The Chiang Mai Opium Trail

Trees in a forest with fog

The Chiang Mai Opium Trail

Table of Contents

people trekking through a forest Chiang Mai Opium Trail
Hiking on Doi Suthep

The Chiang Mai Opium Trail: introduction

The Chiang Mai Opium Trail is a trail of approximately 12 km from the Hmong village of Doi Pui (บ้านดอยปุย) to another Hmong village, Ban Mae Sa Mai (บ้านแม่สาใหม่), and its neighbouring village of Ban Mae Sa Noi (บ้านม้งแม่สาน้อย). It is a trail of natural beauty, fantastic views, and historical significance. Besides that, you will learn about the secrets of a tropical forest, about the culture and traditions of the Hmong people, and about the Royal Project, initiated by the late King Bhumibol.

You will hike through the majestic forest of the Doi Suthep-Pui National Park, pass through former opium fields, enjoy amazing views and, finally, hike through the agricultural areas of the Hmong people. A Hmong guide from Ban Doi Pui will accompany us on the first part. At about half of the trail, a Hmong guide from Ban Mae Sa Noi will wait for us and join us for the second part of the trail.

Tourists with guide in the forest
Students hiking on Doi Suthep

Walking a beautiful trail

The trail first takes you through the deciduous forest with many pine trees, wild banana plants, giant bamboo, ferns, and creepers. This is not a rainforest but a forest that experiences dry and rainy seasons. It is a beautiful hike. After a short but steep climb, you will reach Doi Pha Klong, an open area with rock formations. This is the highest point of the hike, where we usually enjoy a picnic lunch. On both sides of this rocky area, the views are magnificent. It is a sacred area where you can find a footprint of the Buddha.

Allegedly this was also the place where the late King Bhumibol, Rama V, took a rest during a walk, that inspired him to initiate the Royal Project in 1969. In those days, much of the surrounding area was covered with fields where the Hmong people cultivated opium, hence the name the Chiang Mai Opium Trail.

From here we will descend to the Hmong village of Ban Mae Sa Mai and onwards to Ban Mae Sa Noi. We pass through their agricultural fields and fruit plantations. The last stretch of the walk takes us through areas that were reforested by the Forest Restoration Unit of Chiang Mai University (FORRU).

Young people on a mountain Chiang Mai Opium Trail

The Hmong village of Doi Pui

The trail starts and ends at a Hmong village. There are in total 12 Hmong communities on Doi Suthep and around the Mae Sa Valley. There is circumstantial evidence that the Hmong people settled in this area after World War Two. Some people told me that they came from the Doi Inthanon area. More research has to be done to verify this. On Doi Suthep, there are two villages: Doi Pui and Chiang Khian. Pictures taken in the 1970s show the Hmong people living in these villages in abject poverty and therefore dismal conditions. Apparently, life expectancy in tribal villages these days was not more than about 40 years, due to high infant mortality.

The starting point of our walk, the Hmong village of Doi Pui, has become a popular tourist destination. It is only about 4 km from Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai’s most famous temple. Many tourists combine visiting the temple and this Hmong village. Tourism thus has become a very important source of income for the people of this village. You can walk up through the main street of the village, lined with shops, to an area that has been developed for tourism. There is a small waterfall and a flower garden with an original Hmong house. Besides this, there are a couple of traditional utensils such as a rice pounder, a rice grinder, and you can also try your hand at shooting a crossbow.

People walking in the forest Chiang Mai Opium Trail
Trekking on Doi Suthep

The Hmong village of Ban Mae Sa Mai

I have been told that this village is the largest Hmong community in North Thailand. “Ban” means “house” or “group of houses”. The name refers to the Mae Sa river. “Mai” means “new”. So the name Ban Mae Sa Mai means the new Mae Sa village. This village contrasts with the village where we started our walk. Tourism is almost non-existent here. I have never met any other tourists during my many visits to this community. We have been visiting and working with this village for a long time, so it is very close to our heart. The village has a large Royal Project compound, that has been closed unfortunately for visitors unless you make an appointment in advance.

Around the village are the agricultural fields where they grow cabbage, cucumber, tomatoes, and other vegetables. There are lychee and avocado trees in this area as well. With the guidance of the Forest Restoration Unit of Chiang Mai University, the watershed forests of the village were restored successfully in the past. The village still takes care of a nursery, set up by FORRU. Finally, Ban Mae Sa Mai is the home of K.Sowmee, the master silversmith, who crafted silver jewelry for the Royal Family. If you are interested, you can meet him.

Mr.Sowme Green Trails Hmong hill tribe
Mr. Sowme, Ban Mae Sa Mai.

How hard is the trail?

I have walked this trail often under different circumstances. It can be very easygoing, but you can also encounter difficulties, due to the weather. I advise wearing good, sturdy hiking shoes, even in the dry season. Take a raincoat with you, even in the dry season. It doesn’t rain often between November 1 and April 1, but if it does, it can be spooky on the mountain. The weather can change very quickly. I got caught once in January in a freak rainstorm with strong winds while we were on the rocky and exposed area, at about halfway of the walk. We got very wet, but it was uncomfortable.

The difficulty of your walk will depend on your physical condition, preparedness to hike in a tropical climate, and on the quality of your shoes. In the rainy season, the trail will become slippery, which can cause problems on the trail going down to the village. You have to take your time and monitor each step you take. The Chiang Mai Opium Trail is a fantastic trail, but you have to be well-prepared: take at least two liters of water as well as some snacks and fruit.

View from Doi Pui Calm before the storm Hmong Trekking Chiang Mai Opium Trail
The view from the rocky area before the rainstorm

The Chiang Mai Opium Trail in Green Trails tours

Unless you are able to arrange transportation to pick you up at Baan Mae Sa Mai, it will be difficult to do the Chiang Mai Opium Trail on your own. Until the rocky area halfway the trail is easy to find. After this, it is a bit for difficult unless you want to follow the main dirt road to the village.

We offer several tours that feature the trail and others that focus on or include the Hmong villages. The Historic Opium Trail is the day tour but we also have a more in-depth tour that includes an overnight in Baan Mae Sa Mai. We organize educational tours for universities and schools such as the “Learning with the Hmong People” tour. The Hmong Experience is a day-tour that focuses solely on the village Baan Mae Sa Mai. Finally, we have offered textile tours to this village, which were highly successful.

Hmong Textiles Ban Mae Sa Mai Doi Suthep trekking
Hmong Textiles