Anna Luna Rossi
The highest spot in Thailand: a walk and guide through Doi Inthanon National Park
Doi Inthanon is the highest mountain in Thailand: located in the province of Chiang Mai, part of the Thanong Thon Chai mountain range and culminating at 2565 meters, it owned the nickname "the roof of Thailand". Traditionally belonging to the Karen and Hmong hill tribes, Doi Inthanon National Park was established in 1954, and shelters a beautifully pristine cloud forest of ficus and pine trees, as well as many waterfalls. The cold and humid climate of the mountain gets warmer in the jungle, and benefits hundreds of bird species, but also reptiles, amphibians, bats, and a few bigger mammals. Some even say the mountains of Doi Inthanon are part of the foothills of the Himalaya... walk with me through the National Park to discover what gives such a unique aura to this place.
The colors of Doi Inthanon are a true sight to see: from the verdant jungle and the orange marigolds and bougainvillea flowers, to the bright rice fields, dark and steep canyons, and blue mountain range blending with the sky. A while ago, elephants and tigers were roaming freely in the park, but years of poaching and human threats led to these species disappearing from the territory. Nowadays, along with numerous species of birds (306 different species in total, like the colorful green-tailed Sunbird), monkeys and deers still inhabit the park. If you're lucky enough, you might still have the chance to catch sight of a few elephants.... but the sightings are pretty rare in Doi Inthanon.
Chiang Mai and the beauty of northern Thailand
When discovering Chiang Mai, and the beauty the province has to offer easily seen through Doi Inthanon National Park, it's easy to be left speechless. There is just something so wild and authentic in the emerald valleys and the mountains' summits touching the clouds. The first time I visited Chiang Mai, I stepped foot into the province on a January morning after the rain, at the bottom of Doi Suthep temple right in time for the new year's Buddhist ceremonies. The fog was covering the top of the trees, elephants were walking along the streets, and the orange robes of the monks were brightly standing out over the dark green of the jungle around. The air smelled of incense and wet earth, almost chilly. This memory stays deeply engraved in my mind as the moment I fell in love with this region of northern Thailand.
We leave Chiang Mai at 5 am to make sure to arrive at Doi Inthanon when the light is the most beautiful to witness, and when the summit of the mountain is above clouds. On the road to the National Park, the sun is slowly rising up above the horizon: its orange halo follows us through the leaves of the trees and the houses becoming less and less abundant as we leave the city area. Soon, we are driving in the northern countryside, and the road becomes more sinuous when we reach the borders of the park. A quick check of our entry pass, and we're allowed to continue: now there is only the jungle to surround the little road climbing up the mountainside.
The highest spot in Thailand, in the middle of the cloud forest
Once you reach the summit, a sign indicating you this is the highest spot in Thailand, you find yourself in the middle of the cloud forest (this humid forest typical of the tropical mountains). The little trail is made of wooden bridges in the middle of giant trees covered with moss. It makes you pass by a stone shrine guarded by elephant statues that seemed to have been abandoned in the jungle decades ago. Offerings of bright orange marigolds are piling at the bottom of the shrine.
As you walk farther into the cloud forest, the fog dancing through the branches of the trees gives a misty ambiance to the area: wilderness is omnipresent, from the birds singing in the bushes to the eerie sounds of the jungle you're not quite sure to be able to identify. Besides these melodies, it's so incredibly quiet it's almost surreal. Some places ask you to take a moment to appreciate silence, and this is one of those. Lianas and vines create a complex entanglement of plants and trees, and ferns covered in dew (slowly starting to glow under the morning light) grow in between the wide trunks. It's utterly beautiful.
Other wonders of Doi Inthanon: the Twin Pagodas and Wachirathan Waterfall
A little lower, nestled at the very top of Doi Inthanon, there are the Twin Pagodas, also called the Royal or the King and Queen Pagodas (Pra Mahatat Noppamethanedon and Pra Mahatat Nopphonphusiri). With their soft purple roofs and golden crowns, they stand above the valleys of blue mountains piercing the cover of clouds, white walls almost blinding in the sun. Maybe they were made to capture the sunlight, and that is why they guard over the province from so high.
All around the pagodas, the gardens of the temple complex are full of fresh flowers: pink, purple, orange, it's a rainbow of colorful little parcels and a marvel to the eyes. The beauty of this place is so immaculate it makes you ponder on how it can be real: a perfect homage to the royal family, built to represent honor and grace.
Eyes over the horizon, at this hour of the morning there is only the cover of clouds to admire (and the little summits peaking through it): it feels a little bit like you're on top of the world, somewhere out of a fantasy story or the ancient tales of the country. Here nothing can really reach you, it's a timeless moment, where you could stay for hours without seeing the day go by.
Going down from the Pagodas, after a series of turns, the little jungle road leads us to the Wachirathan waterfall. In Thai, Wachirathan means Diamond creek, and the name suits them well: the 70 meters high falls are radiant in the middle of the jungle of Doi Inthanon, a rainbow appearing through the drops of water splashing your arms and face as you walk by. It contrasts with the peacefulness of the summit: here the low rumble of the waterfall is all you can hear, and the loop walk around may be slippery but worth following to catch sight of where the river disappears in the depths of the jungle.
More information about Doi Inthanon National Park
How to get there?
Doi Inthanon National Park is covering an area of 482 km², opens every day from 5:30 am to 6:30 pm, and is located around 70km southwest of the city of Chiang Mai's center. It takes a little more than two hours to reach the area. Getting a guide for the day will allow you to be picked up where you stay, and brought to the different points you'd like to see around the park. It is also possible to go there by taxi or with a group tour, but since these options allow less flexibility I would recommend having a local guide.
How much does it cost?
You need to pay an entry pass to be allowed to enter the National Park. Like every other place in Thailand, there is a price for locals and a price for tourists: 300 bahts for adults, and 150 bahts for kids (8,7$/4.3$ USD). A private guide and car for the day will cost you between 1000 to 3000 bahts (30 to 90$ USD). Since no vehicle is allowed in the Twin Pagodas area, you will also need to pay the designated Tuk-Tuk to get up there: it costs 20 bahts (0,5$ USD). If you have your own transport, cars are charged 30 bahts and bikes 20 bahts to enter the park.
Important to know
If you can, get there early: there will be less people at the main sights to see (like the highest spot or the Twin Pagodas) and you will be above the clouds, since the summit can quickly get surrounded by clouds. Otherwise, visiting the Pagodas at sunset is also a great option: the view and light will be unique.
Even though Thailand is generally very warm, the weather can get pretty chilly once at the summit of Doi Inthanon: make sure to be wearing warmer clothes.
If you're a wildlife lover, take your best pair of binoculars because the park is considered as one of Thailand's best spots for birdwatching. The best season to witness the avifauna would be nesting and breeding season, around June/July.
What else to see in the area?
Pha Dok Siew Waterfall: another of the many magnificent waterfalls to admire in the park. There is also the Pha Dok Siew Trail, a 2h trek that will take you through the jungle, rice terraces and local villages with their coffee farms and farmer markets.
Hmong traditional market: in the traditional market of Doi Inthanon's hill tribes, you can buy fresh vegetables, tea cultivated locally, candied fruits, as well as local arts and crafts (special mention for the beautiful seed bracelets handmade by the women here).
Kew Mae Pran Trail: this circular hiking trail will lead you to beautiful viewpoints over the mountains and the valley.
Ban Mae Klang Luang: the little village is in the middle of the rice fields, a truly wonderful sight to see.
If you want to discover more of Thailand's beauty, make sure to check the gallery of pictures I took during my trip.