Just 80 kilometers (or a two hour's drive) north from Chiang Mai, Chiang Dao makes for a great countryside retreat away from the city. Dominated by the mighty Doi Luang Chiang Dao (Thailand's 3rd highest mountain at 2225 meters) Chiang Dao is located in a beautiful, peaceful mountainous area with plenty of opportunity to explore! Compared to the hoards of tourists that visit Chiang Mai, Chiang Dao is practically untouched and attracts the traveller who is looking for a bit more off the beaten track adventure and a local Thai experience.
With trekking, elephant riding, bird watching and cave visiting, Chiang Dao is the perfect place for nature lovers and tours can be booked from most guesthouses. It's also easy to explore yourself on foot, bicycle or motorbike - all of which can be hired in the town. The town itself isn't much to look at, consisting of just one road with a few shop houses and market stalls, but it is off the side streets where you will find some great guesthouses that will make you feel like you are staying right in the heart of the forest. As the sun sets over the beautiful scenery and tall teak trees, the sounds of the crickets and the tropical birds are deafening.
Things to do in Chiang Dao
Find your inner twitter: No, we're not talking about the popular social networking site here, we're talking about old style birdwatching. Chiang Dao is an absolute haven for birdwatching as it is home to over 300 species of tropical birds, most notably the Giant Nuthatch and Hume's Pheasant - guaranteed to make twitters go wild! The higher you go up the mountain of Doi Chang, the more species you are likely to spot.
Visit Chiang Dao Cave: The famous Chiang Dao cave is a 12 km chamber filled with impressive stalactites. The fee is 20 baht which goes towards lighting the cave with electricity so you can see where you're going!
Trek to the Summit of Doi Chiang Dao: Treks can be organised from many of the guesthouses where you can book a guide to lead you through the jungle and up the third highest mountain in Thailand. Treks last two days with a taking in a sunrise summit or you can complete the climb in just one day.
Treat yourself to a delicious meal at Chiang Dao Nest: This mini resort is raved about by travel reviewers and rightly so! Set in a beautiful location, serving some of the best food in Northern Thailand (so some would say!) the Chiang Dao Nest really does live up to its reputation.
Although more expensive than the average bamboo hut in Northern Thailand, a night here will hardly break the bank at around 400 baht per person and you can also try the slightly less exclusive but equally as friendly Nest 2 Resort. Chiang Dao Hut Resort is also a good option for accommodation.
Explorations on a scooter: The scenery in this part of Thailand is nothing short of spectacular and if you are exploring the area by scooter you are in for a treat! Heading off on the highway it isn't long before the markets and shops thin and you find yourself in the mountains in the middle of nowhere chilling with the hill tribes.
Chiang Dao to Pai via Wiang Haeng on dirt bikes: In the dry season there is a fantastic route which can be done from Chiang Rai to Pai through an extremely local village called Wiang Haeng. The scenery on the road from Chiang Dao to Wiang Haeng is some of the best we have ever seen in northern Thailand with vast mountain scenery and misty forests. From Wiang Haeng there's a 60-kilometre dirt track to Pai that is best done in dry season on a dirt bike suitable for rugged terrain. It cannot be done in the wet season on a Honda Click... believe us we tried!
Getting to Chiang Dao
Chiang Dao is around an hour and a half to two hours (72km) directly north of Chiang Mai on a bus along Highway 107 to Fang. To get there, take the fan-only orange bus from Chang Puak Station in Chiang Mai (the bus will terminate in Mae Ai). The fare should be around 50 baht. Or, you can take a minibus which will be a bit more expensive, around 150 baht. If you're feeling adventurous, hire a scooter in Chiang Mai and ride north to Chiang Dao, watching as the scenery gets more impressive as you drive north.
Where to go next?
- Pai - A few hours west you'll find the hippie tourist town of Pai, with luscious countryside, hot springs, a canyon, plenty of live music, yoga and bohemian markets. Pai is a big hit amongst backpackers (it even has a circus school!), but in recent years it's become rather more touristy.
- Chiang Mai - Just an hour and a half away, the city is Thailand's capital of culture with twinkling Buddhist temples (over 300!) huge weekend markets, great food, cheap hostels, massage and yoga courses, Muay Thai boxing and nearby adventure in the hills around.
- Mae Hong Son - Heading towards the Burmese border, Mae Hong Son has a very different feel to it than Pai and it is much smaller than Chang Mai. Expect big mountains, rivers, hill tribe villages and local bars and restaurants.