While searching for mountains to climb in northern Thailand, out of a plentitude of possibilities, Doi Chiang Dao soon won the first place in the list of my priorities. And that was mainly so due to its unique, dramatic morphological features. This mountain is formed by two parallel limestone ridges arising almost vertically, independently out of the low plains, and enclosing between them a high, mysterious, jungly plateau. Its highest peak, located at the easternmost verge of the massif, reaches 2225 m of altitude. And exactly thitherwards I headed one morning, starting to explore the third dimension of this beautiful country.
The closest town to the mountain is the homonymous Chiang Dao. Being in Chiang Mai (Northern Thailand’s largest city), the cheapest, yet effective, way I found to get there was by public transport. Buses run quite frequently from Chang Phuak station and the ticket costs 40 baht. After about an hour and a half, we were entering Chiang Dao, and I got the first glimpses of the mountain, with its greater volume hidden behind dense clouds. From the center of the town, I had somehow to cover the 20 km to the beginning of the trail. A taxi would take me there for 600 baht (which is quite outrageous), and they would accept no bargaining. A much better option would be to rent a motorcycle for the same price (possibly a bit cheaper if you are to search for it well), whereupon you could also use it for the return. In such a case though, it would be a good idea to not let them know that you are going to leave the bike in the woods and overnight up the mountain, as they can get paranoid (quite unfoundedly I think) about the safety of their property, finishing out not willing to rent you at all. The other choice, which I did, after all, is to just go around the town asking random people with motorcycles to drive you up. It did not take long before I found a guy willing to drive me for 300 baht. As for the return, I did not really mind, as I could walk the entire way downhill, and most probably I could get a free ride along the way. Which thing really happened after all, and very easily also. So, I think that to go both ways hitchhiking would be the best option after all. These Thai people are generally very eager to help, giving you a free ride along their route making no exception.
Anyway, we started with that guy driving up the mountain, we left the town behind us, we passed by the Chiang Dao Cave, and a couple of kilometers after it, we encountered the gate of the national park. There I needed to pay 200 baht (30 for locals) for the park ticket. You might also hear that, officially, to be accompanied by a guide is mandatory, which is probably true, but confined strictly to the meaning of the word ”officially”. The guards didn’t object the least to let me enter myself, and they only gave me a wide smile and no questions at all. After the gate, we kept driving up for another 10 km about, till we reached the trailhead (19.4125 98.8591). It is very easy to see it as there is a shrine, a shed a board and some stuff… pretty much the only things you’ll see except jungle and asphalt after the park gate. There we found two guys sitting. They were maintaining a small fire by slowly pushing a thick bamboo reed onto the meager embers, and they had a steaming teakettle by their side, of which they offered us a cup. After finishing that cup, those guys remained where they were, the driver started to drive back down, and I took the trail up.
The trail starts at appr. 1100 m, goes for a while gently through the thick rainforest and then starts ascending steeply till reaching the plateau at 1500 m. In case it had recently rained (as was my case), this part of the trail is an extremely slippery mudslide, where cautiousness and a stick can be proven extremely useful. After passing through a sort of gate between two abrupt peaks into the plateau, all rest is easy. You just follow the well-maintained, obvious trail, which cannot be lost even if it was attempted to do so deliberately – and I mean literally, as even if you try to leave the trail, it will not take more than a few meters till you find yourself immobilized, entangled in the dense vegetation. I just kept following the trail through the jungle, listening to the grotesque songs the tropical birds were ceaselessly singing, and marveling in awe the astounding peaks which surrounded me all over, while they were playing hide and seek among the speedy clouds passing above the plateau. About three hours after I started trekking, I reached the campground located at an elevation of 2000 m, just above my peak, which was now well hidden behind the thick fog, as anything else located more than 10-20 meters away from me. The sun would set soon and the wind was blowing cold and wild. I set my tent, made myself a dinner and found refuge inside the coziness of my sleeping-bag.
It would be a couple of hours prior to sunrise, when – besides the heavy humidity which was dripping on me like rain from the roof of my tent at every blast of the wind throughout the entire night – I noticed the moonlight penetrating into my tent. I got out of the tent. The sky had now cleared up completely and was trimmed by milliards of bright stars and our satellite in its semilunar phase throned right in the middle of it. I got to stroll about a bit, wondering on the charm of that rare night, and, the sun approaching closer to the horizon, I got to prepare myself for the last ascent. It took me a short, 15 min. hike, and I was standing on the top of Doi Chiang Dao. The east had started coloring up, presaging the impending advent of the sun. The sun rose… a new day arrived. The view around was just astonishing. The plains far below were covered by the morning mist, seeming like an immense bathtub full of foam. The various tops of the Thai mountains were sticking out of the mist all around the horizon, and the various peaks of Doi Chiang Dao were getting fired up one after the other, from the east to the west, as the sunlight was proceeding slowly on its way, till it got high enough to start surging into the plateau, waking up the life of the jungle. The day was back for good, and for me, it was about time to head back down to civilization again.