The province of Chiang Mai is home to Thailand’s highest mountain, Doi Inthanon. At 2,600m, it’s part of the Himalaya mountain range, and is situated in a massive National Park just a couple of hours’ drive outside the city of Chiang Mai.
One of our favourite ways to explore a new place is to hit the open road and see where it takes us. So we rented a car, and pointed west, toward the mountains, and Doi Inthanon. The 58km drive took about 2.5 hours. It was easy going on the highway out of Chiang Mai, but slowed to a crawl once we hit the twisting winding roads up the mountains.
We travelled through wide, freshly harvested rice paddies, thick jungle, up to lush green forests, and the temperature dropped accordingly as we climbed higher into the mountains, until we finally arrived at the park.
Doi Inthanon National Park
It was everything you’d expect from a National Park – outstanding natural beauty, winding roads, outdoor activities, and park rangers keeping everything in order. What we didn’t expect to find were villages nestled into valleys, horticulture galore and so many options for seeing, hiking, camping, that it can’t all be done in just a few days.
The Doi Inthanon peak sits toward the back of the park, and is accessed easily by car, so on arrival, we drove until we reached the top. You don’t stop until you’ve arrived at your destination, and this mountain was it. There aren’t views from the peak itself, as it’s covered in forest, but there is a pretty little wooded walk, and large Buddha at the top. Going up to the peak was a bit anticlimactic, but the two man-made peaks just below are the star of this park.
By the strength of the land and air
Two grand Chedis sit opposite one another in masterfully landscaped gardens on the edge of a ridge, looking out over the valley below. They were built in honour of the King and Queen’s 60th birthdays respectively.
His in masculine brown tiles with a heavy design as the tiers rise to the sky. Named Naphamethinidon, meaning “by the strength of the land and air”. Hers is in a more feminine purple, resembling a lotus flower, but showing equal strength to its opposite, named Naphaphonphumisiri meaning “being the strength of the air and the grace of the land.” Together, they form an imposing pair – standing tall and elegant – looking out over Thailand below. You can imagine this is how they lived in life. Side by side, strong and protective.
As the mist and clouds swirled up the mountain, we were treated to a breathtaking sunset of blazing oranges and brilliant fuschia that set the sky on fire. These two chedis glowed as the sun set over their kingdom.
The beloved King has recently passed away. The country has mourned for a year, and his portrait, decorated with garlands of marigolds and orchids still sits at the base between the two Chedi. It is a fitting memorial to their king, and a majestic place in itself. We’d seen a lot of chedis up to this point, but these two enchanted us so much, we stayed until well after sundown, just enjoying the peace and the power of a place.
Natural, powerful beauty
Below the peak, there are fields and fields of farms growing flowers – mostly mums – in neat rows that snake along terraces contouring the shape of the mountains. The sound of spectacular waterfalls tumbling down hundreds of feet to deep clear pools and on down into strong streams of water fills the air. They are fed somewhere high up in the mountain and never go dry, which is unique in a tropical land like Thailand with monsoon and dry seasons. We hiked up – down – and around to several of the park’s many waterfalls — impossible to see them all.
There is something about hiking around a waterfall. The land is often a juxtaposition of lush greenery fed by the continuous gentle spray, next to the towering rocks over which the water roars. A million year battle between water and land has cut the cascade’s path, and the war rages on.
No matter how hot, how steamy, how hard you’ve climbed, a waterfall refreshes the body, and washes clean the mind. Whether you climb, swim, or simply sit entranced by the perpetual movement of the water, waterfalls are a place of awe and wonder, and an invigorating restorative to tired legs and minds. We played in and around those waterfalls, and had some of the best fun we’ve had on the trip so far.
Camping under a super moon
When we arrived at Doi Inthanon, we weren’t sure if we’d stay for a night or a week, and didn’t know where we’d be doing it! So we were relieved to find loads of campsites and little collections of bungalows available, catering to the mostly Thai tourists who flock to the park. On the spur of the moment, we decided that if we were in nature, maybe we should go camping.
Completely unprepared for this activity, we found that we could rent a tent, sleeping bags, mats and pillows from the park rangers — crisp and clean, all in army green with the Thai National Parks logo printed proudly on the corners. We were directed to a campground to choose our tent among the perfect rows of pre-erected jungle camouflage three man tents, set in a shady campsite under spectacularly tall trees.
The campsite was the picture of orderliness and perfection. Not a single stray piece of rubbish or tent was out of place. The showers and toilets were sparkling white and extraordinarily clean considering the hordes of people that were using them that night. This Thai National Park was the most immaculate campground I’ve ever visited.
We weren’t sure if it had anything to do with the full super moon, but the campsite was heaving with people. Every ranger-issued tent was occupied, and every other inch of free space was taken over by private tents – on a Sunday night. Families had brought their entire kitchens, and had elaborate spreads laid out for their night under the moon. Extended families and large groups of friends had come together, here, to celebrate…something. The park was dead silent by midnight, but at 4 am, it came alive with people taking showers, packing up and getting an early start to the day. By 8 am, it was nearly deserted. Baffled, we packed up our things and set out to find somewhere more comfortable than the cold hard ground to sleep that night.
Agape Health Home
We found the Agape Health Home on Google Maps of all places. Situated at the back of one of the dozen little hill tribe villages in the park, it was a tiny little emerald oasis in the middle of a vast park. As we were shown to a neat little bungalow nestled in a dense garden of banana trees, we couldn’t believe the paradise we had accidentally discovered.
A bouncy little stream ran through the middle of the small resort, and the sound of the water rushing over the rocks drowned out all other sounds. Our tidy little wooden bungalow had a wide front porch, polished teak floors, a big soft white bed, and windows on all sides with views of the rushing stream and the dense jungle. It felt like we were in a treehouse. The owner, a renowned healer, spoke next to no English, and we know exactly two words in Thai, but we managed just fine.
That night, we were fed a magnificent dinner of we have no idea what, right on the porch of our bungalow, next to that amazing little river. Being a health retreat, the food was abundantly healthy. We were served bone broth with chicken and greens over rice, together with another chicken based broth filled with offal, and spicy blend of puréed organ meat served with large wide leaves that had been foraged from the forest nearby.
It was so nice to just hang out there as a family, playing cards, eating unfamiliar food, and laughing together — something we didn’t always do in London, and yet another layer of our “regular” life shed to reveal a closer bond with one another.
Continuing the winding trail
We loved this park, and it’s clear the Thais do too. It was busy, full of life from the little villages, the tourists, and from the wildlife and landscape itself. We were torn as to whether we wanted to stay in the park or explore further.
In the end, our wanderlust got the better of us, and we set out for Pai, a town further north, reached by a road that twisted and wound back on itself down through the mountain range. I am not a person to get carsick, but after an hour, we had to pull over so I could heave over and over again on the side of the road.
But finally, we arrived in Pai, pulling in to the only gas station we could find, just as the car started sputtering on fumes.
And what did we find in Pai? Paradise, of course.