Friday, March 8, 2013

Hiking Chiang Dao, Thailand

During my recent trip to Thailand I quickly discovered that SE Asia is not really a mountaineers choice location for summits. However, there is at least one mountain worthy of a hike to the summit. Chiang Dao is the 3rd highest peak and the highest limestone mountain in Thailand, standing at 2195meters. The highest peak is Doi Inthanon at 2595m, a simple drive to the top. I chose Chiang Dao on recommendation by a recent visitor and for its impressive prominence as you approach it. Birders from all over the world flock here to pursue locating a number of native birds. You can hire a birding guide to speed up the identification curve. The weather in winter is just cool enough at night to use a blanket and still reach the 80s during the day as opposed to Bangkok where it stays hot night and day in winter. Furthermore, it happened to be the only area in Thailand I encountered where the land seemed to still be in a relatively natural state of preservation. There are other national parks which likely, have nice natural areas as well; but my trip was short.

Access to this mountain is by bus (~$2) about 1.5hrs north of the city of Chiang Mai in far northern Thailand. Get off at the north end of the small town of Chiang Dao and find the intersection with a road going west 5km to Tham Chiang Dao caves. Here you can hire a motorbike taxi (<$2) or truck to the cave area and choose from a few different guesthouses or just stay in Chiang Dao Inn on the highway. Be sure to stock up on snacks in town. I choose to ride the motorbike 6km to Malee's Nature Guesthouse. Maelee's is in a good overnight location for exploring the caves, hiking and birding. You can buy meals here or from the small restaurants and mini-marts at the cave entrance. If you arrive the afternoon before your hike, you can visit the sacred retreat complex of Samnak Song Tham Ph Plong. This is a monastery where Buddhist monks can be seen meditating. Go about 1km past Malee's and climb the long, steep stairway up to a large temple, among forest and limestone cliffs. With more time, you can explore the Tham Chiang Dao caves which takes about an hour. At the caves, you hire a guide with a lantern to show you around the stalactites and stalagmites. From this area, there used to be a direct trail leading up to the summit of Chiang Dao. Since the national park did not like the condition of this trail, they closed the old trail and moved the trailhead to a higher location. This requires your own transport, renting a motorbike or bicycle, hiring an expensive taxi or hitch-hiking to a pass about 12km further up the road. The guesthouses will all try to convince you that it is too dangerous to go on your own and that you will get lost. They really just want to make some extra cash by selling you a tour with a guide service. So I had to just ignore the warnings and find my own way up there. I wanted to avoid having to pay some $32 for a 2 day trip I could do in one. I stood on the road around 7am and caught a ride up about a half hour later. The driver was taking 3 locals to a further village for the day's work. All I had to do was watch the scenery of the towering north face go by and look out for the trailhead sign near a pass.

From the trailhead, it must be around 3500' to the summit, just based on the time it took me to summit, about 3 hours. The guesthouses tell you around 5-6 hours from the trailhead to summit and most people camp. The trail initially starts off deceivingly flat before shooting up steeply to a notch, giving views of rolling rounded mountains and a village to the north. There is a little bit of muddy, root-grabbing terrain just before the notch. The tropical vegetation is mostly thin and open to the sky, giving lots of views throughout the length of the trail. However, there are periodic clusters of forest to find shade. If you are early, you can make it about half way to the summit in the shadow of the mountain.

Once you attain the initial notch, the views of limstone cliffs are inspiring and continue towards the summit. You are not able to see the summit here, but the trail curves left and follows an inner valley for about an hour. Along this stretch, you pass one intersection with 2 signs labeled in Thai. Not knowing Thai, I chose the trail to the left which seemed to be toward higher points. Luckily it was the right way and I passed through a campsite with about a dozen birding tourist staying. Most of them were scattered along the trail from to summit to camp, all with expensive cameras, binoculars and scopes. Beyond the camp, the trail steepened up a bit and wound up through more open country to a rocky knoll. From the top I could see a number of false summits around the mountain complex. By this time, it was already around 11am and the mid-day haze had developed. This prevented me from seeing very far away but the closest peaks of Chiang Dao were enough to hang out and admire for awhile. The air was warm, with a light breeze and I had it all to myself.

The walk back down took around 2 hours and the afternoon was heating up. Plan on 3 hours of leisurely walking down. No one stopped to pick me up at the trailhead. So I walked quickly down the paved road for about an hour until the same worker truck gave me a lift back to the park entrance gate. They had to stack crates a mile high on the bed to replace our bodies. With another 4km or so to go, I started walking again until a motorbike pulled over and took me the rest of the way to the cave for exploration. Malee's offered an amazing $4 buffet of Thai food that evening. I will have to say.... I did get my money's worth after that hike! Coincidentaly, there was a small group of students from Huxley College, WWU staying at Malee's that night.

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