Heading for Doi Inthanon National Park, we left Chiang Mai by the riverside road, winding our way through villages with the muddy brown waters of the River Ping by our side.
This scenic route to Thailand’s highest mountain passes stunning temples, their golden columns shining in the sun, traditional teak houses – from the ramshackle to the grand – and in minutes takes you from Chiang Mai’s busy traffic to quiet, rural Thailand.
At points the River Ping is completely covered in vegetation so that you wouldn’t even know there was a river there at all. Only the areas cleared for fish farming, with their churning water and abundant orange fish, give away the fact the river is still there.
It’s around 75km on the river road from the centre of Chiang Mai to the entrance to the Doi Inthanon National Park. The ride through the national park itself is beautiful; the gets cooler as the road winds its way upwards, sometimes shaded by the tall trees on either side, sometimes in the warmth of the sun.
The road is easy to navigate but it pays to be vigilant. On our way into the park we saw a truck which had just turned over on a bend, the driver was being hauled out – alive – as we passed. On the same stretch the following day we saw the aftermath of a serious collision between two vehicles, now both overturned, with the cab of one van partially crushed.
We had planned to stay in national park accommodation but found that this was closed and not even the tents were available. We continued onwards, riding the short distance uphill to the Royal Agricultural Station. This royal project, like many others around Northern Thailand, was started to give local hill tribe farmers an alternative income source and eliminate poppy cultivation for the opium trade. Founded in 1979, the research station studies sustainable highland farming and fishing. Villagers from eight surrounding villages of Karen and Hmong hill tribes are employed in the research and farming at the station.
There is a lovely waterfall, fern greenhouse, rhododendron garden and ornamental flower garden. It’s a beautiful, peaceful spot to wander for a while before stopping off in the café for some Doi Inthanon coffee.
How to get to Doi Inthanon from Chiang Mai
Scenic route: simply follow the road on the west side of the River Ping out of Chiang Mai. The road mostly tracks the river the whole way. When you reach the junction with road 106 turn right and, after about 3km, join up with road 108. Along 108 you will find petrol stations so you can refuel before entering the national park. Turn off onto road 1009 and head up towards the park entrance. It took us two hours from central Chiang Mai to Doi Inthanon National Park gates.
Direct route: we returned from Doi Inthanon to Chiang Mai by the direct route, retracing our steps back onto the 108 and staying on that all the way into town. In theory it should have been quicker but actually it took two hours because of heavy traffic when we neared Chiang Mai.
Accommodation in Doi Inthanon National Park
With the national park accommodation closed for repairs, we looked into rooms at the Royal Project but these were fully booked. (The rooms started at 1500 baht per night and looked very nice from the photos and from the outside.)
Still carrying our packs, we headed back down the mountain to Mr Deang’s guesthouse, near the park HQ, in the hope of finding a bed for the night before the sun set. The guesthouse and restaurant is also a bird watching centre with information and photos of some of the 350 bird species which have been spotted in Doi Inthanon national park. Happily, Mr Deang was on hand and we were soon settling in to a spotlessly clean, basic room for 500 baht. The room – with two beds, a TV (Thai channels only), soap, towels and a wonderful hot shower – was just what we needed and we were pleased that the other, more expensive, accommodation options had been unavailable.
Eating options were extremely limited. We decided against heading back up the hill to the restaurant in the Royal Project and instead crossed the road to the only other option, the mostly closed food court adjacent to the park HQ. A palatable, if over-priced, meal was followed very soon after by an early night.
I curled up in my sleeping bag with two blankets over me but the overnight temperatures were not as low as I feared and I was comfortably toasty.
Doi Inthanon summit
After breakfast, we rode the 20km up to the summit of Doi Inthanon. At 2565m, it’s cold up there. I had forgotten my gloves and after the half hour ride on my scooter my fingers were numb from cold. The summit was busy with Thais and Chinese tourists eager to get their photos taken in front of the digital temperature read out; at 0900 it was 7C, very chilly for Thailand. Despite being well wrapped up with several layers I was shivering due to the chill wind so after a quick look around and cup of hot chocolate I was eager to hop back on the bike and head downhill to the relative warmth of Mr Deang’s.
There are lots of other sites in the park worth a look but we choose to leave the waterfalls and the temples till our next visit.
Entrance fees for Doi Inthanon National Park
Dual pricing exists in Thailand and there’s nothing that complaining about it will do so best just to accept it and enjoy this beautiful area.
Doi Inthanon entrance fee for:
Foreign adults – 300 baht
Foreign children – 150 baht
Scooter or motorcycle – 20 baht
Car or van – 30 baht
Make sure you keep hold of your entrance ticket as you will need it at other checkpoints in the park, notably on the way to the summit.