ON THE WILD SIDE
Imagine a huge limestone karst massif with vertical cliffs towering up into the clouds and Doi Chiang Dao in the northern province of Chiang Mai comes to mind. This enormous horseshoe-shaped mountain was formed over 200 million years ago during the mid to late Permian era.
Sunset from Doi Luang Chiang Dao at 2,225m.
It was a time of widespread mountain building and volcanic activity. Thailand was part of Gondwanaland which was still attached to Pangaea, the supercontinent.
This colossal outcrop with the highest peak, Doi Luang, reaching some 2,225 metres above sea level, looks almost architectural and is the kingdom's third tallest mountain after Doi Pha Hom Pok and Doi Inthanon. Doi means mountain in Thai.
In December last year, a trip to photograph the flora and fauna of Doi Chiang Dao Wildlife Sanctuary was undertaken. Prior to that, I visited the headquarters near the famous Chiang Dao cave and had a talk with the chief, so I could get an idea what I was about to embark on. The walking trail up to the summit of the mountain is 8.5km long and is said to be pretty tough. This was an understatement!
From the back of the mountain, some 25km west of Chiang Dao, Denyacut ranger station is located where the walking trail begins. From there it is long hard climb that can be very dangerous in places. The karst mountain still has serious runoff just after the rainy season ending in late-October.
This makes for a slippery trail and in some locations "slick as an eel" is the only way to describe it. Every step required considerable effort to keep me from sliding down to what could be the end of my days.
That first climb took me nine hours but I did take my time going real slow, occasionally stopping to take pictures of flowers and the view. My guide and forest ranger named Thep Kanoo and my close friend Sarawut Sawkhamkhet plus four pack bearers accompanied me as we made our way up. I eventually arrived in the dark at 8pm and it was already getting cold.
We had a quick meal and it was straight into the tent for me. I was totally exhausted. Winter was in full swing and the temperature dropped to 6 degrees Celsius early the next morning. For a tropical guy like me, it was freezing but I slept fairly comfortably thanks to a good mountain tent and super warm sleeping bag.
The next morning, we all got up at 4am and breakfasted on coffee, eggs and bread. There were about 100 visitors and bearers already up there, set up in clusters around the valley close to the top. As in many of Thailand's protected areas, noisy people are a common occurrence.
We left the camp ground at 5am and climbed out to a viewpoint on the cliff face to watch the sunrise. We could see Chiang Dao town below beginning to come alive. The air was crisp and hovering around 10 degrees. It was absolutely beautiful up there and the moment is etched in my memory.
My main photographic objective was to get some pictures of goral or "angel horse" as the Thais call them. These small goat antelopes are extremely endangered throughout their range in northern Thailand due to serious persecution by the people living in the hills. Goral are considered a delicacy by many and are eagerly sought-after.
Since some protection has been afforded here, there is a small herd that lives primarily on the cliff face. The steep terrain has also helped them to survive. As one of the kingdom's rarest mammals with just a hundred precariously lingering on, they were a high priority for me.
Dok thein nok kaew or parrot flowers (Impatiens psittacina)
I missed a goral on the first trip but went back in January (it took me six hours to climb this time) and the next morning I got a few shots of a very mature male with a winter coat. He was sunning himself on a rock above the camping area around 9am.
Fortunately, it was mid-week and there was nobody up there except us. The goral was not disturbed and the next morning was back at the same spot. Goral are creatures of habit and defecate around the boulders midway up Doi Luang.
The mountain is primarily known for its beautiful flowers boasting hundreds of species, including endemic ones. One of the most beautiful is the parrot flower (Impatiens psittacina), or tien nok kaew in Thai. They only last for a couple of months, disappearing by January.
Many other species are also found along the trail and up on the mountain top. There are 150 mammal and almost 300 bird species recorded plus thousands of plant and flower species, some of them endemic. It truly is a natural paradise and shows the glory of Thailand's natural heritage.
In the early 1960s there were serious attempts to establish protected areas in order to save the flora, fauna and the natural ecosystems for the Thai people.
Over 200 national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and non-hunting areas have been set aside. Doi Chiang Dao, 75km north of Chiang Mai, is one of these. The importance of this mountain sanctuary cannot be stressed enough due to its unique beauty, biodiversity and formation.
Like most parks in Thailand that have an excessive number of visitors, the problems here are serious and compounded by the lack of water at camp grounds near Doi Luang's summit.
A tent city has been erected by the pack bearers and trash is a problem. Fortunately, the park is closed from March 31-Nov 1 every year to allow the area to rejuvenate.
Too many people up the mountain at one time should be curtailed. As it takes some time to hike up to the top and there are no facilities, some people are abusing the natural surroundings for personal reasons. This should stop and be monitored by the park staff.
One thing is for sure: the sanctuary is unique, and needs improved management and better protection to keep its pristine beauty intact. It can be said that Doi Chiang Dao is "a mountain with flowers like birds, and birds like flowers". Only time will tell whether Thailand's highest karst formation will continue to be as magnificent and beautiful as it has for aeons.
A male goral in winter coat.
About the author
- Writer: L. Bruce Kekule