Chiang Mai Trekking

Students on trek

Table of Contents

The difference between trekking and hiking

Before we talk about Chiang Mai Trekking, we have to make clear what “trekking” is. Trekking means to go on a long, difficult and tiring journey, typically on foot in remote areas where there are usually no means of transport available. You walk for several days, usually on uncharted trails, in challenging environments which are likely to be hilly or mountainous. Hiking is an outdoor activity of walking in beautiful natural environments on trails. These are, in general, the different descriptions of trekking and hiking you find online.

In this article I will talk about trekking in the early days, the historical context of tourism and how trekking can still be a great experience nowadays.

Guide with tourists in the forest Chiang Mai Jungle Trekking Huai Nam Dang Chiang Mai trekking areas
Huai Nam Dang jungle

Chiang Mai Trekking in 1990

When I visited Chiang Mai in the late 80s as a backpacker, trekking was huge. Every guesthouse offered multiple day trekking to hill tribe villages. Tourism in Chiang Mai was still in its infancy. In 1990, I made my first trekking as tour leader of a tour group from the Netherlands. The program took four days. We drove in trekking trucks to Thaton, where we boarded local boats for the ride on the Kok River to Ban Ruammitr. From there we rode elephants to a Red Lahu village.

The second night we spent in a Yao (Mien) village on a mountain top, from where we could observe the lights of Chiang Rai after dark. From there we walked down to an Akha village, where we spent the last night. On the fourth day, we drove back to Chiang Mai via Mae Suay and Mae Khachan. Of course, we stopped at Charin Garden Resort for cakes and coffee, which was a real treat for my guests.

Bamboo rafting and elephant riding

Trekking in the early days was in many respects very different from what it has become now. Villages were difficult to reach. There were no toilet facilities sometimes and no bottled water for sale. My guests had to carry their own luggage, but porters were available in the first village. As my groups were usually 20 people, our entourage sometimes counted almost 35 people, including guests, porters, guides and me.

The elephant riding was optional, so the guides could make some extra money. Usually, everyone made the elephant ride, which was seen as something you have to experience once in your life. Such was the attraction of riding elephants. On most trekking trips, bamboo rafting was included as well. After the Thailand trip, which took four weeks, most of my guests mentioned the trekking as the highlight of the trip.

The history of Chiang Mai Trekking

It is not clear who organized the first tourist trekking out of Chiang Mai. In the1960s there were only a few tour operators in Chiang Mai such Sri Nakornping Tours and Tommie’s Tour Agency. As far as we know, these companies didn’t offer trekking as we know it now. When American tourist Nick DeWolf visited Chiang Mai in 1972, he didn’t join a trekking. He rented a motorbike and visited indigenous Hmong and Karen villages on his own. In 1975 Maureen and Tony Wheeler published their first guidebook “Southeast Asia on a Shoestring”, a book that became known as the “yellow bible”. Those were the early days of backpacking. An increasing amount of young, adventurous people, mostly from western countries, started to travel through Southeast Asia following in the footsteps of Tony and Maureen. Those were also the early days of trekking in Chiang Mai.

Don Oppedijk Thailand Trekking Chiang Mai Trekking
Don Oppedijk and his friends during their trek in North Thailand in 1977

Don Oppedijk goes trekking in 1977

In the later ’70s, guesthouses in Chiang Mai offered trekking. Dutch Photographer Don Oppedijk made his first trip to Chiang Mai in 1977. With his fellow backpackers, he stayed in the Je T’aime Guesthouse on Huay Kaew Road. The guesthouse had an in-house trekking company called Orbit Tribal Trekking.

Don and his friends embarked on a trekking to remote villages. On those pictures of the early days of trekking, we didn’t see elephant riding and bamboo rafting. Most likely, these activities started to be included in trekking trips in the late 80s and 90s.

The infrastructure that catered to backpackers grew quickly. Entrepreneurial locals tapped into the market by opening guesthouses and restaurants for the growing number of young travelers. Guesthouses in Chiang Mai started offering trekking trips 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 minorities aka hill tribes such as the Hmong, Lisu, Karen, Lahu and Yao. Most of these groups cultivated, traded 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.

What has changed in more than 30 years?

In 1988 the conditions in the villages were very basic. In some villages, there were no sanitary facilities. We had to swim in the river or scoop water and douse ourselves in public, wearing swimsuits. There were no toilets, so one had to find a private place in the forest to relieve one self. There was no clean drinking water, so we had to boil water and carry water canteens. In most villages there was no electricity.

Our guests had to carry everything themselves, including sleeping bags. On most days, there were porters available who would carry the luggage for a small fee. There were only dirt roads between villages, that were impassable during the rainy season. As said, elephant riding was a standard activity and not controversial at all.

Nowadays, there are toilets in every village, with sometimes a western seating toilet. In every village you can buy bottled water, soft drinks and beer. In most cases we transfer luggage from village to village by motorbike as there are now roads between villages. Overall, the experience has become much more comfortable than before but hasn’t lost its charm.

Villages and infrastructure have developed

Apart from the trekking experience in the village, the living conditions in the village have improved dramatically in the past 30 years. In every village there are usually a number of “traditional” bamboo and wooden houses, but many houses will be brick and mortar with roof tiles. Most villages now have electricity. There are almost no villages anymore where a vehicle can’t get to, and in most villages you will spot at least a couple of pickup trucks.

Although in most villages, you will see people wear traditional dress, the majority of the villagers will wear standard “western” dress like trousers, t-shirts and so on. Taking photographs of people in traditional dress has become more difficult, but we have found a solution for that. We have made arrangements with local people so that they will pose in their traditional dress for a photograph. There is no other way.  

Hill tribe woman with kids Chiang Mai Trekking
Akha Loimi woman with children in 1981

Chiang Mai Trekking activities in 2024

With the explosive growth of tourism worldwide and the advent of the internet, people started to question the development and status of tourism. One of the activities that became in many people’s eyes unacceptable was riding an elephant. There was a wave of negative publicity regarding the role of elephants in tourism. People didn’t only question elephant riding, but also elephant shows and the way elephants in captivity were treated in general. Elephant riding was a part of trekking programs, but that is not the case anymore. We stopped offering elephant rides in 2012.

Bamboo rafting is still possible but only on a few places such as the Mae Taman, Mae Taeng and Mae Wang rivers. The rafts are used several times so bamboo rafting is now regarded as “sustainable”. We offer bamboo rafting in several programs. For many years, the best bamboo rafting trip takes place the Mae Taeng River in Huay Nam Dang National Park. We offer a two-day, a three-day and a four-day trekking trip and all include the legendary raft trip to Sob Kai on the last day.

Tourists on bamboo rafts
Bamboo rafting on the Wang River