Just two hours out of Chiang Mai sits the highest point in Thailand. The peak is part of the Shan Hills, which connects farther north to the Himalayas.
The summit sits at 2565 meters above sea level, which is just under 8500 feet. For an altitude that high, Doi Inthanon hardly feels like a mountain at all. This may be good or bad depending on the kind of person you are and your level of fitness. I expected something a little more strenuous, but Doi Inthanon is nice for the views, but would be a disappointment for anyone expecting a nature hike.
So what you should expect?
Getting in the park
About 30 minutes of the two hour drive from Chiang Mai are within the national park boundaries. The entrance fee is 300 baht (a little under $9) per person and 30 for the vehicle. There is no way of getting there other than by car. As I mentioned in another post, we hired a private driver for the day. If you don’t feel squeamish about driving on really steep and bendy roads, I’m sure it would be a nice drive if you rented a car. But it’s important to keep in mind that in Thailand, they drive on the same side of the road as in the UK, so that can also take getting used to.
The highest point in Thailand is actually a big wooden sign surrounded by a lot of trees. We were warned that it could get cold up there. But to be honest, compared to the heat down in the city, I would say the weather was pretty nice. Nothing a cardigan or light sweater can’t help you handle. I’m sure during a cold snap, this advice may be more important to heed. There are two large parking lots on either end of the peak. So you can go take a picture with the sign and come down on the other side.
When you walk past the sign, there is a wooden pathway, with at most a few steps up or down. So this is something even grandma can do. The path takes you through the trees, which largely obscure any views. And you end up at a mini visitor’s center where you can buy gifts and snacks.
The King and Queen chedis
After that underwhelming 5 minute walk around the peak of Thailand, you may be wondering, “Why the hell did I come all the way out here?” The answer is just down the road where there are two chedis, each representing the King (who just passed away) and the Queen of Thailand. A chedi is a structure, like a bell tower that houses important relics. Inside each one, there is a small temple honoring Buddha.
Like any other temples, you’re expected to remove your shoes and dress and behave appropriately when entering. By the time we got to Chiang Mai, we had seen about 6,000 temples, so what makes these chedis worth driving out 2 hours to see? The views and the gardens. Unlike the actual peak, which offers no views at all, the view from the chedis is spectacular, especially on a sunny day. You can see the clouds dancing around the mountain in every direction.
The area around the temples is manicured perfectly into a sprawling picturesque garden complete with small brooks and bridges, tall hedges, and flowers. Between the chedis, which look like chess pieces and the perfect garden, I felt like I was in Alice in Wonderland. And there is nothing I would love more in this world than to live in Wonderland, so that was a fun treat.
The cost to enter the temples is 40 baht and gives you the ability to enter both the Naphamethinidon and Naphaphonphumisiri chedis and spend as much time as you like wandering the grounds. Since the structures are fairly new, you can actually take an escalator to each one, making it even more user friendly for people who dislike or can’t hike and take stairs.
The waterfalls of Doi Inthanon
You could easily spend an entire day at Doi Inthanon just looking at waterfalls. There are five major ones on the way up to the summit. We went to Wachirathan Falls, which is one of the largest and most powerful, making it really beautiful and fun to walk around. There are footpaths all around the waterfall so you can get pretty close near the top of it and also walk along the rocks at the bottom.
These paths can be steep and very slippery from the mist, so be careful. There are guardrails that you can hold onto. You can also make your way onto the large rocks that are in the middle of waterfall near the base. These are dry, so it’s safe to stand on, but getting there is a bit treacherous.
The hill tribe village
Our private tour also included a nice stop in a local village where there is a coffee plantation. This was a perfect addition to the day, because jet lag is a bitch and a nice shot of espresso is exactly what you need to keep you going. We stopped in and had fresh coffee – so fresh that we got to grind the beans ourselves. We chatted with the people there before taking a walk around the village. One of them showed us photos of him on a movie set in the 70’s. It’s incredible to think that this soft spoken Thai guy might have met Marlon Brando or Sylvester Stallone while filming a movie I’ve probably seen.
The village was relatively quiet. We didn’t see too many people, except on motorbikes occasionally. We did see some roosters and clothes hanging out to dry as a sign of life. If you don’t have a guide when you visit, don’t wander too far. A hillside village doesn’t really show up on Google Maps. So you want to make sure you remember where you came from.
You can squeeze all that into your day and still have time to get back to Chiang Mai by dinnertime. If you have enough energy, you can still have a wild night in the city at a ladyboy show.
Get the GPS-guided version of this and other Chiang Mai articles on GPSmyCity here.