The International Steam Pages
Climb Every Mountain
Click here for the Penang Hills and Trails index.
Now Yuehong has a UK passport, our winter escape no longer means juggling 30 day Malaysian stay limits, but does involve obeying a 90 day limit and it was time for a 'visa run'. So when John Baker offered us the chance to join him in hiking up Doi Chiang Dao, we jumped at it. At 2175m asl it's Thailand's third highest peak and widely acknowledged as by far the best such hike. It's not something that can be done casually as it's in a national park, you need to apply for a permit in advance and are required to employ a guide whose main job is to ensure you behave in a responsible manner. I'm not going to include the details here as they are obviously subject to change, they are readily found with a Google Search..
Apart from our love of train travel, our opinion of the 'new' Bangkok airport is unrepeatable in polite company, basically it was designed as an out of town shopping mall and the terminals were a late addition. Hence we took the international express from Butterworth to Hualampong, the price is not much more than a taxi to Penang Airport and transit into town in Bangkok even before you pay for the air ticket. Obviously northbound that was easily sorted locally using the KTM ticket office at the Georgetown ferry terminal. We went on to Chiang Mai and back by train too, again it's easily arranged even from outside the country, just look at www.seat61.com which will tell you all you need to know.
I hadn't been to Chiang Mai in 40 years, these days the area outside the old city is a concrete jungle and inside is just a gentle giant tourist trap. It's still got a nice atmosphere and to be honest it wasn't flooded with tourists during our brief stopovers. Wat Chedi Luang is basically only a pile of old bricks which would make a great tourist resort if redeveloped, a boutique establishment converted from a monastery would have a unique selling point. Maybe the visitors were all in the massage parlours, in which case, I hope they had a 'happy ending'. However, I wouldn't like to be here during Chinese public holidays, the web abounds with tales of the egregious behaviour of the uncivilised northern invaders. The apologists say that it's only the way they have been brought up to behave and to just think about the money they spend... The sign is in three languages, the middle one alone would, I am sure, be sufficient. And any place which has a coffee shop at the station with a model of a Garratt can't be wholly bad.
We took the regular (1231) bus from Chang Phuak bus station up to Chiang Dao village and a chartered pick up on to the resort area where we joined John and his friend Dan Claesson in Nest 1 - www.chiangdao.com - it's John's favourite as it boasts an ambience which is matched by the quality of its western food, something John appreciates after being based in the country for over 20 years. To warm ourselves up we took a short stroll to the nearby small cave temple.
Come the evening, it got pretty chilly but obviously at the top of the mountain where we would be camping the following evening (around 2100m) it was going to be COLD. Next morning we had a great view up towards where we were heading. The resort is about 570m asl but perhaps fortunately the kicking off point for the hike was somewhat higher at around 1100m asl, it was time for a group picture while we were all still in top shape. I doubt many parties can boast an average age of the best part of 60, of course I did push it up a bit.
There's a deceptively gentle start along a side ridge. There's a view of a hill tribe settlement, it seems that for a long time what is now a national park was subject to slash and burn cultivation. Consequently, much of the less steep parts of the mountain are only slowly now recovering from degradation. That pimple on the right was just a very minor peak, we had a steep climb up to the col ahead.
The mountain area is the remains of a once much larger limestone massif whose caves have collapsed in much the same way as a volcanic crater leaves a rim and as such there is no water along the way. Yuehong and I took a mere 12 litres between us, which was the major part of our pack weight. There's no need to take all of it all the way up, the trick is to stash some at readily recognisable spots for the return journey if needed. Porters are available but to us it would be 'cheating' and we saw huge amounts of kit and water being carried up and down, often it must be said for people who looked to be Thai students. No wonder they came racing past us as we plodded up. The great thing about needing to go slowly is that you can take in the views, enjoy the plants, trees etc and take a few pictures as a souvenir. Although we didn't know it at the time, this was our ultimate destination on the right.
We followed a valley up, much of it was tall grass, in some areas there were bananas, clear indication of human settlement here. From time to time we had to make our way between residual limestone outcrops. Best were the tree covered areas where you hear (but not see) the birds, except when the porters came past with their music or the students chattering equally loudly.
Sometime earlier, we had passed the only junction on the trail and turned left. Yuehong was lapping it up, all those walks in Penang were paying off now.
We let our companions steam ahead, we saw them occasionally as at the lower camping site (Base Camp 1), they were carrying rather less water than we were, although eventually we passed John asleep next to the path. We knew that time was not critical and to be honest, we were hardly breaking sweat such was the gentle climb and the perfect temperature.
We were still unsure of our final destination, all around us were peaks and it was impossible to judge their relative heights. Eventually we seem to have got to some kind of 'tree line' although some areas were well forested much higher.
The views looking back were splendid but as we were looking west into the sun, you'll see them later under the descent. I suspect that much of the visible limestone was residual stalactites, certainly those were water channels on these rocks. Sheltered areas still had some kind of bush cover.
Then suddenly, round one corner there was a traffic policeman. We had reached Base Camp 2 which was simply a mass of small tents, dozens if not hundreds of them. We knew John was behind us but Dan and our guide, Oy, were here somewhere, we just weren't going to find them quickly. A smidgeon over 5 hours was an acceptable journey time, given the weight we were carrying.
Eventually Oy appeared and showed us to our exclusive area, covered with a permanent awning and just along from a private latrine which I managed to avoid using during our stay. John pitched up, somewhat the worse for wear and we all had time for a rest before we made the relatively short journey up to the summit for the sunset. Looking back we could see our tents, fortunately just about all the others are hidden from view!
It's not a difficult climb, but it wasn't the kind of path we wanted to come down in the dark so then and there we decided an early return would be a good idea. Along the way were what looked remarkably like small rhododendrons, I was surprised because back home they are said to dislike alkaline (limestone) soils.
Also present, were some small flowers which must be some kind of niche species. At the top, we were not alone...
What were they looking at? To be honest, it was well into the dry season and there was a fair amount of haze about, these are the 'Three Brothers', the wider view was not great. Yuehong was literally 'on top of the world'.
It had been an extremely satisfying day and even the thought of the descent to the camp could not spoil the moment. And down we went safely in the daylight, self preservation went ahead of group solidarity and waiting for the sunset.
We got our shot even if it was a bit different. We provided the essential water for everyone's pot noodle and coffee, John provided the equally essential butane stove, in the circumstances, it was a banquet.
So far, so good. And then it got cold and we retreated to the tents with 12 hours of darkness ahead. I would be a liar if I said that I found a thin sleeping bag and an even thinner mat comfortable. In fact, I hadn't spent as bad a night since our 'Luxury Irrawaddy Cruise' back in 2006. At some stage Oy saved Yuehong by producing a spare sleeping bag out of some hat but she's got more natural body padding than I do. I think I managed two hours sleep and tent, bags and mat were mentally consigned to history long before dawn. Of course, breakfast soon revived us and we were packed up and ready to roll before the sun rose over the surrounding hills. I can't show you my bruises but I can show the frost on the ground in part of the camp site. We soon warmed up and the early morning sun provided glorious lighting.
We're not at our best going down and the sight of the final col below us set my knees shaking. However, there was no denying the splendour of the views, particularly the 'Three Brothers' which were now nicely lit.
The fossil record here is not that great, these were the only two we saw. Nearby was this yellow flower, I suspect a member of the pea family as there are pods present, but I was out of my depth up here.
Where the endemic trees survive, they were anything but recognisable to me for the most part. The pink flowered one was spectacular and attracted many small birds.
That col was getting closer but we were going no faster than the ascent from this point. For the record here's the solitary signpost; three fingers are for uphill, left is the other, allegedly gentler, way down and right (behind) is where we had come up and would return.
I was on safer ground with a couple of botanical specimens. The opportunistic ginger was not in flower, this was the only one I saw which looked close. There were also a number of leguminous trees whose pods cropped up regularly but all rose well above us.
It was time to leave the valley we had followed all the way down and make the short climb up to the col. Dan and John were no doubt well ahead by now but Oy had waited in case we took the wrong turning.
At times Yuehong had got ahead of me as I rested my knees and took the opportunity for some botany, but the last steep descent found her uncomfortable and it was my turn to wait briefly for her. Fortunately, the final section was quite flat and when we came to the pile of discarded walking sticks we knew we were 'home'. It had taken us a shade under five hours, almost the same as going up.
The other two were waiting patiently for us, I think John had pushed himself a little too hard as he managed to temporarily mislay successively both his glasses and phone in the next few hours, he would have been lost without either. Certainly, he needed that shower at Nest 1 and a change of clothes before they would let him on his overnight train. Fortunately, we didn't have to go to work the next day and could practise being good tourists in Chiang Mai before taking our trains back south.
Thanks are due to Dan for his congenial company and a lift back to Chiang Mai. Thanks are also due to John for his endless good humour even when his body was complaining bitterly and more especially for organising the whole show. I don't think I have ever met an American who has heard of the 'Hartlepool Monkey'. It was simply a fantastic experience and comes highly recommended. Just make sure if you go, then it's mid- week when there will be fewer other hikers.
Rob and Yuehong Dickinson