Thailand Trekking in the early days – the 1970’s

Thailand trekking

Thailand Trekking

Thailand trekking is the title of this article and an vital keyword as well. To trek means “to go on a long, arduous journey, typically on foot.” Others describe trekking as “ is a long journey be undertaken on foot in areas where there are usually no means of transport available. Trekking is not necessarily mountaineering; it is walking for several days, usually on uncharted paths, in challenging environments which are likely to be hilly or mountainous.” This as opposed to hiking: ”  an outdoor activity of walking in beautiful natural environments on pre-charted paths called hiking trails. There are day hikes and overnight hikes.”

The first hill tribe trekking

It is not clear who organised the first tourist trekking out of Chiang Mai. In the 60’s 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 Nick DeWolf visited Chiang Mai in 1972, he didn’t go on a trekking. He rented a motorbike and visited tribal 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 the beginning days of trekking in Chiang Mai.

Don Oppedijk goes trekking

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 J’ Taime Guesthouse on Huay Kaew Road. The guesthouse had an in-house trekking company called Orbit Tribal Trekking.

Orbit Tribal Treks. Thailand Trekking.
Advertisement of Orbit Tribal Treks in Je T’aime guesthouse, 1977.

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

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

When I arrived in Chiang Mai in November 1987 trekking was one of the few activities on offer in Chiang Mai. Every backpacker went on a trek. It was the thing to do in North Thailand. It took me some time to make my first trek. That was as a tour leader in December 1988. It was my first experience.

Classic Huay Nam Dang trekking

The classic trekking route that still feels like the old days is the Huay Nam Dang Trekking. This trek through Huay Nam Dang National Park usually took four days. On the first day, a stop was made at the Mork Fah waterfall. Trekking started either Pong Duan Hot Springs or at the village Mae Sae. We spent the first night at the Lisu village Huay Nam Dang and the second night at the Karen village Pa Kao Laam. On the third day, we visited an elephant camp to do elephant riding and spent the night at a Lahu village. The fourth and last day featured bamboo rafting on the Mae Taeng (Taeng river) to the Shan community Sob Kai.

Huay Nam Dang nowadays

Four-day trekkings are not accessible anymore. In the old days, trekking was the only activity on offer for young backpackers. How things have changed. Nowadays there are ziplines, cooking courses, bicycle trips and many other activities. If tourists go trekking at all, this is usually not longer than two days. Huay Nam Dang is still a great area. We organise two and three-day treks. The bamboo rafting is as spectacular as it was in the old days. We don’t offer elephant rides anymore.

These are our Huay Nam Dang trekkings: