Travelers on the Northern Thailand route would usually visit the rural town of Chiang Dao – if the hamlet even makes it to their itinerary - after spending some time Chiang Mai. But since I had an expat for my guide, and was already in the rural mountain area, I found my way there before I’d “done” the city action of Chiang Mai.
About 75 miles north of city, Chiang Dao translates literally to mean “the City of the Stars,” and I enjoyed a spectacular show from the heavens each of the five nights I spent there. It was the sunsets that really got me camera-happy though. Doi Chiang Dao, a jagged mountain standing about 7300 feet, looms over the town, lending its mysterious majesty to every view.
I was lucky enough to be transported to Chiang Dao by truck, courtesy of wonderful Dave, and this gave me the opportunity to check out the various lodging options without being hampered by my oversized backpack. Most travelers stay about 5 km west of the village, in an area nestled under the mountain and near the famous Chiang Dao Cave. I thought I’d choose a place in that neighborhood, but the rooms were either expensive and/or booked, so we drove back towards town to take a look at the two or three places on the lane between the highway and the main street of the village.
I knew I’d found home when we pulled into Hobby Hut, which only got the briefest mention in the guidebook. Four thatched roof bungalows circled a large meadow-like area with spectacular views of the mountain. A small reception area included a rudimentary kitchen with fridge that was available or guest use. A large garden, fields of tassled corn, and a drying shed filled with garlic surrounded the compound. Birds called to one another from the treetops. Although I’d hoped to find a place with a restaurant, this could not be passed up. And I had a ride into town to rent a bicycle, so I’d be mobile.
I thought I might spend just a couple of nights there before taking a bus back down to the city – after all there were only a few “sights” and attractions – the aforementioned cave, a forest temple, and best of all two hot springs!
After experiencing the relaxed pace, it didn’t take long to decide to extend my stay. Lying in my wooden bungalow at night listening to creek burbling and the frogs and birds calling, riding my bike the 2-3 miles down a peaceful lane to the hot springs while large dry teak leaves gently drifted down into the road and crackled under my wheels, soaking in the warm mineral water and then plunging into the cold creek – it just seemed silly to leave so soon. And besides, if I stayed longer I’d get a chance to visit the Tuesday Morning Market where many vendors from the hill tribes came to sell their wares.
And so I spent five days soaking up the peace of Chiang Dao. This was the portion of my trip I’d envisoned before I left: A quiet village where I could pedal around the country lanes and spend time dreaming, reading and writing.
A peaceful morning visit to Wat Pla That Doi Mounjing, a working temple, nestled in the forest underneath the mountain. I managed to time my visit when I would not be disturbed by any other tourists. Meditative signs, quiet benches where one could sit and contemplate under rustling leaves, ornamental and medicinal plants labeled in Thai and Latin (too bad I’m not up on my Latin names), a prayer and offering in the shrine in the inner reaches of the temple, the soft swishing noise of a ochre-robed monk sweeping the long cement stairway.
Daily (well, evening) visits to the hot springs.
I am a hot springs junkie, and it turns out Dave is too. He recommended the unofficial springs – the one I’d find just beyond the signed one. “It’s hotter, and it’s free,” he said. The official hot springs (pictured) cost about $1.50 to enter. The free one was more rustic, consisting of a series of small cement tubs that sometimes were drained of water and required expert manipulation of large bamboo pipes (and locating the plugs) to get the water flowing and filled again.
The first evening I rode out and couldn’t even figure out where the fancier hot spring actually was. But I spotted the cement tubs and they seemed to all be full of steaming water. I almost left without soaking because I felt intimidated by the Thai men who were scrubbing themselves in the warm water. But after circling my bike around a bit, two of them left and I realized the only remaining bathers were a Thai father with his four kids. Not intimidating at all! So I donned my bathing suit and slipped into an unoccupied tub. Aaaah! Steaming mineral water about 104 degrees encircled my parched skin. When I couldn’t take it any more, I slipped into the cool running stream below. Hydrotherapy in Thailand! Sheer bliss.
The kids splashed around while their dad soaked, and I smiled at them all, wishing I could speak Thai.
Unfortunately no pictures of that one since I thought it rude to snap photos while people were bathing.
On another evening I decided to find the official spring, since I found several locals soaking in the cement tubs, and I’d wanted to check it out anyway. I finally figured out that I had to walk through a farm-yard populated with scary-looking steer that resembled buffalo. They ignored me, obviously used to visitors. For the 50 Baht one could use a dressing room, shower and toilet. After changing I slipped into a large rock pool of warm water overlooking the stream. Across the creek a family milled around their yard and garden doing their evening chores.
The Chiang Dao Cave did not thrill me, although the crumbling altars and statues deep within the dark cavern did intrigue.
Far more interesting however were the herb ladies and their stalls on the lane just outside the exit. They beckoned me over to show the odd-shaped roots, flower bulbs, salves and potions, entreating me to buy. Most of the baskets displayed signs proclaiming the plant’s purpose in Thai and broken English. The translations were often hilarious. I longed to fill my bag with the bulbs and powders, twisted roots and wrinkle creams, but I disappointed the ladies – not wanting to add weight and bulk to my backpack and knowing that I wouldn’t get most of that stuff through customs.
Aside from my bungalow compound, a favorite Chiang Dao hangout for me was Nature Home Guesthouse, just a kilometre or so down the road – an easy ride on my bicycle. The daughter of the Thai owner, Mem, is married to Jergen, a German, and they both greeted me with friendly smiles and lots of advice about local sites and activities.
Their rooms were a bit more upscale with en suite bathrooms, laundry service,and wireless access on the property, and I even considered moving. But the views of the mountains kept me at Hobby Hut, and decided to visit their excellent restaurant on a daily basis (Thai specialties along with Jergen’s delicious home-baked whole grain bread – better even that California!) and use the Internet there while chatting with those two and any other guests who were passing through.
Mem had told me that the Tuesday Morning Market got going around 6:30 a.m., so I rose early to make it over there by about 8. The long street through town was already packed with motorbikes, and other vehicles, including pickup trucks with large loudspeakers that cruised up and down the street blaring announcements (or maybe just radio broadcasts?)
Although I’d hoped to find some textiles crafted by the local hill tribes, this market was more about food, food, food – and practical and useful goods for the locals. It reminded me of the market at Arunothai, but much bigger with a selection of food that looked a bit less intimidating (although there was plenty to intimidate too.)
The produce alone made me wish I was staying another week and could bring an armful home.
I purchased some mini-cream puffs and a fresh-baked banana muffin from a lady running a tiny stall, but then opted to eat a real Thai breakfast of noodle soup from another likely looking stall. Although the food was all labeled in Thai I was able to point to communicate, and the kind cook fixed me up well, adding toppings and condiments “not too spicy!” Delicious, and easy on the budget at 25 Baht – less than a dollar.
By Wednesday it was time to move on, so I said a reluctant goodbye to my bungalow get-away and boarded the bus to Chiang Mai. Dave and Fai were heading into the city that same afternoon, and he was due to fly back to the U.S. a day later. Once more they eased my journey by bringing my heavy backpack into the city on their truck – allowing me to explore guesthouse options on foot and unencumbered.That was nearly a week ago – lots of do and explore here in this Northern City as well. So far a Thai cooking class, temple visits, a motorcycle ride to a hot springs, and lots of time drinking with local expats and visitors. Tomorrow, a two-day trek up in the mountains including elephant riding and bamboo rafting. And then, who knows?