Chiang Mai, the adventure capital of Northern Thailand is a must-visit destination and THE place where many backpackers base themselves to go trekking in the hills and mountains around the city. We caught up with local trekking guides, Kischa and Mit, of the company Ethnic Eco Hilltribe Trails to tell us more information about the best areas and the best tips for trekking in Chiang Mai!
What’s the best time of year for trekking Chiang Mai?
It is possible to enjoy trekking all year round in Chiang Mai, you would just have to take into account the different areas and which area is better for each season. Local trekking guides are experts in these matters and so you can rest assured that whatever time of year you are travelling to Thailand, you can get a good hike in!
The Hiking Seasons in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand
In general, Northern Thailand has three seasons: dry and cool season, wet season and hot season. It is possible to go hiking in Chiang Mai in every season, but each one has different considerations.
The dry season in Northern Thailand begins around October and lasts until March. This is the best time of year to go trekking as the temperatures are not too high and the weather not too humid. There is a gentle breeze which can be pleasant whilst trekking, meaning you don’t sweat too much! However, during this time of year, it can be very cold at night in the mountainous areas, particularly Doi Inthanon, which has been hailed as the coldest place in Thailand. It even snowed once in 1955!
The hot season begins in April and lasts until around June. At this time of year, temperatures soar to around 40 degrees and even the lightest treks can become a very strenuous activity! During the hot season, it’s best to avoid direct sunlight and find shady forests to hike in. Higher altitudes can be cooler and trekking earlier in the morning is a good idea to avoid the hottest time of day.
The wet season (or monsoon season) begins in June and last until around September. The monsoon brings heavy downpours all across Northern Thailand and most of the rest of the country. It can be the trickiest time to plan a trekking adventure, but it’s not impossible! The rains tend to fall mostly in the afternoons so the trick is to get up super early and make the most of the day before the clouds set in. Some trails may be impassable so it’s good to chat with a local guide who will be able to help you pick the best places to trek during the rainy season. This time of year is regarded by some as the most beautiful time of year in Thailand as the rice fields appear green and lush, there are fewer crowds and plants and animals flourish.
Avoid: The Burning Season
The burning season (also known as the ‘smoky season’ or ‘the haze’) occurs in Chiang Mai every year around late February / early March. It is due to farmers intentionally burning their fields to make way for a new crop. This “slash and burn” farming method has been going on for years, but nowadays, coupled with the pollution from traffic and factories, the air quality reaches dangerous levels. Depending on rains, the burning season starts and ends at a different time each year, and it’s best to check when the season is in full flow and avoid it if possible. (You can check the Air Quality Index here.) Trekking with poor air quality is not fun!
What should you bring with you when hiking in Chiang Mai?
Always taking into consideration the season that you will be trekking in, you will need to wear/bring:
- Trekking Shoes – Good hiking or sports shoes with good grip, best worn with socks to prevent blisters.
- Comfortable Cool Clothing – Cotton t-shirts and long pants are always best. (This is especially important in the rainy season so you can tuck your pants into your socks to avoid leeches.)
- A filtered water bottle – Avoid using throwaway plastic bottles and help the environment.
- Insect Repellant – Especially if you are jungle trekking. We recommend Jungle Formula.
- Sun Cream – You should wear factor 30+ in Thailand at all times.
- A Small Travel First Aid Kit – It’s best to be prepared for accidents.
- Swiss Army Knife – Great for slicing open fruit you might pick on the trail!
- Swimsuit – for dipping in waterfalls and hot springs.
- Microfibre Travel Towel – A lightweight travel towel is a great idea.
- Rain jacket – Important for the rainy season to keep your clothes dry.
- Warm clothing – Although it can be hard to believe, it can get really cold in the mountains around Chiang Mai, particularly November-February, so it’s a good idea to pack some warm clothing (a wooly jumper or a fleece) especially if you are staying overnight in a homestay or a jungle hut.
- Sleeping bag liner – If you are doing an overnight, it can be a good idea to take a sleeping bag liner.
- Phone camera / camera – You’ll want to make sure you can take photos of your adventure! Don’t forget your charger.
- Wet wipes – Always a good idea for cleaning hands/faces.
- Hand sanitiser – Good anti-bacterial gel if you can’t find a place to wash your hands.
What is the landscape like around Chiang Mai?
With Thailand being a tropical country with hot temperatures and high rainfall, the landscape is lush with dense green jungle and rolling hills. And of course, there’s the gushing Mae Tang and Ping River which provide a backdrop to many adventures. Tropical fruits such as papayas, coconuts and pineapples grow naturally and the smells and sounds of the Thai jungle can be overwhelming! Some areas have big beautiful waterfalls especially in higher elevations, for example in the Doi Inthanon area. (Doi Inthanon is Thailand’s highest mountain at 2,565 meters tall.) Some areas, like Chiang Dao, have interesting caves, hot springs and smaller waterfalls, limestone mountains and bamboo forests.
Jungle Trekking in Chiang Mai
Owing to the kind of landscape which surrounds Chiang Mai, jungle trekking is particularly popular. It is best suited for backpackers who have an interest in both flora and fauna and of course, don’t mind getting a little dirty! It is well worth using a walking stick or hiking poles (if you have them) during a jungle trek as you will sometimes be required to scale steep, wobbly rocks and wade through thick mud, especially when you’re hiking close to rice terraces.
The jungle surrounding Chiang Mai is a great place to go bird watching and also to explore hidden waterfalls. It is always recommended to wear sunscreen and insect repellent as treks can sometimes leave hikers exposed and vulnerable, especially to those pesky mosquitos! If you are looking for a highly rated jungle trek, check out the Jungle, Waterfall & Hilltribe Trek run by Stray Away Travel.
This was recently reviewed by one of our readers, Julia Miller who said this was the highlight of her travels in Chiang Mai! The day trip includes a visit to the Mae Wang market, a 10 km jungle trek with an experienced local guide, stops at two waterfalls and finally, a visit to a hill tribe village. This is a great way to explore the beautiful Thai jungle with a responsible company that is focused on giving back to the local communities.
The Hilltribe Communities of Northern Thailand
Whilst trekking in the North of Thailand, you will also come across many farms, producing tea, coffee, many different types of fruit and of course, rice paddies. You will also encounter ethnic minority hill tribe villages, many of whom work on ploughing the land that produces the crops above. There are several different hill tribe communities that live in the area; White Karen, Lahu, Lisu, Akha, Hmong, Palong and Yao. Many of the hill tribe communities originally migrated from neighbouring countries such as Laos, Myanmar or China and set up their homes in the mountains around Chiang Mai. These people have maintained their own unique culture, costume and language for hundreds of years and travellers can learn more about each unique hill tribe by arranging a homestay. (This is best organised through a responsible trekking agency in Chiang Mai.)
How to Trek Responsibly Amongst Hill Tribe Communities
There is a LOT of misconception about hill tribe communities in Northern Thailand and a lot of truths too. Here, we’ll give you the basic do’s and don’ts of visiting hill tribe villages in Thailand and we’d also recommend that you do your own research about the particular hill tribe community that you want to visit.
When to AVOID visiting a Hill Tribe Community in Thailand:
One rule of thumb is, that if you’re paying a ticket to go into an ethnic minority village to look at people, as if they were in a zoo, then there is some unethical activity taking place. This is particularly controversial when it comes to the “Kayan” People, more famously known as the Long Neck Hill Tribe. The women from this tribe are known for wearing brass bands around their necks to elongate their spine and they can be found in areas such as Mae Hong Son, not in the national parks around Chiang Mai.
The Kayan people (a separate subgroup of the Red Karen ethnic minority), are not indigenous to Thailand, hailing originally from Myanmar, migrating across the border to Thailand because of the troubles in their own country. Unfortunately, to this day, due to the exotic nature of their appearance, they are exploited in the tourism industry and we would never recommend anyone pay to visit them. Due to visa reasons, many of the ethnic minority are unable to leave the area in which they live and they receive only a tiny income from tourists coming into their village who purchase their handicrafts. This is not a sustainable form of tourism and only large companies benefit. Read more about the Kayan hill tribe in our Mae Hong Son Guide here.
An Important Note on the Karen Ethnic Minority:
A common mistake of travellers is to confuse the ‘Kayan’ Long Neck People (a subgroup of the Red Karen minority) with the Indigenous ‘White Karen’ People of Northern Thailand. White Karen (who you will find in the national parks of Thailand) are recognised as one of the indigenous ethnic minorities of Northern Thailand and have full Thai citizenship. They are not the same as the Red Karen subgroups coming from Myanmar (including the long neck Kayan tribe), which are essentially refugees. On the treks around Chiang Mai, you will only come across the White Karen ethnic minority.
When it is OK to visit a Hill Tribe Community in Thailand?
When it is fine to visit hill tribe communities, is when it directly benefits the local villages and when it is on their terms. When tourists visit the village of an ethnic minority hill tribe, such as the Hmong Hilltribe village in Doi Pui, just outside Chiang Mai, a lot of the everyday income of the villagers’ comes from tourists buying homemade arts, silver wear and handicrafts.
We can’t forget that tourism really benefits the local communities when done correctly. A lot of the hill tribe communities live on very little money and do a lot of subsistence farming to survive. They are happy to have tourists visit them, buy their crafts, learn about their culture, sleep in their homes and support them in ways that directly benefits them.
Remembering to also understand that we cannot expect too much in return for example, if sleeping in a hill tribe village for the night, in a homestay, never expect the families whose home you are sleeping in to be your hostess or host for the night. They are happy to let foreigners sleep in their home and learn about their culture, experience village life and get an extra income but it is not a guesthouse, the tour guide that you are trekking with has the duty to be your host.
Many of the families do not speak English and many are very shy and do not understand how to interact with foreigners. Please don’t put expectations on them to take care of you, when it is not their job. Please always remember that culture and way of life is very different to your own. What you may think seems unfriendly or unusual, it is not for them. We must always go in with open hearts and open minds for all cultures and peoples way of life is so different. Remember to respect that.
What type of animals are you likely to see whilst hiking?
You are more likely to see wildlife in the less populated parts of the National Parks around the North of Thailand. If your lucky, you can spot monkeys, gibbons, small deers, mongoose even some wild cats (although these are very rare). The most common creatures to see whilst trekking around Chiang Mai are lots of different exotic birds and a few snakes! Pretty much guaranteed is a sighting of a water buffalo, such a ubiquitous sight across the country. Even though these huge animals may not necessarily be wild anymore, it is still really wonderful to see them as many people don’t know that they have been listed as endangered on the IUCN red list since 1986 and the population totals less than 4000!
Trekking in Chiang Mai: A Tour VS Trekking Independently
It is possible to go trekking around Chiang Mai alone, but for some of the more remote, off the beaten track trails, we highly recommend a guide.
Trekking independently around Chiang Mai
There are some treks closer to the city that is perfectly fine to trek alone. If you want to just hike for a few hours one afternoon during your time in Chiang Mai, then why not head to Doi Suthep National Park and take a short walk up Huay Kaew Waterfall. The area is frequented by many Thai families who take picnics for the day and enjoy the cooling waters. There are a few trails around the falls and you can hike in the shade of the trees to several hidden temples in the forest. The Monks Trail up Doi Suthep is of particular interest and can be completed in around 4 hours. Read more about trekking in Doi Suthep below.
As an alternative, you could also take a motorbike to Huay Tung Tao Lake and walk around this area, before stopping for lunch in one of the huts overlooking the lake. Or, head to Chiang Mai Canyon, just south of the city and explore the area around here before diving into the blue waters of the canyon! Depending on if you have your own wheels or not (here are some tips on hiring a motorbike in Thailand), it is possible to head into the countryside and take strolls around rivers, waterfalls and lakes. However, it’s best not to set off into the jungle without a plan or a map – you don’t want to get lost!
If you are an experienced hiker and are good with following maps a lot of national parks have some great trails that you don’t need a guide for that you can follow yourself. But some trails in the national parks insist that you hire a local guide for safety reasons.
Organised Chiang Mai Trekking Tours
If you want to head off the beaten path in Northern Thailand, we do recommend finding a good local company and going hiking in a small group with a local tour guide. By hiring a local trekking guide, you will be able to trek in areas not accessible to tourists or the general public – therefore, you can really experience non-touristic, off the beaten path routes! Plus, when booking Chiang Mai trekking tours through a local travel company, pick up from your hotel, as well as transport to and from the city of Chiang Mai to the start of the trail is usually included. In the long run, this can be a much easier (and cheaper) way of organising a trek as private transport (in the form of a Songthaew) can be expensive and local buses often do not go directly from the city to the national parks. (This is the case with a Doi Inthanon Trek which is best organised through a local tour company.)
Other benefits like a traditional Thai lunch and water are included in the price of most treks from Chiang Mai. A local company can also arrange for you to spend the night in a homestay in an ethnic minority community, an experience that would be very difficult to arrange independently. Many backpackers say that this experience is the highlight of their Chiang Mai trek!
One final benefit or taking a local guide is the expert knowledge that they can share with you along the way. They can give you information about edible fruits and nuts you can eat along the trail, various flora and fauna, the history of the region and explain more about the different cultures of several hill-tribe communities you can find in the area. All in all, through hiring a local trekking guide, you will come away with a richer understanding of the area that you’ve been exploring and a better idea of Thai culture. Plus, you might make some new friends along the way! Check out these organised Thailand treks.
What are the Best Areas for Trekking Around Chiang Mai?
The biogeographical region of Northern Thailand consists of mountainous regions and low land areas with river valleys which include and the highest mountain in Thailand, Doi Inthanon (2565 metres above sea level). The major ecosystems in Northern Thailand are Hill Evergreen Forest, Mixed Deciduous Forest, Deciduous Dipterocarp Forest and Pine Forest. Some areas are more prone to jungle, a dense forest comprising of bamboo growth, dense shrubs, grasses and shorter trees.
Below are some of the best areas for trekking outside of the city of Chiang Mai. Most of these places can be reached within a few hours drive of the city. There are many different trails in every area and each one has a different level of difficulty depending on which route you take and at which time of year.
1. Trekking in – Chiang Dao
Perfect for: Jungle Trekking, birdwatching, hot springs and the sticky waterfall. Chiang Dao makes for perfect day trips from Chiang Mai as it is just two hours away by minibus.
What is the landscape like in Chiang Dao?
Chiang Dao is home to the third highest mountain in Thailand and the area is famous for its jagged limestone peaks reaching as high as 2,186 metres. Chiang Dao mountain (Doi Luang) is part of the Himalayan Mountain range and is, in fact, considered the foothills of the Himalayas. The name Chiang Dao means “city of stars” in Thai. Chiang Dao comprises of a few National Parks, Doi Luang National Park, Phae Dang National Park, Chiang Dao National Park and even Sri Lanna National Park. Chiang Dao is very hilly and mountainous, vegetation is very dense jungle and a lot of bamboo growth. There are not many waterfalls in the area but the ping river flows past Chiang Dao. The trekking here is nice but it does lack in viewpoints as most of the trails are quite low to the ground.
Best season for Chiang Dao trekking?
Chiang Dao trekking is best in the cool season, when it enjoys cool days and cold (for Thailand) nights. In the rainy season we would not recommend trekking in Chiang Dao, especially after there has been several days with heavy rain. The area is prone to landslides after heavy rains because of the jungle type vegetation that occurs here.
Highlights of trekking in Chiang Dao?
- Summiting a Peak – From Chiang Dao, you can summit the third highest mountain in Thailand, Doi Luang. This is only for experienced hikers and should be done in a group with a local guide.
- Bird Watching – The bird life of the Chiang Dao area is the most varied in Thailand. It is definitely the best place to hike if you are a keen Twitcher (bird watcher)!
- Chiang Dao Cave – Chiang Dao Cave is one of the most famous caves in Thailand. It makes for a very interesting day visit with its huge stalagmites and stalactites. The cost is 40 THB to enter or 150 THB if you’d like to hire a gas lamp to take into the cave with you.
- Hot Springs – There are many hot springs in the area of Chiang Dao which make for a relaxing break mid or post trek!
- Chiang Dao Wildlife Sanctuary – Covering a region of 521km squared, the wildlife sanctuary is home to many different types of birds, some wild cats and even the endangered big-headed turtle!
- Sticky Waterfalls – The sticky waterfalls (also known as Bua Thong Falls) are an incredible natural phenomenon that must be seen in the area. The special type of rock means that your feet stick to the waterfall as you climb up!
Read more about Chiang Dao in our guide here.
Ethnic Minorities around Chiang Dao?
Chiang Dao is home to the largest number of ethnic minorities (hill tribe communities) in Thailand. You can visit all of the hill tribes in Chiang Dao independently or with a guide. You will find White Karen, Lahu, Lisu, Akha, Hmong, Palong and Yao people living here.
Wildlife in Chiang Dao?
In the Chiang Dao area, and especially the Chiang Dao Wildlife Sanctuary, you will find over 300 bird species. The sanctuary is also home to endangered animals such as long-tailed gorals, Sumatran serows, Asian golden cats and many other animals. You will also come across snakes, monkeys (though quite rare), water buffalo (domesticated) and rice paddy rats (don’t worry, these ones are clean!). Unfortunately, it is becoming more and more difficult to see wild animals in the rainforests of Thailand because of poaching.
Recommended Treks in Chiang Dao
- Chiang Dao Hot Springs & Sticky Waterfall Trek – This trek costs $61 US per person and includes pick up from your hostel, transport to and from Chiang Mai, lunch, water and an English speaking trekking guide. It is operated by Ethnic Hilltribe Eco Trails and can be booked on this website.
2. Trekking in – Mae Tang & Huai Nam Dang National Park
Perfect for: Trekking amongst rice fields, spotting elephants at nearby sanctuaries, bamboo and whitewater rafting. Popular with budget backpackers for one day trips from Chiang Mai – for those short on time and money.
What is the landscape like around Mae Tang?
Mae Tang is known as the adventure capital of Northern Thailand. Because of its close proximity to Chiang Mai (just an hour away), a lot of the popular ‘cheap backpacker’ treks are located in this area. Huai Nam Dang National Park is also located close by, bordering Mae Tang and the Mae Hong Song Province. The type of landscape you can find in Mae Tang and Huai Nam Dang area is hilly but not very high, meaning that there are some viewpoints along the way. There is a mix of Rainforest vegetation and jungle. The Mae Tang River also runs through this area which provides adventure activities such as whitewater rafting and bamboo rafting. You will find a variety of hiking trails in the area, ranging from easy to difficult. Huai Nam Dang National Park has beautiful hiking trails which pass lovely viewpoints and farmlands comprising of rice paddy fields. You can also hike to several hill tribe villages here.
Best season for trekking in Mae Tang?
Mae Tang and Huai Nam Dang National Park are year-round trekking destinations, which is one of the reasons that they are so popular amongst backpackers taking a one day trip from Chiang Mai. A lot of the trails are adaptable depending on the seasons so unless the weather is really bad, it it possible to trek in this area all year round.
Highlights of trekking in Mae Tang?
- Waterfalls – The are quite a few big, impressive waterfalls in the Mae Tang area which are especially spectacular in the rainy season.
- Mae Tang River – Trekking near the Mae Tang River allows the opportunity to take a dip whenever you get too hot and also provides various river adventures such as rafting.
- Hilltribe Villages – There are many hilltribe villages in the area which you can visit during the day, or arrange a homestay overnight. It is best to work with a local trekking company to organise home-stays as they work directly with the villagers to arrange tourists staying overnight. The good companies will make sure that the tourism benefits the villagers.
- Rice Paddies – Thailand is famous for its lush green rice paddies and trekking in this area of Mae Tang, you can see them in all their glory!
Ethnic Minorities around Mae Tang?
The area of Mae Tang is home to many hill tribe communities such as White Karen, Lahu, Lisu and Akha. It is possible to arrange homestays in the hill tribe villages, but please research the trekking company before you book. One very famous village in the mountains of Mae Tang is called “Koud Kup Village”. It is renowned for its beautiful views and many of the 2-day, 1-night treks from Chiang Mai stay over in the village. This village is quite touristy, but is good to visit if you are a budget backpacker and you are short on time and money! Another popular village for tourists sleeping overnight is the Lahu village of Mae Tang. The village has some good viewpoints and homestays where you can spend the night.
Wildlife in Mae Tang?
The area of Mae Tang is definitely more ‘built up’ than other more remote areas of Northern Thailand, so we cannot expect to see much wildlife in the way of larger creatures like monkeys and cats. However, we will of course have the usual tropical bird life, snakes, large insects etc. You will also see many elephants in this area as many of the big elephant sanctuaries are located here. Read more about choosing an ethical elephant sanctuary in Thailand.
Recommended Treks in Mae Tang
- Jungle, Waterfall & Hilltribe Trek – This one day trek from Chiang Mai costs $46 US per person and includes pick-up, transport to and from the Mae Tang area and lunch. You will visit two amazing waterfalls, a hilltribe community and trek 10km through the jungle. The trek is run by the sustainable Stray Away Travel company.
3. Trekking in – Doi Inthanon (Plus Mae Wang & Ob Luang National Park)
Perfect for: Getting off the beaten track away from the tourist crowds. More chance of seeing wildlife, cooler at higher altitudes, waterfalls, organic farms, coffee plantations and authentic homestay experiences. All of the following national parks (Doi Inthanon, Mae Wang and Ob Luang National Park) border one another and all are very similar in terms of landscape, fauna and flora.
Doi Inthanon National Park
All of the national parks mentioned above sit at a higher elevation than a lot of other national parks in the North of Thailand. In particular, Doi Inthanon is home to the highest mountain in Thailand, at 2,565 metres. Doi Inthanon is home to many off the beaten path trails and in our opinion is one of the best places to go trekking in Thailand as it offers everything one would want to experience on a trek – great wildlife, ethnic minority villages, waterfalls, off the beaten track trails, lush jungle, interesting flora and fauna, viewpoints etc.
Mae Wang is also very similar to Doi Inthanon in terms of landscape as they sit right next to each other at a similar elevation. Mae Wang, like Mae Tang above, is very popular for day treks from Chiang Mai because of its easy access and variety of 1 or 2 day trails which include view points, waterfalls. Running straight through Mae Wang, you also have the Ping River which is popular for bamboo rafting. Parts of the national park here is definitely more touristic.
Ob Luang National Park
Ob Luang National Park lies just to the south of Doi Inthanon and Mae Wang. It is similar in terms of landscape to both of the above with a variety of excellent hiking trails, viewpoints, waterfalls and rural hilltribe life. Ob Luang is also known for the river canyon and there are some impressive caves in the area. We would also rate Ob Luang National Park as an off the beaten path destination!
What is the best season for Doi Inthanon National Park?
Doi Inthanon is an all-year-round trekking destination. During the rainy season, the park is not really affected by mudslides because the vegetation consists of mostly rainforest (bigger, older trees) that keep the soil rooted, unlike younger jungle-like vegetation which is more unstable. During monsoon, the paths may indeed get a little more slippery and rain showers can occur, but this is nothing a decent pair of shoes with a good grip and a rain jacket can’t help with. There are some popular trails around Doi Inthanon that are open all year, such as the Pha Dok Siaw Nature Trail and some trails that only open in the cool season months (Nov-Feb) such as the very famous and popular Kew Mae Pan Nature Trail. Whatever season that you decide to go trekking in Doi Inthanon National Park, your trekking guide will be able to advise you as to which trails are open and accessible.
What wildlife will you see in Doi Inthanon?
Gibbons and monkeys can be found in Doi Inthanon and Ob Luang National Park, and of course water buffalo. The most common creatures to spot are lots of tropical bird life, reptiles and small mammals.
Highlights of trekking in Doi Inthanon?
- Highest point in Thailand – It’s a novelty to trek to the highest mountain in Thailand and experience the microclimate of this higher altitude part of the country.
- Coffee Plantations and Organic Farms – The area around Doi Inthanon National Park is home to many coffee plantations which thrive at this higher elevation. There are a lot of Karen Hilltribe villages (White Karen) in these area that work with the Royal Project to farm organic produce which is sold in Chiang Mai. You’ll see local workers in the field tending to their crops along the way.
- Off the beaten track – Trekking in Doi Inthanon National Park you are much less likely to see tourists than in some of the more popular areas of Northern Thailand such as Mae Tang (above). There are many exciting hiking trails that take you into the middle of nowhere, through dense jungle, over rice paddies and up to viewpoints high in the mountains. (A guide is definitely recommended).
- Viewpoints – Due to the elevation there are many amazing viewpoints that can be seen from the trails in Doi Inthanon National Park as the canopy opens up to display panoramic views of the surrounding mountains.
- Big waterfalls – There are many beautiful cascading waterfalls in Doi Inthanon National Park, such as Mae Yai and Wachiratan falls. They are simply perfect for taking a dip and cooling down mid trek, so don’t forget your swim suit!
- Ping River – The Ping River runs through Mae Wang and provides opportunities for Bamboo Rafting which is one of the most popular day trips from Chiang Mai
- Karen Hilltribe villages – The area of Doi Inthanon, Mae Wang and Ob Luang National Park are home to many Karen hilltribe communities (White Karen). You can stay overnight in the villages on a homestay.
Recommended Treks in Doi Inthanon
- Doi Inthanon Trekking Adventure – This 1 or 2-day trek is one of the best ways to get off the beaten track from Chiang Mai. Visit cascading waterfalls, eat lunch from banana plates, learn knowledge of the forest from expert local guides and stay overnight in a Karen hilltribe village (White Karen). Even experience a traditional herbal steam bath. This is one of the best treks you can do from Chiang Mai organised by Ethnic hilltribe Trails. You can read a full review of the Doi Inthanon trek here.
4. Doi Suthep & Doi Pui National Parks
Perfect for: Those wanting a quick escape from the city or wanting to trek independently. Easy day hikes, hidden temples, waterfalls and spectacular views of Chiang Mai
What is the landscape like around Doi Suthep?
Doi Suthep is the mountain that can be seen from the city of Chiang Mai and the temple which sits atop of the mountain (Wat Doi Suthep) is one of the most well known and most visited spots in the city. There is a road which leads up to the top of the mountain and there are various touristy stalls selling souvenirs at the entrance to the temple. Most tourists grab a songthaew to the top, snap some pics of the city and then leave.
However, for those of you who prefer to get away from the tourist hordes, Doi Suthep National Park offers several trekking routes which can be done independently without a guide. Doi Pui lies further beyond Doi Suthep and is home to several hill tribe villages and coffee plantations. One of the most popular hikes up to the famous Doi Suthep Temple is known as the Monks Trail and it is about a 4-hour hike up the mountain. It is possible to do this hike by yourself and not go with a tour operator.
The difficulty level is medium to hard and along the route, you will pass by a small waterfall and some viewpoints of the city. The trail is lovely and it is just a short drive to start the hike from the city so it’s great for people who want to get out into nature but they don’t want to travel too far from Chiang Mai. The type of vegetation here is rainforest and jungle and it is possible to see monkeys on this trail if you are quiet – and lucky of course.
There are also more hiking trails if you drive over the mountain and head deeper into Doi Suthep and Doi Pui National Park. To find out more, you can go directly to the Information Centre at the entrance to the national park. They will give you a map to follow some of the hiking trails in the park that have different difficulty levels – easy to hard.
What is the best time of year for trekking in Doi Suthep
Due to the close proximity of Doi Suthep trekking in Doi Suthep National Park can be done all year round as you’re never too far from civilisation if the weather forecast sets in. Trails are well marked and there are even several coffee shops along the way. Waterfalls can be more spectacular in the rainy season too! So if you’re trekking off-season, check the weather forecast and just go!
Highlights of trekking in and around Doi Suthep
- Trekking here can be done independently – For those of you who prefer hiking without a guide, Doi Suthep National Park is your safest bet. Just a short drive from the city, the trails here are not too remote and you will likely see other trekkers along the way. However, we would always be careful when hiking by yourself (take enough food, water, allow for enough daylight hours etc.) because it can be dangerous if you get lost!
- Waterfalls – Huay Kaew Waterfall is located at the foot of Doi Suthep mountain and makes an excellent day trip from the city. There are other small waterfalls in the national park which provide a place to cool off in the high low altitude temperatures of Northern Thailand
- Coffee plantations of Doi Pui – Doi Pui, higher up past Doi Suthep is coffee growing region and you can grab a strong cup of the stuff as a pick me up along the trail at several make-shift coffee shops in the national park.
- Hilltribe villages such as the famous Hmong village – Several ethnic minority hilltribe people live on the fringe of the national parks and you can visit their village to buy handicrafts and learn more about their culture.
- Viewpoints – Doi Suthep National Park is great for viewpoints over the city of Chiang Mai. On the right day, the views can be pretty spectacular!
Other Areas to trek independently around Chiang Mai
Huay Tung Tao Lake
Huay Tung Tao is a reservoir located just outside the city of Chiang Mai. A lot of off-road bikers come here to ride and has a few adventure activities in the area. It is also a popular place for locals and ex-pats in the city to go for lunch at one of the many bamboo huts that surround the lake. Lake fish is the dish of the (every) day! Trekking around Huay Tung Tao isn’t particularly beautiful, although there are some decent trails that allow you to get out into nature whilst not being too far from the city. The area is popular with day-trippers looking for a short ride to get out of the city and away from the traffic. It is not necessary to have a guide on trails around Huay Tang Tao and there are several different trails with different levels of difficulty. Al in all, it’s a decent spot trekking by yourself without paying for a guided trek!
Doi Saket lies in the North Eastern part of Chiang Mai province and is known for its zip-line companies, such as Flight of the Gibbon. There is some off the beaten path trekking here and there are also several hot springs which are visited by tourists and locals alike. There is also a famous temple here, Wat Phra That Doi Saket, which is popular amongst locals. It is possible to trek in this area independently without a guide. Also check out our article on camping in Chiang Mai.
Further Afield – Trekking in Pai, Mae Hong Son and Chiang Rai
If you want to travel further from Chiang Mai, some excellent trekking can also be found in the areas of Mae Hong Son, Pai and Chiang Rai. (Click the links to read our travel guides to these places.) It’s best to base yourself in these towns rather than travel from Chiang Mai and there you will find many local trekking companies who can take you out into the wilderness. Some treks we would particularly recommend are:
- 1 Day Waterfall and Nature Trek in Pai.
- Soppong Waterfall and Tham Lod Cave Trek in Pai.
- Trekking and Caving Expedition in Soppong, Pai.
Eco Trekking Chiang Mai – 10 Tips on Hiking Responsibly!
- Save plastic – Take a filtered water bottle to avoid buying endless plastic bottles that pollute the environment. A filtered water bottle also ensures that you stay safe as it filters out germs and bacteria in tap water.
- Avoid paying to visit hill tribe villages – Only visit hill tribe communities where the villagers benefit from the tourism and are free to come and go as they please. The best way to visit is to arrange a tour with a reputable travel company that gives back to the communities in which you are staying.
- Don’t litter. Take everything that you bring into the forest with you when you leave.
- Respect people. Ask permission before taking photographs of hill tribe communities.
- Respect wildlife. Never go elephant trekking, even if it is advertised as an ‘eco experience’. Never visit so-called animal “sanctuaries” that force the animals to perform. We highly recommend BEES or Never Forget.
- Stick to the trails. Avoid erosion of the forest by sticking to the path. This also ensures that you don’t get lost!
- No fires. Never light fires except in campsites in spaces where it is allowed.
- Hire a local trekking guide for off the beaten track areas. Don’t set off into the more remote areas of Northern Thailand without an expert guide.
- Don’t eat fruit or nuts you find in the forest. (Unless you are accompanied by an expert local guide.)
- Research the trekking company. Make sure that the trekking company you decide to book your trek with follows all the rules above! We highly recommend that you check out Ethnic hilltribe Eco Trails for eco-friendly trekking in Chiang Mai.