Travels through Northern Thailand

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Grace Guest House

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Sunday, November 14, 2010

I arrived in Chiang Mai on a Sunday mourning after spending 15 hours on a sleeper train from Bangkok. I had filled a majority of my time in Bangkok visiting temples and street markets, and was ready for my first real Thailand jungle adventure. 

 The only knowledge I had about the area was a few stories I had herd from other travelers, and my lonely planet book, which I have found to be unreliable at times.  I was told to stay at a guest house (or a cheap hotel for young travelers) called Spicy Backpackers.  I was also able to read a bit about the guest house in my guide book, which recommended it highly.  With this in mind, I had planned to stay at spicy for the duration of my stay in Chiang Mai.  After arriving at the train station in town, I showed the tuk tuk driver direction in my lonely planet book, and negotiated a fair price.  The driver didn't recognize the name of the guest house, but took me to the location on the map.  The only problem was that the guest house had been shut down years ago, and turned into a restaurant.  I paid the driver the 60 Baht fee (or $2 US), and began walking around to find a cheap place to stay.  I had learned from travelling in the past that the best way to find a cheap hotel is to walk down side streets and alleys which is what I did.  Soon enough, I stumbled into a small guest house which charged 120 Baht a night ($4). The room was basic, bed, fan, and bathroom, which was great for me as I didn't plan to stay in my room long very long.  

Having arrived in the mourning, I had some time to explore the city center, and sort out my future plans.  I had done a bit of planning on the train ride over, and knew that I wanted to do some trekking while I was in northern Thailand.  After checking into my guest house,  I walked from tour shop to tour shop searching for the perfect trekking option for me.  All the treks cost around 1500 Baht for a 3 days and 2 nights adventure (including food, hut, activities, etc).  I walked down several side streets (called a soi in Thailand), and eventually found a small tour shop owned by a middle aged Thai women named Toi.  I explained to her that I was interested in visiting a rural/less touristy area.  She informed me that most of the treks are done north of Chiang Mai because this area tends to be easily accessible and safe.  She told me that if I was up for it,  there is a beautiful national park south west of Chiang Mai called Doi Inthanon.  Doi Inthanon is somewhat known in Thailand because it is also home to the highest mountain in the country.  Toi informed me that the trek would not be easy, and that it would consist of about 3 days of hiking up the mountain.  She then told me that I would also travel through some areas via elephant and down a river via bamboo raft.  This sounded ideal to me, I was sold!

 Toi (shop owner) explained to me that her husband is is form Texas, and that she used to live in America, and loves the American people (this was shocking to me).   We continued talking for quite a while.  She eventually invited me to have dinner with her and her husband.  Not having any plans, I agreed to meet them at a restaurant near her shop.  Her husband (named Roy) was a journalism professor at the University of Texas, and had been living in Thailand for the last 15 years working for a Thai paper covering Burmese news.  We talked for  a little while about his job, and my experiences as a teacher in Thailand.  Roy informed me that he had lots of connection in Chiang Mai, and that they would love to have me come work in Chaing Mai.   I told him that I would think about it, as I have had several issues working in Surat Thani.  I took his card and headed back towards my guest house, as I had to be up at 6AM for the start of my trekking adventure.   

The next mourning, I was picked up to begin my trekking adventure.  There were already about 9 people in the back of the truck ready to begin there adventure.  My group consisted of two dutch couples, two Spanish, two swiss, a French girl, and me.  Having just met, everyone was a bit shy.  We first stopped at a local market about an hour outside of the city.  We were told to get things like bug spray (malaria is extremely common in Northern Thailand), toilet paper, and a flash light.  After a brief stop, we headed off to start the beginning of our journey.  

The first place we stopped at was a waterfall where we spent about an hour swimming.  Here, it became evident to me of what I was getting myself into, as our tour guide (a Thai man named Rambo, appropriately enough) led us along the sides of cliff and across small makeshift bridges overlooking white water.  After a brief swim in the cold water, we headed back to the truck and began to drive down a dirt road.  Once the dirt road ended, we got out of the truck and entered the jungle.  The first leg of the trip was one of the best. We began to head towards a village where we would spend the night.  The 4 hour hike to the village led us across rivers, through rice paddies, and into some of the thickets jungle I have ever seen.  After about 30 minutes, the tour had already proven its worth to me.  

Around twilight, we arrived in the first village.  The settlement was something straight out of a national geographic program.  The village consisted of several huts for sleeping, a fire pit, and a roof covering a cooking area.  Everyone slept in one hut, with there own mosquito net and bamboo platform to sleep on.  After settling into our sleeping situation, we headed to have dinner.  The food was surprisingly good, consisting of a local curry and rice.  After dinner, we congregated around the fire-pit, which was the only form of light in the village.  We all spent the evening sharing stories, drinking beers, and getting to know each other.

The next mourning, we headed out for a full day of hiking.  Similar to the day before, we found ourselves in some sticky situations, including crossing a log over a raging river where two Japanese tourists died the year before.  Eventually we ended up in another small riverside village.  At the time there was only two other people staying there.  We spent a good portion of the day here swimming in the river and learning to hunt with a slingshot (don't worry mom, I didn't kill anything).  Consistent with Thailand weather, it began to pour, and we decided to get to the next village as quickly as possible.  After 3 hours of trekking through heavy rain, we arrived at the village where we would stay the night.  The second nights village was much larger, consisting of about 10 huts, a covered cooking area, and a big pit.  After another great local meal, many people headed off to bed after a long day of walking and long night of partying.  I decided to have a beer by the fire.  I really enjoyed the evenings in the jungle, particularly because it was the best time for everyone to get to know each other.  Having come from 4 different countries, it was very interesting to learn about all the cultural differences and similarities.  

The last day of the trekking adventure was the best.  Not only was this particular area the most scenic, but day 3 consisted of riding elephants and bamboo rafting.  The elephant ride lasted about an hour, and was quite an experience.  The elephant keeper informed me that he had been raising the particular elephants for 20 years, and that all the elephants were family (at least this is what I picked up from his broken English).  Riding elephants bareback through the jungle is something I will never forget.  After a stop at another waterfall, we arrived to the neck of the river we would raft down.  Like the elephant rides, the rafting lasted about an hour.  The river winded through some thick jungle and by quite a few little villages.  After tipping over a handful of times, we arrived next to a road which would bring us back to the town.  The trip was over, and proved to be some of the best 3 days of my life which I will never forget. 

After arriving back in town, I was able to finally take a highly anticipated shower and get a good meal.  That night we (all the trekkers and even Rambo) decided to meet at a local bar to have a few drinks.  This was the final cap on the journey.  The next day, I spent relaxing near a hotel pool where a friend was staying.  That night I booked night safari trip.  Once again, this was something the lonely planet book recommended to me, and once again, it was not good advice.  For 500 Baht, I was put on a big bus and taken through a zoo to see north american and African animals.  This was not my cup of tea,

I had heard about a small hippy town about 2 hours northwest of Chiang Mai called Pai.  For about 100 Baht, I took a mini bus through the mountains that would have made even the strongest stomach sick.  Once I got there, I could see what all the fuss was about.  The town itself is good to explore, but is small and can been seen in less then 10 minutes by motorbike.  Pai consisted of about 3/4 Thai people, and 1/4 westerners who came for a visit and just never left, making there money by singing on the streets, or selling hemp.  After seeing the town in an hour or two, I decided to rent a motor bike and drive around the surrounding countryside.  I often found myself driving small dirt roads you think would end quickly, but would often take you miles into the jungle.  After a day of exploring via motorbike, I headed back to the city center to find something to eat.  

Again, I headed to a small side Soi where I found "The Curry Shack".  This small restaurant produced the best curry I have every had for about 50 Baht (less then $2).  I sat down to eat, and was almost instantly greeted by some other backpackers.  This time, it was three young dutch travelers who had all just met in Pai.  After dinner, we all decided to go and have a few drinks to check out Pai's nightlife.  We finished the night at the "no cry bar" which was a Bob Marley tribute (Bob Marley is still extremely popular in Thailand, and every town has several "Bob Marley Bar's" in it). 

The next day I spent exploring again via motorbike.  I decided to visit a waterfall on the outskirts of the town, which I found to be a bit disappointing (maybe my standards are a bit high after trekking in Doi Inthanon national park).  Again, that night I met with my friends to explore the nightlife.  The town is so small that I ran into all the same people from the night before.  The following day, I took a local bus back to Chiang Mai.  This turned out to be a mistake because it only saved me about $1, and took 2 hours longer.  Still excited about my last trekking adventure, I decided to go back to Toi's shop and book another 3 day trek.  This time I booked a trip to an area north of CM.

The second trek want nearly as good as the first.  Our group consisted of a dutch family, two French women, and a Spanish couple.  After the first day, the family and French girls decided that the trek was to much for them and decided to return to the city.  This left only me and the Spanish couple.  Sergi and Carmina turned out to be two of the friendliest people I have met.  Sergi, a 28 year old rock climber, spoke little English, and relied on Carmina for a lot of translation.  Having studued Spanish in High school 7 years ago, I was surprised at how much of the language came back to me.  We spent a lot of our time teaching each other how to speak in our native languages.  

The weather was particular bad during my second trek.  It rained hard every day we were out in the jungle, and we were not able to do many things such as swimming.  On this trek I was introduced to a jungle delicacy, grubs, which I actually found to be quite tasty.  After three wet days, I returned back to CM.  This time I decided to head north to the infamous Golden Triangle.  This is where three counties borders meet (Thailand, Laos, and Burma).  I was told to do this by Roy, who insisted that it would be a great experience.  Because the golden triangle is about 5 hours from CM, we spent a majority of the 1 day trip driving.  The finale of the trip was a boat ride, where we got to spend an hour in Laos.  Here, I was greeted with whiskey make with a large king cobra's dead body still in the bottle.  I found this to be a bit strange but gave it a try anyway, as the locals insists that it is good for your skin.  

After a long day of driving and a little sightseeing, I was back in CM to book my ticket back to Surat Thani.  My experience in northern Thailand, was excellent, something I would not trade for anything.  I met so many people from all round the world, changing my perspectives on so many things.  I found Northern Thailand to be one of the most unique place in the world.  I hope to return another day.  
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peter scales on

Unreal. You so looked like you were born to ride an elephant! I think I would have been most scared of taking the side alleys to find a cheap hotel though. And the jungle grubs, uh, I don;'t think so, but I guess you had to be there. The rest of the trip sounds just like the adventure you wanted, and you described it really well--tremendous! Stay safe and keep having fun...

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