Thailand has some incredible mountain trails, but unfortunately there are not many Thai trail runners in this country of 67 million people. That means the trails are unmarked, unnamed, and not maintained anything like what we are accustomed to in the U.S. or Europe.
Throughout this article I talk about the north and south of the country. To clarify, the north covers everything north, east, and west of Bangkok, the capital. The south covers everything south of Bangkok. The north is much drier and colder from November through March. Southern Thailand is always warm and humid, and the air is only dry for a few days or weeks each year.
Thailand has a good number of road runners, and there are dozens of marathons and 10k’s throughout the year. It seems like only recently are some of them venturing off road in any numbers. In the southern provinces of Krabi, Phuket, Trang, Nakhon Si Thammarat, and even further south, trail runners are unheard of. Road racing is king, and it will take a while for the tide to turn, if indeed that’s where it is heading. In Thailand’s far north there are more trail runners, where the weather is cooler and drier. There are a considerable number of foreigners living in Bangkok, Pattaya, and Chiang Mai who enjoy running the trails.
What that means is, in the south, the trails are completely devoid of other runners! This is both good and bad. Good, because you can enjoy the serenity of the forest, the monkeys howling, monitor lizards running through the leaves, and flying lizards jumping from tree to tree. Bad, because if you twist an ankle, break a leg, or fall off a ridge, there isn’t anybody to help. There is the occasional hiker on popular trails in national parks, but really few. Not sure why this is, but I am frequently the only person on some of the most gorgeous trails in the world. It’s a tough life!
Wet and Dry Seasons
Mountain trails are in tropical rainforest in the south primarily, and though it is a bit drier up north, they can still get severe rain and flooding. The rainy season lasts from May through November on typical years, and occasionally lasts through December. More rarely it will rain straight through January too, but we’ve only seen one of those seasons in the last eight years.
During the rainy season the trails are a bit more slippery and treacherous than they usually are. It does take some getting used to, but once you’re dialed in, you’ll enjoy Thailand trails immensely. Prior to moving here, I ran trails in Pennsylvania and on the islands of Oahu and Maui, Hawaii. Trails in Southern Thailand are more technical than those areas, and are covered by a very dense tree canopy. I rarely run in direct sunshine during either the wet or dry seasons, which is rather ideal for me.
The dry season usually covers part of December through April. Most people prefer to run during this time because they can go faster than they can in the heat and humidity.
Temperature and Humidity
The average temperature between 8:00 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. (nightfall) is 90 degrees Fahrenheit between May and December (rainy season). There are very few days when the air dries out during this wet period.
The humidity varies little in the south during the rainy season. It hovers between 80% and 100%. During the dry season we have around 40% to 50% humidity.
The reason I live in the south has a lot to do with enjoying the year-round warmth. Northern Thailand is cold during November to April, at times approaching freezing. It’s too cold and dry for me; I much prefer the hotter and wetter air.
Elevation and Incline
A 500-meter gain over three or four kilometers is about the average grade we have here in the south. In the north there are both steep trails like this, and trails with a more gradual elevation gain over longer distances.
Mountains in Southern Thailand typically top out around 500 to 800 meters. There are only a few places with trails that are higher. Finding runnable trails in Thailand is difficult because it is impossible most times to know whether land is public or private, so you run some risk if you just start running on an unmarked trail. This is why I tend to stick to the national parks.
Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, and other northern provinces are much more mountainous than the south. Doi Suthep in the Chiang Mai province, is the highest mountain range in Thailand. I would rate the north of the country as superior for trail running due to higher peaks, longer, and less technical trails. That said, Chiang Mai has a couple-month period annually in which farmers burn leftovers from the rice harvest and other crops. The air pollution can be dangerously high during parts of January to April each year. Outside of these few months the air isn’t that bad in the forest.
The mountains are solid limestone, but you’re never running on solid rock. Two-thirds of your runs will be on fairly hard-packed sand with leaves, twigs, and the occasional small assortment of limestone rocks of all sizes. Nearly every trail also has a section of orange clay that is packed nearly as hard as rock and slippery whether dry or wet.
As I said, the trails are not maintained much at all. I’ve taken to maintaining my main running trail myself, and it requires about two hours each week to keep it in safe condition. The major problem is thorn bushes and vines. I’ve cut out hundreds of roots, and they don’t grow back quickly, but the vines can grow 12 inches in a day it seems.
The trails in the south tend to be more technically difficult than the north. The rainforest is denser; there are more roots, vines, and thorns. Trails tend to be more winding and steeper.
Running Trails in the Southern Provinces
Khao Phanom National Park, Krabi. A 9k trail running up to the two peaks of this 1,392-meter high mountain. Currently it is closed due to a landslide three years ago, but expected to re-open soon.
Ngorn Nak Mountain, Nong Talay subdistrict of Krabi province. A 4k climb up a dirt trail under the rainforest canopy, which peaks at 500 meters elevation. Quite technical, full of roots, and some steep sections. My video of this trail.
Khao Luang National Park, Nakhon Si Thammarat. This park has many short trails up to 10k in length. The mountain peak is 1,835 meters.
Running Trails in the Northern Provinces
Pilgrim’s Trail, Doi Suthep Mountain in Chiang Mai. This is a 4.5k trail with around 620 meters of elevation gain. The trail starts near the western end of Suthep Road. Adventure Travel Southeast Asia covers the trail in depth.
Last Man Standing Trail, Chiang Mai. This trail climbs 7.5k and returns the same way. Elevation gain is about 1,000 meters. The trail is located just west of the Chiang Mai International Airport and northwest of the Chiang Mai night safari near Wat Phra That Doi Kham.
Mai Yen Waterfall Trail, Pai. About 14k out and back, with a gradual incline and little elevation gain. The trail crosses the stream over 30 times. A very wet and cool run!
Tarmo Vannas is an expat living in Thailand’s north. He has done amazing trail runs in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. Enjoy some Strava data of the first of a seven-stage run he did through the mountains of these northern provinces.
Trail Races in the South
Nong Talay Ngorn Nak Mountain Trail 4k, Nong Talay sub-district of Krabi province near Ao Nang Beach. This is a short, challenging, steep, and very technical trail up to the top of a 500-meter-high peak.
Trail Races in the North
Thailand Ultramarathon 50/100k, Chiang Mai. It was held in October of 2014 for the first time. Very challenging with 2,500-plus meters gain per 50k loop. The first running of this race was a smashing success with many international and local racers. The race is tentatively scheduled for 2015 on the same course. Both distances are qualifiers for the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc.
Columbia Trail Masters 3.5/10/25/50k, Kao Mai Keaw in Pattaya (Chonburi province). This race is held in January and allows a maximum of 200 runners for the 50k race. All races are held on 100% trail. Elevation gain during the 50k is 1,000 meters. Prize money tops out at $170 for the male and female winners of the 50k races and is less for shorter races.
The North Face 100k – Thailand (which includes 10/25/50/100k dual and 100k solo events), Khao Yai National Park, which is about 200 kilometers north and east of Bangkok. Elevation gain is 2,664 meters for the 100k race, and the maximum elevation 593 meters. This is a January race, which is a qualifier for UTMB.
Ultra and Trail Unseen Koh Chang 10/35/66k, Koh Chang Island, near Pattaya. Held in February. This is a new race on the beautiful island of Koh Chang, which has some small hills and is run across sand, trail, and pavement.
Cautions: Animals and Other Beasts
Dogs are a pain on some of the trails. Many dogs run loose and all seem to despise foreign faces. However, almost all of them run away when you pick up a big stick. Sometimes I run carrying a lightweight four-foot bamboo stick. Once I was set upon by a pack of 40 to 50 dogs as I ran up a mountain. After swinging my stick and throwing many palm-sized rocks in their direction, they all reversed course.
In certain parts of the country are wild elephants, Malayan sun bears, Asiatic black bears, tigers, and some wildcat species like leopards. Though some runners do, I don’t suggest you run in forests where tigers inhabit. Some of the areas to avoid are the deep southern provinces south of Pattalung, Khao Sok, and Khao Yai National Parks, and especially the Western Forest Complex Northwest of Bangkok. I have not heard of any trail runners being attacked by a tiger, bear, or wildcat, but as I said, there are very few of us on the trails and it might just be a matter of time.
One harmless beast that might scare you considerably is the monitor lizard. They can grow over six feet long and they resemble the Komodo dragons you’ve probably seen in National Geographic. I’ve startled many on the trails over the years. You can often hear them running away at full speed through the brush if you’ve ventured too close.
Monkeys can be a problem, especially at destinations frequented by tourists who feed them. Your best plan of action in the forest is to not have any plastic bags of food, or any visible food or drink for them to see at all. Monkeys tend to be more aggressive when they have newborns with them. Don’t get between any adult and newborn or youngster. Don’t stare at monkeys or show your teeth, even to smile, as both are considered aggressive behavior.
Snakes are common. I’ve seen a number of rat and tree snakes during my runs. I occasionally see cobras, kraits, vipers, and pythons. The only snakes that might be considered a threat to trail runners are two different viper species that tend to lie on the ground and not move when approached. These are the Malayan pit viper (Calloselasma rhodostoma) and the chain viper (Daboia russelii siamensis). The first is found all over the country. The chain viper is found only in a small area around central Thailand, around Bangkok and Pattaya. I have never seen either of these snakes on the trail during hundreds of runs during the day. Both snakes prefer hunting prey at night, so you probably won’t see them either unless it’s raining and the sky is very dark. There are very few snake fatalities each year in Thailand. Typically eight to 15 fatalities per year are reported in this country. There is antivenom for bites from both of these snakes, and for all snakes you are likely to find on a trail. Most people that die didn’t go directly to the hospital and instead applied some home remedy like mashing up some leaves and rubbing it on the puncture wounds.
Besides dogs, the real threat to trail runners comes in the form of bees, scorpions, ants, caterpillars, and termites. I’ve been bitten and stung by all of these on one run. During one run I was stung by a bee on the shin, quickly followed by a scorpion sting to my finger as I grabbed a vine to use as a swing in getting down a steep section of rock. While standing still and looking at my finger, I was attacked by a swarm of termites. It was an eventful run, but none of it was that bad. When you stop for a drink or rest, just be careful you’re not standing amongst ants or termites. When grabbing vines or small trees, know that you’re taking a small chance there could be a scorpion climbing it. Bees should be your main concern on Thailand’s tropical trails. Just like everywhere, you don’t want to disturb a hive or run under one. If I hear the distinctive hum of bees, I just turn around. I figure I’m already too close if I can hear them. Thailand has a large number of different bee species, and I hope you don’t meet any of them.
Trail running in Thailand is not as popular or as varied as in some other areas in Southeast Asia like Malaysia, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. The sport is growing though, and we will hopefully have more ultra-trails and races in the coming years. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me through my Crank101.com site.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- Do you or have you trail run in Thailand? If so, what can you add to the knowledge base Vern establishes with this article?
- For those of you who have run in Thailand, what is your favorite stretch of trail?