Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai in 3 days is an itinerary through Northern Thailand.
This itinerary gets off the main tourist trail and allows you to explore the more authentic parts of Northern Thailand. In particular Doi Ang Khang is hardly frequented by foreign tourists, but is a huge attraction for Thai tourists who flock here in their thousands during the winter months. The main tourist route which many commercial tour operators take is the direct road north from Chiang Mai to the Golden Triangle and Mae Sai border. This is a so-called "tourist trap" which only passes through the developed and urban parts of Chiang Rai Province. This suggested route combines tourist and non-tourist sites, bearing to the west covering rural and mountainous areas before ending up at the Mae Sai border and heading back south on the main tourist trail. Venturing into the countryside allows you to see a variety of hill tribes such as the Lisu, Lahu, Palong and Akha in their natural habitats.
Due to the altitude of these mountainous areas, bring warm clothing especially if you're planning to come in the winter months (Nov-Feb), when temperatures can drop to single digits at night. For those who suffer from car sickness, motion sickness tablets are recommended before the start of the trip.
Getting around is a bit complicated as this itinerary heads off the beaten tourist track. Public buses and minibuses are available for popular routes, such as from the Chiang Mai to Thaton. Some routes have no public transport at all, so you'll need private transport (such as the route to Doi Ang Khang). Due to the steep hairpin turns up the Doi Ang Khang mountain, it helps to be an experienced driver on this kind of road.
Only local pick up trucks (songthaews) run to Mae Salong. From Mae Sai back to Chiang Mai there are regular public buses.
Day 1: Chiang Mai to Doi Ang Khang
From Chiang Mai head 77 km north to Chiang Dao, home to Chiang Dao mountain, the third highest mountain in Thailand. Bordering Myanmar, in previous times this was an opium smuggling region. Nowadays it is popular among trekkers and those wanting to get out of the hustle and bustle of Chiang Mai without venturing too far. The main attraction is Chiang Dao Cave at the base of the mountain, which is open to visitors to explore via a tunneled and lighted walkway. After Chiang Dao head towards Doi Ang Khang via Fang.
Doi Ang Khang Doi Ang Khang is largely unknown to foreign tourists, but a famous destination for Thai tourists. It is a wild and mountainous frontier range which lies at the edge of the Thai-Myanmar border. A cluster of peaks and valleys, it is also home to colourful hill tribes such as the Palong, Lahu, Lisu and Hmong.
From the Thai military camp on a ridge at the edge of the border, you can look out over no mans land and the sweeping expanse of Myanmar and its remote Shan states. With b binoculars you can even see the waving Myanmar flag marking the Myanmar military base on the other side.
One of the key attractions here is the Royal Agricultural Project Centre where beautifully manicured gardens host a colourful array of flowers. There are also greenhouses where there is serious cultivation of crops normally found in colder climes: strawberries, rhubarb, and persimmons. More than just a beautiful site, this place bears particular significance as this is a showcase for the success of the king's initiative which started 30 years ago to wean the hill tribes off growing opium to more productive crops.
Day 2: Thaton-Fang-Mae Salong
The next morning, head towards Thaton, which is nestled between the Kok River and the Myanmar border. The main attraction here is Wat Thaton, a striking hilltop temple which offers superb views of the Mae Kok River Valley below. This is another point from where you can see the Thai-Myanmar border mountain range. The hill is scattered with large Buddha images of different styles: Chinese, Thai, and Burmese. The town of Thaton is small and quiet, visibly less commercialized by tourism with only a handful of hotels and guesthouses. From Thaton it is possible to take a boat down the Kok River south to Chiang Rai.
On this route we continue up north to the Chinese village of Mae Salong, otherwise known as Santhiriki (an old Pali name meaning peace). Mae Salong is home to descendants of Kuomintang (KMT) soldiers who fled China's communist rule in 1949. This village is visibly Chinese, filled with Chinese restaurants and shops selling teas and wares. The terraced tea plantations which make Mae Salong so idyllic are where its trademark oolong tea are grown.
While here, a must try is Chinese Yunnanese cuisine. Staple dishes which you will see on all the menus are leg pork, mantou (steamed Chinese bread) and chicken black bone soup washed down with oolong tea.
Spend the night here. Guesthouses in the area include:
- Mae Salong Little Home, ☏ , .
- Shin Shane Guesthouse, ☏ .
Day 3: Mae Sai-Golden Triangle-Chiang Mai
After Mae Salong, depart back down to the lowlands towards Mae Sai, the most northerly point of Thailand. On the way, a fun stop off is the Fish Cave Tham Pla. There are lots of fish and the main draw here are the roaming monkeys which you can see scaling the side of the cave and swinging from the trees. You can get up close to the monkeys and feed them. Pay attention to the signs though as these monkeys can get fierce if aggravated. A few kilometers north lies Mae Sai, a bustling border town where you can cross the Friendship Bridge over to Myanmar and visit the town of Tachilek.
After Mae Sai it's time to head back south on the main tourist track to the Golden Triangle: an infamous opium trading point in former times. The Mekong converges here to form the meeting point of 3 countries: Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos, which is probably where the name "Golden Triangle" comes from. However, another reason this name is given is due to how lucrative this area was in former times, being an infamous trading point for opium.
The Golden Triangle is very much a tourist affair with large tourist vans and tourists bustling to take their photos. The opium museum does offer an interesting history and background to the area though.