Things are hotting up in Chiang Mai, quite literally. As temperatures hit 38 degrees, we’ve had to switch on our air conditioning and start avoiding the scorching midday sun again. That’s how we found ourselves rising at 6am last weekend to trek in the relative morning cool up the Monk’s Trail, a forested path marked with orange monk-robe cloth, which snakes up Suthep Mountain.
The trek was long overdue. If we were smart, we would have done it a few months ago when the weather was cool and the scenery was lush and green from the rainy season. It’s only now, with our Nepal trip hurtling towards us at lightning speed, that we finally dragged ourselves to the foot of the dusty trail. Clad in our brand new walking shoes, which we hope we take us the 62 kilometres to Everest Base Camp in May, we started upwards.
Trekking in Chiang Mai – the Monk’s Trail
Since the ancient times of the Lanna Kingdom, Buddhists have been making this pilgrimage up Doi Suthep, carving a steady path that leads to the golden temple at the top, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. There, they pay respect to a sacred piece of Lord Buddha’s bone that lies encased in a shiny pagoda. Today Buddhists, monks and tourists alike continue to make this three-hour trek to the viewpoint high above Chiang Mai city.
As it’s the dry season, the first section of the trail was a brown-yellow path of dust and rocks, with hazy views of the cityscape peeking out from the bare trees below. Under the incessant beat of the morning sun, we sweated hard. Relief came halfway up, when a sign announced that we’d reached 4,000 feet above sea level and the vegetation transformed into tropical green forest. Here, a cacophony of insects started up an industrious, steady hum, while lizards scattered through underbrush and birds flitted through the treetops.
After 45 minutes we reached a shaky wooden bridge leading to Wat Pha Lat, the Monastery of the Sloping Rock. Initially, this was meant as a pit stop before embarking on the steeper path to the mountain top, but now it’s a residence for monks and a meditation retreat. Mythical carved creatures line the staircase to a temple entwined with the forest. Crumbling brick, cone-shaped pagodas sit next to ornate tiered-roof buildings, while stone statues of dragons and Buddhas litter the grounds.
The dry weather had reduced the waterfall to a trickle, but we ventured down the steps decorated with white mosaic dragons anyway to look out over the tangle of trees. A few monks and temple dogs padded softly about and we were joined by a handful of other tourists. Still, Wat Pha Lad felt peaceful and humble compared to Doi Suthep temple above, which is always heaving with crowds who come to marvel at its golden finery.
Preparing for Everest Base Camp, Nepal
We could have continued on the Monk’s Trail, but by that point the sun was rising higher in the sky and we were keen to descend for some tea. We also had plans to make for Nepal, a route to research and a list of equipment and supplies to compile. Luckily, we know a family who are currently in Nepal, just about to begin their own Everest Base Camp Trek. They’ve been advising us on the best places to pick up gear in Kathmandu and feeding us information about prices, routes and the weather, which is behaving unpredictably right now, trapping trekkers in the higher villages with snowfall.
As our trip draws closer I feel an increasing mix of nerves and anticipation about our trek. We’ve never been at high altitude before, so I have no idea how our bodies will cope with the physical exertion and thin air. How will I deal with the cold, especially at night in the thin plywood teahouses? What will it be like to go without a shower or wifi for days on end? Then there’s the terrifying flight to Lukla, one of the most dangerous airstrips in the world, the dizzying suspension bridges and herds of horned yaks that could bully us off the track.
However, it’s these challenges and the unknown ahead that also fill me with tentative excitement. It has been a long time since we took on an adventure like this and I know that I’ll gain so much strength from the experience. I’m also drawn by the thought of being surrounded by mountains, of waking up every day with the sole purpose of simply placing one foot in front of the other, of cleaning out my mind completely. Of course, at the end of it all, there’s the promise of seeing Everest, of standing in the shadow of its terrifying, awesome peaks.
The adventure begins in just five weeks!
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How to hike the Monk’s Trail: take a songtheaw or taxi to the western end of Suthep Road, next to D Condo. Follow the sign for Wat Pa Lad Nature Trail up a paved road. Two green-roofed information signs mark the start of the trail. Wear sturdy shoes and avoid hiking in the hottest time of day. We started at 8am and it was still incredibly hot in the dry season. The full hike takes about three hours and you can catch a ride back down at either Wat Pa Lad or Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Remember to dress modestly, you’ll be entering temple grounds.