Thailand – Doi Inthanon

Doi Inthanon – 8,465ft
Matthew and Amanda
October 4, 2016

Our three desired activities in northern Thailand: high point, elephants, and meditation. As usual, we invested the most preparation for the high point…

Prerequisite research for highpointing involves reading recent trip reports, especially on peakbagger.com. On Peakbagger, you can be sure that all reports are written by fellow highpointers who also care about getting to the true summit of a mountain. You can trust that they make the important distinction between “true summit” and merely “pretty close to the top” – a distinction that is not often made by tour operators and non-highpointers for many mountains around the world (see our trip report about getting to the top of the highest mountain in Sri Lanka). We therefore read the Peakbagger report about Thailand’s highest point Doi Inthanon (elevation 8,415′) with rapt attention.

We contacted the author of the latest report from Sept 2016, and he confirmed that getting to the true summit was easy

Thailand highpoint sign #1

Thailand highpoint sign #1

. In fact, he said, you could easily drive to within 50m of the summit and could cover the remaining distance on foot. Plus, it was a destination included on many organized day tours that departed from Chiang Mai, i.e., no need to rent a car. This meant that it was one of the easiest country high points in the world.

We flew from Colombo to Bangkok and then onwards to Chiang Mai (pronounced “chian my”), Thailand’s second biggest city and the hub for adventure tourism in northern Thailand. It was an overnight flight, so we arrived in a zombie-like state in Chiang Mai around 9:30am.

Our hotel Kampaeng Ngam easily arranged a Doi Inthanon day trip for the following day with Journey tour company (www.journeysmile.com) 1300 bhat pp (about $39). After booking the tour and exhausted from a lack of sleep, we dosed off around 3pm and didn’t wake up until 7am the next morning.

The tour van picked us up at 8:30am, and we joined about 10 other tourists for our day trip to Doi Inthanon National Park. On the agenda for the tour was first to visit some waterfalls, then some rice

Thailand high point shrine #2

Thailand high point shrine #2

paddies, eat some lunch, then to the summit in the afternoon, returning to Chiang Mai by 5:30pm

 

. But after checking in with the rangers at the park entrance gate, our tour guide Jan said, “Ok everybody, change of plans. It’s going to rain this afternoon, so we’ll go to the top of the mountain first.”

You’re darn right, I thought. Now we’ve got the priorities straight.

We wound up the steep, wet, curvy mountain road and reached the car park – ahem, parking lot – by 10:30am. There was no view, but it didn’t matter. All that we needed to do was stand on the top.

In spite of the reassurances from Peakbagger, I couldn’t shed a nagging bit of uncertainty as to whether we could ACTUALLY go to the summit. The uncertainty stemmed from one phone call that I had made to another tour agency earlier to confirm some details about a commonly offered trip: the “Doi Inthanon Day Trip.” I had asked “So, does this tour bring you to the top top? The very top?”

“Oh, the very top?” The woman had answered. “No, it doesn’t. To go to the very top, you need to book a trekking tour. It takes 40 minutes to hike to the top from the car park.”

Thailand high point sign #3

Thailand high point sign #3

I was perplexed. Although this was the only shred of conflicting information I found saying that getting to the top was not straightforward, it nevertheless cast some doubt on our plan. The type of tour I had inquired about was described in a very similar manner as our tour. If that tour doesn’t go to the very top, what about ours?

In a place like Doi Inthanon, which gets a lot of tourists but also has a military and communications facility near the summit (according to some maps), in addition to a small shrine (shown in some photos) access is subject to human whim. What if the shrine is sacred and you can’t get too close to it? What if the military decided to close the summit today? Hardened by hardships and access difficulties on many previous high points, I couldn’t help but think, “There’s no way that getting to the top of this mountain could really be as easy as it seems.”

As we stepped out of the bus and approached the start of the seemingly short trail to the summit, I waited, nay, expected the hiccup, the snafu, the gotcha moment that would prevent us from reaching the top.

Feeding elephants at Elephant conservation center

Feeding elephants at Elephant conservation center

But that moment never came. We strolled along the slippery wooden boardwalk through the wet jungle
and after about a minute we gleefully found ourselves on the highest natural ground in Thailand. On one side of the trail was a small shrine – a stupa, our guide said – that contained the ashes of the late king.

The shrine was surrounded by a low fence, which prevented one from getting closer than 20 feet from the shrine. I was initially dismayed to observe a concrete block summit marker within the small no-go zone, which would mean that the true summit was actually off-limits. But our guide pointed out that there was an identical summit marker next to the trail that you could touch and stand atop. In any case, the trail went over the highest natural point and from our perspective these manmade concrete blocks were no different than any cell phone tower or other unnatural structure – no need to climb up them.

Getting to the true summit had really been THAT EASY: drive up and hike 50 meters!

We posed triumphantly for some photos next to the various summit structures, which also included a sign that read “Highest Spot in Thailand, 2565.3341 meters above sea level.” Pretty impressive (and dubious) that they know the elevation to an accuracy of +/-100 microns! That’s one part in 25 million!

Elephants love bath time before show time

Elephants love bath time before show time

After 15 minutes at the top, with a view of no more than 100 m through the fog, we loaded back up in the van and continued our tour. From my point of view, we had accomplished our goal for the day. Any other sights would simply be icing on the cake.

Other stops included: rice paddy as part of royal project to replace opium farming and a village where we saw women weaving cotton scarves (on sale for 250 bhat) and sipped locally grown smooth coffee. We also had a tasty and filling included lunch with mushroom soup, egg omelette, fish, cooked vegetables at the base of a waterfall.

The mix of other nationalities on the tour was interesting too. We made friends with a couple from the Canary Islands off the coast of Spain, a couple with a Peruvian husband who was fluent in Chinese and Chinese wife who could not speak Spanish and who both lived in Beijing, and an Israeli couple where the woman was born in Argentina and the man was originally from Lithuania.

With high point completed, we turned our attention to what to do on our remaining day: elephants! Elephant tours abounded, but we got the feeling that degrees of humane treatment varied. The most ethical said no elephant riding or shows with unnatural activities, and from there was any number of combinations.

We thoughtfully selected the Elephant Conservation Center (http://www.thailandelephant.org/en/) which was not heavily advertised but did a good job of preserving Thailand’s historical interaction w its pachyderms. It had shows but mainly emphasizing mahout (elephant caretaker) training and logging techniques. It also had an elephant hospital, and entrance fees went toward medical underwriting.

The cost of getting there (70 km from Chiang Mai) was 2300 bhat to hire a private air conditioned car for half a day. Entrance fees were inexpensive: 225 bhat pp plus optional 50 bhat for any baskets of corn cobs and melons to feed the elephants. Elephant rides were also possible and went around a scenic lake, although we didn’t ride so didn’t gather cost.

There was nothing organized for tourists at the hospital. One could just look around the main entrance area, where several elephants were recovering from wounds or cataracts. The most common complaint- stepping on broken glass. We were ignored even more than usual because of the bustle over an elephant who had broken a leg secondary to “calcium imbalance”

Feed me!

Feed me!

We also learned about some differences between Asian elephants and their counterparts we had seen in Africa. Asian elephants have smaller ears because they live in cooler climates and don’t need to fan themselves off as much. Also, only Asian males have tusks, whereas tusks can be present in both African genders. Interestingly, we also never saw tamed and trained African elephants working w humans the way Asian elephants did.

Given the elephant trip took only half a day, we spent the afternoon wandering Chiang Mai’s old city to find one of many Buddhist temples with a monk chat program. During monk chats (offered daily in some temples, better chances in afternoon), monks would have an opportunity to practice English and tourists could learn about Buddhism and the life of a monk.

At Wat Chedi Luang temple, we sat down w a young, orange-robed Thai disciple and a middle aged, retired American wearing a NY Yankees baseball cap who was a convert to Buddhism and now lived in Thailand. Through them, we learned that meditation involved a coexistent harmony of both focus and thoughtlessness, and that not all young monk trainees decided to stay the course.

Chiang Mai's Wat Chedi Luang Buddhist temple

Chiang Mai’s Wat Chedi Luang Buddhist temple

The last night in Thailand, we self-practiced meditation using an interactive NY Times article on how to meditate published just that day. We discovered our minds were in need of practice, as counting past 6 or 7 without wandering away was nearly impossible! We kept thinking of our high point, the elephants, and what we might learn from other cultures and ourselves with some mindful (or mindless) meditation!

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Email me (matthewg [at] alum [dot] mit [dot] edu) for more info.

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References:

NY times article on how to meditate:
http://www.nytimes.com/well/guides/how-to-meditate

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