Chiang Mai Trekking – a history

Chiang Mai Trekking Akha Children

In Chiang Mai trekking was one of the few activities available for tourists in the eighties. It is not sure who organized the first Chiang Mai trekking. That must have been in the late 70’s, early 80’s. Tourism in those days was nothing like it is now. In Chiang Mai there were a number of tourist hotels such as Rincome, Railway Hotel, Poy Luang, Pornping and so on. Thais were hardly traveling in their country. This period saw the first intrepid backpackers arrive on the scene. It was the heyday of the Lonely Planet guidebooks: Southeast Asia on a Shoestring by Tony Wheeler and Thailand: A Travel Survival Kit by Joe Cummings. The infrastructure that catered to backpackers grew quickly. Entrepreneurial locals tapped into the market by opening guesthouses and restaurants for the young travelers. Guesthouse in Chiang Mai started offering trekkings into the mountains to their guests. The typical Chiang Mai trekking in those days were often three or four days and included hiking in the jungle and overnights in villages of exotic tribal minorities aka hill tribes such as Hmong, Lisu, Karen, Lahu and Yao. Many of these tribal people cultivated and used opium. On most treks smoking opium was offered to trekkers at one stage. It was part of the adventure. Most treks included a ride on a bamboo raft.

At a somewhat later stage elephant riding became an integral part of the Chiang Mai trekking. Elephant camps started to appear in the major trekking areas such as Huay Nam Dang, Mae Taeng, Doi Inthanon, Chiang Rai and even in remote areas such as Mae Hong Son. In those days it was impossible to sell a Chiang Mai trekking that didn’t include bamboo rafting and elephant riding. Times have changed.

Much of the jungle has disappeared. The elephant camps in trekking areas are not there anymore. Few villagers still wear traditional dress. Smoking opium is not possible anymore and, in fact, illegal.