Are you headed to Chiang Mai in search of adventure? If you want to swim in a river, hike in a forest and spot Thai wildlife, check out these off-the-beaten-track National Parks that few tourists visit. You’ll have to drive yourself or hire a private driver to get to these destinations, as they’re so rarely on visitors’ itineraries. Remember to take necessary camping provisions with you, but don’t take too much stuff! Hauling a heavy backpack in hot weather sucks. It can get cold at night, so take blankets.
1. Doi Khun Tan National Park: a self-led hike up a mountain
A vast teak, bamboo, oak and pine forest covers the Khun Tan Mountain in this little-visited national park. The forest shelters wildlife such as the Siamese hare, porcupine, weasel and wild boar, but hikers are much more likely to see a few bright butterflies, colourful insects and exotic orchids. Surprisingly, this national park is home to the longest train tunnel in Thailand! The 6km trail to the top of the mountain is mostly shaded by trees and easy to hike. There are viewpoints and rest stops at regular intervals and hide under a huge banana leaf if it rains! You can go the 12km up and back down the trail in a day if you leave Chiang Mai early, but sleeping overnight far from the city lights is a rewarding experience.
Make it happen: The 1.5 hour journey takes you past hills, stalls selling fresh fruit and farmers working in the rice paddies. The way is signposted well when you get nearby. After you get through the checkpoint and have paid your entrance fee (100 baht), drive past the restaurant and up, up, up to the car park. Walk past the jovial guards in military uniform sitting at the trail-head and follow the trail all the way up to the top of Peak 4. Overnight campers should take a tent or book a hut before going. The huts sleep two – nine people (500 – 2200 baht a night). Book online here. The simple restaurant at the bottom is open in high season.
2. Doi Suthep Camping: a mountain retreat above the city
This is a romantic getaway for two (or three, we won’t judge) people in love, or a fun trip out of the city for a group of friends. Eat, drink and play guitars under the stars after a full day of culture up on the mountain. Happily, the tents are already up so you won’t have to wrestle with poles and crazy instruction manuals.
You’ll see all of Chiang Mai below you from this lofty vantage point. It’s stunning, especially at night when the city is lit up like Christmas. Being up on the mountain in almost-silence above the nightlife of Chiang Mai offers a perspective that few travellers experience. Candles create a good atmosphere. Secure them on fallen logs by melting the bottoms before you light the wick and don’t have them too close to your tent.
Make it happen: Drive all the way up the Doi Suthep mountain to the campsite, beyond Bhubing Palace and the hill tribe village. Rent a big 2 – 3 man tent for 150 baht, dump your stuff and spend the day sightseeing at the temple, palace and hill tribe village. The simple campsite restaurant is usually open every day.
3. Ob Khan National Park: a swim and self-led hike in the jungle
Ob Khan is about one hour’s drive from Chiang Mai, but it feels like you’re hundreds of miles from the city. Despite entrance being free, foreigners are a rare sight at this national park. It’s a great escape for when pushing through the night market and cramming into Zoe in Yellow gets too much.
Butterflies and dragonflies are attracted to water, which probably explains why there are so many at this National Park. There were rumours in the local newspapers of a tiger sighting a while back, but you’re probably more likely to stumble across BLAH than a tiger. There’s a sort-of signposted trail to follow along the river and into the woods. The clean Mae Khan River that cuts through the magnificent rocks of Ob Khan national park is a wildly different beast to the sluggish Ping river that flows through the city. The water is crisp, clear and perfect for swimming in the calmer sections, but take care where the river rages. Dragonflies and butterflies congregate around the water around every other corner.
Make it happen: Ob Khan is great for a day trip or overnighter. There’s really nothing to buy so you must take all your own provisions. Take your own tent or rent one at the park headquarters for 50 baht. You can set up camp pretty much anywhere. A local guide can take you deeper into the jungle; call +66861811068 or +66817244274 to hire one.
4. Doi Inthanon National Park: the highest mountain in Thailand
Pack an extra jumper and go with a snuggleable friend, because it can get really cold up on the top of Doi Inthanon. It even gets frosty in the cool season, so check the internet for a weather forecast. The top of the mountain is often shrouded in swirling white mist that imbues the place with a soft ethereal quality.
Hikers will be delighted with the various self-led hiking routes to explore. There are more birds at this National Park than anywhere else in Thailand, and rare plants found only at these high elevations of the country. Waterfalls cascade down the mountain and can be visited on the way up to the campsite; just pull over when you see a sign.
There’s even a chance you could run into an Asiatic black bear, as Doi Inthanon is one of their last remaining habitats. Don’t worry, though – you’re much more likely to come across some hill tribe villagers in colourful costume than an angry Asiatic bear. Bizarrely and awesomely, you can drink hot chocolate or extra strong local coffee at the top of the mountain!
Make it happen: Drive through the checkpoint (200 baht) and up the mountain to kilometre marker 31 to check in at the park headquarters. If you’re travelling in a big party, split the costs and buy your own roomy tent to give your whole group space, or, you can rent a 2-5 man tent (250 – 400 baht) and blankets from the office. It costs 30 baht per person to pitch your own tent. Huts sleep 3 – 23 people, pre-book here. You can eat at one of the two restaurants at the headquarters and there’s a small shop where you can grab all that camping stuff you forgot to pack.
If you don’t have your own wheels or you’d appreciate the knowledge of a local trekking guide, you can take this one or two day trek of Doi Inthanon National Park that includes transport from Chiang Mai and back.
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