This past weekend some friends and I went up to Chiang Dao National Park in Northern Thailand in hopes of hiking Thailand’s third tallest peak, Doi Luang Chiang Dao. It turned out that a weekend for hiking would become a weekend gone biking.
We began our journey Thursday night by taking an overnight bus from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, arriving in Chiang Mai around 8 am Friday morning. We then ate some breakfast near the bus station before renting scooters to drive up to the National Park, which was 75 kilometers (about 46 miles) north. The drive took us about 1 ½ hours, but I enjoyed every minute of freedom on the road with my new scooter gang (and yes, we were all wearing our helmets).
Unfortunately, it was pretty foggy along our drive so we were unable to see much of our surroundings. We were unsure what the fog was from, but figured it would clear up eventually. We would later find out that it wasn’t just fog from weather conditions, but instead it was from Thailand’s well-known “burning season.”
So, what is burning season? I’m glad you asked because I, too, had the same question. An article found on GuidetoThailand.com explains that rice farmers often burn straw and stubble after a harvest because wild mushrooms are stimulated by burning, thus creating better soil for the next season. Also, some hill tribes burn to clear farm land and many rural Thais burn to clear rainy season overgrowth. I had heard about burning season prior to our trip, but I thought I had read that it began after the month of March.
On Friday night, we were driving around the town on our scooters and noticed that one of the mountains was on fire. None of us wanted to say it out loud, but in my head I was thinking how I was pretty sure that the mountain on fire was the mountain we were hoping to hike the next morning. Even though we had a little bit of doubt running through our minds, we stayed with our original plans and woke up at 6:30 the next morning to get an early start for our “big day.”
We grabbed breakfast, snacks and water from the nearest 7-11 – aka Thailand’s go-to convenience store located everywhere – and headed to the gate of the National Park. When we arrived at the gate we were greeted by two guards that barely spoke any English. We asked about hiking Doi Luang Chiang Dao and their worried faces gave us the answer we were hoping to avoid. They said that the mountain on fire from the night before was indeed the mountain we wanted to hike and that all of the hikes in the park were closed due to burning season. I had been anxiously awaiting to hike that mountain since one of my friends told me about it back in December so I couldn’t have felt more let down by the news.
We talked a bit about what we wanted to do, whether to pay the 200 baht ($6) entrance fee and drive around the park or just head back down to Chiang Mai and explore the “Grand Canyon of Thailand.” We decided that we still wanted to see the park since we were already there and make the most out of our day by driving around on our scooters in the mountains.
About 10 minutes into our cruise, we came across a large group that had backpacks on and looked as if they were preparing to go for a hike. We pulled over in hopes that we could, by some chance, join their group and fulfill our want to roam around the mountains. After looking like confused but eager hikers, one of the guys from the group came up to us and started a conversation.
Turns out that they were a group of seven trained guides and 40 selected volunteers there to do an overnight hike and on the way down they would collect trash leftover from the 30,000 tourists that had visited during the prior hiking season. Hearing this made me want to hike with them even more since they were doing such a good deed, but obviously we hadn’t brought the proper gear with us and weren’t allowed to join since it was a selected group.
During our conversation, the guy mentioned that we had just missed the hiking season … by THREE DAYS. Because Thailand is currently experiencing greater heat than ever before, farmers began burning season earlier this year. I don’t know if this news made me more frustrated or not, but basically I just had to except that it wasn’t meant to be and we were unlucky.
Nonetheless, I was still very happy that we decided to stay in the park because we had a wonderfully memorable day and were able to see some stunning sights.
We pretty much drove the entire length of Chiang Dao National Park, stopping a couple of times to enjoy the scenery. There was a village within the park and this is where we spent a good portion of our day. After getting gas and food from the “town” part of the village, we continued our drive until spotting a stream where local kids were playing. The sight of cool water looked refreshing so we decided to stop and put our feet in. We didn’t know if we were really allowed to or not, but when we pulled up the mother of the kids, who was washing her clothes across the stream, gave us a big smile so we felt welcomed.
We hung out here for a good while and embraced the lifestyle that these local Thais had. We watched as the kids used the cement dam as a water-slide, the woman used the stream as her washing machine, and down a little ways we saw another woman using a fishing net, thus utilizing the stream as her grocery store.
Once we felt refreshed, we continued our exploration around the village. We didn’t have a destination in mind and therefore stayed open-minded to whatever there was to see. Along our drive we passed an older man walking on the side of the road. I’ve never given a ride to a stranger before, but for some reason my intuition told me to stop and offer him a ride. He didn’t speak any English and my Thai is very limited, but we were still able to communicate by using non-verbals. He happily accepted the ride and I was excited to see where I would take him.
I just thought he was on his way home so I would take him to his side of the village, but he was actually going on an adventure of his own. He had me drop him off at a large dam on the outskirts of town. Once we arrived, I looked at my friends and we all decided that we wanted to hang out here and explore this unique area that was probably not well-known by travelers. We walked along the lower half of the dam and saw two separate groups of men fishing, three water buffaloes taking a mud bath, and on our way back we were greeted by a herd of water buffalo on the upper half of the dam.
It is authentic experiences such as these that make being in Thailand that much more rewarding.
After an adventurous afternoon exploring a new side of Thailand, we began our drive back to our hostel. We stopped at a destination that the guard earlier that day had recommended and it was well worth the pit-stop. The haze had cleared so we were able to see the beautiful mountain scenery that was blocked earlier that morning and the day before. It was a sight to remember and has motivated me to want to come back to Thailand at some point in my life to hike to the top of the peak and be able to enjoy the view from above.
Our weekend didn’t go as planned, but it was still an absolutely spectacular adventure! From wandering inside the Chiang Dao Caves on Friday afternoon and stumbling upon a Shinbyu celebration in town that night to the all-day scooter adventure within Chiang Dao National Park on Saturday and then stopping by the unique Buathong Sticky Waterfalls on our commute back down to Chiang Mai on Sunday, I was leaving Northern Thailand a happy camper. All-in-all we were probably driving on our scooters more than 50 percent of the time, but I thoroughly enjoyed our weekend of vehicle exploration.
Our mountain may had been on fire, but that didn’t take the fun out of our weekend getaway.
Tiffany Geer is earning a bachelor’s degree in communication at San Diego State University. She is blogging from Thailand for the 2016 spring semester.