Trekking in Northern Thailand is gruelling but incredible. Visit hill tribe villages and an elephant sanctuary before you head south for some beach time. TNT’s Carol Driver discovered Thailand by foot…
A long, green snake slithers through the shallow stream of water in front of my group. “It’s harmless,” yells Damrong.
We hesitate, waiting for it to pass, then carry on through the thick jungle – although our guide’s name doesn’t fill me with confidence.
It’s 11am and 34˚C – we’ve been hiking for two hours in jungle north of Chiang Rai. Already, you could take the T-shirt off my back and wring it.
We’re climbing 2000 feet over 10km on the first of a three-day trek, which, in black and white, doesn’t sound too gruelling. But add the searing temperature, humidity at 90 per cent and the fact I’m carrying a heavy backpack, and it’s a different ball game.
There are 11 others doing it with me, so there’s good camaraderie, although some have opted to pay local guides to carry their bags – even the girl who’s packed enough for two weeks, including a hairdryer.
We left Bangkok a week ago, making our way to Chiang Mai via Kanchanaburi, to see the bridge over the River Kwai, and Ayutthaya, the former capital of Thailand. It’s then an 11-hour journey on a bumpy night train, where I wake to find a cockroach inches from my face.
Trekking in Chiang Mai
As a city, Chiang Mai is beautiful and the polar opposite of Bangkok – it’s calm and cool, and time seems to pass slower here. We visit a sanctuary to ride on domesticated elephants – a slightly terrifying experience as my beast wants to take the steepest routes up and down everything.
Then we start our trek, covering a total of 26km in three days, across jungle and fields. After spotting two more snakes, I’m thankful when we sight the Baan Huay San Lisaw village, home to the Lisu tribe and our beds for the night.
The 28,000 Lisu people are one of six tribes in Thailand. They make their homes out of bamboo and grass, and their main source of income is through producing rice, corn, livestock and opium – but this has been restricted by the government.
Most of the village is basic, but the views are stunning – floors of dusty, red earth constrast against a bright blue sky.
There are a few 4X4s spotted outside some of the nicer huts – perhaps bought with cash made from opening the village to tourists.
That night, we’re treated to a feast fit for kings – spicy curries, succulent chicken, slippery noodles, sticky rice. There’s enough to feed us twice over.
We make an early start the next day – thanks to the natural alarm system of cockerels squawking at 3am.
Days two and three of the trek are easier, but we’re now walking through coffee fields with no shade, so the scorching sun beats down relentlessly.
Six hours, and a few sunburns, later we reach our the Akha tribe village, where we’re treated to a traditional dance before, worn out, we make our way to our beds.
It’s all downhill on our final day. There are cries of joy when we spot our minibus waiting on a tiny road at the bottom of the last hill. We gratefully clamber inside, with the blast of air-con like an oxygen mask snapped over my face.
We head for the disco carriage on our 13-hour overnight train journey to Surat Thani from Bangkok. The bright lights mix well with cheesy versions of Eighties classics, as we buy beers and whisky from a man selling bottles from a bucket.
After a few hours’ dancing in the narrow space, we sleep it off before our early arrival in and drive to Khao Sok National Park, which boasts some of the best remaining rainforest in Thailand.
In search of the perfect beach
A 50-minute longtail boat ride across the Chiaw Lan Lake takes us to our floating rafthouses. Surrounded by water and small islands, it’s an idyllic setting; the view of the mountains reflecting on the lake is stunning. Here you can swim, kayak or take a explore the other nearby islands. But there isn’t a beach.
In search of the perfect golden sands, we then head to Krabi, for a yacht tour.
Our vessel cruises the nearby islands, such as Phi Phi and Bamboo, stopping at points in the Andaman Sea so that we can dive in and swim with the colourful fish.
Phi Phi is supposed to have some of the best beaches in the world, but where we moor is crowded and dirty.
Our next stop, Bamboo Island, is the perfect contrast. We find a secluded spot on a pristine stretch after wading through waist-high water, lifting our bags above our heads. iPods on and books out, we soak up the rays before being kicked off a few hours later to take the yacht back to land.
I’m still in need of more than a few hours’ chill-out time, so we head for four days on the beautiful Koh Sukorn in the Andaman Sea. There are very few tourists on the remote island, which is scattered with charming fishing villages.
We’re given a hair-raising tour of the island by motorcycle side-cage. We stop to watch the locals at work, buy snacks from a roadside shop and take photos of the stunning scenery from the viewpoint.
Back at the resort, where we’re staying in beach bungalows, it’s time to relax.
There’s a quiet stretch of beach, where you can laze in hammocks, as well as a cocktail bar nearby.
With only one computer with very slow internet connection and no newspapers on the island, we have no choice but to switch off before making the long journey on board an overnight train back to Bangkok – and back to reality.
WHEN TO GO: When it’s mild – between Nov and Feb. June-Oct is the rainy season while it’s scorching March-May.
GETTING THERE: Eva Air, Qatar and Emirates all fly from the UK to Bangkok from £400 return.
GETTING AROUND: Carol travelled with Intrepid on the 23-day Thailand Adventure tour, which costs £1345.
VISAS: Granted on arrival for tourists from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa or the UK.
CURRENCY: Baht. 1 GBP = 50 THB.
GOING OUT: Local beers can cost from around 50BHT, eat wisely and a decent meal will only set you back 100 THB.
ACCOMMODATION: Included in the Intrepid trip.
GET MORE INFO: intrepidtravel.com