If you had told me I would spend my time in Thailand lying under the stars inside a Thai national park, I would have laughed. I imagined a routine full of bustling city life, hostel-hopping, and the like. Yet there I was, inside a camouflage tent, on a thin sponge mat that provided precious little protection from the sticks and stones below — all next to a family of five cooking a pungent curry at what felt like two in the morning.
We had been traveling through Northern Thailand for the past week. Our adventure had led us across twisting dusty ridgelines, past tremendous tree-smothered valleys and through some far-flung towns and villages, where none of the residents could speak a word of English.
Sat in the morning sun outside a small cafe, we stumbled upon the idea of camping in a national park. We asked the owner if he knew anything about it, to which he replied ‘No camping, for me I prefer my bed’ as he gestured towards his living quarters. ‘But some crazy English people came here before, and they had been to Doi Inthanon camping. They said it was very good.’
We were sold. So we finished our coffees, packed our bags and headed into the mountainous countryside towards a Thai National Park, Doi Inthanon.
Driving past swamp forests and lookout points over the cloud filled valley, our first stop was the Twin Royal Stupas, perched at the summit of the national park. The Stupas were surrounded by a neatly planted garden boasting views over the forested valley floor that slipped away into the mountain-framed horizon.
We also visited Siribhume Waterfall, nestled in a peaceful spot and draped in luxuriant vegetation. After exploring some of the cloud forest walking trails and soaking in the panoramic vistas, we made our way to the campsite, excited for our first camping experience in Southeast Asia.
Sat at the bottom of the road was a Thai military base, which also acted as the reception to the national park. A tall man greeted and presented us with sleeping bags, mats, pillows, and a ticket with the number of our tent on.
Outside the office, I sat and looked on as several burley men started to warm-up on the grass. A football appeared and half the men whipped their shirts off, commencing a fairly competitive game. A few spectators animated the match with several whoops and cheers as the players fought hard for the title. Tearing myself away before victory was declared, we precariously loaded our scooters to the brim with camping gear and headed up the road to the warden.
The not-so-chatty warden grunted at our tickets and pointed vaguely in the direction of the tents. We followed his line until we came across an area filled with rows of identical muddy-green camouflage tents. The tents were pitched in very close proximity, in between densely packed pine trees and on a fairly steep gradient.
We spread out our sleeping bags in an effort to make the tent look homely before heading back down the road to find something to eat. Sat in a small and empty cafe, we were presented with a delicious bowl of noodles. As we started to eat, the seats became filled with locals. Their appearance was swiftly explained as the owner turned on a small cable TV in the top right corner of the building, and a second football game came to life on the screen. Unfortunately, this time both teams were fully clothed.
Back at our tents we sat outside for a few hours, looking up at the star-spangled sky and absorbing the sounds and smells of the pine forest. For me, moments like these are what travel is all about.
When we tried to sleep, it seemed our fellow campers had very different plans. They set about busying themselves throughout the night: chatting, cleaning and cooking strong smelling curries on woks inside the tiny, extremely flammable tents. After exchanging a few apprehensive looks, we clambered into our sleeping bags and tried to tune the noises out.
We woke to a deserted campsite, with the remnants of last night’s banquets scattered all over the ground. Blurry eyed, we gathered our belongings, waved goodbye to the warden of the national park and rode down the road to the start of the Pa Dok Siew Nature Hike.
Before starting the hike we left one scooter in Mae Klang Luang, the village at the bottom, so we could shuttle ourselves back to the start rather than walking back up the same route.
The guided trail took us past a waterfall and across some rice paddies, where workers standing knee deep in the soil greeted us with a nod and a smile. We finished the walk in the village, where we found our bright red scooter parked against a crumbling barn.
Next to the barn, two men were smoking and drinking at a small table under the roof of a garage — the time read 11am. They cheerily smiled at us as we arrived, then steadied themselves onto their feet and plodded towards us. The men proceeded to ask us questions, in very limited English. We did our best attempts at answering their questions with various attempts at hand signals, which were largely met with laughter and a few exchanged words. Soon, they got bored and headed back to their drinks.
We climbed back onto our scooters and left the national park that afternoon for the city of Chiang Mai. Our Thai camping experience had provided quite a contrast from our hostel-hopping routine and had opened our eyes to a completely different way to explore Southeast Asia.
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