48 hours north of Chiang Mai – Part 1: Chiang Dao

Having spent a full two months in Chiang Mai it was time we ventured a little more into the wild of this amazing part of the world.  We had both been craving nature and the idea of renting a car to go and explore Chiang Dao become more and more enticing as the days passed. 

It was the idea of leaving without a plan, I think that was the most exciting part. We spent our first month traveling and that was full of adventure and excitement, booking accommodations on a whim & deciding how long to stay in a town before it was time to move on. Since arriving in Chiang Mai, life has been a little different. It is such a wonderful city, and we have loved being here, however renting apartments for 2 months has been a bit different from the constant whirlwind of unplanned travel. Getting out for two days on a huge adventure was just what we needed, and got our feet itchy and rearing to go to Malaysia this coming weekend.

Renting a car & driving in Thailand

Leaving for Asia, I never imagined we would rent a car. Images of Bangkok traffic jams filled my mind. Somehow in the past few months things have eased up, knowing the roads and the culture a little better made driving a little less intimidating and a little more possible.

Our chariot for 48 hours
Our chariot for 48 hours

Despite never being scammed, stolen from or seriously ripped off in our entire 3 months in Thailand, the stories of vehicle rental scams still lingered in my mind. We were cautious to ask around and research before choosing a car rental service, which really paid off. We were pointed in the direction of a company called Budget Catcher. Small, locally owned and friendly with fantastic prices and great service. The rental car was in excellent condition, came with full premium insurance and only cost us 799 Baht per day with a 3000 baht deposit.

I can’t compliment this company enough, everything was smooth & helpful and with absolutely no issues around getting our deposit back at the end.

Driving in Thailand is no-where near as bad as I imagined (not that I drove, but I certainly observed) although every time you settle into the routine something bizarre and totally Thailand happens to catch you off guard again. Things like motorbikes whipping past without warning, songthaews pulling out into the wrong lane on a blind corner indicating you to undertake them and cars traveling the wrong way down four-lane super-highways.

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Brunch stop in Mae Rim

For weeks just the mention of Mae Rim brought to me visions of a quaint village, sumptuous local northern Thai food and wood carvers sitting roadside peddling intricately designed furniture made from local teak. Oh, how wrong could I be. Mae Rim is essentially a suburb of Chiang Mai and a good indication you are headed out of town, this part of town is just made for tour busses. Giant tour busses that shuttle hoards of visitors over to the nearby attractions such as tiger kingdom and the elephant camps.

The road is a busy highway and there are very few cafes or places worth stopping on the main stretch. See Pak Restaurant is the one exception I have found to this.  A lovely restaurant tucked away just off the main stretch, excellent Thai and western food, great atmosphere and they make a fantastic lime and soda. We stopped in at See Pak to devour some potatoes with smokey bacon & egg for breakfast, checked our emails on the wifi then set off to begin our adventure.

Lunch under Doi Chiang Dao

The industrial buildings and run-down abandoned store fronts thinned out, and all remnants of the city faded into the background as we spent the next hour or so venturing towards the Chiang Dao caves. Houses gave way to rice paddies, dense jungle and farmland as we eased our way up into the mountain ranges of north Chiang Mai.

We dined amongst lush jungle trees and plants for lunch
We dined amongst lush jungle trees and plants for lunch

The air was a little cooler up here, but still smokey from the nearby residents burning piles of unidentifiable reeds, as well as the far-off hill tribes that burn parts of the forest supposedly encouraging the growth of a rare and profitable mushroom. The ‘Burning Season’ is unfortunately a yearly event for northern Thailand, as well as parts of Myanmar and Laos, driving many expats and tourists south to other parts of the country from February until April.

Heading down a particularly scenic stretch of road we stopped in at a local restaurant for lunch. It did not have an English name, so I have called it ‘the restaurant we couldn’t pronounce’. This particular restaurant had an impressive amount of landscaping done and a large tranquil pond with a small jetty jutting out. Manicured gardens, colourful flowers and intricate sculptures surrounded the jungle-like area in which we sat & devoured a very delicious curry & a steamed whole fish with herbs and lime sauce.

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Ambling back out to the car, full and satisfied with the delicious meal and such gorgeous natural settings, it was time to continue our journey up to the Chiang Dao caves.

Exploring the Chiang Dao caves

There were many fat and brightly coloured fish swimming around waiting for another feeding
There were many fat and brightly coloured fish swimming around waiting for another feeding

Entering the Chiang Dao cave begins with a walk through a tiny, picturesque mountain village dotted with cute little coffee shops and vendors selling fresh, locally produced coffee. A huge golden entrance archway looms over head as we admired the incredible scenery. Orange-robed monks (a familiar sight in Thailand) meandered through pathways and gardens to intricately designed buildings and temples, woman sat in a covered pavilion weaving baskets with their hands. The only thing separating us from a large, stone staircase heading into the mountain now was a bridge passing over the temple’s pond, with fat orange Koi Carp and gigantic catfish swimming around peacefully as a small green turtle floated over top.

Heading up and then down into the cave was similar to stepping into a film. Buddhas carved into the stone walls and shrines on the floor. We soon met our guide who carried a lantern to guide our way as we descended into a deep and dark cave full of ancient buddhist treasures.

The air was thick and humid, much warmer than the air we had left behind outside. Huge limestone

Intricate carvings and offerings line the dark cave walls
Intricate carvings and offerings line the dark cave walls

formations constantly awed us as we were led through areas the height of a football stadium, and tunnels so small we needed to crawl through. Throughout the journey, different limestone formations had been named by the locals and decorated with ribbons to honour them, we passed many different shapes – families of frogs, birds and an elephant lung.

Just the fact that wildlife existed in a cave initially surprised me, the environment was different than I pictured and clearly more conductive to living things. The first living thing I encountered was one of the largest spiders I have ever seen; much more pleasing to me were all the small black bats hanging from the ceiling of the cave further in.

The Chiang Dao cave was a wondrous visit, with both natural and man-made objects consistently leaving us in awe around every corner.

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Detour to Pai for the night

We left Chiang Dao caves in high spirits, and with itchy feet to see more of this part of the country. In an overly optimistic moment we grossly underestimated the time and effort it would take to reach the town of Pai, and booked ourselves in a room there for the night.

I won’t bore you with the details, but the 5 hours that followed involved me relaxing solo at a roadside gas

Driving off into the dusk
Driving off into the dusk

station as the sunset while Ryan ventured off in search of the nearest ATM and then a very tumultuous ascent into the steep, windy and dark roads that lead to Pai.

I would advise anybody following in our footsteps to make this journey in the daylight.  Arriving into Pai, our accommodation had the wrong location on Google maps. As we sat parked down a dark gravel road in rural Pai, we encountered two lost girls on a motorbike who by chance were looking for the same place. By 10.30pm we had checked into our room for the night, at the lovely and accordingly well-rated Baan Katisod.

Late night dining in Pai

Due to the restaurants en-route to Pai all being closed after dark, by the time we reached our room we were ravenous and exhausted. After a quick drive down the road in a semi-zombie state we stumbled upon a surprisingly stunning restaurant that had recently opened, and were still available to put us together some dinner.

Thien Artspace is , I believe, also an art gallery. We arrived too late to spot any art, but the whole establishment was a work of art in itself. Meticulously designed with very trendy Asian influence in mind there was all manner of indoor & outdoor seating, mostly involving beautiful cushions and low tables. The ceiling was designed like a woven basket and a koi pond complete with bridge led you from the entrance, past the DJ table over to the bar.

We gorged on amazing salads loaded up with tasty chicken and tons of vegetables and then retired back to our super-comfy bed encapsulated in a fine purple mosquito net and drifted off to sleep. Tomorrow we would see Pai in the light..