When we signed up for a Chiang Mai trekking tour, we were uncertain what to expect. The brochure for the full day trip from Chiang Mai, Thailand promised an array of activities – everything from elephants to rafting to hill tribes and waterfalls – all at a budget price. We were enthusiastic about exploring the region outside of the Old Town – and cautiously optimistic that the Chiang Mai tour was as advertised.
In the end, the tour covered the highlights – just as promoted. However, in hindsight, we wished we had chosen a different tour. We are well aware of just how difficult it can be to decide which tour from Chiang Mai to take. To help other travelers, we are detailing our adventure and giving our best tips.
Chiang Mai Tours
There is no shortage of Chiang Mai tours from visitors to choose from. Day trips from Chiang Mai, Thailand take visitors deep into the forest and zip lining over the trees. There are tours to see elephants, tigers and butterflies. There are guided trips to see hill tribes, nearby towns and faraway temples. Chiang Mai day trips can be booked for a half day, full day, two – and even – three days. Tours are offered in a range of prices – from too cheap to be true to budget busting. Some tours involve animals and humans, a practice that is now seen as unethical.
Navigating the myriad of tour options is not easy. It can be exhausting trying to determine which one – or ones – to take. After much debate, we finally settled on a Chiang Mai trekking trip that was within our budget and would give us just a taste of what lies beyond the city limits…but, in retrospect, it’s not a tour we would take again.
Chiang Mai Trekking Trip
Our one-day Chiang Mai trekking trip included visiting elephants, bamboo rafting, eating a local lunch, seeing a hill tribe, trekking through scenic landscapes and swimming at a waterfall. The tour was led by an English-speaking guide and we traveled on a small, air-conditioned minibus. The all-day tour was priced at just 1,000 baht (about $30 USD) each – and was one of the cheapest tours we found for a full day of Chiang Mai activities.
As we have already mentioned, looking back, we would have picked a different Chiang Mai hiking tour than the one we chose. To help other travelers in choosing which Chiang Mai excursions to take, we offer our experience of the events of the budget Chiang Mai trekking tour.
Elephant Camp Chiang Mai
The first stop on our Chiang Mai jungle trek trip was an elephant camp. The attraction was a point of contention for us before we booked the tour; the great debate of ethical treatment of elephants swirled in our minds.
Of course we wanted to see elephants in Thailand, but not necessarily on our Chiang Mai trek. We found it a bit odd that elephants were even included in the tour, but we couldn’t find a similar tour – at a similar price – that didn’t include an elephant camp. Before we arrived, we decided that we would look on from afar – and only get closer if there were no signs of mistreatment.
Elephant Riding Chiang Mai
As we should have predicted, once we were there, we were swept up in awe of the elephants. We were led to (what we thought was) a viewing platform, where we could see the elephants from above and they could walk come right up to the wooden deck. However, when an elephant approached, we were suddenly – and aggressively – instructed to sit on the saddle attached to their back…and we contritely followed directions.
Elephant Trekking Chiang Mai
The ride was a short distance: up the side of a hill, back down into the river valley and through the water. The gigantic animals effortlessly maneuvered through the trees and muddy waters; their enormous, flat-bottomed feet never uncertain. My uncertainty, however, had me hanging on for dear life and I would have preferred to be on the ground interacting with them, rather than sitting on top of one.
Playing with Elephants
Fortunately, once the ride was over, we got the chance to simply observe the creatures. Playful baby elephants used their trunks to introduce themselves and we stood eye-to-eye with the mature elephants as they munched away on lunch.
Watching the animals, however, confirmed what we feared: These elephants were treated poorly. We saw chains and hooks. And, when a baby elephant started to get agitated, a mahout (elephant trainer) leapt through the air and karate kicked the baby square on the forehead. We were appalled.
We were promised we would get wet while bamboo rafting…and they were true to their word. It would actually be nearly impossible not to get wet while riding a bamboo raft down the river. The raft is constructed of about ten 30-foot-long bamboo rods strapped together with old rubber tire strips.
We sat near the middle of the raft as our ‘captain’ stood at the front, using a thin bamboo stick to guide us along the way. Occasionally, he would slap the water with his oar trying to scare us with stories of spotting water snakes. (Perhaps he was being serious, but we choose to believe he was just joking!) We drifted down the shallow river, through a few small rapids, under swaying, wooden bridges and past exceptional, lush riverside scenery.
Hill Tribe Trekking Chiang Mai
The next stop on our Chiang Mai jungle tour was the White Karen Tribe village. The White Karen tribe is originally from Burma and China, but the tribe has been in Thailand for more than 100 years. We visited during the day when most of the people were at work in the fields, in the city or at school. A few women lounged in hammocks and looked after toddlers as they played with puppies and the pigs.
The houses covered the hillside and were made of wood and bamboo and roofs were made of leaves. We were shown the traditional clothes – white cotton dresses for unmarried women and red shirts for men – but we learned that these garments are now only worn for special occasions and weddings.
The younger generation is being lured into the city for education and jobs and they are bringing new technology and modern conveniences into the village. It made us wonder how much longer the rural village will survive.
Jungle Trekking Chiang Mai
I would classify our ‘trekking’ as more of a stroll down a dirt road than a Chiang Mai hiking tour through the mountains. Although slightly disappointing (getting to trek Chiang Mai was our top motive for booking the day trip!), the leisurely stroll worked out nicely. During the walk, we had the opportunity to talk to our guide, Pia.
As we walked past rice fields, she showed us the different varieties, explained the harvest and pointed out insects that trouble farmers. As we entered the forest, we noticed trees wrapped in orange cloth; Pia told us that people dress the trees like monks as a way of protecting the forest.
Pia enthusiastically narrated the Chiang Mai jungle trekking portion of the trip with information and facts about the area. We learned about mushrooms, spiders, fruit and teak trees, which are now illegal to cut down without government permits. We also learned more about Pia, her studies and her family.
The vistas across the fields to the mountains beyond were almost unreal; the scene looked more like a painting than reality. It was like beautiful backdrops had been placed along the way for our trek, only the workers in the field bringing it to life.
Swimming at the Waterfall
Our trek took us into the forest to a waterfall. The water thundered over rocks into a small pool below. The sun was shining over the top of the spilling water, highlighting the mist that rose into the trees. We crossed a rickety bamboo bridge to large rocks that led down into the water.
The water was cold and the current was swift, but that didn’t keep us from dipping in. We splashed around trying to gain solid footing as we watched young daredevils climb the rocks behind the falls and cliff jump into the pool. We could have stayed at the waterfall all day, but it was time to continue on our trek toward the van that would take us back to Chiang Mai.
The Best Trekking Chiang Mai Tour?
It should be pretty clear that we did not think this was the best trekking tour in Chiang Mai. While we thoroughly enjoyed learning more from our guide, sailing down the river in on a bamboo raft and swimming at the base of a waterfall, we were left feeling underwhelmed with the actual trekking and hill tribe village visit. Sadly, what has stuck with us most about the day trip from Chiang Mai is the poor treatment of the elephants.
We took this tour in 2014 – and, as of 2019, the same tour is still being offered by tourist agencies in Chiang Mai. However, it is not likely that tourists will find it on the internet (and, therefore, will not read reviews about it).
Knowing what we know now, we would have chosen a different trekking tour. While other tours may not be as inexpensive as the one we took, we think (based on fellow traveler reviews) that we would have had a better overall experience.
Chiang Mai Trekking Tours
As we were most interested in hiking in Thailand, we have researched tours that we think would have better suited our interests. The following tours are highly rated by fellow travelers and can be booked online.
Eco Trekking Chiang Mai
Trek through Doi Inthanon National Park on a full day tour with a private guide. This tour includes top Chiang Mai sights, as well as a forest hike. See the countryside, walk through the forest to waterfalls, visit famous pagodas, take in the stellar views and drink locally produced coffee at a hill tribe. Get the details and read reviews on Viator!
1-Day Trekking Chiang Mai with Ethical Elephant Sanctuary Visit
Want trekking and elephants? This tour includes the best of both! Start the day visiting a highly-rated ethical elephant camp before entering Doi Inthanon National Park for a 2-hour trek on the ‘Heaven Trail.’ With the information we have now, I think this is the tour we would have chosen. Find out more and book it!
Chiang Mai 3-Day Trek
Looking for a more challenging trek? Head to the hills north of Chiang Mai and experience the natural beauty of the Chiang Dao Mountains on a 3-day trek. In addition to the stunning scenery, hikers can indulge in local experiences with homestay accommodations and locally prepared food. Get the specifics!
More Chiang Mai Day Tours
Chiang Mai, Thailand tours are not limited to treks! Top tours in Chiang Mai cover everything from nature to temples to cooking classes. Find the top-rated trips, classes and even Chiang Mai walking tours on Get Your Guide.
We Want To Know: Have you taken a Chiang Mai Trekking Tour? What did you like (or not like!) about the Chiang Mai tour you took? Give us your best tips and advice in the comments below!
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