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The dos and don'ts of trekking in Thailand

Published March 26th, 2014

If your mental picture of Thailand is beautiful beaches and chaotic cities, tune your zeitgeist antennae in to the lush interior. Northern Thailand is a mythical destination of highlands and lowlands, fertile valleys, cascading waterfalls, remote villages and intriguing hilltribes for a colourful and controversial region that abounds with environmental and ethnic diversity. Thailand’s second biggest  city and cultural centre of Chiang Mai is your natural springboard to the area for a holiday that’s all about trekking and traditions. Forget your air-conditioned mega malls and sun lounges, it’s about to get hot, sweaty and dirty all up in here.  Before you go, here’s what you need to know.  

  DO spend time in Chiang Mai If you’re planning a trekking holiday in Thailand, chances are your adventure will begin and end in the northern city of Chiang Mai. There’s plenty to see and do here, including the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar, or you can do a cooking course, take massage lessons or strike a pose at a yoga retreat. It’s also the place to enjoy a hot shower and choice of cuisines before you head off into nature.   DON’T spend all your time in Chiang Mai Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second biggest city and its cultural hub, but make no mistake – it’s still a city. It’s the main commerce area in the north offering shopping, beers, bars and many high-end hotels plus traditional handicrafts and practices - all close to nature. It can be a little touristy, so make sure you go exploring to see the real deal.     DO a tour To get the most out of your Thailand trekking holiday, choose a hilltribe tour with a reputable company like Infinity Holidays. Tours range from one-day treks or longer where you can visit wildlife sanctuaries; stay, eat and sleep in local village; go bamboo rafting and ride elephants. Join a  tour of  no more than six to eight people for the optimal group size.   DON’T DIY If it’s your first time to Thailand or first time trekking, it’s best not to go it alone. An experienced and registered guide can take you to remote hilltribe villages, wildlife sanctuaries and nature sites along dedicated trails where all you need to do is enjoy the experience without the worry of uprisings or upheaval in the area.     DO leave your designer duds in Bangkok It’s hot and humid in the jungle, y’all, so leave your luxe labels and going-out gear in the big city. To go trekking in Thailand, opt for lightweight gear and make sure you bring a change of clothes and a cossie just in case you chance upon a hidden waterfall or get sprayed with water by your new elephant friend.   DON’T dress in head-to-toe adventure gear While we’re not advocating dressing like you stepped out of the pages of an outdoor adventure catalogue (zip-off pants, anyone?), you’ll need suitable gear to tackle the steep inclines and close brushes with nature on your Thailand trek. Choose long pants for unmaintained trails and leeches (eww!), a hat and a tee or tank top.   DO walk this way It’s called trekking for a reason. You don’t need to be the Commando but you will need to have a decent degree of fitness to walk at least 10 kilometres a day in jungle terrain with a backpack.  Some of the sights you may see on your hike include Huay Sadhan waterfall – a large drop into a clear pool, or try kayaking and bamboo rafting in the river.   DON’T wear trainers or thongs Think steep inclines and bushwalking around five to six hours a day. Thongs and your gym trainers are simply not going to cut it. Yes, they may be heavy and take up room in your backpack, but a proper pair of waterproof hiking boots will ensure you go the distance without slipping or falling. Break ‘em in first to avoid blisters.     DO pack properly The jungle can be hot, wet, humid and full of the elements, especially during the wet season (June to October), so be prepared. What you should pack in your trusty small backpack is water (heavy but essential – you’ll need it), a waterproof camera and a change of dry clothes. You can buy all you need for a jungle trek in Chiang Mai.   DON’T overpack Remember you’ll be carrying your backpack for up to six hours, so pack sparingly. Don’t forget to slather yourself in sunscreen and mozzie repellent before you head off and bring it with you for top-ups along the way. It’s also a good idea to bring a small amount of cash for tips, cold drinks and buying any local handicrafts.     DO be respectful Showers will be cold, you’ll probably be sleeping on the floor of village huts, toilet facilities will be basic and your meals will be simple shared affairs. Glamping it ain’t. What luxuries you give up on your trek are minimal compared to the riches of experiencing rare cultures and sights. There are many different hilltribes in northern Thailand including Hmong, Lisu,  Lahu, Karen, Meo and more – each with their own clothing and religion. Accept any hospitality offered to you with grace.   DON’T leave a carbon footprint Pick up your rubbish, don’t sample or collect the local plants and extinguish any fires you make. If you  wish to visit an elephant camp or have a ride on a pachyderm, do choose a reputable company. Elephant Nature Park in Mae Taeng district is a rescue and rehab centre  for abused and neglected animals where you can bathe and swim with the herd, feed them and even stay overnight or longer as a volunteer.      

Cassandra Laffey

Consumed with unrequited wanderlust, I get my fix in 24/7 cities and hippie retreats. I'm still looking for the ultimate combo of secluded beach and major metropolis, and my happy place is a 5-star hotel room all to myself - sigh.