Chiang Mai is northern Thailand’s most popular tourist destination. For Ívisitors it is famous for its adventure, nature and culture. Within Asia it is probably best known for Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep – often referred to by foreigners as ‘that temple on the mountain’. A steep and windy road makes its way up from the city to the bottom of the three hundred and six steps that lead to the temple complex, which offers incredible views of the valley below. From this viewpoint, the old city – the name given to the centre of Chiang Mai (which ironically translates as 'New City') – is visible in its entirety.
The old city is surrounded by a square moat and outside of this you can see the rest of Chiang Mai, which has built up over the seven hundred years since its creation. There can’t be many places in the world where you watch planes taking off from 750m above the airport. It’s a view that must remain in many people’s memories.
What a different sight it must have been, though, that greeted the temple’s visitors in the fourteenth century, when it was founded. Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep sits inside a 40,000-acre national park that includes a huge diversity of plant and animal life. Thanks to the decision to give it protected status in 1981 this area will hopefully remain largely unchanged by human behaviour for many, many years but the same cannot be said for the surrounding area. Just as with the rest of the world, most of Thailand’s forests have disappeared.
Thanks to its position above an expanding city, Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep may be a good place to go to contemplate the impact of modern civilization on the environment, but just up the road, around a few more bends, is the headquarters of a group of people committed to researching ways to restore the damaged environment to its wilder days. That group is known as the Forest Restoration Research Unit of Chiang Mai University, or FORRU for short, and it was under the watchful eye of this group that students from Canadian International School did their part in helping to restore one particular area of former forest on the outskirts of the Doi Suthep-Pui National Park.
The first task was to pick weeds from around the bases of hundreds of trees that had been planted near a popular restaurant and lookout point. The students learned how it is an impossible task to replant every kind of tree that exists in the national park with effective results but also how once a number of framework species have been selected and grown, nature will take its course and other species of plants, as well as animals, will find their way to join those chosen trees.
After a break, the students created their own mulch mats to block sunlight from reaching any other plants that try to sprout up around the trees’ roots. The mats also help the soil to stay moist for longer during dry spells.
It is hoped that in the future this site will see fewer human visitors as it develops into an area where plants and animals rule over people. A similar project completed by FORRU ten years ago has seen the return of some of Chiang Mai’s elusive wildlife, including some rare animals.
After a morning’s work it was time to leave and head down the mountain and up into the canopies on a zipline course. This might not be the first activity one thinks of, which combines adventure and nature, but the day provided a unique way to remind ourselves of how such great and strong organisms as those easily capable of supporting the weight of an entire class come from something so fragile as the small plants that needed so much time and attention earlier.
These activities, combined with the traditional meal and dance show prepared and performed exclusively for our guests that evening, meant that even in just one day the students and staff of Canadian International School were able to experience the unforgettable adventure, nature and culture of Chiang Mai.