Get out and explore
Published/Last edited or updated: 11th June, 2019
Perhaps better referred to as “Up the Kok Without a Paddle”, this day tour up the left bank of the Kok River and returning to Chiang Rai by the right bank involves no boats at all and is eminently suitable for cycling or, for the less energetic, motorbiking.
The scenery is great; sights are varied, the route is mostly flat for cyclists and in reasonably good condition for motorbikes. The loop is around 50 kilometres plus, depending upon how many side-tracks you take, and we did it—for no particular reason—in an anti-clockwise direction.
You'll need to leave Chiang Rai by the western bridge—the continuation of Mae Fah Luang Road—and look out for signs on your left indicating Ruam Mit Village or Ruam Mit Elephant Camp. (The turnoff is also named Mae Fah Luang Soi 5). First sight up, and just around four kilometres out of town, (so you could even walk to this one), is the little cave temple of Tham Tupu. Judging by the overgrown entrance, debris on the steps and cobwebs in the cave, this small shrine receives very few visitors. The tiny cave isn't exactly spectacular but the carved; relief Buddha on the rock face opposite and the golden, multi-armed Bodhisattva statue at the foot of the cave are definitely worth a peak.
Proceeding past the cave you'll hit a T-junction. The left turn continues to Tham Phra—the Buddha Image cave—while a right turn makes a short detour up to Wat Huay Pla Kung. The temple's main feature, which you will undoubtedly have already noticed by now, is a 26-plus-storey, all-white, statue of the Mahayana Buddhist deity, Kuan (or Guan) Yin the Goddess or mercy and compassion. We've described the temple in detail and with only a slight detour necessary is well-worth a visit.
After the Wat, you'll need to double back to the junction and the Ruam Mit road which is signposted to Tham Phra or the Buddha Image Cave. On the right side, before reaching the cave, Chao Akha Coffee makes a fine spot for a break. There are friendly staff members, good coffee and cheap Thai dishes while you can peruse the Akha-related paraphernalia, photos and souvenirs on the coffee shop walls.
Further up the valley, the landscape turns to rolling hills and upland terrain but this area, close to the city, consists of flat paddy-fields dotted abruptly with limestone, karst outcrops. A short distance past the coffee shop you'll come across another cave temple Tham Phra or, in English, Buddha Image Cave. This is another sheer-sided limestone outcrop riddled with small caves, many of which have been Buddha-fied with shrines and statues and even when we visited, a resident monk.
We were probably guilty of disturbing his meditation but he didn't seem too disappointed to be able to launch into a discussion on the pros and cons of each football team vying for the upcoming World Cup. The site is particularly attractive since the outcrop abuts the Kok River and there's a riverside pathway leading around the foot of the cliffs to smaller shrines among the wooded rear slopes. There's a great viewpoint with a seated Buddha image atop a rock, looking across the river to Chiang Rai Beach. The main cave holds several Buddha images and is shallow so no light is needed though apparently some of the rock's other caves are deeper. In front are a few ancient brick remains demonstrating that this site has held religious significance for a long time.
Back on the road and heading west, your next potential site is the sign-posted Huay Mae Sai Waterfall, though this does represent a considerable detour along a not great road. Not far as the crow flies the windy, narrow road means at least a 30 to 35-kilometre round trip and only certain sections are sealed. Passing through the Lahu village of Jalae you'll see the attractive, forest-lined Mae Sai stream flowing east and the small falls are along a path to the west. They're not dramatic falls, even in rainy season, but the site is picturesque and suitable for bathing. If you're so inclined, and have a means to get back, then a trail leads past the falls to the hill-top Lahu village of Yafu before descending to Ruam Mit on the banks of the Kok.
Ruam Mit, a large, mainly Karen village, is located on the banks of the Kok River and with an elephant camp, pier for Tha Ton-Chiang Rai boats and trekking trails leading off is a busy and popular spot for tourists. Many trekking programmes from both Tha Ton and Chiang Rai begin here with a hike, or elephant ride, up to the aforementioned hill-top Lahu village of Yafu.
The village has plenty of eateries and souvenir stalls and the elephant camp itself has an excellent coffee shop. While riding is offered, if you're there at the right time of day and water levels are ok you may be able to just watch the ellies bathing in the river. In the village, you'll also see signs to the Giant Snake as a local family have created an attraction—with a coffee shop and more souvenir stalls—around a small collection of snakes including a huge albino python. The python is spectacular but there are plenty of other reptiles in small cages, so you may want to skip this.
There are trails you can easily follow yourself if you want to stretch your legs—just follow the elephant poo along a path heading north out of the village. Westwards the hills become higher and encroach closer on the river bank although the road is still largely flat. Just past Ruam Mit take the road bridge crossing the river. The sealed road does continue along the left bank, leading to a small lake, but it is a dead end and whatever your map may appear to indicate it does not, as yet, debouch either at Tha Ton or the Mae Chan road. Cross the bridge and stop! The cute and friendly Baansuaningdoi Cafe directly opposite the bridge on the right bank is your best bet for a lunch break, represents the half-way mark and with plenty of bicycle photos on the walls is particularly apt for our cycling tour. They offer fresh coffees as well as noodles, rice dishes, som tam and so-on.
From here you can continue direct back to Chiang Rai, 26 kilometres distant, or push a bit further west where you'll see the Phasoet Hot Springs, Lum Nam Kok National Park headquarters and signs to another small waterfall, Nam Tok Huay Kaew, five kilometres off the main route. We ran out of time for the waterfall; the National Park, while having spectacular scenery has a non-event of a visitor's centre but the hot springs are quite good.
Phasoet is a small village just a few kilometres further west after the bridge and the springs are set in a well-tended park area aside the road. These are well-appointed as local hot springs go and there's even a natural hot water, tiled swimming pool as well as bathing facilities, massage, snack and drinks. Private bathing rooms cost 50 baht for one person or 80 baht if you take a friend while the good sized swimming pool was 30 baht or 10 baht for kids with a further 15 baht for towel hire.
The actual springs come out at 87 degrees centigrade but the pool and bath water are a comfortable 70 degrees as the hot water is mixed with cool from a stream running alongside. A little further past the village is the headquarters of Lum Nam Kok National Park which, though possessing a highly scenic riverside location, was pretty much closed when we visited. There is no entrance fee although the visitor's centre had virtually nothing on display in any language either and the park cafe was also closed. The lawns sweeping down to the river are pretty though and there are more hot springs you can visit, though no bathing facilities. The National Park covers some 730 square kilometres of uplands on both banks of the Kok and is home to numerous Lisu, Lahu and Akha villages and so popular for trekking. Note both Phrasoet and the Park HQ have boat piers for the Kok River services.
Returning to the bridge, the eastbound road on the Kok's right bank is slightly more undulating but sticks close to the river for most of its route. Looking to make our next stop a cave temple hat-trick, (though you do pass through several cute villages with Lanna style wats on the way) is Tham Prathat Doi Kong Kao. This is back close to town so more paddy-field and karst scenery. Prathat Cave is located halfway up Doi Kong Kao, a particularly dramatic, sheer limestone outcrop clad with lush vegetation. There's a small wooden monastery at the foot of the cliffs where we found some rather bored but friendly monks and from where a wide staircase, lined with Buddhas, leads up the side of the outcrop. When we enquired as to how many steps to the top the monks replied "...not sure, but you'll be very tired"! The shorter staircase we took lead through forest to small cave shrines on the mountain-side while a second path leads through a small nunnery around the base of the outcrop, accessing a further staircase on the far side leading to the summit.
A scenic spot to explore if you have the time while, as something of a forest oasis amid the extensive paddy-fields, is a real haven for local birdlife too.
Just past the cave temple, before you hit Chiang Rai Beach and the start of town, was another delightful spot for a break—Rimkok Terminal resort. Fancier than the Beach eateries they have a great wooden deck on a riverbank rise with sweeping views up and downstream. Food looked great and prices seemed reasonable and would make an ideal spot for a morning coffee or evening sundowner too plus, you're only a short hop into town.
This trip is easily done in a day on a motorbike or makes a good work-out on a bicycle, though you'd need to curtail the detours a bit, while if you're feeling really lazy you could have a chat to a Chiang Rai songthaew driver and on a quiet day we reckon 1-1,500 baht would be ok. Note many of the day tours you see on offer in town agencies include many of these sites though they do tend to whizz around a bit so as to include other destinations such as the White Temple and Black House.
Based in Chiang Mai, Mark Ord has been travelling Southeast Asia for over two decades and first crossed paths with Travelfish on Ko Lipe in the early 1990s.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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