So as a traveller you go trekking Northern Thailand. Why? I don’t really know, it’s just what you do…so it’s what we did. Trekking in this area of the world is a great way to get out and see the jungle of the Thai/Burmese border, see life in the hill tribes and is a rewarding physical challenge.
Why Trek From Pai?
Having done quite a bit of research, we decided not to do the normal trek from Chiang Mai. This backpacker route takes you up to a Kayan tribe village and then, if you opt for the three day option, often brings you back on a bamboo raft. The Kayan people are very famous for their tradition of wearing a large amount of metal rings around their necks. This slowly changes the shape of the clavicle and so the neck looks longer. This creates a very tourist-friendly photo opportunity, which will cost you a few Thai baht. You can also purchase traditional handicrafts and of course, a commission from your trek will contribute towards the village as well. These villages receive so many visitors that we didn’t think they needed our visit too.
Trekking Northern Thailand from Pai takes a different route and visits different villages. This helps spread the money throughout the region, the poorest in Thailand. Plus, it meant taking a bit of time out in the odd little town of Pai.
Read about our time spent in Pai, Thailand
Trekking Northern Thailand Day One
The Group Begins to Bond
Sitting in the tiny minibus we assessed the other trekkers with whom we would spend the next 36 hours. It didn’t bode well. The rest of the group consisted of five people in their late-twenties, conversing in French. They joked, they debated, they chatted and they made no attempt to include us. Even more worryingly, they were all extremely lithe and looked much fitter than us.
One Small Step for Rosie
Trekking Northern Thailand began with a walk up a long, steep and miserable road. It was already very hot and the heat from the sun blazed down upon our heads, while the reflected heat from the road burned up from below. I have never been a fan of walking uphill and was quickly lagging behind, huffing, puffing and swearing. If you’ve read ‘A Walk in the Woods’, by Bill Bryson, then just picture a short, blonde Katz. Someone found me a stick and my progress (and mood) improved considerably. At what seemed like a totally random point, we turned off from the road and strode into the trees.
The Trekking Begins in Earnest
We pushed upwards until we hit the top of a ridge and the view fell away. Suddenly the jungle canopy rose and fell before us like a sea. It was beautiful, but all those peaks and troughs meant there were plenty more uphills and downhills to come. This really was going to be a trek and not just a nice hike in the woods.
The humidity rose as we descended the bank, between the trees.
We began to sweat.
There are those that say that going downhill is harder than walking uphill….I am going to throw in my two cents and say that it is not. Walking down the hills, I could work with gravity. Going back up, it was DEFINITELY against me. After a few unhappy hills, we finally got to one that was very steep and where I could use my hands; I do love a scramble.
After a couple of hours we came across a stream. Our guide told us that he hadn’t passed this way since the rainy season, and we would have to help rebuild the little bamboo bridge. They set to work as we sat down to lunch. The fare was simple, fried rice from a little plastic bag. It felt seriously odd, eating out of a bag, but it was tasty and carb-filled. What more can you ask on a trek?
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After lunch, we pushed ahead and temperatures went up again. It was with great relief that we heard the thunder of water on rock. This must be the waterfall mentioned in the tour office. We were given the option to get under the water, and a few of the group did, but I opted to stay dry. I’m not a fan of a soggy undercarriage. So, I dipped my feet, legs and hands in to cool off before we were whisked off just ten minutes later. I wondered if my slow pace was messing the group up somewhat. Oh well, what could I do?
We hiked on for the rest of the afternoon, with a quick stop for a slice of giant melon.
We finally spied the village in the distance. One last descent got us there in about 30 minutes, and by that point my feet were screaming. Knowing that I had no appropriate footwear for a trek, I had bought some trainers in Chiang Mai. They looked like proper walking shoes but I quickly learned that they were not..at all! The bones on the outside of my foot were really sore and it was starting to make me limp in a very odd way. I couldn’t wait to sit down.
A Night in the Village
Our home for the night was in a large long house on stilts. We were all in one room, on individual mats. There wasn’t a pretense that the village is a super traditional tribe or anything. In their family room, next door, was a TV blaring away with a small satellite dish and the people living there weren’t in traditional dress, just their every day clothes. I thought this was pretty refreshing.
We ate dinner and then met some of the local kids. They were really fun and we loved playing silly games with them. I have read blog posts that warn against this interaction but I don’t see what the harm was to be honest. This village doesn’t host people every day and it is not their only source of income. They weren’t asking for money either, just wanted to play.
Once the kids were called in to bed, and the lights were turned off, we got to see the sky properly for the first time. I was entirely blown away. Growing up in the UK, surrounded by light pollution, I thought I had seen the stars. I had no idea what the night sky could really look like. The galaxy stretched for light years, with swatches of purple across the inky blackness. We could actually see the milky way. No longer was it just a concept from science lessons! It was genuinely mesmerising, and if we weren’t expected to rise early, I would have stayed up to enjoy it for longer.
Trekking Northern Thailand Day Two
A Very Early Start
Staying in a Thai village in a bamboo hut sounds rather romantic doesn’t it? The issue with the stilts is that all night, animals will wander under your head and snuffle, crow, snort and generally make a whole lot of fuss. I barely slept. The cockerels started at about 3:30am and I looked around in dismay at my fellow trekkers. They were all sleeping soundly and didn’t stir until gone 7:00! Once everyone was up and moving, we got up and prepared for our second day of trekking.
A Morning on the Trail
Saying goodbye to the village, and setting off, on feet that very quickly became painful again, we were soon in dense forest. I was quite sad that we hadn’t managed to bond with our trek buddies, as there was a real divide and it put us in a strange mood. Thank goodness we only picked the one night trek! We walked down a river bank, following a clear stream. We had to cross it at one point and Mr Fluskey, in his hardcore walking boots, stood in the flowing water to help fling me over it. He saved my poorly protected feet from being drenched. What a hero Mr Fluskey is.
We came across a rather deadly looking snake. It was the first snake I had seen in the wild and I was genuinely a bit scared, but at least it stood out and I didn’t accidentally stand on it!
We stopped for lunch in another village. It was more plastic bag fare, instant ramen noodles this time. It reminded me strongly of being a student. The villagers didn’t seem fussed that a bunch of pale, grimy backpackers were going into one of their houses, and just kept working.
The rest of the trek was just an exercise in odd hobbling. I was having to walk in weird and wonderful ways to avoid the pain in my feet from being too bad. It was with such joy that we saw the little minibus driving along a long open road to collect us. I was so thrilled to change my shoes back at our little A-frame hut and get stuck into some delicious food.
Read all about our next adventure in Thailand, The Slow Boat to Laos – A Two Day Treat
Final Thoughts on Trekking Northern Thailand
Trekking is an amazing way to see a little nugget of a country that you are exploring. It can be a great mental break from the madness of going between one town and another the whole time. Nature has a way of calming you down and the action of walking, steadily, constantly allows your mind the space to wonder and wander. I loved that we didn’t see any other tourists on our trek, I am pretty sure the whole thing was a little more…I struggle to use the word authentic, but maybe beneficial to the communities we briefly passed through, I really hope so anyway. So get those walking shoes on, go trekking Northern Thailand, and see what you can find.