Jungle Trekking In Northern Thailand: Adventure of a Lifetime

January 15, 2024
by
5 mins read

Bat caves, endless jungle, mosquito swarms. Does this sound like a relaxing vacation to you? Somehow at the time, it sounded to me like a great way to unwind. It was the end of a ten-day solo jungle trekking trip to northern Thailand. The trip began with two days of exploring Bangkok. The urban chaos was overwhelming at first, but I eventually acclimated and made my way north to Ayutthaya, the ancient Siam capital founded in 1350. 

Chiang Mai came next. After gorging myself on papaya salad and noodles for two days, I took the perilous drive further north to Pai and ended my ten-day swing once again in Chiang Mai, where I planned on lazing around the old city – jungle trekking was far from my mind.  

But as every traveler knows, plans are made to be broken. Arriving back in Chiang Mai, my belly bursting from the Pai markets, I suddenly felt the need for one last adventure. I scrapped my original idea of settling in, taking it slow, and eating until I turned blue in the face. So jungle trekking was next up! 

Jungle Trekking 101 

Once I decided to go off the beaten path, I had to find a trek. After all, I didn’t plan to waltz myself into the thick north Thailand jungle on my own. On my first morning back in Chiang Mai, I walked around the streets to find a guided jungle trekking tour. Chiang Mai is full of tour companies hounding travelers to take this day trip or that weekend tour. 

Meeting new friends while jungle trekking in Chiang Mai

It didn’t take me long to find one that had several of my Thailand bucket list items on it, including an overnight stay in a hill tribe village and a not-too-punishing hike through rolling green hills. 

I was sold. It was still early in the morning by that point, and the jungle trekking tour left from an industrial area in the northern part of Chiang Mai later that afternoon. I gathered my things – and my courage – ate one last banana roti, and headed towards the meeting point. 

Pad Thai and Small Talk 

There were seven of us in total – a young backpacker from Poland, a German student, a middle-aged Danish couple, our Thai tour guide and his girlfriend, and myself. We set out from Chiang Mai in a small open-bed truck. The back was wide open and the roaring wind kept us from conversing as we trudged north towards an unknown destination. We simply smiled at each other, lone travelers from around the world, wordlessly acknowledging our shared wanderlust. 

After about an hour and a half of driving – first through a busy highway and then windy mountain roads – the truck pulled into a clearing off the road. It seemed we had arrived. We hopped off the truck, grabbed our belongings, and waved goodbye to the driver. Before heading into the jungle, which climbed up the mountain in front of us in unknown directions, we stopped for a lunch break at a small building that housed a kitchen and a bathroom. 

Our guide whipped up some pad thai and we all got to know each other in the silence of the clearing. After filling our bellies and exchanging names and Thailand stories, our guide signaled it was time to begin – let the jungle trekking commence. I sprayed on some mosquito repellent and tightened my shoelaces – we were off! 

Unexpected Companions 

For the first leg of my jungle trekking experience, I kept thinking one thing: look down! It was tempting to constantly take in my surroundings, to notice the small things about the dense jungle. But the heat was intense, my lungs screamed “take me back to Chiang Mai!” and, most importantly, the jungle floor was full of things to avoid – rope-like tree roots, rocks, and ditches. There were snakes in this region, our guide warned. And so, my focus was putting one foot in front of the other safely and not getting eaten by a jungle creature. 

After what felt like an eternity (it was probably only an hour or so), we made it to our first pit stop. In the middle of a thicket of palm trees stood a massive rocky structure. Our guide waited for the group to catch up, leaning on his walking stick and chit-chatting with his girlfriend. 

He cleared the path for us to approach this mysterious mound. It quickly became apparent where exactly he had taken us: a deep, dark, chilly cave. We peered in nervously and stepped inside. My eyes adjusted after a few seconds of stepping foot into the damp cave and I gasped when I realized where exactly we were: a bat cave! Thousands of small black bats were hanging upside down all around the cave. 

The cave was too dark to take photos, and our guide advised us not to shine artificial lights into the cave. So I snapped mental pictures of the sleeping winged creatures and we moved on to our next destination on this wild jungle trekking odyssey. 

The Village with No Name

When we finally broke free from the jungle, it felt like emerging from underwater. We had been hiking for a few hours in total, and the entire group was beyond exhausted. My legs felt like spaghetti and my arms were basically two huge mosquito bites. The view made it all worth it. We were high up in the hills, the jungle was behind us, and in front of us stretched fields of rice paddies and other crops. Small village huts dotted the scenery. 

We took a few minutes to catch our breath (both from our hike and the views) and moved on. The rest of the way was relatively flat. We saw farmers covered head to toe, spraying their crops with fertilizer. We walked through a rubber tree forest. Buckets were tethered to the trunks to collect the sap. 

And then I heard children laughing. Mothers calling after them. The unmistakable sound of an engine revving. How could this be? We made it to our final destination, a small village of a few hill tribe families. The village had no name, no official entrance, and no paved roads. There were small wooden huts spread around an area the size of a small parking lot. Jungle trekking gave way to village living.

Kids with wide smiles were running around, pointing at us, giggling. Chickens were everywhere. Small brown monkeys – tied at their waists – were staring at us with wide eyes. Elderly women were hanging clothes on wooden planks in the middle of a vegetable field.  

Jungle Trekking Bliss 

I slowly walked around the village as if in a dream, smiling back at the children, asking them – with body language – if I could take their photos. I handed leaves to a monkey, who looked up at me with moon-like eyes. The quiet of this place, the seclusion, the surrounding mountain views, and the pace of life, felt like a world away from Bangkok or even Chiang Mai, a snail-paced city. 

This was just what I needed to close out my trip to Thailand. The skin-tingling bat cave and the grinding hike were all worth it in the end. For dinner, a local villager cooked us stir fry in a wok over a high flame. As the sun set, we all played cards and drank lukewarm beer. Jungle trekking at its finest.

Sometimes, the best travel experiences happen by accident. Plans are made and broken. I could have been eating yet another plate of pad thai in Chiang Mai. Instead, I found myself in a jungle village, surrounded by green mountains and smiling kids, sharing laughs with strangers from around the world. 

If you’re planning a trip to Thailand, here’s 10 more things you can do from our Thailand bucket list.

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