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Doi Inthanon -- The Roof of Thailand

Doi Inthanon was declared a National Park in 1972 and covers an area of more than 1000 square kilometres and is probably Thailand’s best known National Park being the home of the country’s highest mountain, Doi Inthanon, which stands at 2565m and is thus dubbed ‘the Roof of Thailand’.

The National Park is located only some 110 kms south west of Chiangmai making it ideal for a one-day trip from the city. Many tour companies offer this as a one-day tour but you should consider hiring a car, complete with driver if Thailand’s traffic is intimidating. This gives you increased freedom of movement and is the option I recently took along with three friends. Leaving Chiangmai we followed Highway 108 until just north of the town of Chom Thong where we turned off and made the ascent along the well-maintained road, directly to the summit.

View from Doi Inthanon

At first glance the summit appears to be a disappointment with a sealed off military radar establishment at the end of the road. The best time to visit is in the cool season although at this altitude it can get a little chilly at all times of the year. In fact, not only is this Thailands highest point but also, according to records, its coldest. Today was no exception and as we set out to explore the two Thai members of our group, unaccustomed to the cold, were reaching for jackets immediately. We followed a path into the forest and reached a sign declaring this to be ‘the highest point in Thailand’ and an obvious photo opportunity. We climbed a little further (strangely so as we had just passed the highest point ?) and found a small and still revered chedi that contains the ashes of Jao Inthara- wichayanon the final independent governor of Chiangmai. He had been the first to recognise the importance of this place in the late nineteenth century and had stressed the need to preserve it for future generations. The name of the mountain today is in fact a corruption of this monarchs name. Beyond the chedi a raised wooden walkway took us into the dense and damp evergreen forest that had an almost other-world feel to it enhanced by the hanging mist of the morning. Here lives an amazing variety of fauna and flora including nearly 400 different species of bird making it the number one spot in Thailand for twitchers (birdwatchers). In fact the green-tailed Sunbird and the Ashy-throated Warbler are unique to Doi Inthanon. We followed the walkway to its end where there was a small museum and information point that gave details of all that could be found on the mountain.

Some 100m or so below the summit is an area of bog which is recognised as being the highest source of waters for the Ping River and ultimately for the mighty Chao Praya itself.

We rejoined our car and descended approximately 6 kms until we reached the stunning sight of the twin-chedis that had been constructed by the Royal Thai Air Force to celebrate the 60th birthdays of King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit. The brown Pra Mahathart Napamaythaneedol Chedi (พระมหาธาตุ นภเมทนี"ล) was erected in 1987 in honour of the King and the more feminine, lilac coloured, Pra Mahathart Napapoommisiri Chedi (พระมหาธาตุนภพลภูมิสิริ) for the Queen in 1992. Inside the chedis Thai people and visitors alike leave offerings of flowers and incense sticks as a mark of respect to the well-loved monarchs. If the views from the summit were disappointing then this spot more than made up for it. It is said that on a particularly clear day it is possible to see the distant mountains of Burma to the west. Unfortunately we were not that lucky with the mist still hanging around but the views were still spectacular. There are formal gardens layed out around the chedis and the variety of colours in the ornamental cabbages will come as a great surprise to those who are only familiar with the green ones that are found at most food markets.

The twin-chedis make a pleasant stopping off point and after climbing up and down the staircases a few times to view the structures we were all glad of the fresh, cool, air and decided a snack and a rest was called for. Several walking trails begin near here giving ample opportunity for further birdwatching as well as the chance to see what are said to be the only red rhododendrons in Thailand that flower between December and February each year. If walking here, especially in the rainy season, be aware of the leeches. Although pretty harmless they are certainly unpleasant companions to take with you on a walk. There are still, allegedly, some bear and deer living wild on the mountain although most of the large mammals have disappeared as a result of hunting.

The mountain forms a huge catchment area for rainfall and it is not surprising that Doi Inthanon is home to a number of impressive waterfalls. The two most popular falls, and therefore the two most often visited by the tour groups, are Wachirathaan (วชิรธาร) and Siripoom (สิริภูมิ). As you descend you will reach Siripoom first with its twin cascades and then, about 10 kms later, Wachirathaan which has a longer drop over a granite escarpment. Both are popular picnic spots and at weekends and public holidays can get surprisingly busy. If you have come in your own transport, which fortunately we had, you can visit Mae Ya (แม่ยะ) falls on the southern side of the mountain which is said to be the highest falls in Thailand and the most impressive on Doi Inthanon. Continuing to descend we took a right turn just a few kilometres before the road rejoined Highway 108 and followed a winding road the 15kms to the falls. Upon our arrival at a small car park we could see and hear the falls in the distance but the final kilometre had to be completed on foot through a forest trail. A wooden viewing platform has been erected here giving a wonderful view of the 280m cascade as it plummets into a clear, shallow, pool. If you have brought food with you this is the ideal spot to take a break before returning to Chiangmai’s hustle and bustle. If, like us, you are not as fit as you thought you were the rest and the food came as a welcome relief from the walking and climbing of the day. As the falls here are ‘off the beaten track’ for the tour companies you may not meet many farangs but again, at weekends and public holidays, the site will still be packed with Thais who have come for a day out of the city.

If you have more time Doi Inthanon is home to the Doi Inthanon Royal Project which can be found at Baan Khun Glang (บ้านขุนกลาง), about 11 kms off the main road near the kilometre 31 marker. The Project promotes a variety of agricultural practises through the mountain’s resident Karen and Meo hilltribe comunities and can be visited. Due to the climate on the mountain, cold weather flowers such as chrysanthemums and carnations make rare appearances for Thailand as do strawberries and apples.

There are also a number of hilltribe villages that can be seen but due to the number of visitors they receive the majority could hardly be described as unspoilt. We headed back towards Chiangmai but for a sample of hilltribe life we made a stop at a roadside Hmong market where the two ladies in our group stocked up on various produce that was well priced and not readily available in Chiangmai. Some of the elder Hmong were dressed in traditional costume and after making the effort to be polite, smiling a lot, and making a few purchases were only too happy to be photographed.

This was an enjoyable end to a thoroughly relaxing day and how I wished I could take the clear fresh air back into Chiangmai with us but held out little hope of such good fortune.

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