There’s a small town in Thailand’s northern mountains and it’s not often on travelers’ radars. Although it’s close enough to take a day trip from Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai, it’s an amazing place for a weekend getaway trip. It has the perfect atmosphere to unwind but you may quickly get swept up into other things to do in Chiang Dao like we did.
We knew almost nothing about Chiang Dao before arriving except that it hosts the Japanese Shambhala in Your Heart Festival each February, has a resort that serves up gourmet food, and that there are caves to explore.
Chiang Dao has absolutely stunning views of the towering mountain, Doi Luang Chiang Dao (ดอย
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We assumed we would spend the next three days relaxing and overindulging on food and drinks at our mountainside resort. But it didn’t take long before we started digging around for the best things to do in Chiang Dao and hopped on our motorbike to go exploring.
|TIP: Chiang Dao is a relatively safe 1+ hour drive from Chiang Mai. We drove there on our motorbike, but if you want to be comfortable (have a place to put your luggage and be protected from the hot temperatures and strong sun), we recommend renting a car.|
Discover Deals at the Tuesday Morning Market
While it’s impossible for everyone to coordinate their stay in Chiang Dao with the Tuesday Morning market, it’s a fun place to go if you happen to be there at the right time. This gigantic flea market is set up along either side of Route 107 (one of the main roads that run through Chiang Dao) for roughly a half kilometer and sports huge colorful umbrellas, tarps, and tents overflowing from the road onto the packed dirt and sparse grass.
You can find Thai (sized and styled) clothing and accessories, household and healthcare items, and dried goods and kitchenware. There are some produce stalls and vendors selling ready-made snacks and cold beverages, too. We were also told that the local hill tribes come and sell their handmade goods although we didn’t see them.
Many items are dirt cheap and the variety is incredible. We didn’t even feel the need to haggle when Chris bought a pair of knock-off Ray-Ban sunglasses. And we were tempted to buy a few pots of beautiful blooming orchids for 15 baht a pot (that’s half a dollar!) until we remembered we had to drive back to Chiang Mai.
Indulge in really delicious Thai food
Our trip to Chiang Dao was intended to be centered on relaxation but we ended up spending most of our time indulging in fantastic Thai food. Thanks to several friends’ independent recommendations, we dined at two incredible restaurants in Chiang Dao: Chiang Dao Resto and Nest 2.
Chiang Dao Resto is on the main highway to Chiang Dao just on the southern outskirts of town. The stylish restaurant has gorgeous views of the surrounding rice fields and distant mountains. Every dish we ordered was delicious but our favorites were the Isaan-inspired Spicy Salmon Salad, the Mixed Appetizer, and the Spicy Chicken Wings.
Nest 2 is cozied up in the mountains just a little ways into town. Once again, everything we ordered was amazing, but the entreés that really wowed us were the tenderly stewed buffalo in a spicy red coconut curry and crispy corn fritters with a sweet and tangy tamarind dipping sauce.
It had been a long time since having a Thai meal that was not only delectable but in a beautiful setting with prices that were a steal. (These incredible dishes ranged between 120 THB and 200 THB!) Chiang Dao Resto or Nest 2 (or both) should make it on your ‘things to do in Chiang Dao’ list. Heck, we even recommend making an evening trip to either one of these restaurants in Chiang Dao just for a special dinner, they’re that good.
Explore the Chiang Dao Cave at Wat Tham
One of the main attractions is this little town is the Chiang Dao Cave (ถ้ำเชียงดาว). We heard mixed reviews about the cave before coming here and in all honesty didn’t know what to expect as far as how long we would be clambering through tunnels or how difficult it would be. But now that we’ve gone, we certainly agreed that it was an adventure!
There are actually two routes to explore in the cave. The first route is a well-lit, easy to walk path about 200m long that eventually ends at a reclining Buddha. The cave is very wide and high in areas and is quite beautiful with the illumination from the overhead lights.
The second route is more adventurous and involved going into the deep dark caverns for a 725m trek. This is when visitors can hire a guide for 100 baht (good for up to five people) who will lead you through the twists and turns and tunnels of the cave with only the light from an old-fashioned kerosene lantern.
Our guide took us along a series of tight tunnels and spacious caverns, regularly pointing out rock formations that resembled a lion, elephants and their baby, hippo, lotus flower, and even a throne. She showed us the cave’s hermit within a shrine, a sleeping giant covered in gold leaf, eerily stacked Zen stones, and the only pure white mineral formation.
Kudos to our guide for doing an excellent job of telling us where to step to avoid the slippery areas, when to watch our heads for stalactites, and lighting the footpath in the more precarious areas. It’s a tough job when combined with staying on route and not dropping the blazing hot lantern.
After roughly 45 minutes crawling and clambering our way through the caves, we welcomed daylight!
One thing we didn’t realize before coming to the cave is that it is a place of worship so appropriate dress is required. Ladies who are wearing shorts will be asked to donate 20 baht to rent a sarong before being allowed to enter the caves.
The caves are also quite damp, so it’s smart to wear shoes other than flip-flops to prevent yourself from losing your footing.
COST: 40 baht per foreign adult or 20 baht (written in Thai as ๒๑) per Thai adult or foreigner with Thai license entrance fee; 100 baht for a guide. Open 7am to 5pm daily.
|NOTE: This activity is not for everyone. If you are afraid of the dark, jumping bugs, tight spaces, or otherwise are in poor health and either cannot fit or bend through tight spaces or climb a flight of stairs without losing your breath, we do not recommend doing this.|
Soak in the Pong Arng Hot Springs
About 30 minutes drive north of Chiang Dao is the Pha Daeng National Park. We took the entire afternoon visiting the Pong Arng Hot Springs (บ่อน้ำร้อนโป่งอ่าง) and the Sri Sungwan Waterfalls (น้ำตกศรีสังวาลย์) there. This was our first visit to a hot spring and we were amazed by the unearthly like mineral formations at the bottom of the shallow pools. Is this typically what it looks like?
The Pong Arng Hot Springs are made of two crystal clear hot springs (51⁰C and 58⁰C) and a single cold but cloudy spring. They springs are redirected into a soaking area and the temperature feels very much like a steamy bath.
There are steps leading into the pool but we decided to sit on the stone-lined sidelines and dip our feet in instead. We can imagine how nice it would be to come here in the coldest months of January and February and take a nice hot soak when the air is chilly.
Entrance tickets are considered day passes to anywhere in the Pha Daeng National Park, so we were able to go to both attractions for one price. The foreigner price is 100 baht per person, but with our Thai driver licenses we managed to get the local price of 20 baht per person. Not bad for an entire afternoon exploring a national forest!
Climb the Sri Sungwan Waterfalls
The Sri Sungwan Waterfalls are just two or three kilometers north of the Pong Arng Hot Springs and are accessible through a different park entrance. It’s a three-tiered waterfalls surrounded by a beautiful tropical rain forest.
We visited at the end of August, which is near the middle of the rainy season. The waterfalls are roaring with life and beautiful white rapids splash against peach colored rocks.
COST: 100 baht per foreign adult; 20 baht for Thai adult or foreigner with Thai license
Treat Yourself to a Thai Massage
Our weekend getaway could not be complete without a massage. We had spent the day walking through a huge market and crawling through dark caves and needed to rest our tender feet and legs.
We opted for an hour-long traditional Thai massage and a foot massage for a grand total of 350 baht. At the current exchange rate, that’s only 10 USD for two hour-long massages! That’s better than the prices that we typically see in Chiang Mai, which have hovered around 200 or 250 baht per massage in a similar casual setting.
Although there weren’t many signs advertising massages in Chiang Dao, we eventually found two places after keeping our eyes peels for a simple massage (นวด) sign.
COST: 150 to 200 baht per one hour massage, depending on the type
|TIP: Some of the guesthouses outsource masseuses and will make the appropriate arrangements if you ask ahead of time.|
Other Things to Do in Chiang Dao
We spent only three days in Chiang Dao and squeezed in as much as we could during our trip, but there are more things to do in Chiang Dao than what we had time for:
- Bamboo rafting on the Ping River
- Wang Hai whiskey raft (March through May only)
- Climb to the top of Tha Pha Plong Temple for great views
- Soak in Japanese style hot springs
- Take an organized hike up Chiang Dao Mountain
- Visit a hill tribe village
- Camp at Pha Daeng National Park
We should mention that Chiang Dao is an early-to-bed, early-to-rise kind of place. We didn’t find much activity past 7:30pm (sunset) when we went out, so plan accordingly. Two places we know are open later are The Cave Bar and Microkosmos Craft Beer.
Where to Stay in Chiang Dao
We had a very memorable stay at the Chiang Dao Nest and were lucky enough to try both Nest 1 and Nest 2. For the smaller, two-person cabin, prices range from 695 baht to 1045 baht (20 USD to 30 USD) per night depending on the season.
If you’d like to try out some other places in Chiang Dao, here’s a short list:
CHIANG DAO HUT
This pet friendly guesthouse offers simple but clean fan bungalows and lovely outdoor lounge areas. There’s also an onsite restaurant, bike rentals, and laundry facility.
from 10 USD
MALEES NATURE LOVERS BUNGALOWS
These well-made bungalows are set in a cozy garden area and feature a pool and play area for children. They serve a great Western breakfast at their onsite restaurant, too.
from 22 USD
CHIANGKHAM LUANG RESORT
Beautiful views from private balconies in a peaceful setting. Relax at the bar, coffee shop, and restaurant.
Deluxe room from 60 USD