The United States of America was the first nation in the world to create a national parks system, and that system was the brainchild of a Scotsman, John Muir from Dunbar. I just thought you had to know this before I wax eloquent about the magnificent national parks to the south of Chiangmai.
National Parks in this kingdom are as exciting and varied as Thai food. The latter can come hot and spicy or subtle and rich; the former can be rugged and challenging or tranquil and serene. I have tramped across a number of national parks in Thailand and never cease to be amazed by the stunning flora and intriguing fauna to be found therein.
Thailand, prides itself in the number and condition of its national parks. There are no fewer than 23 such sanctuaries spread across the provinces of Chiangmai, Lumpoon and Mae Hong Sorn. Most national parks were designated by royal decree in this region. Apart from that, other fantastic national places have been taken to prepare for proclamation as national parks. Most areas are steep and ruggedly mountainous. Furthermore, they are very important as watershed of main rivers.
Chiangmai is mostly surrounded by countryside, so it doesn't take long to escape the hustle and bustle of the city. Visitors have several national parks, mountains, small quaint towns, rivers and lakes to enjoy in this region; all within a few hours drive from the city. Here's an idea for those staying in Chiangmai for a while who want to experience a little getaway from city life.
Mae Ping National Park
A favorite of mine is the vast and verdant Mae Ping National Park that straddles Chiangmai, Lamphun (Lumpoon) and Tak provinces some 120 kilometers (75 miles) to the south of the city. As the name suggests, the Mae Ping National Park is named after the Ping River that flows south through the park to Thailand's largest reservoir, the Bhumibol Dam, where cruise boats ply the sparkling waters as far to the north as the Doi Tao district of Chiangmai province.
The park boasts a rugged mountain range with an average elevation of around 900 meters; the highest peak being the 1,334 meter Doi Huai Lao. The mountains are blanketed by deciduous forests and are home to more than 80 species of exotic birds, making the park one giant magnet for international bird-watchers.
There are bungalows for rent and at least one official campsite, but I much prefer taking to the hills with little more than a lightweight sleeping bag and a mosquito net.
I set out from the banks of the river, across a lush valley floor, then into the tree line which starts with stands of dense bamboo. Climbing ever upward on one of the narrow paths I pass through thickets of mahogany, teak, Burmese rosewood and eventually pine trees before reaching a spot overlooking the lake and high enough to attract a steady breeze.
I enjoy a meal of cold chicken, vegetables and rice, washed down with cool water from my flask. Looking down over the lake provides me with a stunning panorama of green-clad hills clinging to the side of the water's edge where an evening dinner cruise vessel trails a white wake across the mirrored surface.
I am told it is possible to travel by boat as far as Doi Tao in Chiangmai province, well over 100 kilometers to the north. I recall heaving lungs at the end of a kayak trip from the Lanna Canoe Club opposite the Kawila barracks to the Rim Ping condo and back.
Settling down for the night with a soft wind causing the pines to creak and groan like some ancient wooden bed, I resolve to rise with the dawn and to seek out one of the park's better-known attractions, Thoong Gkik, a vast grassland away to the northeast, and the habitat of much of the park's wildlife.
I can rarely get to sleep at home without the soporific effect of a good book, but out here under a carpet of stars and surrounded by the scents and sounds of the forest, I drift away in a matter of minutes.
Rolling up my sleeping bag, I strike out along the ridge with the intention of drifting down the eastern slope of the mountain and heading north for Thoong Gkik; a trek of several hours across some of the most beautiful terrain in the kingdom.
To fully appreciate Mae Ping National Park one should plan to stay, either in a tent, a rented bungalow, or one of the boat-houses on the water for at least 2 or 3 days.
One popular visit involves trekking the hills around the dam and visiting some of the waterfalls in this area on day one, followed by an evening dinner cruise. The next day you can take a boat north from the Bhumibol dam all the way upriver to the Doi Tao reservoir. Mae Ping National Park is like a country within a country, so diverse is the terrain.
When finally I reach Thoong Gkik I am happy to cool my feet in the crystal clear waters of a stream while taking in the lush surroundings of an area reputed to be home to a large variety of wildlife. I spot many species of birds, but sadly no animal life; although I could swear to hearing what I thought was a gibbon in a stand of trees off to my right.
Gor Luang Waterfall: This limestone waterfall cascades over no fewer than seven steps. This is a popular haunt of people living in the Lamphun area who come here to enjoy the spectacular stalactites surrounding the waterfall and its pool which holds many fish.
Gaeng Gor: a beautiful lake particularly suited for water sports and recreation. The park authorities have provided floating raft houses here. The main Kaeng Koh Raft House lies in the centre of the Bhumibol dam, from where you can hire boats to fish or to explore the lake. There are a number of spectacular waterfalls in this area that are well worth a visit.
Pha Dam - Pha Daeng: a sheer cliff rising from the tropical forests, and only accessible on foot. The summit offers a magnificent panorama of the great Mae Ping National Park.
Yaang Wee Cave: this limestone cave lies in the Li district of Lumphun and is home to thousands of bats who flit among the stalactites and stalagmites. The cave is situated in a rich pine forest and the area provides an ideal spot for camping.
Access to the Mae Ping National Park: By car, follow highway 106 south from Chiangmai to Li, turn west on highway 1087, 20 kilometers down this road you will find the park headquarters.
By boat, the park lies two hours downstream from Doi Tao, or six hours upstream from Sam Ngao.
Some people advise visitors to avoid the wet season from May to October, but that's only if you are a nanny-traveller and must have a four-wheel drive air-conditioned off-road vehicle. For those of us who enjoy nature throughout the year, don the poncho, light clothing, mosquito nets, sprays, stout boots, and off you go; you will not regret a trip to this national park, whatever the weather.
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