It amazes me that even after almost three years of living in Thailand, we are still adding to an ever-growing list of places to visit and things to do. We’ve been to Northern Thailand three times, but still hadn’t seen some of the bigger cities (outside of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai) and most of the National Parks in the area. We had about a week to travel before heading home for the summer and decided to spend it road tripping through the North and hitting up as many of the places we’ve missed as possible.
Originally we were planning to rent a motorbike for the 1000 km journey, but after checking the weather report and seeing a high chance of rain every day during our trip, we thought a car would be a safer choice and would also allow us to cover more ground. This turned out to be the best choice we could have made. It ended up raining every day we were on the road, and while it never rained all day, it definitely would have been enough to leave us and our stuff soaked.
After an overnight bus from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, we rented a car from Billy Tour, possibly the earliest opened shop in town (most places open at 8am, but Billy is an early riser like us and was up and running for the day by 7). Our car was 1000 baht per day, including insurance (about $30 – a motorbike would have only been about $7 per day, but it was worth the extra money to not get stuck in the rain every day for the next week) and by 8am we were on the road.
Chiang Mai –> Chiang Dao –> Doi Angkhan –> Fang –> Phayao –> Phrae –> Lampang –> Doi Inthanon –> Chiang Mai (we returned the car here and exchanged it for a motorbike) –> Samoeng
We left Chiang Mai by 8am and it was only a short, easy hour and a half drive to Chiang Dao (well, it was easy after we got out of Chiang Mai Old Town which made us feel like Chevy Chase being trapped circling Big Ben in London in National Lampoon’s European Vacation). Amazingly, very shortly after we left, we stopped at a local market and found a stand selling CDs. We were in a car and didn’t have any music of our own (except for my iPod which was very hard to hear without any speakers), so this find was a lifesaver. We always say that in Thailand, you never have to go very far to find whatever it is you’re looking for and this was no exception. Not only did we find CDs, we found two mixes, the first 180 love songs and the second 180 classic rock songs. We had no idea any CDs could hold that many songs, but just these two CDs lasted us our entire trip.
We were in Chiang Dao by about 10am and our first stop was the Chiang Dao Cave. We paid the 40 baht entry fee and then the 100 baht mandatory tour guide fee to get a short tour of the caves. They were nice though very slippery (I had my first fall of the trip here). This was also one of the few places where the guides were very pushy about collecting tips and after already having paid a fee, this was a tad bit annoying, but it was a good first stop nonetheless.
After the caves, we stopped for a local lunch and were excited about trying some of the Northern Thai dishes on our list. We found one of the more popular dishes, Khanom Jen Nam Ngiaw, which has been nicknamed the “Thai spaghetti.” We also had our favorite Northern dish, Khao Soi. It was a great first meal, though unfortunately, I think we peaked early with our Northern dishes, as they turned out to be pretty hard to find.
Right up the street from our lunch spot and the caves is the Chiang Dao Nest, the most popular guesthouse in town particularly known for its two relatively upscale adjacent restaurants. There are 2 Nests, #1 serves Western food and #2 Thai food. We were planning to eat at Nest 1 and never expected to eat at Nest 2 (we’re never big fans of fancy Thai food), but the menu at Nest 1 only had about 6 items, whereas Nest 2 had a really good and very big menu with several dishes we’d never tried before, so after checking them both out we decided we’d come back for the Thai meal for our dinner in Chiang Dao.
There are several very popular mountains to climb in Thailand. As much as we love hiking and trekking, we’d surprisingly never climbed or been to any of them. Doi Chiang Dao was one of these mountains and we’d been debating whether or not we wanted to climb it. It’s a 10 hour hike (round trip) and we wanted to hike it all in one day so we didn’t have to hire a guide to camp overnight. Once we saw that the weather was supposed to be bad on our hiking day combined with the fact that we’d be letting our car sit for an entire day and we’d likely lose a day somewhere else, we decided not to do it. It turned out though that all of our debating had been for nothing, as when we went to check out the mountain, we were told that hikers were only allowed from around October through February. We’d never imagined that the mountain would be closed so far before the rainy season was supposed to begin (though this year seems to be getting an early start), and nowhere in all the research we did was there any information about the fact that the mountain was only open for hikers during Thailand’s high season. Well, that made our decision easy and now we know – any hiking in Northern Thailand must be done from October through February. I guess we didn’t need to bring all of the cold weather stuff that we’d packed with us for the hike!
Before checking into our hotel, we finally went to check out the town of Chiang Dao, though it turned out that there wasn’t really much to check out at all. We stayed right off the 107 highway that we’d taken from Chiang Mai to Chiang Dao (and would continue on the following day to Doi Angkhang), but it seemed like most of the action in the area was taking place around the cave/Nest.
Our final stop of the day was the Chiang Dao hot springs. There were 6 or 7 tubs set up right on a little stream, all of which contained water from natural hot springs running through the water. Each tub was a different temperature and it was fun seeing how hot we could go. There was a group of Japanese men there at the same time as us. They had no problems in the hottest tub, but we could only handle the 3rd or 4th hottest. Best of all, while we were relaxing and enjoying the hot tubs, there were several groups of locals doing their laundry in the stream and some local kids giving themselves mud facials.
Our dinner at Nest 2 that night was great. We ended up getting to try another Northern Thai dish on our list, Gaeng Hang Lay, a curry with big pieces of pork stewed in a sweet, tangy gravy with ginger, garlic, and peanuts, which was awesome. We also tried a dish with buffalo, which is something we rarely find on a Thai menu (despite the abundance of water buffalos here).
Doi Ang Khang:
We woke up early the next morning and hit the road to Doi Ang Khang, which is known as the Little Switzerland of Thailand for its cold climate (it’s supposed to be the coldest point in Thailand) and its beautiful mountain scenery. We drove up the mountain (this is not a hiking mountain, just a driving one) via Rte 1178 (which you can access straight from Chiang Dao) and then down the main road, Rte 1249. 1178 is supposed to be the more scenic and also the longer route. Unfortunately for us, the weather report we’d read was correct and it rained for much of the day, so our views weren’t so great. It was a steep drive up the mountain and would have been very tough on a motorbike, especially in rainy weather. When we got to the top of the mountain, we checked out the Royal Agricultural Station (50 baht pp + 20 baht per car), which was actually very cool to see and drive through. We ate lunch there (we thought we’d eat in the little town outside the station, but the food inside the restaurant ended up being cheaper and there was a better selection). Before lunch, however, we went to check out
some of the villages that you can access through the Agricultural Station. We were driving through pretty much a fog white out when all the sudden we saw a sign saying “Thailand/Myanmar border, 1 km.” I guess we shouldn’t have been so surprised considering Doi Ang Khang supposedly offers great views into Myanmar, but we couldn’t believe it when all of the sudden (after stopping at a very local meat stand where we got a snack of sausage and intestines to hold us over until lunch) we found ourselves literally at the border, with a man staring at us from his patrol station and telling us to turn around. It was pretty crazy that the village we went to see was literally at the border. And combined with the white out in the mountains, it felt more like we were in Nepal than Thailand.
After lunch we did a little more exploring of the Royal Agricultural Station (including finding a peach tree patch and taking a bite out of one of the peaches only to find a worm – YUCK!) and then started heading down the mountain to Fang. The way down was much faster and this is where we finally got some great views of the villages and towns below. Overall, even though the weather wasn’t ideal, we really enjoyed our day in Doi Ang Khang and it was definitely one of the highlights of the trip.
That night, we were staying in a small town that was very close to the base of Doi Ang Khang. We’d wanted to make sure we didn’t have to rush through our time in Doi Ang Khang and had a whole day to spend there, which is why we wanted to just stay right around there. There are several hotels/homestays on Doi Ang Khang, however they’re all pretty expensive and we knew there wouldn’t be much for us to do at the top of the mountain all night. We also thought that we’d be there a day later for Dave’s birthday so we wanted to stay somewhere we thought there would at least be some good local food options. Even though we’d been disappointed about not being able to climb Doi Chiang Dao, it ended up being a blessing in disguise, as Fang would have been a terrible place to spend Dave’s birthday. Although we booked the best rated hotel in town (BB&B) for the occasion, it’s pretty much a highway town and the few restaurants they did have all seemed to be closed. That night we ended up eating at the Tesco Lotus (big grocery store) food court, as that was really our only option and the next morning we went for a run along the highway and if that weren’t bad enough, we were chased by stray dogs pretty much the whole way.
The one great thing about Fang, however, is Doi Pha Hompock National Park (which is a short 10km drive away). Not only is this park home to Doi Pha Hompock, one of the most popular mountains to climb in Thailand (once again, unfortunately we weren’t aware that we’d planned our trip during the off-season for climbing), it’s also home to the Fang Hot Springs, which is pretty much an entire complex of hot springs, many of which are too hot to even go in (about 80 degrees celcius – a popular activity there is boiling eggs in the hot water!). The fee for the park is 300 baht pp for foreigners, but luckily, we were able to get the Thai price (50 baht pp), mostly because it was pouring rain when we went in and we don’t think the security guard wanted to spend any extra time standing in the rain arguing with us. This was a great stop in Fang and somewhere we’d definitely like to come back to for some hiking and camping.
After a not-so-great night in Fang, we woke up in the morning and had a nice (free) breakfast at our hotel and called our parents’ for Dave’s birthday. It was a real treat that everywhere we stayed along our trip had really good internet, which is not always the case, especially when we’re traveling around the islands.
We had abour a 3 hour drive from Fang to Phayao, half of which was through a very windy mountain road (where we were stopped twice at police checkpoints but luckily our international driver’s license did the trick and got us through without any tickets), and the other half of which was down a main highway (Rte. 1). We thought Phayao was going to be a pretty small town with not much to do (remember, we’d just left Fang) so we didn’t want to get in too early. After looking at our map a bit, we realized that we’d only be about 10km away from the famous White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) outside of Chiang Rai. We’d been there once before, but it was such an impressive sight that we decided to go back.
We stopped for our favorite lunch for Dave’s birthday (gay yang – grilled chicken and som tam- papaya salad) and then headed over to the White Temple. One of the most interesting/famous things about this temple (aside from the fact that literally the entire thing is white and it looks like something out of the movie Frozen) is that inside there are not only Buddhist and religious paintings like all of the other Thai temples, but also lots of pop culture references that are supposed to symbolize samsara (the realm of rebirth and delusion). Somehow we totally missed these paintings last time around, so we were excited for a chance to go back to see them. I’m not quite sure how paintings of Neo from the Matrix, Kung Fu Panda, Superman, Spiderman, Minions, Freddy Krueger, Ironman, etc. symbolize rebirth or delusion, but it was still pretty cool to see these pop culture references in a religious temple.
From there, we got back on the road to Phayao and made it there by 3pm or so. We had a few things to catch up on and then headed out for the night at around 5:30. We stayed at another great hotel here (Baan Ma Grood), which let us take bikes out for the night to explore (for free). From the second we left our hotel we were pleasantly surprised by this very cute and underrated city. Our Lonely Planet describes it as the Vienna of SE Asia. I’ve never been to Vienna and I imagine this is a bit of a stretch but this town was adorable and the perfect spot to spend a night for Dave’s birthday. Right around the corner from our hotel, there was a huge festival/carnival going on. We joked that it was so nice of them to plan this for Dave’s birthday! The strangest part was that it was happening on a Monday night, but we couldn’t complain!
The town is set up along a huge lake (Kwan Phayao) which has lots of cute restaurants and bars. The lake (actually I think it’s considered a wetland) is really pretty and is also supposed to have one of the nicest sunsets in Thailand, which we luckily made it just in time for. Another popular attraction in the town is Wat Tiloke Aram, a submerged temple that can be reached via a very rickety bridge on the water. It seemed like a very popular sunset spot, so we walked over and lit a candle/incense (following what all of the Thais were doing) so that Dave could make a wish for his birthday.
We had planned to go to the nicest restaurant in town (So Good Phayao),which is a fancy Thai place right on the water, but after checking this out and comparing it to the local Isaan restaurants (our favorite kind of Thai food), we decided that the local restaurants looked much better and more lively. They were right in the main part of town with a lot of action going on (So Good seemed to be on the very edge of town away from the action). We had our favorite meal and even got to try another new Northern dish, Laab Khua, the Northern take on one of our favorite dishes, Laab.
The next morning, we went for a much nicer run than the one we’d experienced in Fang all along the lake and then headed out for our next destination.
Phrae and Lampang:
Our book describes Phrae (not pronounced at all like it’s spelled – we never seemed to be able to get the pronunciation right) as similar to Luang Prabang, which is a very cute/charming town in Laos. We’d thought about spending the night here, but instead decided to stop for lunch on our way to Lampang (it was only about an hour and a half out of the way). We didn’t think either town would be big enough to warrant a whole night, so we thought combining the two into one day would be a good idea (it was).
Phrae was tiny and there wasn’t much going on. We ended up having a nice lunch there (if not for the Lonely Planet recco I’m not sure we’d have found anywhere to eat) but other than that, the town left a lot to be desired. We saw a couple interesting temples and then headed off for Lampang.
Another hour and a half later we were in Lampang. We had a nice place here and the town is set up along a river, but strangely, you can’t really walk along the river, you can only go in and out of different guesthouses/restaurants/bars to sit along it. Some of these places seemed pretty cool, but the road leading to all of them was filled with tons of stray dogs, so it was a bit scary.
We had a great dinner at a place recommended by our book (Aroy One Baht) which ended up being one of the cheapest Thai meals we’ve ever had. We ordered about 6 different dishes, all for 240 baht (about $7). This place seemed almost like the Thai version of tapas, and it was definitely a good find. We didn’t make it to the night market (it closes at 8pm and is all the way across the river) or the walking street (it only happens on the weekends) so I imagine with those two things added into your Lampang itinerary, it might be a little more lively. We were very happy though with a good dinner and a night at a nice hotel with good wifi (we’re simple people, us Staves:).
With the extra day we had from not hiking Doi Chiang Dao, we decided to make good use of our last day with our car and head to Thailand’s highest peak, Doi Inthanon. This is another mountain that you drive up (rather than hiking) and the views aren’t supposed to be very good any time of the year, so we figured the not-so-great weather didn’t really matter.
It was about a 2.5 hour drive here from Lampang. Very shortly after you turn off highway 108 to the road leading to Doi Inthanon, you’ll be stopped at a security check point and they’ll tell you to buy your tickets (for 300 baht pp, plus 30 baht for a car). We tried to get the Thai price (as we always do – it was only 50 baht pp here) by showing our work permits and ABAC IDs but the guy working there wasn’t very nice and didn’t even want to hear us out. While we were stopped to pay, we saw several other cars (filled with Thais) go through the checkpoint without even stopping, so we decided we weren’t going to pay and would see what happened as we went up. We were very nervous that we’d get to the top (after a 45 km drive) and they’d tell us that we’d have to turn back around to get our tickets at the bottom. There are also several waterfalls to stop at along the drive up, so we figured they might ask for our tickets there too. Of the 3 waterfalls along the way, most notable is Nom Tok Wachiratan (at Km 20.8). As it turns out, none of the waterfalls ask you for a ticket. In fact, you don’t need a ticket until almost the very top of the mountain at the 2nd checkpoint. Here we were somehow able to persuade the group of 5 guards to give us the Thai price. This was a very proud moment for us! For the life of us, we couldn’t figure out the purpose of the check point at the bottom of the mountain, but it’s definitely best to wait until the 2nd checkpoint. Considering we couldn’t see anything at the top and were literally driving through fog, we likely wouldn’t have paid the 300 baht foreigner fee at the top. But at the bottom, it’s clear skies. We suspect that’s why they have the two checkpoints.
While there aren’t really any views at the top of Doi Inthanon (I don’t think you can see much regardless of the weather) it was pretty cool to take a picture in front of the sign saying we were at the highest point in Thailand. There’s a very short walk near the top too (Ang Ka Nature Trail), but it’s mostly just taking you through the forest and is definitely skippable if you are short on time.
By the time we were driving down the mountain, we were getting excited to be back in a big city (Chiang Mai) for the night. The drive was less than an hour and a half, and after a little confusion (again) getting into the Old City, we were happy to return our car without any tickets, troubles, etc. We traded in our car for a motorbike that we were planning to use the next day.
We stayed near the East Gate of the Old City in a great guesthouse called House No. 11. It was a great location right next to a small local market (Talat Somphet) and right on the edge of the gate. We like this side of the Old City as it’s close(ish) to the Saturday Walking Street, very close to the Sunday Walking Street, and about as close as you can get to the Chiang Mai Night Market while still being in the old city.
We’d had Thai food for pretty much the whole week straight, so that combined with the fact that Chiang Mai has about as much Western food as anywhere we’ve been in Thailand made our dinner decision easy. We were running a little late and didn’t want to wander around too much, so we found a good Mexican restaurant for dinner and enjoyed our first night back in the big city over fajitas, margaritas and a taco salad.
We were up early the next morning (6am is our new wakeup time) and headed out on our motorbike to do the famous 100 km Samoeng Loop. It’s a great day trip and probably the most popular motorbike trip in Northern Thailand. We expected the route to be pretty flat, but the whole ride was throughout the mountains and it was by far the most beautiful scenery we’d seen all week. The route is very easy to follow (from Chiang Mai take the 107 towards Mae Rim and then turn left on Rte. 1096, following this road until you reach Samoeng. All along the way there are tons of fun attractions (ATV tours, bungee jumping, mini golf, snake/crocodile shows, monkey centers, orchid farms – lots of kitchy attractions). The two biggest attractions are the Mae Sa Waterfall (we skipped this when they wouldn’t give us the Thai price – we’ve seen tons of waterfalls) and the Queen Sirikit Botanical Garden (100 baht pp but here we were able to get the Thai price which was half), which was very pretty and surprisingly huge but probably not worth the time it takes to cover all the grounds. There were also lots of great restaurants to stop at along the river (before you reach the botanical garden). They’re set up with tables literally on the river. We were too early for lunch unfortunately, but we imagine that later into the afternoon these places are packed with Thais eating and drinking whisky and beer.
The best stop/detour along the way was to the Nong Hoi (Mon Cham) Royal Project. After the botanical garden, you’ll need to make a turn off onto Rte. 4051. For about 7 km, you drive up a mountain and get some gorgeous views looking back down into the valley. Make sure you follow the signs to Mon Cham and make it all the way to the viewpoint at the top. All along this route there are cute restaurants and places to stay as well as an alpine slide which looked very tempting. We’re already planning our trip back to this area to stay overnight.
We had lunch (more gai yang and som tam) in the village at the bottom of this turn off (Pong Yaeng) and then finished the drive to Samoeng. The town itself doesn’t have much, but it’s a cute place to stop and pick up some dried strawberries and fruit wine.
From there, you’ll have to back track about 5 km to route 1269 to finish up the loop. The first half of the loop to Samoeng took us about 6 hours. The 2nd half has much less to see so only took us about two. The Lonely Planet says that this is a great half-day trip, but if you’re on a motorbike, you should give yourself a full day so you have time to really experience/explore all the great scenery in this area.
We got back a few hours later than expected and then headed out for our last night out in Chiang Mai. We’d never been to check out the restaurants over the river, east of the Old City (and past the night bazaar, which we didn’t remember so fondly but after revisiting we realized they really have everything a tourist may want to buy there), so we went to see those (that’s where we’ll eat on our next visit to CM) and then ended up eating at the Anusan Night Market right off the night bazaar street. Somehow we’d never seen this great food market before, but there were tons of Middle Eastern/Indian, Thai, and seafood restaurants there. They had some more expensive choices and also some cheaper more street-food type places. They didn’t have any of the Northern Thai dishes left on our list that we hadn’t been able to find, so we decided on Indian food for our last night of vaca.
It was a great trip and now a week in Bangkok before our big trip of the summer, two months in the good ole USA!