Thailand has some ideal terrain for hiking, from the precipitous karst forests of Krabi and Khao Sok to the undulating mountains surrounding Mae Hong Son and Loei. Aside from the country's natural beauty, it is the opportunity to visit hill tribes that has undoubtedly caused the trekking business to boom. The novelty of encountering hill tribespeople in elaborate costumes undeniably adds cultural frisson to a trek. However, over time traditional tribal values cannot but be eroded by continued exposure to tourists. Additionally, there is the problem of trekkers feeling like voyeurs, particularly at cynical freak shows such as the long- necked Padaung.
Try to establish a rapport with tribespeople and ask their permission before taking photos. Villages close to Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai (and, increasingly, Pai and Mae Hong Son) are all depressingly exploited. Be wary of Burmese border areas, especially in Tak, where there is the chance of encountering fighting. Malaria is also a risk here, as it is in Kanchanaburi. In general, the health risks increase the further you travel away from the towns. For exclusively nature-based treks, head for Khao Yai and the South.
Trekking around Chiang Daos
Most treks also include an elephant ride and, if the rivers are high enough, punting on a bamboo raft. Treks can last a week, but most are over two to three nights and include a visit to at least one village. Seams are commonplace and TAT keeps lists of companies recognized by the professional Guide Association of Chiang Mai or the Jungle Tour Club of Northern Thailand, but word of mouth is often best.
All treks should be led by at least two competent guides (who should speak the necessary tribal languag and be aware of local customs). Check that the group doesn't exceed about eight trekkers, that the trek is registered with the police and that transportation is not by public buses. Tips for trekkers include lining backpacks with plastic bags to keep wet clothes in and damp out; always steep in dry clothes - even if it means putting on wet clothes by day; wear a sun hat and cream, long trousers to protect against leeches, insect repellent (Jaico is the best) and worn-in hiking boots - or at least supportive trainers. Nights are cold in the moun- tains, so take warm layers - thermal tops and leggings, and silk sleeping bags.
The best times to trek are November to February and early in the wet season in June and July. Eco-tourism is an abused term, but Slam Safari, The Trekking Collective and Phuket Trekking Club have a good reputation and Friends of Nature organize genuinely ecological treks. The Wild Planet is equally well respected and, like Bike and Travel, also runs professional mountain bike trips into the wild. Northern Thailand is renowned for its trekking. Treks in the area around Chiang Dao and Mae Taeng often combine visits to hill- tribe villages with an elephant ride or raft trip through the stunning scenery. Most three-day treks from Chiang Mai, which can be arranged by guesthouses or trekking companies in the city, incorporate this area.
Among the region's interesting towns are Mae Taeng, Phrao and Chiang Dao, all of which have long been at the interface between the Thai-dominated lowlands and the uplands, where the hill tribes live. It is vital to trek with a guide who is familiar with the area and hill-tribe etiquette.