Northern Thailand is one of my favorite areas of South East Asia and I find myself returning there over and over. Unfortunately, last year’s Mae Hong Son Loop trip wasn’t a smooth journey. So, after a disastrous first attempt at the Mae Hong Son Loop, my friend Deborah and I decided to try it again. On our second scooter trip, we took a little side trip to Chiang Dao to explore the famous Chiang Dao Caves. With plenty of time built into our schedule, we were able to slow down and explore the cool caves and peaceful temples in the small village of Chiang Dao.
Chiang Dao Caves – not just your average “man cave”
In an area of Thailand known for stunning caves, the Chiang Dao Caves are among the most famous. The cave complex consists of over 100 caves set into the Doi Chiang Dao mountain range. Unfortunately, only a few of these are accessible to tourists.
As you step through the main entrance, it becomes obvious that this is more than just your average dark and gloomy “man cave”. The cave is actually a stunning Buddhist temple.
Just past the temple entrance the 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. Although they don’t require you to hire a guide, it’s probably a good idea. The cave complex is REALLY dark there are many areas we totally would’ve missed without our guide. (We’d probably still be searching for our way out.)
And then, hidden deep within the bowels of this massive cavern, you come upon a peaceful little altar. Really cool!
Peaceful Temple – Wat Tham Pha Plong
After the caves, it was time to explore more of the surrounding area. Just past Chiang Dao Caves, we stumbled upon a hidden gem – Wat Tham Pha Plong temple. A highly respected monk, Looang Boo Sim Buddhacaro, spent over ten years teaching here and made the place famous among Thai Buddhists.
As we climbed the stairs, we noticed Buddhist meditations lining the pathway. These inspirational quotes attached to trees made 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 with the 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. This one is amazing!
Travel Tip: Some of the monks actually speak English and can arrange an overnight meditation for foreign tourists.
Secret Cave Temple
Returning from our gong meditation at 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. Golden-robed monks strolled through the complex, some 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. Her English was perfect so we stayed for a while to chat with her.
She was spending time there as a volunteer, working with the monks. This beautiful, secluded cave temple is where she spent time meditating.
Travel Tip: Foreigners are welcome to stay in the temple complex.
Hotel Recommendation – Chiang Dao Hut Resort
There are quite a few small hotels and resorts located in this area, but we chose the Chiang Dao Hut. The location is perfect, walking distance to the famous Chiang Dao Caves and a short scooter ride to the other sites. A double room in a cute little hut cost only $14/night. Right across the road is a restaurant serving our morning coffee and evening Chang Beer!
Check rates for all Chiang Dao hotels here.
Located off the popular backpacker trail, Chiang Dao is a much less touristy village in the very popular and sometimes over-touristed northern Thailand. It’s worth spending a few days exploring the side roads or sitting quietly in a beautiful hilltop temple.
Listen to the silence and the sound of the wind in the trees as the temple gongs. Ahhhh….zen!