For those of you who might be looking for an escape to nature not too far from Chiang Mai, I can recommend two little gems. The nearest one is Doi Inthanon about 60 km west of the city, and the second one is the Chae Son National Park about a two and half hour ride northeast of the city in Lampang province. Both day-trips are well worth a visit if you are seeking clean air, beautiful flora, birds, and waterfalls.
Although I have visited Doi Inthanon on previous trips to Thailand, I was still eager to visit again not only for the clean air it offers… it’s the highest peak in all of Thailand…. but because this trip took me on a trail I had not been on before. Chae Son Park was my first escape thanks to a friend who arranged a car and driver to take a small group of us there. I would never have known about it, otherwise.
We were a group of seven… 50+ in age…who set out on our first trek to Chae Son Park. Our expert driver chose to take us up through a mountain pass which provided not only gorgeous scenery but some hair-raising curves and twists. Needless to say, some of us were very happy to arrive at our destination. With good walking shoes, sunscreen, water, and snacks, we set out on a 5 km. hiking trail which took us to the highest waterfall, Mae Mon, about 2,000 m.
Chae Son was opened in 1988 making it Thailand’s 58th National Park. What was surprising to us was that in the middle of the week there was nary a tourist around and only a handful of Thai enjoying this beautiful park’s offerings…the hotsprings, waterfalls, and abundant flora.
The mostly deciduous trees meant lots of birds which were apparent from their calls although none of us had binoculars so we didn’t actually get to see them. I read that there were caves in the vicinity but those escaped us, too. Our focus was on the walking or I should say climbing, the waterfalls, and the river leading to them. Upon entering Chae Son we couldn’t help noticing how well-kept the park was with immaculate landscaping and neat little bungalows with spa facilities for those seeking some rejuvenation. However, we were there to walk so decided to forego them.
Like so many public parks and places of interest in Thailand, the signage wasn’t up to par. There were some signs with a smattering of English but most of them were in Thai making it difficult for us to figure out what direction to take and just what we were seeing. The maps and information at the entrance were not clearly presented…at least not to our 50+ minds.
As we ascended the well maintained trail with sturdy steps and handrails, and adequate rest stops, we were treated to two lovely waterfalls. I read that the park has six in all. The rest of them we never saw because the trail abruptly ended when we came face to face with a bridge that definitely did not look safe enough to cross. At this point we decided to head back to enjoy the hot springs which we had only observed at the beginning of our trek knowing full well that our tired feet would enjoy them more at the end.
The highlight of the hot springs especially to the Thai is to have the thrill of boiling some eggs which you can then feast on for breakfast or lunch. The numerous pools of boiling water average about 73 degrees centigrade and will boil an egg in about 17 minutes.
One week later, our trekking group now diminished to four, visited Doi Inthanon at 2,565 m above sea level. Like Chae Son the park here is also a major water source for Central Thailand. What is so interesting about visiting this area is you get to experience two climates. At the beginning or at the bottom, you have a tropical climate but about half way up, you begin to notice it gets colder and by the time you are up to the top you are putting on a jacket and noticing plants that look a lot like home.
Here the signs were much clearer than those of Chae Son, and it was brought to our attention at various points that it was now about 17 degrees centigrade.
Oops, the temperature has dropped!
We were in the cloud forest! The scenery brought images of Switzerland and Scotland to my mind… I haven’t been to either but it’s how I envision them… with the grasses, jutting rocks, and rising mists. It was breath-taking.
Suddenly, we saw specks of red which turned out to be masses of rhododendrons growing up into huge trees.
The proliferation of lianas and ferns produced a brilliant green which is a result of higher rainfall levels than down below. I read that there are over 360 species of birds making it the best birding site in the entire country. Again we weren’t able to see them because of the height of the trees, but we did hear them. It’s at times like this I wish I were a birder or with one who could educate me. Although we were accompanied by one of the park’s guides and our driver who had some English, it was still difficult to understand the names of any flora or fauna we were witnessing. However, I kept reminding myself I was there to walk and to witness the gorgeous scenery, not become a bird-watcher or a botanist.
On our way down the mountain, we stopped to take a brief tour of the Two Chedies we witnessed on our way up. These chedies ( the Buddhist word for stupa) were built to honour the late King of Thailand, Bhumibol, and his wife Queen Sirikit. They were built to commemorate their 60th birthday’s. Although the Queen’s is smaller, it is the more elegant of the two with beautiful murals depicting the women in the life and times of the Buddha.
We made another stop after our visit to the Two Chedies to see the Vachirathan Waterfall which fortunately looked wonderful with lots of cascading water. On my previous visits I was never so lucky because there was not much water and wondered why the Thai would even bother taking us there to visit such a puny site. This has been a fairly good year for rain in this area and what a difference that makes. We have to remember that this is the dry season here in Thailand which can mean that waterfalls start to shrivel up about this time.
By the time we got down closer to Chiang Mai, one of the members of our group wondered if our driver could take us to a wat (temple) which sits on small mountain overlooking the city. Being a polite Thai man who likes to please his customers, he consented and with perfect timing got us there just as the sun was setting. We were also blessed with clear skies, something of a rarity at this time of the year when the city could have been shrouded in haze. Fortunately it wasn’t, so we were able to get some pretty spectacular photos. Thank you Patty!
This is the thing about Chiang Mai and its environs. It’s still relatively easy to use the city as a great starting point for numerous day trips which can take you in all directions to scads of attractions mostly provided by the mountainous terrain and the Hilltribe villages. I will be forever indebted to my friend, Buddy, who put much time and effort into pulling us together and getting us out of the heat and noise of the city to enjoy Nature’s beauty.