“Heather. Don’t move. Your leg is covered… in leeches.”
Heather let out a guttural cry as I looked down and saw that I, too, was covered in bloodsucking parasites. We frantically picked them off our limbs as our companions, a Thai guide and his Hmong sidekick, just laughed in reply. We were deep in a remote corner of what was once the Golden Triangle, source almost all the world’s opium and heroin, and the only other human we’d seen all day was a rusty shotgun-toting teenager.
It was truly fantastic.
It’s not always easy to have a truly authentic travel experience in a place as saturated with tourists as Thailand, especially in the form of a day tour. Trekking is a super popular activity option around Chiang Mai, but somehow in three visits I’d yet to experience it for myself. I knew there were probably fabulous tour options out there, but distaste for overcrowded trails and touristy gimmicks, anxiety over accidentally participating in the rampant exploitation of minority villagers scattered around Northern Thailand somehow kept me from trying to find them. So I crossed my fingers when I booked Heather and I onto Viator’s Opium Trail Trek through Doi Suthep National Park, and hoped we’d made a good choice.
Our first stop of the day? Phra That Doi Suthep Temple, located at the top of the winding road to Mount Suthep. The 300 steps we had to ascend to reach the temple entrance were a great warm up for the day’s hiking, and provided unrivaled views over Chiang Mai.
This temple is Chiang Mai’s most visited tourist attraction, and it’s easy to see why. There is no denying that Doi Suthep is stunning, and I enjoyed the context of visiting with a guide versus the mindless wandering I’d done my first time around. I recounted to Heather how it had actually hailed the last time I’d been at this temple, and I’d huddled under one of the eaves with a huge group of monks and bewildered, giggling tourists.
Built in the 14th century, I’m sure this Buddhist monastery has seen its fair share of hail storms and other bizarre weather incidents. But it seemed like such an impossibility now, on this hot and sunny bright blue day.
Our guide Chai provided just the right balance of information and time unleashed with our cameras. Chai’s age and experience revealed he was a veteran to the tour guide scene, and he could only reply with a laugh when I asked him to estimate how many times he’s been to Doi Suthep.
Unsurprisingly, some of my favorite sightings at Doi Suthep were the bizarre English-language signs tacked haphazardly about the temple grounds.
Temple visit complete, we hit the road again. But instead of joining the hoards of tourists heading back to Chiang Mai, our vehicle veered right and drove deep into the National Park. We paused again at Doi Pui Village, a Hmong village that marked the start point of our trek. Here, we were joined by local guide Kuhna, a requirement for trekking in the area that ensures income from tourism stays at least partially within the community.
I wouldn’t normally think of a history lesson as the perfect side dish to a great hiking trail, but in this case they were served up in tandem. And I loved it! Originally from Southern China, cultivation of opium has always been an important part of the Hmong way of life. Opium did not hold the same social taboos and was long produced for trade, a tradition that came along as the tribes fled to the Thai-Burmese border following political tensions in China. Today, Doi Suthep National Park lies in what was once a thriving corner of the infamous Golden Triangle, the border regions between Thailand, Burma and Laos that once produced almost all of the world’s opium and heroin.
In 1969, King Bhumibol Adulyadej — still the King today! — visited Doi Pui and grew concerned that the slash and burn aspect of opium production was destroying the park’s natural resources — as well as breaking the law. Supposedly, The National Parks system in Thailand is originally based on that of the US, with one major point of differentiation — the US didn’t have large communities of people living in their national parks when they were established. In response to his visit, the King initiated a Royal Project, “inviting” several Hmong communities to move down from the mountains to lower elevations where cash crops such as tomatoes, tea and strawberries would flourish. Today, the Hmong mostly make their living from tourism, where they themselves are the main attraction.
While we were hearing all this history I was definitely curious how much of its rosy presentation was influenced by Thailand’s overwhelming love for the King — although even from the BBC paints the program in an allover positive light. Unfortunately, there’s really no such thing as a two-sided view when it comes to the Royal Family in Thailand, but I longed to hear about the controversy that this project must have incited.
I cringed at the thought of a staged village visit with corny performances, booths full of handicraps (still my most proudly crowned term) and bored looking teenagers in traditional dress. Luckily it was literally none of those things. We breezed past a few stalls with souvenirs for sale and, at Chai’s cajoling, even paused for a bit of breadfruit archery, but otherwise there was little fanfare as we set off through the quiet village en route to our hike. According to different reports we had four to six hours on our feet ahead of us — we were ready to hit the trail.
We quickly fell into a steady pace. It was sauna steamy, but the thick foliage provided much-welcome shade. Bugs buzzed by our ears like tiny helicopters, and geckos scrambled to exit our path. At one point, we saw a snake slither across the trail. None of that bothered me, but I did think I might lose my mind when I first looked down and saw my leg covered in leeches. After that, Heather and I took turns checking each other from the knee down what felt every ten seconds, though I was amazed at Kuhna’s ability to spot the nearly microscopic creatures dangling from low leaves upon approach.
As soon as Chai informed us that leeches couldn’t survive above a certain elevation, we found ourselves hiking upwards at a much quicker clip.
Photo on right via
Photo on right via
Soon after we reached the peak elevation of 1,480 meters, we stopped at a viewpoint that took my breath away — or maybe it was the multiple miles of straight ascent we’d just hiked, can’t be sure. We stopped to admire a small shrine over a footprint of Buddha, and settled down for a fabulous picnic lunch Chai had picked up in Doi Pui Village. These two sustainability nuts loved that our fried rice was packaged in reusable containers, and complimented by an array of unidentified fruits we gamely tried.
But we still had a ways to go. We began descending, slowly, and I noted to Heather that we hadn’t seen a single other hiker along the trail. Moments later, we heard a rustling, and a Hmong teenager appeared with a shotgun taller than me and a dead squirrel hooked on the end of his cloth sidebag. I longed to take his portrait, but shyness won out, and we simply admired the squirrel carcass with approving nods when he proffered it.
Human subjects aside, I was overwhelmed by creative inspiration in Doi Suthep. Beauty truly was around every corner.
Signs of human civilization slowly increased, and eventually we arrived at Ban Mae Sa Mai, the largest Hmong community in North Thailand. Despite knowing this village receives far less visitors than the one we’d started from, I was still suspicious of what we might find there. There was no need — it was a quiet, peaceful village tucked deep into the hill and once again there was not another traveler in sight. We’d made it!
We were shown around a humble “museum” that was more like a traditional home set up for the occasional home-stay. Still, it was a short and interesting stop and I admired the village for resisting more flashy attempts at trying to lure tourists.
Seven hours after first being picked up from our hotel, we were back in the car once again. Cool towels, wet wipes, water and bananas were handed around as we cheered to a day well done. About five minutes into the drive back we were fast asleep — what can I say? It had been a long seven hours!
Our Opium Trail Trek gamble paid off. Never could I have imagined we could reach such remote and beautiful areas, and have such an authentic experience, without having to do an overnight camping trek. Or that outside Chiang Mai, one of the trekking capitals of Southeast Asia, we could go all day without passing another hiker! Or that we could cram so much into so few hours without feeling the slightest bit rushed — an epic temple, a pristine National Park, a fascinating slice of Thai history, and beauty both man-and-nature-made. My only complaint? We didn’t really learn anything about FORRU, the forest restoration unit of Chiang Mai University, as promised in the tour description. But we didn’t miss it too much.
So all that was great, but I haven’t even mentioned my favorite part of the entire day. At 5’1″, for once in my shortie life I was taller than BOTH my tour guides! Now that’s really something to
write home blog about.
What’s your favorite place to trek in Southeast Asia?
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I am a member of the Viator Ambassador initiative and participated in this tour as part of that program.