Thailand is such a diverse country. From busy Bangkok to the island resorts in Phuket and Phi Phi in the south and the rich, cultural history in Chiang Mai in the north, there is a destination to suit every style of traveller. Like many other visitors who make their way to northern Thailand, it has stolen my heart. On a recent trip, I was fortunate enough to explore beyond the typical old town tourist trail, through day trips from Chiang Mai that took us to Lampang, Lamphun and Doi Inthanon National Park including a morning spent with the Karen tribe at the incredible Ban Mae Klang Luang Village.
Ban Mae Klang Luang Village
The day we wound our way up the mountain to the Ban Mae Klang Luang village, was one of my favourite days I’ve ever spent in Thailand. Travelling to the area on the cusp of the rainy season meant we arrived as the morning mist was still lifting off the lush rice terraces, wrapping around us on each bend.
The Ban Mae Klang Luang village is about 80 kilometres south of Chiang Mai and sits at 1200 metres above sea level in the 3rd basin of Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s highest peak. A settlement for the Karen tribes who came across the border from Burma in 1787, there are now four main villages in the area, each comprising 60 to 80 families. Enveloped by brilliant green forests, rice terraces and coffee plantations that support the families who live there, it sets a beautiful picturesque scene in the mountains.
Greeted by our guide, Ken we sat in a small hut as he explained how the village grew their own coffee while he roasted beans over the fire and brewed up a fresh pot of tribal coffee. A thick, black pour, we sipped slowly as Ken explained the origins of his tribe. Subsistence farmers, the tribe once farmed opium on the land now covered with coffee plants. Thanks to the help of the Thai government, namely King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s Royal Project founded in 1969 that taught the tribes about alternative crops such as coffee to curb the drug problem whilst ensuring they had a sustainable livelihood for their families.
As the caffeine kicked in Ken lead us up the hill into the village. Modest wooden hut-like homes sat clustered together on the hill, fighting off jungle greenery at every edge. It was beautifully silent, with just the occasional rustle of a local chicken foraging below the raised houses or young giggles coming from inside the village school building at the top of the hill. As expected, the locals were shy and mostly kept their distance, with a few bravely posing for pictures in their stunning colourful hand-woven Karenic textiles.
Despite the fact that they welcome tourists to the village as a way of supporting their families, this didn’t feel like a commercial tourist tour. It felt like a gentle, respectful visit to someone’s home. Our group was small, we didn’t enter the school or anyone’s homes and I felt privileged to be able to have a brief peek into their way of life, without the feeling that we were imposing or that they were in any way putting on a show for us. We were simply passing observers; as it should be.
The Ban Mae Klang Luang village is in the Ban Luang subdistrict about an hour and a half’s drive from Chiang Mai. Book a tour or for those looking for a more immersive tribal experience, there is accommodation that you can rent on site; from village houses to camping spots. Contact the Mae Klang Luang Ecotourism Information Centre at 089-952-0983 or 086-311-1791.
The Royal Agricultural Station Inthanon
From the village we made our way to Doi Inthanon’s nearby Royal Project the Royal Agricultural Station Inthanon for lunch as the rain began to get stronger. There are a number of Royal Projects around the country. Beginning in 1969, the grassroots initiative was a push to help the rural populations to become self-sufficient, fight poverty and put in place farming practices that would sustain them and preserve local forests for generations that followed.
The Royal Agricultural Station was opened in 1977. While you can visit most of the Royal Projects to see exactly what they grow and promote, visitors can even stay on site at the Inthanon centre (camping, rooms or home stay is available), surrounded by the crops and stunning mountain landscape.
We sat down to lunch at the Inthanon Restaurant as the rain fell around us. It was a busy day with many full tables around us. I was particularly excited about this lunch as the produce is all grown on site. Stir fried vegetables, gorgeous salads, duck, meat and fish dishes were gradually brought out to our table and the food was deliciously fresh and healthy.
The Royal Agricultural Station Inthanon is about 1.5 hours south west of Chiang Mai in the Ban Luang, Chom Thong District. For bookings and information contact the station directly on 053-286-777.
Naphamethinidon Chedis on Doi Inthanon
About a 30 minute drive further up towards the summit of Doi Inthanon and we came to the Naphamethinidon Chedis; two partner stupas built to honour the 60th birthday of King Bhumibol Adulyadej in 1987, and the 60th birthday of Queen Sirikit in 1992. Perched on the summit overlooking the valley, views from each are expansive, showing off the stunning surrounding national park.
Unfortunately, the weather had other plans for us as we stepped off our mini bus. The fog was so thick, we couldn’t even see the top of the stupa from the car park. Climbing the stairs we wandered the gardens, caught slightly off guard by the noticeable chill in the mountain air. It was a nice reprieve from the humidity in Chiang Mai. Despite my best efforts, the fog made it impossible to get photos of the stupas or gardens. I can only imagine how beautiful it is on a clear day.
On our way back to Chiang Mai we stopped in the drizzle to see the Wachirathan Waterfall. One of the three main waterfalls in the Doi Inthanon National Park. A popular stop for visitors to the park as it’s very accessible we joined the crowds to try to capture the falls as the powerful spray covered us. There is a walk you can take to get a better view of the falls if you have a little more time or better weather.
While you can make your own way up to Doi Inthanon National Park via public bus and explore from there. I highly recommend booking a tour or at least a local guide. Having the day mapped out for us made it effortless and we could simply enjoy each part of the itinerary.
The Fit Traveller was a guest of Tourism Thailand for this trip. However, as always the opinions, images and words are authentically our own.
Skye is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Fit Traveller.
She is a journalist, writer, photographer, intrepid traveller and a former personal trainer with a passion for helping others reach optimal health.
As a TV journalist and producer, Skye has worked for household names such as 60 Minutes, Sunrise, TODAY and Nine News. She has also written for Women’s Health, Fodor’s Travel and Yahoo7 Travel, among many others.
Equally comfortable in a 5-star resort or hiking a far-off mountain, Skye loves the unexpected and enriching life experiences that each trip brings and can often be found in a backstreet chatting to locals with her camera in hand.
Skye is based in Sydney, working to master the balance between motherhood and her appetite for adventure.
Read more about Skye’s story here.