may say, there are no un-trekked, 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 local 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 is one of the few to target families as well. They propose one day, two day and one night plus three day treks, mainly in the Chiang Dao area. Their three day version includes bathing with, but not riding elephants, bamboo rafting and nights in a Lahu and Karen villages. Scheduled trip prices vary depending upon numbers; 2-3 persons 5,000 baht, 4-5 persons 4,000 baht and 5 to 10 3,500 baht. (All rates per person).

Of course—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; 2-3 persons, 6,000 baht per person, 4-5 persons 5,000 baht and more than 4 persons, 4,000 baht. Two day, one night goes for; 2-4 persons, 4,000, 5 persons, 3,500 and more than 5 persons 3,000 baht per person. Finally day tours are; 2-3 persons 2,500 and more than 4 persons, 2,000 per person. Full programme details and info can be found on their well-presented website or pop into their Old City office.

Another popular bunch offering a huge range of trekking and mixed activities 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/hill-tribe 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 with the nearby national parks of Doi Suthep-Doi Pui and Doi Inthanon as settings. All trips have a minimum of two and maximum of 10 participants and prices vary accordingly.

Roughly speaking the three day version goes for between 2,000 and 4,000 per person and one day 1-1,200 baht. In high season the latter have scheduled departure days. Again 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 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 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

What next?

 Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Chiang Mai.
 Check prices, availability & reviews on Agoda or Booking
 Read up on where to eat on Chiang Mai.
 Check out our listings of other things to do in and around Chiang Mai.
 Read up on how to get to Chiang Mai, or book your transport online with 12Go Asia.
 Do you have travel insurance yet? If not, find out why you need it.
 Planning on riding a scooter in Chiang Mai? Please read this.

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