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Camping on the Roof of Thailand

The hottest time of the year in Chiang Mai is April and May. Temperatures can easily exceed 40 degrees Centigrade by mid-afternoon. There is a place very close to Chiangmai where you can escape the heat and enjoy some of the finest natural scenery in the Kingdom and that is Doi Inthanon National Park.

Each year my wife and I pack up our gear, load it on our little 100cc Honda Dream, and head for the mountains. We like to go the first week in May after the Mango rains in mid to late April. The so called Mango rains is a period of about one week when the weather changes from the cool to the hot season which causes brief heavy rain showers. This rain causes the vegetation, a dingy brown color because of lack of rain for several months, to turn to a lush green.

When we departed Chiangmai at 9 am it was already 35 degrees C. but the cool breeze while riding the motor bike the short 1 1/2 hours to the park was refreshing. We left Chiangmai by highway 108 through Hang Dong and Sanpatong and then about one kilometer before Chom Tong turned right on highway 1009. There is a big sign in English stating "Doi Inthanon" where you turn so it's easy to find. Continue 8 kilometers to where the road forks and then keep to the right where you will see the park entrance. The entrance fee is 10 baht and they have free maps and information for you that you will need. A copy of the park map can be seen online and might be a useful reference as you read this article.

Your first stop should be the Visitor's Center a kilometer or so past the park entrance on the left side. There they have more information and many exhibits and a slide show about the park in English. You need to know the park rules that levy stiff fines if broken (such as for picking flowers); these rules are written on the back of all the maps and brochures.

After getting all the information we needed we headed straight to the Park Headquarters at Kilometer marker 31. As we approached the booth for accommodations reservations both we noticed a thermometer and found it was a perfect 26 degrees C. We decided to spend our first night in a tent and second night in a bungalow. We made our reservations and rented our tent for 60 baht and 4 blankets at 15 baht each. Since we were going to ride around the park the park ranger kept our bags for us and we proceeded to the camp grounds to pitch our tent.

The camp grounds are in a pine tree forest with toilets and shower facilities. There is a guard box at the entrance and in the evenings the guard lets in only those who are camping or have bungalow reservations on the grounds. Since you are not allowed to pick up fire wood you can ask the camp ground attendant and he will supply the wood for you.

After putting up the tent we were getting hungry and headed back to the Park Headquarters where they have two restaurants and small store. The store also has tents and blankets to rent for the same price as the park. You can also purchase bottled water, soda, beer, film, batteries and snacks and souvenirs. The restaurants are open from 7 am to 8 pm serving delicious Thai food at great prices. While having lunch we were told that a 7 man soccer match was being played this afternoon on the soccer field next to the restaurant on the Park Headquarters grounds. The match was between a Karen hill tribe village and a Hmong hill tribe village located in the park so we stayed and watched the action under the shade trees drinking ice cold beer. We made plans to do some hiking on the Gew Mae Pan Trail near the Doi Inthanon summit (above 2000 meters tomorrow) so today was for relaxing, which I myself am very good at doing.

Just before dark we ate our dinner, got our things from the park ranger and went to our camp grounds. In May there aren't many people in the park so a secluded place to put our tent was easy to find. We built a nice camp fire and I spent the evening reading while my wife did her crochet. The only sound was that of the crickets and with the smell of pine and clean fresh air drifting off to sleep was a total pleasure I haven't experienced in many months while living in the crowded city. The next morning we awoke early and packed up the tent and returned it to the park ranger and again he kept our bags for us. I checked the thermometer and it was a cool 18 degrees C.

We ate our breakfast and headed toward the summit passing fruit and flower stands owned by Hmong hill tribe people. Here we stopped to have a look and across the street were green houses filled with beautiful flowers. The growing of flowers is a Royal Project so the hill tribe people can live in harmony with the park's conservation plans instead of doing their traditional slash and burn farming.

The 2.5 kilometer Gew Mae Pan Trail begins about half a kilometer past the twin Chedis at kilometer marker 42. We decided to leave our motor bike at the Chedi and walk the horseshoe shaped trail to the end and return the same way. This turned out to be a good idea as the mountains were covered with mist and clouds and the view although beautiful was limited on our way out. On the way back the clouds had lifted and the view was spectacular.The two Chedis named Napamaytanindol Chedi are a work of art. Built for the occasion of King Bhumipol's 60th birthday, two Chedis were built. One for His Majesty and the other for Queen Sirikit. When you visit the Chedis make sure you are wearing long pants or skirt and shirt or blouse. Refreshments and lunch can be purchased here but are expensive. Just behind the Lavender colored Chedi dedicated to Queen Sirikit the Gew Mae Pan Trail begins. There is no marker but you will be able to find it.

The trail begins through dense forest with lush ferns and moss covering the tree trunks. Wild orchids and colorful birds are plentiful. It's uphill most of the way, crossing streams and climbing over and ducking under logs. The temperature is perfect for hiking and the sounds of the many birds and creeks are very enjoyable.

After about an hour you come upon a clearing looking toward the west. When we arrived clouds were rushing up from the valley floor to meet us.
The next hour you are walking along a narrow mountain ridge with shear mountain cliffs off to the west. To the east what you think are thick bushes are, if you look closely, huge tree tops coming from the jungle forest below. This is also where the Red and White Rhododendron are located. These native plants (small trees) cling to the rocky cliffs and come into full bloom during the cold season from December to March. At the very high point of the trail is a cleared area where a Hmong hill tribe village used to be. You can imagine the cleared area filled with color full opium poppies. The villagers were moved to the Mae Klang area near the park Headquarters and now grow flowers, strawberries, apples, plums and peaches.

The next portion of the trail is through dense forest again crossing several streams. The park has provided small bridges to make crossing the streams easy. The last part of the trail is through a lovely evergreen forest with pine trees much different and larger than those found at our camp site.We returned the way we came following the trail to the clearing and this time the clouds had lifted leaving a spectacular view of the valley floor and surrounding mountains. Two hawks were circling above, diving to the valley floor then lifting again on the air currents along the cliff edge, their screeching echoing through the canyon below.

We spent a total of six hours on the trail and saw only two other people. They were Thai photographers doing a story for a nature magazine. We could have stayed longer but hunger was setting in so we returned to the restaurant at the Park Headquarters.

The rest of the afternoon we rode to the many Karen and Hmong hill tribe villages. The people were very shy but friendly and it was difficult taking pictures at first. After we spent some time with them a few agreed to having their picture taken. I won't give money for picture taking as this starts a bad habit of them asking for money from tourists, but I do try to get to know and make friends with them then ask if its OK to take their picture.

This evening was spent in our comfortable bungalow. We made reservations at the same time we rented our tent the day before. The bungalow has electricity and is equipped with a king size bed in the bedroom and a single bed with table and chairs in the living room. It has a big but simple bathroom with shower and Thai style toilet. Simple accommodations for only 300 baht per night and the bed was very comfortable and the night quiet.

The next day we spent visiting the many waterfalls in the park. The first one was very close to our bungalow and actually two waterfalls named after the King and Queen and called Siriphum waterfalls. The next two waterfalls were also close together and the road getting there was a little difficult but worth the effort. We went just past the second check point at kilometer marker 38 and turned left toward Mae Chaem and traveled about 8 kilometers. Here there is a sign where you turn right and travel the dirt road for 2 kilometers to the ranger station. From there it's a 500 meter walk to Mae Pan waterfall and 200 meters to Huai Luaeng waterfall.Our last stop was on the way out of the park at Mae Ya waterfall. To get there you need to go back to Cham Tong and just before you get to highway 108 you will see the sign Mae Ya waterfall. follow the signs for about 14 kilometers from here. There will be a check point where they collect a 10 baht fee to enter. Just tell them you have been staying in the park and they will let you in for free. This waterfall is great for photographs and over 250 meters tall. Try to go on a weekday as the weekends are very crowded with Thais picnicking and swimming.

We had a great time although we didn't see everything such as Brichinda cave. We would also like to spend some time bird watching. The Park staff was a great help and very friendly and I would recommend this trip to anyone. So next time it gets too hot in Chiangmai head to Doi Inthanon National Park.

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