On a recent trip through northern Thailand, my friend Deborah and I did a 10-day scooter trip along the northern part of the Mae Hong Son Loop. This was our second attempt at scootering through this area – the first ending in failure with our disabled scooters in the back of a pickup truck.
This scooter adventure was much smoother, well except for that little police roadblock situation. With plenty of time in our schedule, we were able to slow down, really smell the roses and explore the cool caves and peaceful temples in the small village of Chiang Dao, located 70km north of Chiang Mai.
Northern Thailand is a very popular tourist area, especially for backpackers on a limited budget. But travelers with a slightly bigger budget will also find tons of things worth seeing in this area of Thailand, and it’s just an added bonus that the area is so affordable – like $14/night for a cute double bungalow booked on Agoda.
Chiang Dao Cave – not just your average “man cave”
The Chiang Dao Cave is the most famous cave complex in the area and consists of over 100 caves set into the Doi Chiang Dao mountain range, but only a few of those are accessible to tourists. Stepping into the main entrance it becomes obvious that this is more than just your average dark and gloomy “man cave”, it’s actually a Buddhist temple. Just past the temple entrance a small flock of tour guides linger, just waiting for tourists to pay the “mandatory tip” of 100 baht for a professional guide through the dark and treacherous cave complex. The guide is not required but highly recommended because it’s really, really dark inside and there are many areas we totally would’ve missed without our guide. We’d probably still be searching for our way out. And then deep within the bowels of this massive cavern, there is a peaceful little altar. Kind of cool (or “swag” – someone just told me “cool” is out and “swag” is in).
After finding our way out of the caves, we decided to explore more of the surrounding area and drove to the end of the road past Chiang Dao Caves where we stumbled upon a gem – Wat Tham Pha Plong temple. A highly respected monk, Looang Boo Sim Buddhacaro, spent over ten years teaching here and made the place kind of famous among Thai Buddhists.
Buddhist meditations lined the pathway, inspirational quotes attached to trees along the stairs making climbing the 500 steps to the temple more of a walking meditation. It helped ease the pain just a little seeing reminders of “the impermanence of things” and to “keep your mind on the present moment.”
When we finally arrived at the top we found something amazing for Thailand temples – no tourists at all! We were alone except for a couple of monks and the view from the top was breathtaking! Our timing was perfect too, as we witnessed the 3 pm ceremonial ringing of the gong. Tranquil, peaceful, quiet, meditative, mesmerizing. Some tourists complain about temple burn-out when traveling in Thailand, but I usually find something unique and interesting in every temple and I really loved this one!
Secret Cave Temple (Don’t tell anyone…)
Returning from exploring Wat Tham Pha Plong temple we noticed an entrance to another smaller temple so we made a quick left turn and decided to take a look around. We drove in, parked our scooters, and did our best to avoid disturbing the monks quietly strolling around the complex. Some were busy doing their afternoon chores, sweeping the leaves and cleaning the temple.
And then we discovered a secret cave temple, well-hidden along the far side of the parking area. We snuck in quietly and found the cave empty except for Buddha statues lining the walls and a beautiful altar in the center.
Once our eyes adjusted to the darkness inside the cave, we noticed a young Thai woman sitting on the floor meditating. She glanced up and saw us and invited us to sit down and just exhale. She spoke perfect English so we stayed for a while and chatted with her.
We learned she was spending time there as a volunteer, working with the monks and spending lots of time meditating in this beautiful, secluded cave temple. Foreigners are also welcome to come and stay in the temple complex, so we promised to return again and stay for a week or two.
Chiang Dao Hut Resort
There are quite a few small hotels and resorts located in this area, but we chose the Chiang Dao Hut (booked on Agoda). The location is perfect, walking distance to the famous Chiang Dao Caves and just a short scooter ride to the other sites. Our cute little hut was a bargain at only $14/night for a double and had a great restaurant right across the road, serving our morning coffee and evening Chang Beer!
We found Chiang Dao a less touristy village in the very popular and sometimes over-touristed northern Thailand area since it’s located just slightly off the popular backpacker trail of Chiang Mai and Pai. It’s worth spending a few days exploring the side roads or sitting quietly in a beautiful hilltop temple, listening to the sound of the wind in the trees and the temple goonnnggggggg. Ahhhh….