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 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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Chiang Dao: Useful Information
If you’re heading to Chiang Dao, you will need a couple of suggestions. Here is the most useful information about the town.
How to get to Chiang Dao?
Chiang Dao is not far from Chiang Mai and you can get there very easily by bus. In Chiang Mai head to Chang Puak, the smaller bus station, not the main one. It’s located in the northern part of the city. Here is your map.
There you can buy a ticket for a bus. The buses to Chiang Dao are very basic, with no air con, but the journey is not long.
You can also hire a driver to take you there. One way trip costs about 50 Euros.
No matter if you want to travel by bus, or with a driver, you can book your trip online. It’s safe, less stressful and definitely less time consuming. I always use 12Go Asia, which is my trusted partner. The booking process is fast and very simple. I saved a lot of time thanks to them. I really recommend them.
Alternatively, you can also go by a scooter or a motorbike. The trip is quite nice and very straightforward. Just keep to the left and be careful when overtaking any cars.
Transport in Chiang Dao
Chiang Dao is a very small town, but it is also spread around quite a large area. So, getting from one point to another might take you a long time. Additionally, I wouldn’t recommend walking. There are no pavements and the road can get busy at times.
There are some songteaws, red trucks, that can take you from A to B. But, in my opinion, the best solution is to have your own motorbike. If you don’t have one and you came from Chiang Mai by bus, you can rent it at one of the rental shops in town. The most popular place is a shop opposite the post office.
Accommodation in Chiang Dao
There are quite a few guesthouses and bungalows in the area. Most of them are located near the cave.
- Aurora Resort Chiang Dao – very cute bungalows with lovely staff and amazing views.
- Chiang Dao Basecamp – very good for flashpackers, who would like to meet other travellers.
- Chiang Dao Storycamp – amazing property, located on a pond with owners that will show you the Thai way of life.
If you’re not happy with any of the choices above, you can always search on Booking.com, where you will find a lot of other beautiful and amazing places.
Food and drinks in Chiang Dao
You can find cheap food very easily in Chiang Dao. On the road leading to the cave, there are plenty of cafes. I recommend Chiang Dao Nest, which tailors towards foreigners.
Another, more traditional place, is a bar by the road leading to the cave. It’s on the left hand side, just next to the little bridge and the stream. You can order food and stay in a little bamboo hut over the water. It’s cheap and really cosy.
There are not that many places to go during the evenings. ‘Bikers’ bar’, located on the main street, is a pub as well as restaurant, so if you fancy a beer in the evening, you can go there. Do not expect crowds and crazy party though!
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.
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.
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!).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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