If you stay at My Dream guesthouse you can do 1 and 2 day treks with Nan. These combine off-road driving and walking in the nearby mountains visiting neighbouring Lahu, Akha and Karen villages.
You don’t need to go on a trek if you wish to explore the beautiful forest area around the guesthouse. There are at least four directions you can walk independently along easy-to-follow dirt roads and mountain paths. The routes can take you through the stunning countryside of tropical rainforest, bamboo and rice paddies, either along the Mae Kok river or up into the mountains. You can easily make up your own half or full day treks if you take your own water and food. I’ve outlined four routes below. If you get up with the sun you may be rewarded with an atmospheric misty morning that characterises images of rural East Asia. In Khaew Waw Dam you can also discover hand-made traditional weaving. Or travel towards Chiang Rai and go for an elephant ride.
You can also spend time in Khaew Waw Dam village itself. There are two shops selling snacks and drinks; one also stocking fruit and veg, the other making som tams. Many households weave traditional Karen textiles during the dry season. A Thai woman from Isan called Atitaya and her French husband Tom live right next door to the guesthouse with their family. She also weaves, collecting plants from the surrounding to dye her cotton with natural colours before spinning and weaving the threads. She does this all by hand on a home-made bamboo spinning wheel and loom to produce amazing scarves and bedspreads. She speaks good English and is happy to talk about how she makes her textiles and show her work. Do call round to see if she is there if you stay at My Dream.
A few kilometres down the road back to Chiang Rai is Ban Ruamit Elephant Camp. I don’t know about you but I’m always in two minds about elephant camps and rides. On one hand it seems like an abuse of these wonderful giants, yet on the other the money camps bring in from rides can help to look after the highly endangered Asian elephant. It really depends on the camp as to whether this is abuse or care. Ban Ruamit seems like a good camp. The elephants do have to spend all day in a small riverside area, but by the early evening they are free to wander the nearby jungle until the following morning. The income the camp generates probably does mean that these elephants are being conserved rather than sent down to Bangkok to follow a mahout around the streets. Rides cost 200B or 400B for a half or full hour which includes a trip around the village and down part of the river. You can also buy bananas, sweetcorn and sugar cane to feed the elephants at 20B a bag. There’s the usual tourist tat souvenir stalls and a couple of cafes.
Walking Route 1 – Hot Spring Refresher
Turn right out of My Dream, join the dirt road back to Chiang Rai passing the shop. After about 250m and just before the road takes a short incline you’ll see a gap in the trees on your right. Take this to the hanging bridge and cross the river. Turn left on the other side and follow the dirt road beside the river. This road is used by pick-ups and motorbikes so you’ll encounter some traffic. The route gives you great views of the river as you walk through bamboo stands, bananas and forest. You’ll pass a Lahu village on your right soon after the bridge. Another 2km brings you to an Akha village, which still has a village swing. A further 2km brings you to the national park where there are natural hot springs you can look at, though these ones are too hot for a dip, toilets and a refreshment stall selling snacks and drinks, as well as instant noodles and eggs they’ll boil for you.
About 1km further on brings you to the hot springs you can get into. About 30B buys you entry, 10B use of a towel and 50B a private changing room rather than the small communal one. These are a tourist destination so they have been built up. You have a concrete wall around the spring itself, a small hot pool you can boil eggs in (you buy the eggs from any of the cafes and shops at 20B for five in a basket and after 30 minutes you should have soft-boiled eggs), and a what is effectively an open-air swimming pool at about 37+ oC you can get into. The far end has the hottest water. If you don’t want to walk back you can either hitch a lift on a passing pick-up or pay about 200-300B to get someone to drive you back to the bridge. Just ask for the bridge, Khaew Waw Dam or My Dream.
Route 2 – Village Stroll
This time turn right once over the bridge and follow the same dirt road upriver. It passes similar landscape to the hot springs route. After a couple of kilometres you’ll come to another Lahu village. The forest looks impressive and is still part of the national park. You can walk for as long as you like along this road taking in the same sort of views.
Route 3 – River Jungle
Turn left out of My Dream and walk up to the dirt road next to the other shop with som tams. Turn left here and walk upriver along the road. You’ll be away from the river for the first kilometre or so. You’ll pass an army general’s forest landscape garden and come to rice paddies with buffalos dotted with bamboo drying platforms and shelters. When you reach the fork in the road take the left one. You’ll quickly be surrounded with thick bamboo and forest. This soon drops back down to the river and gives a great forest experience. There are tribal villages further along the road (which also means some traffic).
Route 4 – Mountain Rice Climb
This is my favourite of the four. Take the right hand path at the fork of route 3. You’ll notice that the path becomes partly grassed-over which is because hardly any vehicles use this route except for the occasional person on a motorbike getting to their rice paddies. This is the most tranquil route with the best views. You’ll soon begin to climb steadily. The land rises to your left through forest and bamboo. On your right you overlook the valley of a mountain stream. The valley is quite wide and flat to begin with then narrows. Nearly all of the flat land is terraced into rice paddies dotted with the bamboo shelters, drying stands and occasional houses of the people who work the paddies. You’ll see cleared areas amongst the stalks of harvested rice surrounded by mounds of rive hay. These are threshing floors used to separate the rice from the stalks. There are also buffalo, pigs and geese. After about 2 or 3km you come to a point where you really must turn around for a spectacular view down the valley. It’s even better on a misty morning.
The path winds upwards through more and more picturesque forest and bamboo-clad slopes, the air becoming fresher and fresher, the paddies gradually narrowing, the stream burbling away next to you. Beyond the viewpoint you feel like you’re on a high mountain route. You can basically keep on walking along this path until you need to turn around. You’ll eventually come to some tribal villages if you keep going and should be able to visit one or two and make it back to My Dream before dark depending on your walking speed.