Chiang Dao getaway

What we say: 3.5 stars

From the top of the stairs at Wat Pho Ploy, the scenery took our breath away. The indescribably green, unbelievably thick jungle canopy blankets the limestone cliffs. There's not another soul in sight.This is it. This is the Thailand we've been dreaming about.

It's over 500 steps to the top of Wat Pho Ploy, a climb that also took our breath away. But it was worth it. The temple, built right into the steep side of Chiang Dao Mountain, buzzes with positive energy. At the very top is the tomb of Luang Pho Sim, the temple's founder and one of Thailand's most celebrated monks.

But the temple isn't the main attraction in the area. That goes to Chiang Dao Cave, a cavern carved into the mountain by water over thousands of years. Entry to the cave is a modest 20B, which admits you to the main chamber, and down a well-lit and reasonably flat walkway to see the sleeping Buddha.

The real highlight, however, is hiring a guide (100B) for a tour of the upper cave. Lit by lantern only, this tour winds through several rooms and three narrow passages -- including one that requires a bit of crawling to get by -- passing dozens of spectacular cave formations and beneath colonies of bats.

This is the mountain getaway of Chiang Dao. Its lush jungle and romantic villages are the perfect compliment to the shopping and spas of Chiang Mai. It's affordable, although not strictly backpacker cheap. Plus, at only 75km from Chiang Mai's city center, it's close. For folks with limited time (or those with lots), Chiang Dao is a great alternative (or the perfect addition) to more involved trips to Pai or Mae Hong Son.

Chiang Dao getaway

Chiang Dao has two noteworthy guest houses, each worthwhile destinations in themselves. They are conveniently located less than 1km from the cave and Wat Pho Ploy.

The perfectly named Malee's Nature Lover's Bungalow is a charming spot set in a tropical garden, with fresh fruit in season available for the picking. Malee offers family-style dinners with generous portions of tasty but not-too-spicy Thai specialties for 100B per person, and excellent breakfasts too with home-made breads.

The rooms, consisting of a few sparse but charming A-frame huts along with some newer, posher bungalows, start at 500B per night. Be sure your room has been properly cleaned before checking in. Malee also hires outs bicycles and motorbikes for exploring the area.

The second, and perhaps better choice for accommodation is the adjacent Chiang Dao Nest. It has a more upscale feel to it, but is still quite affordable, with spotless bamboo and wood rooms at only 595B for a double. The manicured grounds could easily be spun as a rustic, high-end mountain getaway. The real draw here is the excellent gourmet-style western food served in the open pavilion restaurant. A second pavilion, stuffed with pillows and books, is a great spot to relax after a big meal.

The Nest offers a variety of tours to waterfalls and hot springs, as well as mountain, river, and elephant treks. They also provide a good map of the area with local highlights so you can make your own fun. This place is popular, so best to book ahead.

Chiang Dao getaway

Also recently opened in the area is the Chiang Dao Nest II. Owned by the same family as Nest I, this spot specializes in fancy Thai rather than western food.

Getting to Chiang Dao is easy. Buses bound for Thaton stop in Chiang Dao, departing Chiang Mai's Chang Puak bus station every 30 minutes. The 2nd class (fan only) bus costs 40B per person and takes about 90 minutes to Chiang Dao.

There isn't much to see where the bus drops you off in Chiang Dao. Don't worry. This isn't why you are here. The town does have a few essential services, like ATMs, a 7-eleven, motorbike rental and an internet cafe. But from here it's another 5 or 6km to the guesthouses. A truck taxi from town should cost around 100B.

It is also possible to hire a motorbike in Chiang Mai and make the drive to Chiang Dao on your own. From the city, take route 107 north towards Mae Rim, then follow the signs. This drive isn't for the novice however, as the last 30km is a mountain road with narrow shoulders and a surprisingly large amount of traffic.

Chiang Dao getaway

A proper visit to Chiang Dao can be as quick as just an overnight stay, but if you have the time, spend two or three nights to relax, take in the view, and gorge on the great food.

Either way, on your trip, make it a point to stop off at the Chiang Dao Elephant Center, located at km marker 56. Set on a charming spot along the Mae Ping River, it creates the feel of a jungle village. Shows are twice daily at 09:30 and 10:30, with elephant bathing demonstrations 30 minutes prior to each show. Admission is 60B per person, with 30-minuted elephant rides through the jungle on offer for 800B.

story by Mark Foley, aka exacto

Last updated: 23rd May, 2015

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