Chiang Mai Trekking – a short history

Chiang Mai Trekking Akha Children Akha hill tribe

Chiang Mai Trekking

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. Thai people 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 (the book was nicknamed the “Yellow Bible”) and Thailand: A Travel Survival Kit by Joe Cummings.

two Lonely Planet guidebooks
Thailand Travel Survival Kit from 1984 and the Yellow Bible from 1981

The infrastructure that catered to backpackers grew quickly. Entrepreneurial locals tapped into the market by opening guesthouses and restaurants for the young travelers. Guesthouses in Chiang Mai started offering trekkings into the mountains to their guests. The typical 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 trip on a bamboo raft.

Trekking changes

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, Chiang Rai, Doi Inthanon and even in remote areas such as Mae Hong Son. In those days it was impossible to sell a trekking in Chiang Mai 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.

Still trekking is a very popular activity for tourists visiting North Thailand. In the past four day trekkings, or even longer, were not unusual. Nowadays most visitors choose a one day or two day trek.

Guide and guests during bike trip
George, one of our guides, and some of our guests.