Chiang Dao is a city in Northern Thailand just an hour and a half or so drive north of Chiang Mai. It is a small town, around 15,000 people in the town and surrounding area, nestled in the mountains, surrounded by greenery.
It was a very relaxing trip and our first trip in Thailand renting a car. In Thailand, they drive on the left-hand side of the road. The steering wheel is on the right-hand side of the car. We didn’t have any real trouble getting used to the difference except that the turn signal lever is on the opposite side as in North America, so I usually turned on the windshield wipers before every turn.
Chiang Dao Cave
The biggest attraction in the area is probably the Chiang Dao Cave. We have noticed that the Buddhist, Hindu, and Taoist religions are big on having temples or other areas of worship in caves. The cave system here extends for about 12 km (7.5 m), but only a fraction of that is open to the public. We paid $1.25 each for admission to the caves themselves. The really neat part of this cave, that makes it different from all of the other cave temples we have visited, is that you can take a tour through the “raw” parts of the caves with a guide carrying a kerosene lantern. It cost an additional $6 USD for the tour and a suggested $3 USD tip for the guide.
We have visited lots of caves all over the world. Most of the time they are guided tours only and you stick to a specific path and the trail typically has handrails, etc. I understand why they do this. You don’t want people breaking off stalactites and soda straws for souvenirs, people carving their names in the cave walls, and otherwise being jerks and destroying the natural environment. We would never do stuff like that ourselves, so it was nice to be able to get up a lot closer than usual to some of the formations. There were a number of tight spaces to maneuver through. Besides the lantern, it is very dark (duh!), and there are lots of bats and a few other critters like cave crickets and spiders. So if any of those things really bother you, you might want to think twice about taking the lantern tour. For us, it was an incredible experience.
Sri Sungwan Waterfalls and Pong Arng Hot Springs
About a 40-minute drive from our bungalow is the Sri Sungwan Waterfall and a kilometer or two from there are the Pong Arng Hot Springs. An admission ticket is $3 USD per person and covers you for both the falls and hot springs. As it was off-season, we had the place to ourselves. We spent an hour or two hiking around the falls and nearby trails and gardens.
The falls are beautiful and, to us, quite unique. They are more of a gentle cascade of water over many steps of limestone coated rocks rather than a tall, roaring waterfall. The sight of the water flowing over the soft edges of the tan colored rocks with the sunlight peeking through the trees is quite calming.
Several trails through the park take you to an herb and fern garden, over a fallen log bridge, and to an expansive flower garden. As with a lot of the Chiang Dao area, butterflies seem to be everywhere.
We visited the hot springs just a couple of kilometers away and ate our lunch consisting of our leftovers from the previous night’s dinner. (The restaurant at the Chiang Dao Nest 1 was nice enough to store our leftovers in their fridge for the night.) There are three pools for viewing and a couple for bathing. Susan chose to sit on the bank and dip her feet in the foot bathing area.
Wat Tham Pha Plong
Just a few hundred meters up the street from the Chiang Dao Nest 1 is the Wat Tham Pha Plong monastery. The monastery is in the middle of a forest and to get to the top are 510 steps. There is no admittance fee. At the bottom of the steps is a table where people put baskets and bags of food or personal care items for the monks. A sign on the table encourages visitors to grab a bag or two and take them to the top. There happened to be a couple of small grocery bags of fruit on the table, so Susan and I each picked up one and took them up.
We visited during the rainy season but lucked out with excellent weather for our two nights in Chiang Dao. We had mostly clear views from the top of the monastery and the few clouds actually enhanced the view of the mountain peaks appearing through the vapor.
We visited in the late afternoon, and on the way down we were fascinated by the sounds of cicadas. Cicadas are insects that make an incredibly loud sound. Unlike insects like crickets that make chirping sounds by rubbing their legs on other parts of their bodies, cicadas produce sound by vibrating their tymbals, a piece of their exoskeleton. When we first heard the sound, I thought it was the sound of someone using a circular saw for construction nearby – it is that loud and unique!
Getting there and costs
We live in Bangkok and have the advantage of being totally flexible with our time. We typically take one trip a month outside the country. This satisfies two things, our quest for travel and experiencing new things and cultures, and resetting our Thailand tourist visa clock. (Take a look at our post Hub and Spoke Approach to Global Retirement Living. ) We also try to take one trip for a few days within Thailand to explore the rest of the country. Traveling in the offseason and looking for bargains helps keep the cost down.
Air Travel to Chiang Mai
We scored some airline tickets on sale from Thai Lion Airlines, one of the many Asian discount airlines. The return trip ticket cost was $41 USD each. One-way flight time is just over an hour. The bus ride takes 11 hours for about $30 USD return. The extra $11 USD to fly by air was well worth saving 20 hours of bus time. There is a small airport in Chiang Dao, but tickets to there are pretty expensive and it is only about an hour and forty minutes drive from Chiang Mai to Chiang Dao.
Our rental car cost $18.50 USD per day inclusive of all taxes and insurance. We typically try to rely on public transportation and taxis or Uber for our travel, but given the remoteness of Chiang Dao and the variety of things we planned to do, we opted to rent a car. Thailand has a reciprocal driver license agreement with the USA, so my Washington State driver license was all that was required – no International or Thai license needed. Driving on the left-hand side of the road proved to be no problem. Near major cities, like Chiang Mai, a lot of the street and direction signs are in Thai and English. As you get further out, you see fewer English road signs. With Google maps, we had no trouble with directions and finding our way.
Accommodation – Chiang Dao Nest 1
We can’t say enough about how much we enjoyed the Chiang Dao Nest 1 bungalow. There are two Nest locations, Nest 1 and Nest 2. www.chiangdaonest.com We were originally booked in Nest 2, which specializes in Thai cuisine. However, a week before our visit we got an email from the Nest saying that they were giving the chef their one week of vacation while we would be there and asked if we wanted to switch to the Nest 1, which serves Western cuisine. We accepted. We stayed in the Double Bungalow, the smallest they offer, which was plenty big enough for us. There are only 14 bungalows total on the property so you have a lot of privacy and is very quiet – except for the cicadas, frogs and other critters. The bungalow was made in traditional style, the outer walls are split bamboo and inner walls were woven matting. It has air-conditioning, bathroom with hot water and a shower, and toiletries.
We thoroughly enjoyed our time there. The staff is incredibly helpful and friendly. Besides the great room and peaceful location, the best thing about the Nest 1 is the restaurant. It serves gourmet Western food at a fraction of what you pay in North America or Europe. The couple of nights we were there we dined on roasted duck breast in passion fruit sauce, veal in a reduced red wine sauce and other delicious dishes.
Our bungalow cost $28.50 USD per night in September of 2017. Peak pricing is during Christmas week where the price goes up to $42 USD per night.
We would definitely go back to Chiang Dao. We hit the highlights, but there is still plenty to do. We missed the Tuesday morning street market, there are bamboo raft trips on the river, and many hiking opportunities. We would love to hike Chiang Dao Mountain, the third highest peak in Thailand, but the return hike is about eight hours, so we would have to plan a full day just for that.