Posted by: Richard Marshall | September 19, 2010

Northern Thailand

Hills near Doi Inthanon

I’m sitting sweating in the beach-bum paradise of Koh Phi Phi and had better write up my trip to the north before I forget what misty mountains and dark, dripping forests are like!

I took the train from Hua Lamphong station in Bangkok. After the newness of the skytrain and the metro I was quite taken with the Asian dirtiness and shabbiness of the station. It was built in 1916 and has a great vaulting ceiling and plenty of wrought iron and stained glass. Within are masses of people and stalls selling fried food and the worst cup of coffee I’ve had in Thailand. It’s a pity all the smoke was diesel fumes rather than billowing steam but I guess you can’t have everything…The train was perfectly comfortable and although about three hours late arrived in Chiang Mai safely enough. I spent my first afternoon wandering around the city. It has the remains of some old city walls and a moat which make for a pretty town. Inside the old city seemed to be temple after tourist trap after temple which made me wonder if anyone there actually lives in the real world.  The temples are very attractive, though, and some offered shaded precincts which were very welcome on a surprisingly boiling afternoon. Some are also pretty old – Chiang Mai was actually independent of the rest of Thailand until the 19th century – and the weathered brick  stupas were mostly more evocative than the newer gilded ones.

Wat Chedi Luang

I ended up booking a trek through my guesthouse which caused me some anxiety since it seemed to involve everything I’d hoped to avoid – bamboo rafts, hill tribes, elephants – and to be run by what I would have called a pretty second-rate looking crowd if I’d seen evidence of anything better. Certainly my three days in the hills were ridiculously physically undemanding – I can just picture Derek champing at the bit – though I’m not exactly in great shape after my year in HCMC. Fortunately it was saved by two things. The forests up there are extremely beautiful – faffing in that kind of environment is fine by me. Also, leaving late and arriving early everyday did give me the chance to try my luck at birdwatching. I saw next to nothing – it’s not a good time of the year and I saw some hill tribe people with massive homemade firearms so maybe the birds know better than to advertise their presence. (One of the guides looked at my bird book and started telling me the name for some or other pheasant. The word was exactly the same for any pheasant, franklin, monal, fireback etc which made me suspect it was a culinary rather than ornithological term). Also, the people on the trek were great. On the first day there were two very pleasant English girls and an affable Japanese guy who managed to be friendly knowing barely any English at all. On the second they didn’t really know what to with me since most people only hike overnight, but the other person to have booked three days was a French ski-instructer who was a genuine outdoors man and good company. The bamboo rafting was pleasant enough but the elephant business is rather tired. The elephants are taken on a route which has steep ascents and descents, the latter of which would send you tumbling out of the howdah if you didn’t hang on for dear life. (This fate befell my sunglasses which fell into a puddle which the elephant then trod in. They aren’t what they used to be).It also seemed a bit cruel, and in fact I now believe that there are NGOs trying to regulate and mitigate how these tourist elephants are treated. Nobody I spoke to actually liked riding elephants.

I had one more day in Chiang Mai which I spent mostly buying books. In the afternoon I hired a motorbike and drove up Doi Suthep, a mountain just out of town with, inevitably, a temple at the top. The ride up into the cool, forested hills was refreshing and the temple, though crowded, was magnificent. The drive also gave great views of the city.

Chiang Mai

The birding was so frustrating I decided to try my luck at a nearby mountain – Doi Chiang Dao – recommended by a birding website. This is not the time to be looking for birds. The two special species to be found on this mountain (Giant Nuthatch and Mrs Hume’s Pheasant, Dad) can only been seen at 1400m by a track which is impassable in the wet season. So I ended up in the forest at the base of the mountain. It was almost always misty and rained a lot. It was very beautiful and very quiet – too quite really. There are two places to stay and for most of the time I was the only person in either. When some company did arrive it was in the form of a middle-aged, Belgian lady cyclist (she was cycling around to raise money for the ill-treated elephants at Chiang Mai) whose conversation – in a ludicrous mitteleuropa accent – was pretty tiresome. Chiang Dao also ended up being another place where I spent more on dinner than I did on my night’s repose. The food at my guesthouse was fantastic – there are organic farms in the area and the owner’s  Thai dishes were simple, fresh and crisp. Being the only person staying there, however, I sometimes felt like a guest of the family rather than a paying customer so one night I went next door, which advertised Western food. I had imagined a burger or spaghetti bolognaise, but ended up with pork tenderloin with roasted shallot gravy, crispy bacon and crushed new potatoes, followed by chocolate cake with mango syrup or some such thing. This all came to 670 TB which those of you who know Thailand will appreciate  is absurd. The final day there I went to a quite impressive limestone cave. Although I saw a few birds I was ready to leave, and after straightforward but time-consuming travel I got to the warm south…

Chiang Dao

Monastery at Doi Chiang Dao


  1. Hi Richard

    This all looks fantastic. Keep up the blogging as we are all following your trip with avid interest.



  2. Those forests look amazing! I am v jealous. what were the caves like? I always love caves, especially quiet dripping dank caves with some stalagmites ‘n’ tites.
    can’t wait to hear about the beach part, where you will start wearing hemp, get an ear pierced, and learn to blow slow, sweet smoke rings!
    love and hugs, t

  3. ps. hug an elephant for me

  4. pps 670 TB is R154.50, not soooo cheap…..
    ppps i learnt how to subscibe to your blog, so i will get an email next time.
    pppps…. nothing, just wanted to write lots of ‘p’s

    • 670 TB is very expensive 🙂 I can get a great dinner for R30!

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