From Chiang Mai we wanted to take our time exploring Northern Thailand. A rental car seemed like the best option to give us the freedom to explore. We picked up our car at Chiang Mai airport and planned a 5 night round trip tour, taking us to the Northern most part of Thailand. Almost 700km with lots of detours (getting lost!) You can view our route here.
If you want to really explore Northern Thailand, hill tribe villages and the border areas then self drive is a great way to do it.
Day 1 – Chiang Mai to Chiang Dao
Because we weren’t sure how stressful and time consuming it would be picking up the car and getting out of Chiang Mai we didn’t plan too much driving for day 1. We drove to Chiang Dao, about 1.5 hours away. Here we had booked Azalea Village Resort, what a gorgeous little spot this was, with view of the rice paddies and lovely traditional cottages. The pool was a stunning place to watch the sunset over the hills and fields.
Day 2 – Chiang Dao to Mae Salong
It was hard to leave that lovely pool the next day but we had a lot of driving ahead of us. Before leaving Chiang Dao we visited the nearby Chiang Dao Caves. These were more interesting and bigger than we expected, worth an hours visit.
Visiting Chiang Dao Caves
The caves are a sacred site so you need to dress appropriately, plus it is a little chilly inside so you want to cover up anyway.
Entrance is around 40THB. You can explore quite a lot of the caves on your own in the area that is lit by electric light, but if you want to visit other parts of the cave you must pay for a lantern and guide and be prepared for narrow tight spaces and some crawling!
Doi Mae Salong
Mae Salong has a fascinating history involving the Opium trade of the Golden Triangle, and a Division of the Chinese Nationalist Army that settled here. They refused to surrender to the Chinese Communists in 1949 instead fleeing to Burma, continuing their insurgency towards the People’s Republic. Later these forces disbanded but some settled in Mae Salong, funding their arms purchases with opium production.
In the 1970s the Thai government stuck a deal with them, offering citizenship in exchange for help fighting Thailand’s own Communist insurgents. Part of this deal was for the soldiers to cease opium production and instead cultivate mushroom and oolong tea for which the area is now famous. I include this very brief history as it is helpful to understanding the area and its cultural influences.
At an elevation of 1134 metres the area has an alpine climate. The roads are an experience in themselves but the effort to get there is rewarded with stunning views. As we started to climb the mountain roads, relying on our good friend Google maps, Paul was starting to make ‘what have you gotten me into’ comments. Then the car started complaining about the hills. Apparently it had a CVT gearbox and as we climbed the long steep hills it wouldn’t change into lower ratios and we’d lose power. To the point that the car simply stopped altogether. We would then have to do a handbrake start to encourage it to get going again. Thank goodness the roads were mostly quiet. Needless to say we were very relieved to finally arrive at our accommodation. A boutique hotel overlooking tea plantations.
At the end of the day, Doi Mae Salong is starting to close up, produce markets winding down, tourist markets selling to the last customers of the day and motorbikes loaded with families heading home. Many people visit on a day trip so when the last tourist groups leave there are just a few tourists and the locals left. The indigenous hill tribe of the Akha stand out in their traditional dress. Each woman decorates her headdress in her own unique way using coins, feathers, pompoms and long silver chains.
Akha women spin, weave and dye their own indigo cotton by hand, they are known for their embroidery skills seen on many dresses and clothes in the markets. Here S is being fitted for her very own Akha dress. The quality of the work was beautiful, far superior to the usual tourist market offerings.
Day 3 Mae Salong to Mae Sai and The Golden Triangle
Our touring continued the next day when we managed to get hopelessly lost. It started with breakfast at our hotel which looked truly awful and smelt worse. By mutual consent we walked straight out – the first time we’ve ever done that- and decided to start driving and look for somewhere local.
This quickly became complicated, we were trying to follow google maps to our destination for the day but there were no obvious stopping points along the route, so we kept detouring into likely looking villages for food. Once we took these detours it became very difficult to turn around as the roads were narrow and steep, and the car was still behaving badly. We were climbing higher and higher through villages of just a few bamboo stilt houses, no sign of breakfast.
We finally arrived at a larger town with a morning market underway, I can’t tell you where it was because we still have no idea where we ended up. After browsing the market and deciding that although we were quite hungry we really didn’t feel like frogs for breakfast, we found a 7-11 ( a convenience store). This is where we discovered one of the simple joys of the trip, the 7-11 breakfast. Iced coffee for Mum and Dad, choices of yoghurt and cereal with milk. The main complications are that some cereals come in a type of bowl packaging, but others don’t. At least one person needs to choose a cereal with its own bowl, this person must eat first and then give their bowl to the next person to mix their cereal and milk. All of this is done on the side of the road, as you become the local entertainment attracting the stares of the all the locals going about their business.
With food finally in our bellies, we had to retrace our route for at least half an hour to re join our route. Luckily the scenery was so interesting that we didn’t mind too much having such a long journey. We were most entertained seeing how big a load the Thai people can put on a bus, truck, motorbike or Ute. They pile their vehicles so high, then pop a couple of people on top!
Our next destination was Mai Sai – the Northernmost city of Thailand, where the border crossing is for Myanmar. The main attraction here is the novelty of the border crossing itself. It is popular for travellers doing a visa run to extend their stay in Thailand. The town is full of markets selling cheap imported goods from China. You drive in and up a long main street, and this is where you need to pay attention because if you go too far you’ll be in the vehicle queue for the border crossing! The road leads straight onto the bridge crossing the river that marks the border. So make sure you turn left before the bridge or be prepared to execute a quick U-turn!
We stopped here for the obligatory photo stop and to watch the comings and goings of the border town over lunch.
This was an excellent day for some geography lessons, and flag study. The geography continued in the afternoon as we travelled towards Laos, the Golden Triangle and the mighty Mekong River.
Arriving at ‘The Golden Triangle’ we found the tourist buses again after several days of relatively off the beaten track travels. The name ‘Golden Triangle’ refers to the area where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet. At the place where the Ruak and Mekong Rivers merge. Earlier we’d been on the banks of the Ruak river at the Myanmar Border, we’d travelled around 40 mins along the river to where it meets the Mekong.
Here there are a number of signs and arrows set up for photo opportunities so you can see all three countries at once. I’ve decided this must be more of a novelty for me, growing up in New Zealand, the idea you can be at the border of 3 countries at the same time was fascinating. Paul was not so impressed, being much more used to land border crossings in the UK and Europe. By now we’d crossed from Singapore to Malaysia and into Thailand by car and boat so L & S were only vaguely impressed by border crossings and more interested in when they could go on a boat ride or for a swim.
We continued the geography with much discussion about the Mekong River, the world’s 12th longest river, running through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. During our trip we meet the river here at the Golden Triangle and follow it for awhile along the Laos border. Later we travel the river again in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam and then journey along the river itself crossing from Vietnam into Cambodia by speed boat. The red dots on the map below show the points in our trip where we meet and travel on the Mekong River.
We took a picture to mark this important first stop on the Mekong.
That night we stayed at Banseo Garden Resort, a special place on the river where we could watch the sunset over Laos.
Day 4 Chiang Saen to Chiang Khong
At the Golden Triangle there are places to take a boat trip on the Mekong, the boat stops at a small island that is part of Laos, you can visit there without a visa. It is fun to say you have visited Laos but the island itself is a major tourist trap selling all sorts of junk. We had a half hour stop there and were bored after 10 minutes. The 1 hour long tail boat ride on the Mekong is interesting enough and worth the time to see Laos and Thailand from a different perspective. We did this boat ride in the morning before leaving Chiang Saen and then made our way towards Chiang Khong.
We stayed in Chiang Khong, although if you didn’t have much time on your trip you could continue onto Chiang Rai on this day. Chiang Khong is a small town, mostly known as a place where you can cross the river into Laos. There are beautiful views along the Mekong River.
Day 5 Chiang Rai and The White Temple
Our main destination in Chiang Rai was a visit to the White Temple, Wat Rong Khun. This is in fact a privately owned art exhibit in the style of a Buddhist Temple. At the end of the 20th Century the original Wat Rong Khun was in disrepair. The artist Chalermchai Kositpipat from Chiang Rai decided to rebuild the temple as an offering to the Lord Buddha, funding it himself. Work is ongoing and not expected to be complete until 2070. The temple is free to visit for Thai people and 50THB for foreigners. The area is very busy with tour groups so it is recommended to go at the beginning or end of the day. It was busy when we visited but we enjoyed our visit and managed to get some pictures without too many people in them.
You could stay in Chiang Rai on this night, because we had a flight to catch the next day we drove a bit further to be nearer to the airport on our last day.
The earlier nights of the trip were definitely our favourite, places like Mae Salong are like stepping back in time. A lot of the point of this trip is the journey itself, the interesting traffic, endless rice paddies, scenes of daily life. We had plenty of time to stop at a pretty café or when we saw something interesting, the point is not to be too rushed along the way.
You could perhaps speed this trip up a little bit and cut out a night, but don’t underestimate how long it takes to drive relatively short distances. In many places the roads are in poor condition and you frequently get stuck behind slow traffic. You are unlikely to average above 60km/h, probably less.
After the driving tour we flew to Bangkok for 4 nights, then to Hanoi in Vietnam.