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National Parks for your Northern Adventure Part VIII: Chiangmai's Northern Areas

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.

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 in the province of Chiangmai.

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.

Photos from Pha Daeng National Park

One of the things that makes Chiang Mai such a great city to live in and visit is its proximity to such an abundant variety of beautiful natural attractions. Few cities in the world offer such a combination of modern city dwelling with all the associated convenience and yet have nearly 60 designated and planned National Parks all within just a few hours drive in any direction.

One such natural attraction is Pha Daeng National Park. The park, formerly known as Chiang Dao National Park, is situated between Chiang Dao Wildlife Sanctuary and Pha Hom Pok National Park in the North of Thailand, close to the border with neighboring Myanmar. It is an easy 120 kilometers drive straight up Highway 107 from Chiang Mai, with plenty to see on the way; getting there is half the fun.Chiang Dao is a pleasant northern rural town with several boutique resorts and upscale restaurants. The major attractions are however the caves. These are well known in Thailand for their religious significance and legends. A well known Buddhist monk lived as a hermit in the caves and it is said that one could walk through the underground caverns all the way from Chiang Dao to Chiang Mai !!. The caves are located about 5 kilometers from the centre of town and the turnoff is well marked. Incidentally, if you are getting a bit peckish by now, there is an excellent Khao Soi noodle standjust after the turning towards the caves from the centre of town. At 20 baht a bowl, its delicious and they also make great deep-fried bananas.

The cave can be visited on your own and there is a nominal charge for upkeep and electricity. However, only the main cavern is lit so it is well worth hiring a guide with a lantern (about 100-150 baht per group) to show you around the less accessible and more interesting caverns filled with weird and wonderful shaped stalagmites and stalactites.

There are also numerous hill-tribe villages along both the main roads and more often off the beaten track. This is an opportunity to see the Lisu, Karen, Hmong, Akha and Chinese cultures. You will generally need a 4-wheel drive vehicle to visit the more remote and less touristy villages especially during the rainy season.

At that brings us finally to the National Park itself.

The National Park covers an area of some eleven hundred square kilometers of rugged mountains, the eastern ranges being mainly limestone while the western mountains are covered by lush tropical forests. It is the limestone mountains in this area that provide the sparkling streams that eventually give rise to the mighty Mae Ping and Mae Taeng rivers. In between these two mountain ranges, north and south between Huay Mae Jok and Hnong Khiew Village, is the lowland.

Photos and a map of the Pha Daeng National Park

The highest peak in the national park is "Doi Pook Phak Ga" which soars 1,794 meters above sea level and offers awesome panoramic views of the area and a cooler year round climate, weather permitting of course.

The area enjoys three distinct seasons and the park is a pleasure to visit all year round. The rainy season, May to September, offers lush vegetation, myriad shades of green and a cool and refreshing atmosphere. The area explodes into color during the winter season, between October and February and the short summer months of March and April, bring their own special ambience.

The variety of flora and fauna in the national park is outstanding. A walk up through the mountain forests will bring the visitor through tree lines as diverse as Pine, Cinnamon, Burmese Ebony, Ironwood, Tabak, Malibar and many kinds of Bamboo and Grass.

As the National Park is in the same forest as the Chiang Dao Animal Reservation the fauna is just as rich and is the habitat of animals such as Gorals, Wild Boar, Barking Deer, Banteng, Guar, Porcupine, Langur and Chipmunk. Various birds, such as the Scarlet Minivet, Bronze Drongo, Brown Shrike, Bulbul, Hawk, Eagle and Stonechat, all reside within the park. Crossing any of the numerous streams or rivers, one often comes across a marvellous selection of colorful and melodious toads, frogs and other reptiles.

There are numerous natural highlights in Pha Daeng National Park but given a limited visit, the following are recommended:

  • Doi Pha Tang is a high rock mountain which has a gigantic round stone standing on it. It's located near KM.93 on Highway 107 (Chiang Mai–Faang).Glaeb Cave is a medium-sized cave 10 meters wide and 500 meters deep. The cave is home to a large bat community while a number of monkeys live on the nearby mountain top. The cave is located 1.5 kilometers off Highway 107 (Chiang Mai–Faang) at KM.99.
  • The beautiful Pang Tong Waterfall is hidden among the lush green forest of the National Park. Originating from the Khun Mae Ngai river, the Waterfall is known for an interesting feature. Water flows through underground channels for 60 meters before exiting through holes in the cliff to become a beautiful waterfall with 3 levels and 2 sections.Pong Ang Hot Spring is a small natural hot water pool with water flowing all year round and a great place for bird spotting. It is located near the entrance of Pong Ang village which is at KM.22 on the Muang Ngai_Bann Na Wai road.

Apart from the many waterfalls and caves, Pha Daeng National Park also has a gorgeous 2.5KM nature trail that winds through a mix of deciduous forest and gently undulating slopes. The trail should take the average hiker between 2-3 hours to cover and information is available at the Visitor Centre which is open daily from 8.30 a.m. to 4.30 p.m.

The National park can be reached on a day-trip from Chiang Mai, but I would recommend making it a long weekend in which case you will have time to visit two lovely provincial towns: Faang and Tha Torn.

Faang is approximately an hour north of Chiang Dao on Highway 107 or you can continue on the back roads from the park entrance and drive through spectacular scenery as the road skirts the Myanmar border before heading east to Faang (Routes 1178, 1340 and 1249). Faang is the bustling centre of the local farming region where local hill tribe, Thai and Chinese cultures blend in the midst of northern Thai markets and shops. Tha Torn, just a few kilometers further north on Route 1089 stands in contrast. The small town-cum-village rests in a lush green valley with the Mae Kok River running through it. Buddhists Temples overlook the town from the surrounding three highest hills and boat rides can be organized all the way to Chiang Rai.

So whether you race straight up the highway to the park or take a more leisurely trip to visit the surrounding countryside and attractions, I am sure you will agree that Northern Thailand has some of the most beautiful vistas in the land -- Enjoy.

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