“Heather. Don’t move. Your leg is covered… in leeches.”
Heather let out a guttural cry as I looked down and saw that I, too, was covered in bloodsucking parasites. We frantically picked them off our limbs as our companions, a Thai guide and his Hmong sidekick, just laughed in reply. We were deep in a remote corner of what was once the Golden Triangle, source almost all the world’s opium and heroin, and the only other human we’d seen all day was a rusty shotgun-toting teenager.
It was truly fantastic.
It’s not always easy to have a truly authentic travel experience in a place as saturated with tourists as Thailand, especially in the form of a day tour. Trekking is a super popular activity option around Chiang Mai, but somehow in three visits I’d yet to experience it for myself. I knew there were probably fabulous tour options out there, but distaste for overcrowded trails and touristy gimmicks, plus anxiety over accidentally participating in the rampant exploitation of minority villagers scattered around Northern Thailand somehow kept me from trying to find them. So I crossed my fingers when I booked Heather and I onto Viator’s Opium Trail Trek through Doi Suthep National Park, and hoped we’d made a good choice.
Our first stop of the day? Phra That Doi Suthep Temple, located at the top of the winding road to Mount Suthep. The 300 steps we had to ascend to reach the temple entrance were a great warm up for the day’s hiking, and provided unrivaled views over Chiang Mai.
This temple is Chiang Mai’s most visited tourist attraction, and it’s easy to see why. There is no denying that Doi Suthep is stunning, and I enjoyed the context of visiting with a guide versus the mindless wandering I’d done my first time around. I recounted to Heather how it had actually hailed the last time I’d been at this temple, and I’d huddled under one of the eaves with a huge group of monks and bewildered, giggling tourists.
Built in the 14th century, I’m sure this Buddhist monastery has seen its fair share of hail storms and other bizarre weather incidents. But it seemed like such an impossibility now, on this hot and sunny bright blue day.
Our guide Chai provided just the right balance of information and time unleashed with our cameras. Chai’s age and experience revealed he was a veteran to the tour guide scene, and he could only reply with a laugh when I asked him to estimate how many times he’s been to Doi Suthep.
Unsurprisingly, some of my favorite sightings at Doi Suthep were the bizarre English-language signs tacked haphazardly about the temple grounds.
Temple visit complete, we hit the road again. But instead of joining the hoards of tourists heading back to Chiang Mai, our vehicle veered right and drove deep into the National Park. We paused again at Doi Pui Village, a Hmong village that marked the start point of our trek. Here, we were joined by local guide Kuhna, a requirement for trekking in the area that ensures income from tourism stays at least partially within the community.
I wouldn’t normally think of a history lesson as the perfect side dish to a great hiking trail, but in this case they were served up in tandem. And I loved it! Originally from Southern China, cultivation of opium has always been an important part of the Hmong way of life. Opium did not hold the same social taboos and was long produced for trade, a tradition that came along as the tribes fled to the Thai-Burmese border following political tensions in China. Today, Doi Suthep National Park lies in what was once a thriving corner of the infamous Golden Triangle, the border regions between Thailand, Burma and Laos that once produced almost all of the world’s opium and heroin.
Photo via Heather Holt Photography
In 1969, King Bhumibol Adulyadej — still the King today! — visited Doi Pui and grew concerned that the slash and burn aspect of opium production was destroying the park’s natural resources — as well as breaking the law. Supposedly, The National Parks system in Thailand is originally based on that of the US, with one major point of differentiation — the US didn’t have large communities of people living in their national parks when they were established. In response to his visit, the King initiated a Royal Project, “inviting” several Hmong communities to move down from the mountains to lower elevations where cash crops such as tomatoes, tea and strawberries would flourish. Today, the Hmong mostly make their living from tourism, where they themselves are the main attraction.
While we were hearing all this history I was definitely curious how much of its rosy presentation was influenced by Thailand’s overwhelming love for the King — although even this story from the BBC paints the program in an allover positive light. Unfortunately, there’s really no such thing as a two-sided view when it comes to the Royal Family in Thailand, but I longed to hear about the controversy that this project must have incited.
I cringed at the thought of a staged village visit with corny performances, booths full of handicraps (still my most proudly crowned term) and bored looking teenagers in traditional dress. Luckily it was literally none of those things. We breezed past a few stalls with souvenirs for sale and, at Chai’s cajoling, even paused for a bit of breadfruit archery, but otherwise there was little fanfare as we set off through the quiet village en route to our hike. According to different reports we had four to six hours on our feet ahead of us — we were ready to hit the trail.
Chai, via Heather Holt Photography
Kuhna, via Heather Holt Photography
We quickly fell into a steady pace. It was sauna steamy, but the thick foliage provided much-welcome shade. Bugs buzzed by our ears like tiny helicopters, and geckos scrambled to exit our path. At one point, we saw a snake slither across the trail. None of that bothered me, but I did think I might lose my mind when I first looked down and saw my leg covered in leeches. After that, Heather and I took turns checking each other from the knee down what felt every ten seconds, though I was amazed at Kuhna’s ability to spot the nearly microscopic creatures dangling from low leaves upon approach.
As soon as Chai informed us that leeches couldn’t survive above a certain elevation, we found ourselves hiking upwards at a much quicker clip.
Photo on right via Heather Holt Photography
Photo on right via Heather Holt Photography
Soon after we reached the peak elevation of 1,480 meters, we stopped at a viewpoint that took my breath away — or maybe it was the multiple miles of straight ascent we’d just hiked, can’t be sure. We stopped to admire a small shrine over a footprint of Buddha, and settled down for a fabulous picnic lunch Chai had picked up in Doi Pui Village. These two sustainability nuts loved that our fried rice was packaged in reusable containers, and complimented by an array of unidentified fruits we gamely tried.
But we still had a ways to go. We began descending, slowly, and I noted to Heather that we hadn’t seen a single other hiker along the trail. Moments later, we heard a rustling, and a Hmong teenager appeared with a shotgun taller than me and a dead squirrel hooked on the end of his cloth sidebag. I longed to take his portrait, but shyness won out, and we simply admired the squirrel carcass with approving nods when he proffered it.
Human subjects aside, I was overwhelmed by creative inspiration in Doi Suthep. Beauty truly was around every corner.
Signs of human civilization slowly increased, and eventually we arrived at Ban Mae Sa Mai, the largest Hmong community in North Thailand. Despite knowing this village receives far less visitors than the one we’d started from, I was still suspicious of what we might find there. There was no need — it was a quiet, peaceful village tucked deep into the hill and once again there was not another traveler in sight. We’d made it!
We were shown around a humble “museum” that was more like a traditional home set up for the occasional home-stay. Still, it was a short and interesting stop and I admired the village for resisting more flashy attempts at trying to lure tourists.
Photo via Heather Holt Photography
Photo via Heather Holt Photography
Seven hours after first being picked up from our hotel, we were back in the car once again. Cool towels, wet wipes, water and bananas were handed around as we cheered to a day well done. About five minutes into the drive back we were fast asleep — what can I say? It had been a long seven hours!
Our Opium Trail Trek gamble paid off. Never could I have imagined we could reach such remote and beautiful areas, and have such an authentic experience, without having to do an overnight camping trek. Or that outside Chiang Mai, one of the trekking capitals of Southeast Asia, we could go all day without passing another hiker! Or that we could cram so much into so few hours without feeling the slightest bit rushed — an epic temple, a pristine National Park, a fascinating slice of Thai history, and beauty both man-and-nature-made. My only complaint? We didn’t really learn anything about FORRU, the forest restoration unit of Chiang Mai University, as promised in the tour description. But we didn’t miss it too much.
So all that was great, but I haven’t even mentioned my favorite part of the entire day. At 5’1″, for once in my shortie life I was taller than BOTH my tour guides! Now that’s really something to
write home blog about.
What’s your favorite place to trek in Southeast Asia?
. . . . . . . . .
I am a member of the Viator Ambassador initiative and participated in this tour as part of that program.
How much did the tour cost? Can’t wait to read about yi peng!! Have been waiting for that post for months 🙂
Hey Nicole! Tour prices fluctuate with season and time and number of people and whatnot, so I prefer to just link to the tour page where you can always find an up-to-date and accurate price rather than let my post become irrelevant too soon 🙂 And yes, Yi Peng is coming up soon!
OK, I could do a lot of things, but leeches I could NOT do. Bravo to you two for being brave, though =)
Yeah, I’m pretty laid back but those little guys freaked me out! All part of the fun now in retrospect though 🙂
You should probably write home about it too…you know, just to be sure.
Never knew such tours existed! Sounds like an interesting day…could do without the leeches though!
Did you ever do any trekking outside Chiang Mai? I’ve heard really mixed reviews of the more backpacker-y tours.
I am so jealous you got to trek with real-life Hmong guides. I’ve been fascinated by the Hmong people since I read the HIGHLY recommended memoir, The Latehomecomer!
Oh awesome, Becky! Thank you. I just added it to my “To Read” note in my iPhone. I was quite fascinated in learning the history while we were hiking.
Alex, these photos are breath taking! What a perfect day. I share your preference for authentic experiences off the beaten path. Next time I go to Thailand, this will be tops on my list.
I mean I love me some Disneyland, but when it comes to something like trekking, I like my nature 100% authentic 🙂 It was a really photographically inspiring day!
The leeches would have freaked me out so much!! 😉 Your pictures of the temple made me chuckle a little bit: I took a couple of the same ones on my visit in July and I’m still wondering what the deeper meaning of the Persistent sign is! 😉
I would have loved to go trekking in Northern Thailand, but all I had heard about many of the trips offered really didn’t make me feel comfortable doing so – I wish I had known of this tour back then! I’ll have to keep it in mind for the future! 🙂
Yup, I felt the same way for a long time. I actually had a panic the night before the tour wondering what we were getting ourselves into! Turned out perfectly, though 🙂
I didn’t go trekking while in Chiang Mai for much the same reasons as you – so its great to hear that there are options like this viator day trip! If I make it back to Chiang Mai I will definitely be looking this one up. Looks like a thoroughly interesting day!
It was a bit of a gamble too as it’s a new tour and there were no reviews to read. Glad we took a leap!
Each and every one of these photos is so amazing. I’ve heard of treks along the opium trail – something I’m highly interested in doing – but I’ve never looked into it before. It’s really great to hear that you had such a great experience and it also makes me happy that you didn’t find it to be exploitative of the local villages and people. That’s always something I worry about when booking tours like this.
Yup! This one gets the responsible travel seal of approval for sure 🙂 Hope you get a chance to check it out in Thailand!
I visited Doi Suthep around New Years and the crowds were INSANE! I would have loved to do a more quiet hike like this.
Really! Did you hike this same trail? Or go to these villages?
Oh gosh; as someone with a terrible phobia of parasites the leeches may have thrown me into a panic attack, haha.
The photos you’ve posted are simply incredible and really show off the beauty of the land. That hike sounds like a lovely experience!
It really was! And I wouldn’t let the leeches dissuade you… maybe just wear pants or go at a drier time of year 🙂
Sounds amazing! I would love to do a multi day trek up there and it is good to hear that you can still find quiet villages that aren’t overrun with tourists
Yup, and I always love checking out a beautiful (and totally empty!) National Park!
Sounds and looks like an amazing experience! But leeches, eeeeee! Not sure how I’d be able to handle that *cringe.
Ha, they were pretty freaky at first but quickly forgotten when we saw those views 🙂 Guess we had to earn them!
Hi, Alex! I can’t get enough of your posts and pictures.
Everything looks incredible! It just makes me want to go to Thailand ASAP! 😀
Congratulations on your blog. It is awesome!
Wow, thank you Barbara! That is such a lovely compliment. And you should, by the way, go to Thailand ASAP 🙂
Eee, leeches really freak me out! We get lots in the Daintree rainforest too I find that spritzing them with insect repellant makes them drop right off. Awesome post, I’m not drawn to Chiang Mai because of the lack of ocean and I’m a water baby but your posts are conniving me to give it a try.
It’s definitely worth stopping through to get to places like Pai and Mae Hong Son, which I personally find absolutely magical. A few days in Chiang Mai to check out Elephant Nature Park, do this hike, and take a cooking class would be days really well spent!
Sounds like a fantastic day! We hung out in Chiang Mai for about a week, but were too winded from applying for our Indian visa to do much exploring outside of town’s walls. We did go to Doi Suthep where a monk tied a string bracelet around my wrist and then asked for $5 – ha! I should have known better – I can only smile now when I look back on it 🙂
Ha, nice! There’s no such thing as a free anything, I supposed, even when it comes from a monk 🙂
Oh I heart this post very much, minus the leech experience, sounds a magical and action packed tour. I havent done any treks in Southeast Asia, but I did love the temples and pagodas, found it fascinating that most lived in near poverty, yet their religious sites were excessively pimped out. I love your posts, they are so inspiring, I hope to get my travel on and get to experiencing life like you do. Thanks! You made my day.
What a lovely comment, Anna! That means a lot… you are too sweet. You made my day too 🙂
Looks like an exciting trip! adding the encounter with the leeches 🙂 Would be glad to visit Thailand very soon! Awesome photos!
It’s a great country! I highly recommend this tour for when you do get there.
Wow…what an amazing adventure… I can only imagine what a treat it was to be off the beaten path and away from the usual touristy hubs in such a beautiful part of the world- and your photographs are stunning! (That view from the peak must have been totally breathtaking in person)
I was definitely grateful for the panorama app on my iPhone in that moment 🙂 Thanks Lara!
Looks like a really cool tour, I haven’t done much research on northern Thailand for my trip yet, but I’ll definitely be bookmarking this for when I get over there! Thanks for sharing 🙂
I would love to see this trip through your lens, Laura! Here’s hoping you go for it 🙂
It all seems absolutely stunning! You definitely picked a good tour. Well done surviving the leech attack, too…. I recall as a kid watching my uncle pull a leech from between my cousin’s toes and frankly, I’ve always hoped to never be so close to one again. In terms of the hike itself, do you think it would be manageable for someone who is not athletically-inclined?
Considering the age of our guides, I’d say yes. I feel like if they could do it, most could! 🙂 Plus, it’s a private tour, so you can really go at your own pace.
My name is Anna Larimore, and I am a Social Media Intern for a study abroad company called Go Global. I was a student with Go Global in South Africa last year, and now I write the company blog! I’ve been a fan of yours for a good while — I LOVE your blog, and I have my own personal blog, too (www.loveallthingsbritney.com). On behalf of my team, Go Global is wondering if you would be interested in writing a guest post for us. If you’re interested, we would be honored. Let me know! Keep having adventures 🙂
Hey Anna! Thank you so much for your interest. Please send me an email via my contact form and we can chat from there 🙂
I just spent over an hour catching up and blog stalking you and I’m not at all ashamed to admit it 😉
This is a No Judgement Zone, Sara 🙂 Stalk away!
Thank you Alex!
You are welcome Lisa!
As always thank you!
I am on Chaing Mai and was looking for something to do tomorrow.
I also feel ‘meh’ about Chian Mai but am going to follow in your footsteps and get outdoors toborrow.
Hopefully there will still be a bit of a lantern festival in a few days. If not I’ll have to suffer through a couple more massages ❤️?
Yeah, it’s not my favorite place in Thailand… not by a long shot 🙂 But this was certainly a magical day! Wishing you lots of lovely lanterns!