Guide with tourists in the forest Chiang Mai Jungle Trekking
Huay Nam Dang jungle

Chiang Mai Jungle Trekking and Forest Bathing

A Chiang Mai Jungle Trekking or a Chiang Mai Jungle Trek became a favourite activity for, first backpackers and then tourists. In the days before there were ziplines, mountain bike tours, whitewater rafting and elephant experiences, a jungle trekking was one of the main attractions of North Thailand. These multiple-day adventures usually featured one or more overnights in hilltribe villages, bamboo rafting and elephant riding. It was not unusual that tourists went jungle trekking for four days/three nights or sometimes even longer. Because there is now a plethora of other activities available to choose from visitors most tourists go on shorter treks: one or two days.

There used to be elephant camps in trekking areas but they have mostly disappeared. Many tourists don’t want to ride elephants anymore. Trekking is not as popular as it used to be. In the perception of many people, it has lost some of its charm. Many villages can now be reached by vehicle and have electricity. The times that all the children of the village came to a house to stare at strange visitors are over. Still, Chiang Mai Jungle Trekking can be of the highlights of your trip.

This article is about jungle and forest trekking. If you are more interested in hill tribe culture, just have a look here.

The Jungle according to Reginald Le May

How do we define jungle and is there jungle in North Thailand? One of the most common definitions of the jungle is “land overgrown with tangled vegetation at ground level, especially in the tropics”. Yes, there is still plenty of jungle in North Thailand.

This definition draws a distinction between primary forest and jungle. The under-storey of primary tropical forests is typically open of vegetation due to a lack of sunlight. Because of this, it is relatively easy to traverse.  Former British consul Reginald Le May described the forests of northern Thailand in his book An Asian Arcady, published in 1925…..

“Overhead the branches of the giant trees met, shading us from the rays of the sun and keeping the air delightfully cool. The rippling stream, the small cascades tumbling over the rocks, and the song of the birds all combined to make us feel the joy of life, and our spirits respond to the brightness of the scene. Many have sung their hymns in praise of the forest life, but it is only those who have actually come under its spell that can realise the peculiar fascination and beauty of a tropical forest.”

We agree: the tropical forest has this wonderful attraction: we are addicted to it!

Trees with a view of mountains and forests North Thailand flora
Huay Nam Dang National Park vista

Primary forest is not jungle

Poor penetration of sunlight to ground level restricts the undergrowth in some areas of tropical forests.  Natural events such as hurricanes or human activity such as logging can destroy or thin the leaf canopy of a primary forest. A dense, tangled growth of vines, shrubs and small trees then colonise the ground beneath. This creates what we call a jungle. Jungles may exist within or at the borders of, tropical forests. The successional vegetation that springs up following such disturbance of rainforest or seasonal tropical forest is dense and impenetrable. Tropical seasonal forests, such as in North Thailand, are commonly referred to as jungles of this type. The vegetation is sometimes sufficiently dense to hinder movement by humans, requiring that trekking guides cut their way through.

The logging ban of 1989

Most of North Thailand’s forests have been logged at least once. There is actually no primary forest left. At the end of the 19th century, the Borneo Company and the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation were the first companies that started systematically to cut teak trees. Two other British companies, the Louis T. Leonowens Company and the Anglo-Siam Corporation, and the Swedish East Asiatic Company later joined logging the teak forests of the North.

For decades teak was a major export product of Siam, as Thailand was called at that time. At the end of the 1950s, the logging industry was nationalised. The foreign companies all left but logging went on unabated by local companies. The forests had more interesting hardwood to offer than teak only. After in 1989 stranded logs on a mountainside in the South, set in motion by a typhoon, flattened a whole village the Thai government issued a logging ban.

tree logs and a wooden bridge
Teak Logs piled up at the Khua Kula Bridge in Chiang Mai. Picture courtesy of Oliver Backhouse.

North Thailand doesn’t have rainforest

North Thailand doesn’t have rainforest. A rainforest doesn’t have a dry season. Rainforest in Thailand you can find in the deep south near the border of Malaysia, in the Hala-Bala and Bang-Lang national parks.  The forests of North Thailand are seasonal forests. There are evergreen forests close to rivers and creeks and at high elevation. Most of the forests are dry deciduous dipterocarp forests, forests that shed leaves. You can find more about North Thailand trees here.

North Thailand has a long dry season that starts at the beginning of November and lasts until the beginning of May. It rains sometimes in the beginning of November and as early as during Songkran, the Buddhist New Year. Tropical rainforests have a warm and wet climate with no substantial dry season: typically found within 10 degrees north and south of the equator.

Chiang Mai Jungle Trekking

We think trekking or hiking in a tropical, or any forest, is a spiritual experience. It relieves stress and makes you feel very good. There exists such a thing as “forest bathing”. There even are now certified forest therapy guides. Forest bathing is not about a sweaty forced march through the jungle to get as quickly as possible from A to B. You have to take your time and enjoy the natural surroundings, hear the sound of the birds and the crackling sound of the dry leaves on the ground. It is proven that this kind of activity has many benefits: it lowers blood pressure, stress levels and pulse rate.

We also highly recommend you to switch off your phone for the duration of the hike. It would be even better to do this for the whole tour. A bit of digital detox trekking is also very good for you! Some of the best areas to enjoy Chiang Mai jungle treks and forest bathing are of course national parks. We have a number of national park jungle trekkings.

Guide in the forest during Trekking at Mae Kampong Chiang Mai Jungle Trekking
Trekking at Mae Kampong

Forest bathing in the Chaeson National Park

The Chaesorn national park is only about one hour drive from Chiang Mai. We usually drive up to the Kew Fin viewpoint and then trek to the summit of Doi Lan which is less than an hour from Kew Fin. The village Mae Kampong attracts many, mostly local, tourists but they seldom venture out on the forest trails. The trek from Doi Lan to Mae Kampong is a great forest hike, ideal for some intense forest bathing. Very rarely do we meet other people on these trails in Chaeson National park. We offer a day tour as well as a two day trip with an overnight in Mae Kampong.

Great Chiang Mai Jungle Trekking

Doi Inthanon Jungle Trekking

Doi Inthanon is a fantastic national park about one and a half hours drive from Chiang Mai. For real Doi Inthanon Jungle Trekking and some serious forest bathing, a day tour will not be long enough. The famous Kew Mae Pan and Pha Dok Siew nature trails are fantastic and lovely hikes but they will not take you deep into the forest. The lovely Angka Nature Trail takes you through unique mossy cloud forest but is very short. These are well-developed and maintained trails. There is a fair chance that you will meet other trekkers which disturbs your forest bathing.

For some great Doi Inthanon forest bathing our two- and three-day treks are more suitable. You will spend hours on trails that only local people use and are not developed as tourist trails. This is the real environment for forest bathing. Overnight will be in Karen villages. Here are two real Doi Inthanon forest bathing trips:

Huay Nam Dang Jungle Trekking

Huay Nam Dang National Park offers one of the classic trekking routes in North Thailand. The park is located about 1,5 hours drive northwest of Chiang Mai. Although also here there is a chance that other trekkers will disturb your forest bathing activities but it is a fantastic forest. We would definitely recommend the three-day trekking if you really want to switch off from the outside world. The two-day trek is also very good. We will take you deep into the jungle of this huge and magnificent national park. The bamboo rafting on the Mae Taeng (Taeng River) is the best in North Thailand. You will not be disappointed. Most villages in the park are Karen and Lahu. Huay Nam Dang is great for forest bathing and jungle trekking.

Chiang Dao Jungle Trekking

This is the area east of Chiang Dao town. There are many interesting tribal villages in this area such as the Dara-ang (Palong). It is quite scenic with its limestone ranges. We offer a large number of short tours to Chiang Dao that only include limited trekking. For the real Chiang Dao Jungle Trekking, you will need more time. If you choose the three-day trek we will take you deeper into Sri Lanna National Park. We have recently been restoring some of the old jungle trails and it is really very beautiful. You will be rewarded with fantastic views of Doi Luang Chiang Dao, the third-highest mountain of the country. For Chiang Dao Jungle Trekking and Forest Bathing we would recommend this tour:

Doi Suthep Jungle Trekking

Doi Suthep Doi Pui National Park is a fantastic forest with lots of great trails. It is ideal for jungle trekking and forest bathing. On both our tours you will spend considerable time in the forest. Also here we usually don’t meet other trekkers. If you are interested in learning about tropical forests and forest restoration you have to join one of these tours. FORRU, the Forest Restoration Research Unit of Chiang Mai University, has worked with the Hmong village Ban Mae Sa Mai on the restoration of forest plots around the village. You will pass through these and witness how damaged tropical forest can be “rejuvenated”. FORRU has a small tree nursery near the village as well.

Chiang Mai Jungle Trekking is still alive and kicking! We invite you to join us forest bathing.

Two men walking the forest Chiang Mai Jungle Trekking
Exploring old trails in Chiang Dao