If you’re hungry for variety in your travels, Thailand is your country. Visitors in search of big-city bustle, colorful produce and flower markets, and street food galore go to Bangkok. Partiers, backpackers, and sun worshippers head south to the islands. And outdoorsy types, and those simply in search of some fresh air and quiet, go north, to the mountainous region around the city of Chiang Mai.
Covered in both jungle and alpine forest -- not a contradiction in terms -- this area offers rice paddy-covered mountains, elephant sanctuaries, gilded temples (if you haven’t had your fill in Bangkok), and even opportunities to visit and stay with families via new community-based tourism efforts.
We recently spent some time in tourist-free Doi Inthanon National Park, which is about a two-hour drive southwest of Chiang Mai. Here’s a sampling of some things you can do and see in this area, all of which can be accomplished in a day trip with a rental car. Pay the 200 baht (about $6.25) entry fee; pack a sweater, comfortable shoes, and some rain gear; and you’re set for the day.
Take a hike: See the park’s incredible natural diversity up close with a hike on one of its well-marked trails. The Ang Ka Luang Nature Trail is a short loop that’s good for beginners and takes visitors through a mangrove forest past orchids and rhododendron. This area is popular with birdwatchers who venture here during migration season (November-February) to spot species that can’t be seen anywhere else in Thailand. More experienced trekkers can take half-day and daylong hikes past waterfalls and hot springs between the park’s villages. The jungle opens up to vistas edged with rice paddies, enormous jackfruit trees bearing lumpy fruit, and tiny farms.
Pay homage to the park’s forebears and protectors: Near the summit of Thailand’s tallest mountain, also called Doi Inthanon, stop and pay your respects at the stupa (Buddhist reliquary) of King Inthawichayanon, one of the last rulers of the kingdom of Chiang Mai before it was united with the rest of Thailand. He was the first to order the preservation of the park. Within the park boundaries, you’ll also find twin pagodas that honor the current king and queen of Thailand.
Visit a hill town:
The park is home to a number of villages that are inhabited by people from the Hmong and Karen tribes, which have migrated into Thailand from China and Myanmar, respectively. Travelers can stay with families in the Karen village of Mae Klang Luang for as little as 300 baht per person, per night ($9.50) plus an additional fee for meals. The village is also home to an open-air coffee roasting facility where guests can enjoy arabica coffee grown in the village. Contact Thailand's Community Based Tourism center for more information on planning a visit.
See an important government project at work:
In the heart of Doi Inthanon, you’ll find the Royal Agricultural Project, a program that teaches hill tribe villagers to farm sustainable crops instead of opium. You can tour the facilities and greenhouses that are yielding everything from persimmons to long-stem roses to hydroponic lettuce. A small restaurant on site lets you sample dishes with project-reared produce.