Trekking – going on a trek – is an essential element of many visitors’ holidays in Southeast Asia. But what is it? When is a walk a trek; what’s the difference between trekking and hiking? How far would you have to ramble before it becomes a fully fledged trek?
We’ll forget Nepal for now since it’s out of our geographical range so we reckon North Thailand is probably the original home of trekking in this part of the world. Ever since visitors began to filter into the mountains of Mae Hong Son, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai Provinces; since roads were constructed and the Thai government hit the delete button on drug warlords, private armies, bandits and general lawlessness, tour operators have been putting all things North Thai; elephant riding, rafting, hill walking, visits to hill-tribe villages and home-stays into convenient 3 day packages and selling ‘treks’ to tourists. (See tourism in the Golden Triangle post here.)
Trek is an Afrikaans word meaning to travel and which found acceptance in the English language sometime during the 19th century. Wikipedia defines a trek as ‘a long, adventurous journey undertaken on foot in areas where common means of transport is generally not available.’ Fair enough but there is a distinct geographical element to the generally accepted sense. For instance covering the Pennine Way or Southwest Coastal path in England can be a long, adventurous journey but you’d hardly call it a trek would you? One doesn’t go trekking in the New Forest; walking from say the Angel Islington to Elephant and Castle is long and arduous and potentially adventurous, (if you’ve missed the last tube), but….
These days operators in North Thailand, Northern Laos, Sapa or Dalat in Vietnam or Malaysia’s Taman Negara plus any other mountain or jungle area where foreigners are susceptible to visit, will offer 1/2 day, 1, 2, 3 or even 1 week treks, so a Southeast Asian ‘trek’ could be anything from a 2 hour ramble to a hardcore 1 week mountain hike. Ok, for most of us often unfit Westerners, when faced with hills and hot and sticky conditions even a 1/2 day hike can be arduous, long and adventurous and indeed for most locals a 5 minute walk to the nearest 7/11 store is perceived as a long journey and they’d get the Honda out!
Note the concept of walking for walking’s sake – of people actually enjoying traipsing up hills in the midday heat – is to many locals in these parts proof that all foreigners are totally mad. Or, “they must be really poor – can’t even afford to rent a pick-up truck!”
We read another definition somewhere that said a trek had to be of more than 1 day duration or it wasn’t a trek and that ‘ a morning trek’ was a contradiction in terms but since we don’t reckon there’s a legal definition of the activity we’ll carry on writing trek in out itinerary blurbs for the same reason that many other people do: simply because it sounds more exciting! We are, at the end of the day, in the business of selling holidays not perfecting the correct use of the English language and ‘a ramble through the woods’ does not sound as interesting as, ‘a jungle trek through the lush rainforest’, for example!
At All Points East we’re not into walking for walking’s sake or in sending people on commando training courses and the idea for including any treks on our itineraries is to enable our guests to discover flora and fauna and views and landscapes or perhaps remote villages that they wouldn’t be able to otherwise. For instance day treks around Sapa or in the Shan Hills lead to mountain views and remote villages that can’t be visited by road whilst longer treks in Thai national parks or the Malaysian jungle allow you to discover the exotic bird, insect, animal and plant life that can’t be seen on a brief stroll around the nearest botanical gardens.
We have a longer trek in Chiang Rai Province on our Hills of Mae Salong tour where we visit and stay in some of the remoter Akha and Lahu hill-tribe villages and we also have a 2 day, 1 night jungle trip in Belum Forest in our Malaysia Coast to Coast itinerary but since we aim to accommodate most fitness and comfort levels the majority of our hikes or treks are relatively easy and leisurely day walks returning to our hotel or resort in the evenings for a hot shower and cold beer. (All treks are flexible anyway.)
Popular shorter hikes include the Shan Hills hike out of Kalaw; an exciting day trek up the sacred mountain of Phnom Kulen in Cambodia , (where we stay overnight in a remote monastery), on our Beyond Angkor trip, the spectacular Tiger Leaping Gorge trail on Yunnan; South of the Clouds, a walk to visit the jungle dwelling Sakai people of Trang in Reefs and Rainforests or hiking in Nam Ha National Biodiversity Area during our Northern Lao tour.
See also our hiking in Chiang Mai section here. Enjoy your walk – cheers!