Trekking in Mae Taeng was one of those once-in-a-lifetime treats that will make the highlight reel years later when I have long-since forgotten many other things. Doing it over 3 days spanning new years celebrations just made it all the sweeter.
Over the course of the past 7 months we have spent nearly 3 months in Chiang Mai, Thailand’s ‘northern capital’. It is so easy to fall in love with the south of Thailand, its islands and white, coconut-strewn beaches with their magnificent sunsets. The north, however, is a different world entirely.
Mountain ranges, dense green jungles spattered with banana tree forests and long, winding roads. These are all markers of the north. Of course, they too have their appeal.
However, when you get holed up in the city, a somewhat overcrowded mangle of complex road systems, taxis that bother you on every corner and people squashed end-to-end into tight walking markets, you can lose sight of the beauty all around you.
That is exactly why I needed this trip, to head out of the city, see some nature, follow some jungle paths, see some elephants, sit quietly on top of a mountain and embrace the closing of one year and the dawning of the next. Visiting the Mae Taeng district was a chance to pull myself back to having a love for the north and it worked like a charm.
Although we usually try to avoid tour operator offices, sometimes it just makes things easier when you pop into one. In Chiang Mai we mostly used Travel Hub, near Tha Pae gate. We did an elephant encounter trip with them in June and were happy with the service so we booked our new years adventure with them too.
Our first day we were picked up by our guide and driver from Jumbo Trekkers and hoofed it out towards the Bai Orchid butterfly farm, the first stop of the tour. Our second stop will be a highlight forever. The scheduled itenerary said we would stop at a local market to pick up supplies. Usually this means a fresh fruit market or something like that, there are plenty of them around. Our guide’s interpretation of a local market: the nearest 7-11 hahaha… No matter, they had bug spray and bon bons so technically we were sorted…
After pit-stopping for a quick pad thai lunch, we were off for day one of the trek. Surprisingly, our first day was probably our toughest. When people say they were off the beaten track, you get an idea of a slightly hard path, but in our case, there were times when we were literally beating out a track in front of us – there was no path.
We made staggering ascents and hairy descents, often not being able to see where our next foothold was, with branches whacking us in the face every second step of the way. Then, all of a sudden, we’d step onto a footpath and feel gratitude for every person that had walked it before us hahaha, such was our first day flit in the jungle. The day was exhilirating and fun, despite being a tad on the hazardous side.
Because we had someone on the trek only joining for 2 days, the cutest little Japanese lady who we nicknamed “mummie”, our schedule was altered a bit so that we spent the first day trekking zigzags through the jungle as we made our way to the first night’s stopover at a jungle elephant camp.
Let’s get this out the way here: unfortunately this trek included staying at an elephant camp where they still practice riding the elephants. This is both cruel in that if the elephants wear a saddle, over time their spines are badly damaged but also because the training methods used to get the elephants to be obedient are usually inhumane. We can’t claim ignorance here as we knew from the outset riding was an option on the trek. At the end of the day we were supporting a place that continues this form of Thai practice, although we chose instead to feed and bath the elephants, giving them some respite to their day. The eles we met were cute and at least well cared for but over the course of two days we saw lots of tourists arrive for a ride in the jungle in a saddle strapped to the poor eles’ backs… I would say that was the only drawback to this particular trekking option.
The night-time festivities at the camp were a whole lot of fun. It was the night before new year’s eve and the camp owners had family and friends over for a Thai-style barbeque. Although we were initially seen as customers, buying a few beers at the kiosk while we waited for dinner, after a short while we were invited to sit at the big family table (we were only 4 hikers on day 1) and as the whiskey and beer flowed and chatter became louder, we slowly drifted from customers to friends of the table and our glasses and plates were kept full until our tummies bulged and we eventually had to tap out. The younger Thais were playing some complex card game and gambling but we couldn’t for the life of us figure it out… Day 1, pearler.
The next day started out with some toast, jam and coffee for breakfast. Our new friends were making some bamboo sticky rice pods on the fire and brought some over for us. These pods became a staple treat on the trip. It was new year’s eve and you could sense the festivity in the air.
We hopped in the sorng teauw (pick up van) and made our way to a meeting point. After saying goodbye to mammie at the camp, we added 3 new travellers to our group, so now we were 6 foreigners and our Thai guide, Suvan.
Our first stop for the day was at a waterfall. This one was a rather fun treat as it had a natural water slide, about 10m long. Just had to try it, even though it meant trekking the rest of the day with a wet bum haha…
From there we started our ascent of Doi Khut Khap (don’t quote me on this, I haven’t done the background research and am working from memory here lol)… When our guide said it was all uphill, he was not joking. Over the next 3 hours or so we trekked step by step, slowly yet steadily up the creeping jeep tracks and narrow rock paths until, eventually, we crept wearily up to the Black Lahu hill tribe village entrance. It was a sight to behold the mountains unfolding all around us, with the hanging clouds in the distance winking a hearty “well done” to us. At just over 1 000m up, it was a breathtaking scene.
A short walk through the village brought us to our digs for the night. We cracked open a few beers and readied ourselves for dinner as we sat basking in the views on a bamboo terrace. A few games of Uno got a few laughs and excitement out of the moment too.
After dinner we found ourselves some seats at the big bon fire spot and proceeded to light the fire that would see us into the new year. More beer, some Sangsom and cokes and laughter round the camp fire, the stuff chilled dreams are made of. The goal was to see in the new year but not all travellers are made equal (no offence if they are reading this, we still love you haha) and by 10.30pm we were three lonely nightwatchmen (well, one man and two women haha) stoking the coals of the fire.
It was so worth the wait to 12pm, though. It was literally the most magical new years night I can remember as we watched the clock, sipping on Changs. As it went 12, we edged to the end of the terrace, some drizzle keeping the air cool. Then, out of nowhere, across the valley, fireworks burst into the nightsky, lighting up our senses with visuals and loud bangs. And then, almost in unison, fireworks went off in the valley that sprawled out below us and bright colours dazzled in the cool midnight air. This went on for about 5 minutes in magical harmony. At last, after a long day of up, up, up, we finally took a chance to settle into slumber and sink down, down, down.
Waking up the next morning to catch the sunrise (albeit only some orange slivers through the clouds) was a bit of a rebirth. I don’t mean any of that new year, new me nonsense or even the fact that it was a new year at all but just having gone to bed with one great experience and waking up to another, it was almost dreamlike, it’s what I love adventuring to be about.
We trekked some hours back down the mountain on the other side until we came to a large waterfall. Some of the trekkers took a chance to swim while we just basked in the new morning. Another short, flat trek and we were having lunch, it was all a bit chilled but there was still one more activity set to get the blood flowing: white water rafting!
Although Tam and I had done this same rafting trip before, with a different group and a different guide, this time around it was a whole lot more fun and crazy. Our guide was a good laugh and enjoyed giving us a fright rushing towards rocks in the middle of the rapids. We got soaked and after the last rapid he got us all to lie down in the raft, look up at the sky and enjoy a moment of silence… My senses were euphoric, yet calm, and maybe there was a hint of that old “new year” glee too…