Despite the cool winter months and fresh misty mornings, most of us still see camping as something that sounds like a good idea in theory, but simply too much hassle to indulge in. The hot midday sun still turns the flimsy nylon pod into a makeshift sauna, and those darned mosquitoes always find a way inside, no matter how many layers there are to protect you. As a Brit, there was nothing better than heading out into the woods with a few friends, starting a small fire and pitching a tent in the wild woods of southwest England, as your breath mists in front of your eyes. Here in Thailand, that cosiness is lost thanks to the tropical climate, dense forests, and fear or slithery and creepy crawlies.
Thai people have never been great campers, and camping sites or caravan parks were a rarity in this country full of resorts and hotels. Camping began gaining ground a decade or so ago as a poor man’s holiday, an opportunity for the financially-challenged adventurous folks to visit a national park and spend a few nights away from it all. Facilities were pretty basic, as were the camping gear.
But suddenly, with the advent of social media, these poor campers were posting extraordinary photos of stunning mist-shrouded mountain peaks and vistas unexplored. Suddenly, the middle class wanted in and the camping revolution began. Today, Northern Thailand is flooded with excited city dwellers heading into the jungles and pitching up on mountain tops. It’s seen as the modern retreat, away from the hot busy city, offering the perfect excuse to get out that old designer jacket you brought in a sale but never got cold enough to wear.
Glamping, a word to describe the more glamorous side of camping, coined about a decade ago, has hit Thailand full force this year. No longer are the national parks with tatty second hand tents the only option now that Bangkokians are taking to the hills. While the incredible views are an equaliser for rich and poor, the urbanites have come to expect comfort, clean loos, air-conditioning and of course plug sockets — after all, what’s the point of camping if you can’t share it on Instagram, amiright?
Simply drive up Mae Sa Valley to see the camping grounds being set up this year, at least double the amount available this time last year. Picking strawberries, posing by waterfalls or hanging out on a mountain café, there are hundreds, even thousands of eager campers, some wearing big sturdy boots, carrying roll mats and vacuum flasks; others in designer flip flops, white linen shorts and panama hats. Whether you’re dressed for practicality or shameless selfies, there is something for everyone in our mountains, and even the more basic of camping spots can easily be turned into a makeshift glamping pitch if you put in enough effort.
“Since opening up shop here in Chiang Mai a few months ago, our tents have all but sold out,” said Laurens Jan Junior Van Deynze, the store manager of Decathlon — an international sports and outdoor activity store which has recently opened in Chiang Mai. “We soon saw such a high demand we put the camping gear right at the front of the store, and have just put another order in to restock.”
What was apparent to Van Deynze is that camping has been upgraded. No longer is it a basic, rough and ready type of awkward adventure with your father, but an exciting alternative to hotels and hostels.
The first order of business is of course the tent, but today’s campers are buying up a range of camping products from high durance folded tables and chairs, fully foldable ice boxes and wine coolers, handmade wicker picnic baskets with bone china, and even elegant scented candles…with anti-mosquito repellent of course, Van Deynze told Citylife, laughing at how the backpacker culture seems to be enjoying such luxurious amenities.
Saowaroth Thidoungsang has also noticed this trend, and invited a few friends to open up CAMP, a glamping experience just out of the city. “The north is perfect for camping,” she said. “CAMP is great to experience camping in the foothills of Chiang Mai, but with all the comforts of a hotel…well, just about anyway.”
CAMP is by definition, local glamping at its best. White canvas tents with cotton drapes on the inside open out to views of lakes, trees and sunshine. Inside are beds with proper mattresses, tables, fans, water, soap, and even chandeliers. The floors are tiled with bamboo sheets, and a mosquito net covers the doorway, keeping you reasonably bug free. The showers, though shared, are hot and clean and come with hairdryers, towels and bathroom slippers.
Of course, camping isn’t camping without burning wood, with the scent of smoke lingering on your clothes and hair the next day. Saowaroth provides a shared BBQ and camp fire so campers can come together, socialise, grill meats, toast marshmallows, crack open some beers, and meet new friends.
“We only operate until the end of February, as it just gets too hot for camping after that,” Saowaroth said, “If it gets too hot, it’s just not comfortable, and glamping is all about the comfort.”
Phrao Camping Village is another local glampsite, a little further out of town. Ronnarong Buranute left his life in Bangkok to move to a remote area of Phrao with his brother to open up their very own camping site. Just like CAMP, their tents unzip to reveal spacious double beds and bedside tables, all looking out to stunning mountain views with almost no other evidence of civilization in sight.
“Incredibly, about 700 years ago, the area our campsite sits on was the camp site of King Mengrai himself, the founder of Chiang Mai city,” said Ronnarong. “It seems fitting to have camping here again. There was even a small moat around the land which has lasted to this day — a practice run for Chiang Mai perhaps.”
For some, however, camping is a more personal experience, following the tradition of wild camping in the middle of nowhere without a soul to bother you — but with a twist of comfort required.
With the rise of online hotel bookings and the Airbnb craze flooding the market with unique private getaways, it is no surprise that if you search ‘tent’ on Airbnb’s website, you are treated to wide list of private camp sites from people’s back yards to a single tent in the middle of a bamboo plantation. As is expected with Airbnb, there must be some form of comfort and reasonable amenities as a standard, resulting in most of these private campsites becoming glamping destinations without even meaning to.
“Glamping is easier than it looks,” said Van Deynze. “All you need is a good tent and some reliable equipment to have a good time.” Decathlon’s own branded tents and accessories are a good place to start when looking to sort your own glamping trip from scratch. “If you want to keep it fancy and comfortable but can’t afford a huge tent, get the ‘fresh and black’ tent,” he added. This tent allegedly stays at a temperature of 21 degrees even if the outside temperature is double that. It is also so black that almost no light seeps through, meaning you won’t be woken up at the crack of dawn anymore! What an upgrade. Partner that with a wicker picnic basket, compact wine cooler, a small inflatable mattress with bed sheets, pillows and a cotton duvet and you’re pretty much there. If you can manage, get a few tiki lanterns and pitch up somewhere along a river bank and you have your very own natural romantic bath for two. Just remember to wrap up warm and cosy when you get out to avoid catching a cold.
Some prefer to leave the location logistics to online experts, simply rocking up with all their glamorous gear. Add breakfast service and onsite toilet with hot showers, and you are there. Glamping DIY.
And then there is the uber glamping. Far away from the DIY basics, the Four Seasons Tented Camp in Chiang Rai will treat you to some of the most luxurious colonial style camping experiences outside of the Serengeti.
The Four Seasons, of course, go the extra mile. With massive teak strutted tents overlooking the Golden Triangle, expect nothing but the best. In-tent copper bath tubs, four poster beds, private bars, air conditioning, sexy outdoor rain showers, and even elephant-tusk-themed door knobs, this is camping in pure, unapologetic luxury. Of course their jungle-view bar is stocked with single malts and exotic cocktail ingredients, its wine cellar superbly stocked and their river-side restaurant surrounded by swaying bamboo this five star resort is lightyears away from your childhood family tent, but it’s still officially camping!
For some this sounds perfect, for others it is sacrilege. But whichever side of the spectrum you lie, just remember that camping need no longer be uncomfortable, hot and laborious. Even the most basic of camping excursions can now be, at the very least, faux-glamping — all it takes is some good linins, a stylish camping basket, some stunning views and a fully charged camera phone.
CAMP Chiang Mai
Phrao Camping Village
Four Seasons Tented Camp
Sukantara Luxury Camp
Quite like the Four Seasons Tented Camp, this eco-resort is located deep in the jungle with waterfalls on both sides and suspended foot bridges from zone to zone. Fully furnished with bath tubs, beautiful beds, a bar and guiled Lanna art by a well-known local artist. www.sukantara.com
Op Luang National Park
Although a national park, the amenities are modern and it makes the perfect location for your very own DIY glamping weekend away. Just search Ob Luang National Park at www.tourismthailand.org
Phu Chee Fah
An iconic camping ground with stunning far reaching views of Laos and the local mountain ranges. The sunrises are to die for, just don’t forget your picnic basket. www.lukphucheefah.com
Camping in pristine nature, with serene atmospheres, and unzipping your tent to the beautiful still waters of a mountainous lake. Hazy fog on the water is standard in winter and the air is as fresh as it gets.
The Royal Project Pang Tong 080 847 8456
Just search ‘tent’ or ‘camping’ to get a list of some of the interesting and unique camp spots around.
For all your camping needs, in Tesco Lotus Hang Dong.