Photo: Spectacular.

Introduction

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Lying less than 75 kilometres north of Chiang Mai City and set amid bucolic mountain scenery, the town of Chiang Dao has long been considered a contender to rival Mae Hong Son’s tourist Mecca of Pai.


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Scenery-wise and in terms of sites it is right up there and remarkably Chiang Dao is said to be the only Thai district where all of the six main hill-tribe groups. (Akha, Hmong, Karen, Lahu, Lisu and Yao), are represented, yet, perhaps luckily, the hordes have just failed to materialise.

The impressive Chiang Dao peak. Photo taken in or around Chiang Dao, Thailand by Mark Ord.

The impressive Chiang Dao peak. Photo: Mark Ord

Some locals point to the town’s layout which in contrast to cosy, compact Pai sees existing tourist facilities split between the town itself—laid out along the side of a long straight main street—and Ban Tham a few kilometres distant by the famous caves. The two are separated by a new 4-lane bypass while the scenic and virtually undeveloped Ping riverside lies beyond town to the east. If these disparate elements could be grouped into a compact and convenient little package then you would have more chance of a budding Pai 2 but geography obliges and for now, tourism in Chiang Dao advances at a slow pace.

Despite the dashed dreams of some local entrepreneurs, so much the better for those who do make it up here and it is precisely the un-commercialism of the town that provides its charm.

Laid back scenes near Arunothai. Photo taken in or around Chiang Dao, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Laid back scenes near Arunothai. Photo: Mark Ord

Chiang Dao refers to the district, the main regional town, the eponymous caves and the neighbouring wildlife sanctuary as well as being commonly used to refer to the huge limestone massif (officially Doi Luang) that towers above it. Dao means star in Thai as the mountain is so high—Thailand’s third highest at nearly 2,200 metres (exact figures vary)—it’s supposed to be on the same level as the stars themselves. While the district is large; starting at Mae Taeng, just north of Chiang Mai and extending all the way to the Burma (Myanmar) border at Arunothai and west and east to Wiang Haeng and Phrao respectively—the “City of Stars” itself is small.

The famous caves of the same name are the most popular attraction in the area yet there are other reasons to pay a visit to Chiang Dao. It’s a cute, friendly, laidback little town with a fine selection of accommodation and restaurants plus excellent road connections to Chiang Mai and regional destinations making for a good base to explore the picturesque region.

From inside looking out. Photo taken in or around Chiang Dao, Thailand by Mark Ord.

From inside looking out. Photo: Mark Ord

There are hiking possibilities, including the ascent of Doi Luang itself, some interesting day trips and as mentioned the most diverse hill-tribe populations of any region in Thailand. In addition to Chiang Dao Wildlife Sanctuary, the district incorporates much of the vast Pha Daeng, as well as sections of Sri Lanna, National Parks.

For ease of access and great scenery, Chiang Dao makes for an excellent and convenient getaway from Chiang Mai and a delightfully laid back and less commercial alternative to Pai. Highly recommended!




Orientation
The small town of Chiang Dao straddles what was once Highway 107, though fortunately since the completion of a bypass just to the west of town through traffic has dropped off dramatically. It is more a two than a one-street town since, in addition to the main drag, the side road up to the famous caves (Soi 25 or “Cave Road”), is also dotted with numerous restaurants, guesthouses and resorts.

Cool off. Photo taken in or around Chiang Dao, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Cool off. Photo: Mark Ord

As you enter town from the south on the Chiang Mai-Fang road you’ll find, in the following order: the police station and 24-hour convenience stores on your left, with the songthaew station, post office and turn-off to the Ping River in that order on your right.

Just after this on the left is the morning market and the cave road, Soi 25. The main bus station and afternoon market are a little farther north. Chiang Dao’s main hospital is also north on Highway 107 just before it rejoins the bypass, while banks and ATM machines are liberally strewn along the main drag in the town centre.

Taking the cave road you’ll pass by a few restaurants, the unusual Wat Mae It and sign-posted side tracks leading to various guesthouses. After crossing the bypass, a left fork leads through orchards and farm stays to some hot springs while straight on takes you up to the caves themselves and adjacent resorts.

Gazing at Wat Mae It. Photo taken in or around Chiang Dao, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Gazing at Wat Mae It. Photo: Mark Ord

Arriving in the small village of Ban Tham, the entrance and carpark for Chiang Dao Caves and Wat Tham Chiang Dao are on your left while the road continues west past the caves to another fork in the road. Bearing left you’ll see signs for various resorts beyond which the road terminates at the Wildlife Sanctuary buildings and steps leading to the mountain shrine Wat Tham Pla Pong. The right fork leads off into the mountains passing the trail-head for the ascent of Doi Chiang Dao before reaching Muang Khong village some forty kilometres distant.

Mae Taeng, Mae Rim and Chiang Mai lie south of Chiang Dao, Chai Prakarn and Fang to the north and Phrao and Mae Hong Son’s Pai to the east and west respectively.

Safety
Easily reached from Chiang Mai and conveniently explored on two wheels the usual road and driving warnings apply to motorcyclists. Highway 107 is in good condition but features heavy traffic and plenty of curves—watch out for fine loose gravel on the surface. Minor rural roads involve bad-tempered mutts and plenty of potholes as well as more bends.

Need more spice? Photo taken in or around Chiang Dao, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Need more spice? Photo: Mark Ord

In addition, the surrounding mountain scenery is rugged and ascending Doi Luang (Doi Chiang Dao) itself is strictly regulated. With weather concerns in mind the route is only open during the winter months of November to February and hiring a guide is officially compulsory. You ignore regulations at your own risk and good luck explaining being air-lifted off the mountain with a broken leg to your insurance company if you didn’t bother with a guide.

Even with shorter, easier hikes take care—especially in the rainy season—and be warned that snakes are relatively common amid the area’s lush vegetation.

Police
As is often the case in rural areas of Thailand the fact that you’ll see plenty of locals riding around without helmets doesn’t mean you can do the same and apart from it being downright stupid you’re far more likely to get stopped and fined than they are.

Left right left right. Photo taken in or around Chiang Dao, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Left right left right. Photo: Mark Ord

The principal police station is situated on the west side of the main highway as it passes through the town centre. For anything serious or for immigration issues we’d recommend heading back to Chiang Mai city.

Chiang Dao Police Station Highway 107, Chiang Mai—Fang road, in the centre of town, Chiang Dao T: (053) 456 081; Emergencies: T: 191

Hospitals
Though the town hospital is relatively large and well-equipped you’re better off heading to Chiang Mai if you suspect you require any serious work doing. For patching up a few cuts and bruises though, head to the northern limit of town just before the bypass where you’ll find Chiang Dao Hospital on the left.

Chiang Dao Hospital: Highway 107, Chiang Mai—Fang road, at the northern limit of town, Chiang Dao. T: (053) 455 074. Emergencies: T: 1669

Post
Chiang Dao’s main post office is located to the right, east side, of the main drag approximately halfway between the songthaew station and the turn-off to the Ping bridge. They also provide EMS and Western Union services.

Chiang Dao Post Office: Highway 107, Chiang Mai—Fang road, Chiang Dao. T: (053) 455 058 Mo–Fr: 08:30–16:00, Sa: 08:30–12:00

Climate
Chiang Dao displays typical north Thai weather patterns so most rains fall between the months of May and October with November to February and March to May forming the dry cool and dry hot seasons respectively. At around 380 metres or so altitude weather in town is considerably milder than more surrounding mountainous areas. Night time temperatures during winter though can drop below 15 degrees in town while outside of the February to May period the thermometer rarely climbs much above 30.

Do take a wander. Photo taken in or around Chiang Dao, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Do take a wander. Photo: Mark Ord

Doi Luang itself can get considerably cooler with winter, night-time temperatures of zero and lower not unheard of while the isolated massif does act as an effective cloud magnet during rainy times.

Finally note that the dry, hot season from February to May is also the worst period for smoke and dust in the air and your mountain views will be seriously impaired.

When to go
Your choice of visiting time depends upon whether you intend to summit Doi Luang or not, as the trail is only officially open from November 1st to March 31st. We say officially as the opening and closing dates set by the national park authorities do vary from year to year with often only limited warning. In the 2017/18 period for example, they didn’t see fit to declare the trail open until mid-November before closing it in mid-February. As certain resort and guesthouse owners pointed out they were then left with irate guests on their hands that’d travelled all the way to Chiang Dao but were unable to trek as they were unaware of last minute changes. (We repeat, this is down to park authority decisions not those of resort owners or guides who are losing valuable income. Indeed on our last visit, The Nest informed us that they were no longer organising this activity themselves and were suggesting visitors deal with the national park independently.)

Outside the cave is also very scenic. Photo taken in or around Chiang Dao, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Outside the cave is also very scenic. Photo: Mark Ord

With this in mind, if you are planning to climb Doi Luang, we suggest you play safe and stick to late November to early February as well as avoiding weekends and bank holidays when a lot of local tourists may have similar plans.

If you’re happy just viewing the mountain and scenery from a distance then any time of year is fine outside of the late February to April season when visibility is at its worst. June to September months are excellent as the rains clear the skies and render the landscape at its lushest. You’ll also obtain low season rates—which can climb substantially at certain resorts during high season—and you’ll have the place to yourselves. If a shower does pass by you’re never far from the shelter of a coffee shop in Chiang Dao.

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