Chiang Mai is a nature lovers haven and has an impressive number of national parks. The most popular one is the Doi Inthanon National Park which also contains Thailand’s highest peak. At 2565 meters above sea level, the mountain peak of Doi Inthanon towers over the verdant, green forests which are surprisingly well preserved. Previously known as Doi Luang (big mountain) and Doi Ang Ka (crow’s pond top), Doi Inthanon was renamed in honour of one of the last kings of CM, King Inthawichayanon who started the initiative to conserve the forests. He loved the misty, cool forested mountain so much that after he ordered his remains to be immured there after his death.
Doi Inthanon lies to the south of Chiang Mai and it takes about an hour and half from the city to reach the park gates. The national park spreads over 482 square kilometers and is quite diverse with an amazing range of temperatures. While in summers, the summit remains cool enough for tour operators to suggest mild woolens to their guests, in winters temperatures have been known to drop below freezing. Home to more than 300 species of birds, dwindling wild animals (mainly snakes, gibbons, wild boars, jungle fowl and deer) and beautiful limestone caves, the fauna on the slopes of the park also change radically with altitude. While mostly dry scrub and oaks cover the base, fragrant pines, rhododendrons, orchids, lichens, ferns and cloud forests carpet the summit densely. Waterfalls tumble all over the park and indigenous Hmong and Karen settlers call it their home. They live in tiny clusters of villages, mostly deep inside the forests and cultivate strawberries, apples, grapes and exotic blooms.
Doi Inthanon makes a popular day trip from CM and is usually coupled with a nature walk in the park, few waterfalls, royal chedis and gardens at the summit and stops at Hmong and/or Karen hill tribe villages. Although not a big fan of group tours, CM’s Songkran frenzy drove me to opt for 1 and it was one of my best travel decisions ever. We started off early in the morning, a small pleasant multi national group and wound our way out of CM. The drive was very pretty and in the morning light, the hilly forested path glowed in subdued contentment. Our first stop were at the 2 waterfalls (the park has 8 falls with Mae Klang being the largest), Wachiratharn and Siriphum.
Wachiratharn Falls was a short, easy hike from the parking lot and was very pretty. Misty veil of milky white cascades tumbled down granite escarpment and flowed deep into bamboo forests. A walkway looped around it and a boardwalk took us right in front of the cascade. Powerful spray frothed on our faces and hundreds of tiny rainbows bounced off the dazzling white water. We walked down the loop, all the way by the river and watched tiny fishes flitting about in the crystal clear stream. Fish marked the special hill tribe cuisine of the area and ladies sold salt coated smoked fishes from bamboo baskets. Food as usual attracted me and my mouth watered at its sight, but time constraint did not allow me to sample it. It made me wonder if taking a private tour or self driven car to Doi Inthanon made more sense than group tours to intrepid travelers.
Siriphum Waterfall was just a 20 minutes drive and accessible by a short, steep downhill walk. Named after the combination of Queen Sirikit and King Bhumibol, the waterfall looked like river of pure silver glittering in the sun. Graceful and slim in comparison with the frothy flow of Wachiratharn, Siriphum towered above the surrounding forests. Flowers bloomed around riotously and lilac cherry blossoms dappled the dense greenery. We walked down to the wooden viewing area, took a break under the twisting vines and gathered exotic looking wild flowers. Sun was high in the sky and completely burnt out the dewy morning freshness. Dragonflies and stick insects flashed in dozens and salamanders ran amok busily. It was very peaceful and a far cry from the loud, rowdy Songkran madness of CM.
Even the air smelled green and the soothing lull nearly made us doze off in the heat. Our guided herded us back to the car and talked non stop till we reached our lunch stop. The restaurant stood by the highway next to a local hill tribe market and was surrounded by dense forests. We walked around the local market, sampling fresh fruits, buying exotic daggers and opium pipes before settling down in the open, dining area for lunch. The meal was purely Thai, with hefty toning down of the spices. A fish broth, steamed rice, minced chicken with basil, peppercorn and hundred years old egg (fermented egg, not necessarily 100 years old) and whole steamed fish in ginger and chili completed our meal and we had no space for fresh fruit platters served as desert.
Thai food never failed to tempt me and in no other country, I ever ate as much as I did in Thailand. Apart from overeating, Thailand always caused my hair to form strange peaks and my skin to break out in spots. Perhaps it was the sultry Thai weather or my gluttony on spicy local cuisine which caused these 2 consistent biological changes, but they certainly did nothing to curb my love for Thai food. Long back as a fresh backpacker, I had learned to prioritize exotic food over graceful looks and have not faltered from that path yet. Thankfully during my Thai sojourns I have met countless women travelers who shared similar travel consistencies and they always made me feel less guilty about the extra pounds I carried home from those trips.
Our massive meal made us very drowsy and it became extremely difficult to leave our cool bamboo grove luncheon nooks. But the dew dripping, mossy Doi Inthanon summit beckoned and we move on wards with our tour. It was time for the hill tribe villages, chedis and the summit.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE