Photo: Wat Tha Ton.

Introduction

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The small and highly picturesque town of Tha Ton lies on the banks of the Kok River at the point where the river emerges into Thailand from the neighbouring hills of Burma’s Shan State.


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The town’s main claim to fame is as the departure point for the popular Kok River trip which takes travellers on a scenic boat trip through forested slopes and past hill-tribe villages between Tha Ton and Chiang Rai. Along the way is Ban Ruam Mit with its elephant camp—a popular starting point for organised trekking tours. For motor-bikers, intrepid cyclists and fans of mountain bus rides, Tha Ton is also a key stopover on either the Chiang Dao-Fang-Mae Salong or even Chiang Mai-Chiang Rai loops.

On the river. Photo taken in or around Tha Ton, Thailand by Mark Ord.

On the river. Photo: Mark Ord

Tha Ton is also one of the most attractive of these out-of-the-way northern Thai towns and to our minds certainly warrants more than just a cursory glance while passing through en-route to somewhere else. There are some fine spots to stay, good eateries, and bicycles and motorbikes are conveniently available to hire in town allowing visitors to explore the surrounding valley, hills and villages. The riverside setting is seductive; the hill-top temple Wat Tha Ton spectacular, locals are friendly and Akha women in their regalia coming into town to sell their knick-knacks add to the ambience.

So, while we reckon Tha Ton is worth a day or two in its own right before you head up the mountain to Mae Salong or down the river to Chiang Rai, you may also bear in mind that with excellent accommodation options, easy transport hire and decent bus links it does make an ideal base for exploring this whole area of northern Chiang Mai and southern Chiang Rai provinces. Wonderful, easily accessible mountain scenery lies between town and Fang, a mere 25-kilometres to the southwest, while Mae Salong and a selection of surrounding sites make for rewarding day trips westwards.




Orientation
The bulk of the small town is laid out on either side of Highway 1089 which runs in from southwest Mae Ai and Fang and continues eastwards to Mae Chan and (eventually after hitting Highway 1, where you need to turn south) Chiang Rai.

The Kok River splits the small town in two as it flows out of Burma by way of a narrow forest-lined gorge before spreading out south of Tha Ton into a wide paddy and orchard-filled valley. Note that online booking sites cluster Tha Ton under Mae Ai—to avoid unpleasant surprises, please do check the location of anywhere you are booking before you hand over your credit card details!

Pretty rice field valleys. Photo taken in or around Tha Ton, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Pretty rice field valleys. Photo: Mark Ord

Most municipal facilities are located in the district town of Mae Ai some seven kilometres to the west, but Tha Ton does have a small police booth and tourist police desk opposite each other by the boat pier. Being so close to the border you will see numerous police and military checkpoints on the roads and though, as usual in these parts, they’re more interested in ya ba smugglers or illegal immigrants do slow down and do make sure you wear a helmet if you’re on a scooter. As far as major police or immigration offices go then the closest are in Chiang Rai city.

Tha Ton has a pharmacy on the main road by the ATMs but not much else—the district hospital is located in Mae Ai. For serious complaints, Chiang Rai’s choice of hospitals is much closer than Chiang Mai’s even though you are in the latter province.

Kids goofing off by the river. Photo taken in or around Tha Ton, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Kids goofing off by the river. Photo: Mark Ord

The tiny post office is located on the main drag close to the pharmacy and ATMs but is a half-hearted affair with what we’ve found to be erratic opening hours. If you require Western Union or EMS services then we’d hop on a local bus down to the more efficient and reliable office located in Mae Ai.

A residential area lies south of the highway on the west bank of the river and houses a couple of guesthouses while a lane follows the east bank of the Kok running north from the bridge and allowing access to a string of scenically-situated riverside resorts. This pot-holed route continues beyond the chalets to a Shan village, Kang Saimoon, after which it’s the border itself.

Spectacular Wat Tha Ton sits on a steep, forested ridge-line, and dominates the town with either foot or road access to be found on the north side of the highway in the town centre.

At Wat Tha Ton. Photo taken in or around Tha Ton, Thailand by Mark Ord.

At Wat Tha Ton. Photo: Mark Ord

The boat pier is on the east bank of the river, in the town centre just below the bridge while the bus station for Fang, Chiang Mai and even Bangkok connections is on the opposite side of the bridge immediately north of the highway. Just out of town to the east, you’ll find the songthaew station for other local destinations.

All town sites are within easy walking distance, with bicycles available for exploring the valley to the south and motorbikes for the hill country lying east and west.

Safety
Tha Ton and its immediate vicinity are these days considered tame and safe enough, but the border is very close and landscapes can get very rugged very quickly if you are exploring outside of town. If you’re hiking on your own—particularly north of town—don’t go off-piste and avoid snapping away at sensitive Thai military border installations.

Vroom vroom. Photo taken in or around Tha Ton, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Vroom vroom. Photo: Mark Ord

Roads leading up to Mae Salong or Doi Lang to the west are steep and windy and deserve to be taken with care and attention. Even cycling along valley lanes you will need to watch out for mutts or any other critters that may jump or slither out of the verge at you. (A stick can be useful for hiking.)

The river can present a few problems with rocks and sandbanks during the dry season and a sometimes ferocious flow after rainy season storms in the north. If you’re just splashing around, bear in mind there can be a lot of river traffic in town and on any boat trips we recommend wearing the life jackets provided.

Climate
Tha Ton’s weather patterns conform to typical north Thai norms so generally cool and dry from November through to February; dry and hot from late February until late April or early May followed by rainy months up until late October. As usual, these are generalisations and as is increasingly common in many places, patterns have become less predictable of late.

Temples here, temples there. Photo taken in or around Tha Ton, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Temples here, temples there. Photo: Mark Ord

Summer temperatures in April and May can get uncomfortably high down in the valley with the high 30s not uncommon although the relatively low altitude (less than 500 metres) means winter is more clement than say nearby Mae Salong. It will though be noticeably chillier at night times than urban Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai.

In hot months do your hiking and cycling early and late and air-con or a pool will be useful for the middle of the day. You’re unlikely to be using either in December or January and in early mornings and evenings you may feel a fleece is more appropriate.

When to go
For the lushest and clearest views of the tremendous scenery a dry day in the rainy season is best. You may get days when the mountains are shrouded in mist and European style drizzle is falling on Tha Ton but short sharp downpours followed by clear fresh skies are generally more typical during monsoon months. Sure, the rainy season is riskier weather-wise and it will definitely be stickier, but the countryside is lush and green, rivers and waterfalls full and of course you will benefit from low season rates and a distinct lack of crowds.

The Kok River winding towards Burma. Photo taken in or around Tha Ton, Thailand by Mark Ord.

The Kok River winding towards Burma. Photo: Mark Ord

For hiking or cycling amid these terrific landscapes then the cooler season presents obvious advantages but don’t leave it too late as by late February forest fires and rice field stubble burning on both sides of the border will begin to spoil your views. Come March or April smoke and dust invariably fills the valley and with oppressive daytime temperatures, this is probably a good time to forgo mountains and head to a southern beach instead.

As far as the Kok River boat trips go, you need to bear in mind that water activities can be curtailed in both the dry season, with low water levels and in rainy season with levels too high and currents too strong. A heavy overnight storm in the north can turn the gentle Kok into a raging torrent with boatmen then reluctant or ill-advised to set off. Dry season can see levels reduced to impractical levels as the river fills with sandbanks and normally submerged rocks. Even if judged passable, boats will often reduce weight to four passengers instead of the usual six.

So, avoid the hot dry months with the remainder of the year presenting pros and cons depending upon what you’re planning to do there.

Looking down onto the river as it passes through Tha Ton. Photo taken in or around Tha Ton, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Looking down onto the river as it passes through Tha Ton. Photo: Mark Ord

Further reading
For Doi Lang specifically, this northern Thailand birding site contains some detailed information of equal use to hikers and bike riders as well as twitchers. Otherwise, our regular fave GT-Rider provides the best maps of the area and you can also dig up some local info on their forum.

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