Dominating the skyline at a height of 2,175m (or 2,225m if you take into account Doi Luang Chiang Dao peak), Doi Chiang Dao is the third highest mountain in Thailand after Doi Inthanon (2,600m) and Doi Pha Hom Pok (2,285m).
Doi Chiang Dao is part of a limestone massif that forms part of the Dan Lao Range, at the far end of the Shan Hills of Myanmar which, in turn, are at the foothills of the Himalayas. Trekking up Doi Chiang Dao requires a bit of advance planning. There are two ascent trails; one from Den Ya Kud substation which is the longer but easier trail at 8.5km from Den Ya Kud to the camp site at Ang Salung. The other is the shorter but steeper trail from Pang Wua to Ang Salung, approximately 6.5km, but requires a certain amount of stamina of the more experienced trekker.
I recently joined a group of six friends, happily ignorant of what I had got myself in for since they had done all the advance preparations. We spent the first night in Chiang Dao, and left at about 8am for the ride to Den Ya Kud, a one and a half hour adventure ride on a 4WD pick-up truck which took us through a chilly misty morning and up a bumpy, twisty, dirt track to the Den Ya Kud substation where we were to start the trek. Our trip had been arranged through a local guide who prepared everything including porters, tents, food, and water. All we had to carry was our own personal items, drinking water for the trek, as well as our picnic lunch of salted pork, northern saiua sausage, sticky rice, and a chilli paste which was distributed by the guide at the start of the trek.
Most important on your list of must-haves, apart from good hiking shoes, are a pair of sturdy trekking poles, which I found invaluable on the descent especially. The guide will provide you with bamboo poles if you don’t have proper trekking poles.
A group that started just ahead of us comprised a family of five including the 80 year-old grandfather and 72 year-old grandmother. That really put me in a positive mood. The trail can’t be that bad; if they can do it so can I.
The first two kilometres were straightforward enough, with the trail inclining ever so gently. We were able to enjoy the dry evergreen forests, coniferous forests and the hills in the distance, wondering which one was our final destination. The abundance of flowers along the way meant there were bees hovering as we walked, following us and buzzing in our ears. One friend actually got stung and had to turn back. They say you should never try to brush away the bees since they will think you are attacking them and strike back. But this is where a light hiking hat with neck flap comes in handy: it doesn’t just keep off the sun, but also assorted insects.
By the third kilometre we were beginning to get weary, so a welcome distraction appeared in the form of Tien Nok Kaew or parrot flower which looks exactly like little purple parrots. There is a proliferation of these cute little flowers in this area, providing a little diversion and a much needed rest to prepare us for the more difficult trail ahead.
Soon we reached the half-way point at Sam Yaek Pang Wua (Pang Wua Intersection) where the two trails merge. I was already wondering at that point what on earth I was doing here, but going back wasn’t an option, so we gritted our teeth and prepared for the tough part of the climb ahead. To add insult to injury, we hadn’t even caught up with Grandpa and Grandma yet.
There were parts that were muddy, parts that were steep, and parts that went through grass meadows without much shade to protect us from the afternoon sun beating down on our backs.
“Are we there yet?” was our mantra. As soon as we reached the crest of one mountain, there was another up ahead. We passed Doi Sam Phi Nong (Three Sisters) mountain on the right, and Doi Pyramid on the left, but the arduous climb was compensated by the spectacular vistas that made us hold our breath along the entire route. Yet there were times, I admit, that I couldn’t bring myself to appreciate the scenery. My feet were like lead, and I had to force myself to place one foot in front of the other and keep going.
By this time, I felt like throwing my backpack off the cliff. I had brought along an ordinary backpack made of heavy-duty synthetic material, but it turned out to be a bad choice. What you need is a lightweight hiking backpack that has almost no weight in itself, and you need to carry as little as possible. I had nothing but respect for the porters who were weighted down with our camping gear, food, water, and other belongings tied to their backs, with a sling over their heads to help carry the load, yet plodded on up the mountain as if it were the most natural thing in the world to do.
It was about 4pm by the time we reached Ang Salung, otherwise known as ‘base camp’. Each guide had their own little preferred corners to set up camp for their group, and when we walked into our camp site, the tents had been set up, and the kitchen up and running. My first goal was to find the ‘ladies room’, and was informed it was just around the corner, followed by a warning not to expect anything too elaborate. That was the understatement of the year. The ‘ladies room’ was a hole in the ground, surrounded by mesh plastic cloth. You really didn’t want to look down while you were doing your business, or breathe, for that matter. Needless to say, that was my first and last time using the outhouse; after that, I resorted to bushes and high grass, plus a friend to keep guard.
We had barely taken a rest, massaged our poor feet, and put our things into our respective tents, before it was time to attempt the summit – Doi Luang. This was a steep, half-hour climb, when our gloved hands were more useful than trekking sticks.
The summit of Doi Luang Chiang Dao was well worth the six hours we took to crawl our way to the top. We were presented with a 360 degree panorama, where we could see jagged peaks of Doi Sam Phi Nong and Doi Pyramid, and, further off on the horizon, Doi Inthanon.
At that moment, it was a feeling of utter elation and achievement, as if we had summited Mount Everest. This is what we came for, and we had done it! When we finally finished taking selfies, we found ourselves a grassy knoll on the windswept peak to watch the climax of the day’s events – the sunset. And magnificent it was indeed, with the hues of the evening sky changing minute by minute, and the sun’s final rays shooting through the craggy mountain peaks, providing a picture-perfect ending to the day.
We decided to head back to camp just before the sun disappeared, which was a good move. The return trip was much more precarious than the climb up. Those who had prepared head mounted flashlights made good use of them here, since both hands were required to manoeuvre the steep rocky path, and sometimes a bit of sliding down on your behind helped as well. It was well and truly dark by the time we reached camp, and dinner was ready to be served.
Believe it or not, our group had prepared wine and steak which we grilled over a charcoal fire. It was the best steak I’ve ever tasted, probably because of the energy we lost during the climb, or just the fact we were sitting on a plastic sheet wearing our anoraks and woolly hats amidst the plummeting temperatures after nightfall. By 9pm, we were totally worn out and ready for bed.
Going to sleep was not easy despite the long and hard climb. I had expected to drop off immediately, but I ended up tossing and turning for most of the night. I thought it was raining, when in fact it was just the wind rustling through the trees. I also imagined hearing someone or something walking around my tent all the time. And the chill penetrated through the sleeping bag and anorak into my spine. Sleep did not come easy.
Not long after 4am, people started passing our tents. It was time to climb to the summit of Doi Kew Lom to watch the sun rise above the sea of mist that makes for another stunning photo opportunity. However, our group had decided we would pass on this sunrise climb, which turned out to be another lucky decision since the peak was surrounded by low-lying clouds, blocking the sunrise or sea of mist.
It was here I had my encounter with a bee. I was apart from the group, since we were each going at our own speed, and I heard a bee buzzing in my ear. I tried to walk as quickly as I could without making any sudden moves, but suddenly I was staring the bee in the face. It was a Spiderman moment, when the world suddenly blurs in the background, as the bee came into focus, hovering in front of my eyes, staring me down. prayed. To the bee. “Please let me go quietly, please, please. I’m sorry if I bothered you, I didn’t mean to. Please just let me go. Please, pleeeeease!” He seemed to realise I was a pathetic fool who wasn’t worth losing a sting over, so he finally flew to one side and let me pass. I made a beeline out of the area as fast as I could.
Finally, I heard the sound of a car horn in the distance – the first sign of civilization. The greatest sense of relief came when I saw a motorcycle parked against a tree. Yes! We made it back to real life at last, in about four hours. As I stepped out of the forest, I saw our truck waiting for us, with an icebox in the back. I grabbed an ice-cold soft drink, something that I rarely do. I think I had earned it!
The road back from Pang Wua was plain sailing, and that is probably why the Pang Wua route is more popular with hikers. But I think we made the right decision to climb up the Den Ya Kud route and climb down via Pang Wua. It’s not as tiring, but you do need strong leg muscles for the downward journey.
And the euphoria from the successful climb is hard to describe. But now that you’ve done it, it does mean that you will want to rediscover that feeling with more challenging climbs in the future.
Since visitors are limited to 150 people per day, you need to submit a reservation stating the names of everyone in your group, the number of porters and guides you will need, and the dates for your trip, through Chiang Dao Wildlife Sanctuary office at PO. Box 12, Ban Tham, Tambon Chiang Dao, Amphoe Chiang Dao, Chiang Mai 50170. You can then go and pick up your permit upon your arrival for ascent, and pay the fees which include 20 baht entrance per person, 30 baht entrance for each car, 30 baht fee per tent, and 600 baht garbage deposit (which can be refunded in exchange for your rubbish from the trip).
Alternately, you can contact one of several local tour organisers that specialise in Doi Chiang Dao. I paid 2,500 baht for an overnight trip which included guide and porter, food and water, tents and sleeping bags. There are also English-speaking guides available.
What you should take:
For the trip, a checklist from head to toe should include:
1. Light hiking hat with neck flap to keep off the sun and insects
2. Beanie (for the chilly sunset and sunrise viewings)
3. Sun glasses
4. Sun screen (for face and body)
5. Light T-shirt (with sleeves if you want protection from the sun), and an extra T-shirt for the next day.
6. Light jacket (for the start of the climb)
7. Anorak (temperatures can drop to low single digits after sunset)
8. Gloves (not so much for warmth, but for climbing)
9. Long trousers (to protect your legs from grass and twigs on the narrow overgrown paths, as well as insects)
10. Extra undies to change into the next day.
11. Socks, plus an extra pair.
12. Hiking shoes (either boots or hiking sandals. I wore hiking sandals which were lightweight and served the purpose very well. friend wore sneakers which
provided no extra grip and suffered severe cramp as a result.)
13. Wet tissues (this will serve in lieu of a shower too)
14. Tissue paper
15. Personal medication (including insec repellent and ointment)
16. Minimal toiletries
18. Head-mounted flashlight (for climbing and for using the outhouse)
20. Binoculars (if you are into bird watching or mountain goat spotting)
21. Drinking water (enough to last the whole trek)
22. Lightweight backpack
23. Cocoon (liner that slides into the sleeping bag for your own personal comfort)
24. Hiking poles