Doi Chiang Dao is the 3rd highest mountain in Thailand at 2,186 m. It’s also just 72 km north of Chiang Mai and has a cool cave to explore. This all adds up to an ideal weekend trip. On very clear days I can actually see the outline of Doi Chiang Dao from my 10th floor balcony on the northwest side of Chiang Mai. While Chiang Mai is dominated by Doi Suthep, it’s easy to forget that there are lots of other mountains surrounding the city.
You can head out from Chinag Mai in the morning and get to Chiang Dao by lunch time. The drive is fairly easy, along the main highway going north from Chiang Mai past Mae Rim. If driving a motorbike, you can break up the ride around Mae Taeng to get a cup of coffee and give your bum a rest. This route mainly follows along the length of a valley, so there isn’t much up and down, nor are there curves upon curves such as you’d have to negotiate when going to Pai. If you don’t have your own transportation, you can board a bus or songthaew headed to Fang and get out at Chiang Dao. It’s much better if you can take your own wheels, though, so you can get around Chiang Dao easier.
Once you get there, you don’t want to stay at a hotel in the actual town of Chiang Dao. It’s very small, and there is not a whole lot going on. It’s much better to stay in a cabin-type bungalow out by the mountain itself. Chiang Dao Nest gets consistently good reviews. I think the cabins start around 1000 baht per night, but it was booked full when we arrived, so we went elsewhere. A bonus of staying at the Chiang Dao Nest is the giant bamboo they have growing. I’m guessing that it was dendrocalamus giganteus, which is the most massive variety of bamboo on earth. Really impressive stuff if you’re into the ‘boo. Chiang Dao Hut is also well known for its restaurant which serves western style food. However, it didn’t look like their menu had much for vegetarians so we didn’t try it.
Right next the Chiang Dao Nest is a place called Malee’s, which is apparently very popular with birders. The restaurant looked nice, and the bungalows seemed OK, but we didn’t stay here either because we didn’t care for the layout of the grounds.
Instead, we chose the simple, but lovely Chiang Dao Hut. They have a few basic bungalows in a nice garden setting. I think we only paid about 400 baht for a basic hut with a fan and shared bathroom. The food was not bad, but if you stay at Chiang Mai Hut, you can also walk right next door to the Chiang Dao Nest 2, where they have excellent Thai food. I highly recommend the boiled rice breakfast there.
The main attraction at Chiang Dao is Chiang Dao Cave. You can also walk up to see a cave temple, and there are places you can camp on the mountain. The main Chiang Dao Cave has a temple in front of the entrance, but there is another temple with a cave called Wat Tham Pha Plong. You can get there by going farther down the road from Chiang Dao Nest and following the split in the road to the left. This temple was established by a wandering monk named Luang Pu Sim Phuttha Charo, who was a a disciple of the famous meditation master Ajahn Mun. Luang Pu Sim chose this spot for a temple because there is a small cave partway up the mountain that is an ideal spot for meditation. There are 500 steps that must be climbed to get there. But it’s very worth it. Take your time and enjoy the peacefulness of the environment here. At the top you’ll find a small pagoda that has a room with some of Luang Pu Sim’s personal items and relics on display. Remember to be quiet at this temple because there are people who come here to practice vipassana meditation.
The main Chiang Dao Cave has an unfortunate policy of dual pricing. In other words, Thai people can enter at one price, while foreigners are charged an inflated price. However, the signboard that states the entrance fee does not state anywhere that one price is for “foreigners” and one for “Thais”. The part of the signboard written in Thai simply reads “20 baht per person”, while the English says something like “40 baht per person”. I was able to get in for the Thai price since I could read the sign. This is a good example of how learning to read Thai comes in handy if you plan to stay in this country for any decent length of time.
Just inside the cave there is a well lit chamber with lots of Buddha images in various nooks and crannies. Some appear to be carved out of the rock. After this, you have two options. There is a large section of the cave with electrical lighting that is fairly easy to walk through on your own. Another section of the cave is not lit, and you’ll need to hire a guide to lead you through with lanterns. There are some interesting formations in the guide-led section of the cave, but also some tricky spots where you have to walk hunched over to avoid smacking your head. It’s definitely not for the claustrophobic.
According to local legend, a Ruesi, or holy hermit, lived in the cave for 1000 years. Through the power of his meditation, the Ruesi was able to communicate with the local spirits, and he instructed them to leave the various odd geological formations within Chiang Dao Cave. In addition, the cave is believed to be the residence of naga serpents.
Back outside the cave, near the parking lot you’ll find a small market of Thai medicinal herbs. Besides all the various roots and the powders derived from them, you can also pick up medical balms, which are nice for massaging into stiff or achy muscles. If you’re familiar with Tiger Balm, these are pretty similar. It might come in handy for a back and shoulder rub after the long ride back to Chiang Mai.