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Chiang Dao and Mae Hong Son: Two Alternatives to Pai

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Chiang Dao

Joanna Horanin

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Last updated at 23/05/2024, 21:45

Hi, I'm Joanna, the author of The Blond Travels. In the worlds of Thailand and Portugal, I feel like a fish in water - and it's no coincidence! I've been exploring Thailand for over a decade, and I've settled in Portugal for 6 years now. My mission is to support Dreamers - just like you - in discovering these fascinating countries and helping those in love with them find their own place on Earth, preferably for good! Let's uncover these unique corners of the world together.

Visit Chiang Dao and Mae Hong Song. Get some rest from more popular destinations, like Pai.

Pai is the place to go – well, at least the travel guides say so and the crowds of tourists that go there seem to think so, too. But you know what? I’ve been there and it’s no good. First of all it is overcrowded and it seems like the town is struggling to cope with the amount of people that go there. It took me an hour to find a place to sleep. The accommodation and food seem to be quite overpriced. My sister also noticed one thing about the place – it looks like an artificial town, like someone built it only a few years back for tourists only. It is hard to spot a local here among the sea of white faces.

Travelfish says: “Once a gorgeous sleepy town, Pai, while still rather gorgeous, is well and truly on the traveller map through northern Thailand. Old timers and more experienced travellers may sneer at it, as it’s certainly not the “real Thailand” any more but if you’re a young backpacker on a first trip to Thailand it can seem like a great scene and it is easily accessible in every sense.”

I’ve been there twice, sneering at it every time and, during my last stay, I decided it was time to explore other places in the north. So, I went to Chiang Dao and Mae Hong Son, spending a few nice days at each of the places.

Please note that I’m not saying that you shouldn’t go to Pai. If this is your first time in Thailand, or you’ve never been in any place like that before, Pai would probably be good to visit. If you’re heading in that direction, check out my post about 9 places to see in Pai.

Chiang Dao

Chiang Dao is a perfect place for a short stay outside of Chiang Mai. If you’re looking for a spot with a genuine laid-back Thai style, this is the place to go.

Useful information – Chiang Dao

Here is some practical information about Chiang Dao.

Location

Chiang Dao is a small town, around an hour drive from Chiang Mai. It is situated near one of the national parks and surrounded by forests and mountains.

How to get to Chiang Dao?

There are a couple of ways how you can get to Chiang Dao.

  • You can drive. I drove there a couple of times on a scooter. The road is good, but be careful as it’s busy and you might pass some really big trucks, too.
  • You can take public transport. There are local buses departing from Chiang Mai’s bus station. Check out the connections here.
  • You can take a taxi. It should cost you about 30-40 Euros. Book it on 12GoAsia.

Here is the driving route from Chiang Mai to Chiang Dao.

Transportation

The town of Chiang Dao has a few shops and a couple of streets. Most places to stay are outside, some are quite far from everything, so it’s good to have your own scooter.

There are no local buses as people in Chiang Dao have their own transportation.

Where to stay?

There are quite a lot of places to stay in Chiang Dao. Here are my recommendations.

  • Cozycomo Chiang Dao – this place is a bit further away from the town, but it’s tranquil and beautiful. It’s a perfect spot for those who are looking for peace and quiet.
  • Buraphat Resort – a very stylish place with bungalows, in an amazing location.
  • Azalea Village – pamper yourself in this stunning hotel.
Photo by and of – Buraphat Resort.

What to do in Chiang Dao?

Chiang Dao and the surrounding area offer a lot of things to do from caves to tribal villages. Some of the places in town offer trekkings and trips. Here are the best things to do in Chiang Dao.

Drive around

If you have your own transport you can explore the area. Turn into Soi 15 and follow the road, past the bridge. The rice fields on the way are beautiful during the day, but even more so during the sunset.

sunset in chiang dao on a rice fields
Rice fields at the end of Soi 15

Stop at the last street stall, where you can buy a delicious bubble tea. The family that owns the stall also run a repair shop. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, my bike broke twice and I had to use the service there. Every time someone there tried to have a chat with me (even though they didn’t know any English and I don’t know any Thai). The people there were so nice that I ended up visiting them every day.The owner of the repair shop also makes custom bikes and it is really interesting watching him putting all of the parts together and creating something like this:

a man standing at his bike in a motorbike workshop in chiang dao, thailand
Custom made bike for only 10,000 Baht

If you follow the road further, past the rice fields, you will get to a T junction. Turn right until you get to a left turn. This road leads to some tribal villages, but also to some really remote places that are yet unexplored by tourists. There is nothing better than riding your bike through empty roads with magnificent views. I spent two days exploring the area.

a bend at the road in the mountains of chiang dao, thailand
A scooter ride on a road like this is a pure pleasure

Visit the Chiang Dao Cave

Once you have done this, go in the opposite direction, towards the Chiang Dao Cave. The cave is one of the main attractions in the area. The outside of the cave is surrounded by little shops, and old temple ruins, which are really worth exploring. Just mind the stray dogs, which seem to be not that friendly as in other places.

old temple ruins near the chiang dao cave
Temple ruins behind the Chiang Dao Cave
temple ruins and old buddha statue near chiang dao cave, thailand
Temple ruins behind Chiang Dao Cave
chiang dao cave stupa
Temple ruins behind Chiang Dao Cave

The cave itself is huge and, thanks to small amount of tourists, you have an impression that you are the first one to discover the place. The only thing that spoils the visit is the price. This information you will find almost on all travel sites. First you need to pay 20 Baht entrance fee, then you will be informed that you can’t visit the cave by yourself and need to take a guide, who will charge you 100 Baht for the torch (bear in mind that the cave is huge and there is no way you can walk there by yourself, so don’t argue with the people working there). At the end of the tour the guide will inform you that he/she is a volunteer and you need to ‘donate’ 100 Baht for the tour. You don’t really have a choice… However, despite this ‘scam’ the cave is really worth seeing.

Near the cave you can stop in many of the nice cafes and restaurants for a meal or drink. This area is beautiful and very quiet. At the time when I was there is was overflown with yellow and white butterflies.

a cafe with bamboo houses at chiang dao, thailand
A garden at one of the cafes on the way to the Cave

Climb to Wat Pho Ploy

Another great spot to visit is Wat Pho Ploy – a beautiful temple, located near the Chiang Dao Cave. There are 500 steps leading to it, but don’t be discouraged. The way couldn’t be more scenic and you can stop from time to time to read the Buddhist quotes, spread out on the green boards on trees and rocks.

a green sign with white letters with a buddhist quote at chiang dao cave, thailand
Only over 300 steps left!
a green sign with white letters at wat po ploy, chiang dao, thailand
Wisdom on every corner

Once you get to the top you can sit on one of the benches and soak in the peaceful atmosphere. Walk few more steps up and you will have a few over the nearby forests.

a golden stupa in a forest in chiang dao mountains, thailand
A view on the temple
a viewing point on wat po ploy in chiang dao, thailand
This is what you get when you finally get to the top

The temple is also a meditation retreat, so you can stay there for a bit and learn meditation from the monks. This is one of the ‘things to do’ on my list.

Go to a festival

Every year, around January-February the local Japanese community organises Shambhala Arts Festival. It takes 7 days and the days are filled with music and performances.

You can camp there and enjoy vegan and vegetarian cuisine, meet people and, most of all, admire the beautiful views of the surrounding mountains.

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Mae Hong Son

I visited Mae Hong Son during the low season, when it was so hot it was hard to breathe. But yet, I found some good spots to chill out.

Mae Hong Son: Useful Information 

Here you will find everything you need to spend great time in Mea Hong Son. 

How to get there? 

This little town is 6 hours drive by mini van, or 9 hours by the a local bus, very close to the Burmese border. On my way there I took the latter for only 138 Baht. It was overcrowded and hot, but still pretty comfortable, with a lot of space for legs.

Book your tickets online via 12GoAsia. 

I would avoid driving there if you only have a small scooter, unless you have a lot of time on your hands. 
It’s best to drive to Mae Hong Son from Chiang Mai by car, or a bigger motorbike. You can easily book a car using my trusted partner’s site Rentalcars. It will save you time and money.

Want to drive there? Here is your map

Transportation in Mae Hong Son

As with the Chiang Dao, you need to have your own mode of transport to see all the attractions around the town. If you are scared of driving a motorbike, you can still have a nice, quiet time in town.

You will rent a motorbike in town, or in your hostel. The price shouldn’t be more than 200 Baht per day.

Where to stay in Mae Hong Son 

First thing I noticed was the fact that the town was clean, picturesque and prepared for tourism. There are a lot of places to stay, the price ranging from 100 Baht to 700 Baht per night. I took a tuk tuk from the bus station (100 Baht) and asked the driver to take me to a cheap guesthouse. I stayed at Johnnie’s Place (150 Baht per night; fan room and shared bathroom) – place was nice, quiet, but could use some decent cleaning. However, it was located in the centre of the town, close to most of the attractions.

Here are other places I recommend:

  • Kanda House – probably the cheapest place in Mae Hong Son, but it’s still good for the price. It’s located by the river, in a very quiet spot. 
  • Baan Rom Mai – simple, clean and very pleasant. It’s located in the heart of the town, close to all the attractions. 
  • Jeerang Countryside Resort – it’s a fabulous place, ideal for a quiet getaway. 

You don’t like my recommendations? Don’t worry! Check out Booking.com for more suggestions. 

What to eat and drink

Mae Hong Son has a lot of places to eat and drink. You have a great choice between the local and western cuisine. The food is reasonably priced and everything is really delicious. Again, you can go for a quiet drink, but don’t expect any wild parties. The town goes to sleep at around midnight.

Both Chiang Dao and Mae Hong Son are easily accessible from Chiang Mai. They are both pretty, quiet and lovely towns with lots of things to do. So, if you are looking for something a little bit less frequented by travellers, something a little less

Things to do in Mae Hong Son

Check out Mae Hong Son’s best spots. Learn new things about Thailand, relax and unwind in the laid-back atmosphere of the town. 

Walk around the centre 

Mae Hong Son’s main spot is a round lake, with a nice walkways and places to sit down to admire the Wat Chong Kham, reflecting in the water. 

a temple complex reflecting in the water in mea hong song, thailand
The town’s heart and soul.

Visit the temples 

Wat Chong Kam features golden pillars, 4.85 meters Buddha and replica of the Buddha image in Wat Suthat in Bangkok.

Wat Chong Klang, next to Wat Chong Kham, has a replica of the Phra Phutta Sihing and wooden figurines of human and animals created by Burmese craftsmen.

Wat Muay Tor is an old temple, located outside of the city centre. Climb the stairs and visit the local graveyard. Wander around and admire the architecture of the Wat. If you are lucky, you might strike a conversation with the monks. When I was there, they were all sitting around in their quarters, enjoying cigarettes (yes! cigarettes!).

graves and stupas at a buddhist cemetery in mean hong song thailand
The temple is surrounded by a small cemetery.

See the sunrise 

Wat Phra Doi Kong Mu is a temple on the hill, which is great to watch sunrise. I must say, I was too lazy to get up in the morning, so there are no pictures from that site.

Go outside the town 

For a half a day trip, drive to Tham Pla Forest Park (17 km from the town). It is a beautiful, well kept park with a small cave, where you can admire huge fish, swimming in the nearby pond. They are considered as sacred and it is believed that feeding them (you can buy food for 20 Baht from one of the sellers at the entrance gates)  will bring you good karma.

the entrance to the cave with candles and incense in mean hong song, thailand
The entrance to the cave is filled with candles.
a pond near a cave in mea hong song, thailand
Relaxing by the pond.
a child with his dad playing in a pool, in mean hong song, thailand
Play time.

When I was there, the day was scorching hot, so I followed some local kids and jumped into the stream, leading to the cave. It was a very nice spot to relax and watch the locals having picnics.

There are a couple of waterfalls around the area. I visited Namtok Pha Suea, 26 km from Mae Hong Son, on the route to Pai. It is a large waterfall with its water source in Myanmar. The water was pretty low when I was there due to the very dry weather, but I climbed to the top and had a splash in a tiny pond. The place was almost deserted, except a few local kids playing there. If you are tired with the heat, I would suggest going to Pha Suea for a whole day, climbing to the top of it and hiding in a shade there.

people standing near a waterfall in mea hong song, thailand
The waterfall.
two boys playing at a waterfall in mea hong song, thailand
Found something there, boys?
a woman standing under a waterfall in a top and shorts lauhing, in mea hong song, thailand
There’s nothing like cold water on a hot day

Chill at the river 

If you need a place to chill out, head to the big bridge on River Pai, on the way to the Long Neck Village. There are bamboo huts on the water, where for 60 Baht you can lay down, read your book and watch the kids playing.

small bamboo houses on a river in mea hong song, thailand
Bamboo huts on River Pai
bamboo huts on a river in mea hong song, thailand
Relax…

Mae Hong Son: Useful Information 

Here you will find everything you need to spend great time in Mea Hong Son. 

How to get there? 

This little town is 6 hours drive by mini van, or 9 hours by the a local bus, very close to the Burmese border. On my way there I took the latter for only 138 Baht. It was overcrowded and hot, but still pretty comfortable, with a lot of space for legs.

Book your tickets online via 12GoAsia. 

I would avoid driving there if you only have a small scooter, unless you have a lot of time on your hands. 
It’s best to drive to Mae Hong Son from Chiang Mai by car, or a bigger motorbike. You can easily book a car using my trusted partner’s site Rentalcars. It will save you time and money.

Want to drive there? Here is your map

Transportation in Mae Hong Son

As with the Chiang Dao, you need to have your own mode of transport to see all the attractions around the town. If you are scared of driving a motorbike, you can still have a nice, quiet time in town.

You will rent a motorbike in town, or in your hostel. The price shouldn’t be more than 200 Baht per day.

Where to stay in Mae Hong Son 

First thing I noticed was the fact that the town was clean, picturesque and prepared for tourism. There are a lot of places to stay, the price ranging from 100 Baht to 700 Baht per night. I took a tuk tuk from the bus station (100 Baht) and asked the driver to take me to a cheap guesthouse. I stayed at Johnnie’s Place (150 Baht per night; fan room and shared bathroom) – place was nice, quiet, but could use some decent cleaning. However, it was located in the centre of the town, close to most of the attractions.

Here are other places I recommend:

  • Kanda House – probably the cheapest place in Mae Hong Son, but it’s still good for the price. It’s located by the river, in a very quiet spot. 
  • Baan Rom Mai – simple, clean and very pleasant. It’s located in the heart of the town, close to all the attractions. 
  • Jeerang Countryside Resort – it’s a fabulous place, ideal for a quiet getaway. 

You don’t like my recommendations? Don’t worry! Check out Booking.com for more suggestions. 

What to eat and drink

Mae Hong Son has a lot of places to eat and drink. You have a great choice between the local and western cuisine. The food is reasonably priced and everything is really delicious. Again, you can go for a quiet drink, but don’t expect any wild parties. The town goes to sleep at around midnight.

Both Chiang Dao and Mae Hong Son are easily accessible from Chiang Mai. They are both pretty, quiet and lovely towns with lots of things to do. So, if you are looking for something a little bit less frequented by travellers, something a little less touristy – those places are for you!

Do you have any questions? Would you like to share your experiences or your point of view? Don’t be shy! Leave a comment!

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