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Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai in 3 days

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This article is an itinerary.


Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai in 3 days is an itinerary through Northern Thailand. This itinerary starts and ends in Chiang Mai, making a loop through Chiang Rai province, travelling to main tourist sites such as the Golden Triangle and areas off the main tourist trail such as Doi Mae Salong

Understand

This itinerary gets off the main tourist trail and allows you to explore the more authentic parts of Chiang Rai. In particular Doi Angkhang 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.

Prepare

Due to the altitude of these mountainous areas, bring warm clothing especially if you're planning to come in the winter months (November till February) where temperatures can drop to single digits at night. For those that suffer from car sickness, motion sickness tablets are recommended before the start of the trip.

Mountains of Chiang Rai

Get around

Getting around is a bit complicated as this itinerary heads off the beaten tourist track. Public buses and mini-buses 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 Angkhang). Due to the hairpin turns up the Doi Angkhang Mountain, you would need to be an experienced driver on these kind of roads.

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 Angkhang

From Chiang Mai head 77 kilometers north to Chiang Dao, home to Chiang Dao mountain, the 3rd highest mountain in Thailand. Bordering Myanmar, in previous times this was an opium trading point. Nowadays it is popular amongst 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 lit walk way. After Chiang Dao head towards Doi Ang Khang via Fang.

Doi Angkhang 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-Myanmarese 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 base camp situated 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 binoculors you can even see the waving Myanmarese flag signaling the Myanmarese military base on the other side.

Doi Angkhang Mountain view

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 the serious cultivation stuff goes on growing organic crops normally found in colder climes such as strawberries, rhubarbs 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.

Spend the first overnight here. There are several guesthouses and resorts, such as Angkhang Villa [1] and Ban Luang Resort.

Day 2) Thaton - Fang - Mae Salong

The next morning, head towards Thaton, which is nestled between the Kok River and border of Myanmar. 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-Myanmarese border mountain range. The hill is scattered with large Buddha images of different styles; Chinese, Thai and Myanmarese. The town of Thaton is small and quiet, visibly less commercialized by tourism with a handful of hotels and guesthouses. From Thaton it is also possible to take a boat down the Kok River southwards to Chiang Rai.

Terraced tea leaf plantations in Mae Salong

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.

Whilst 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 by oolong tea.

Spend the night here. Guesthouses in the area include:

  • Mae Salong Little Home, 053 765 389/ 085 724 0626.
  • Shin Shane Guesthouse, 053 765 026.

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.

Golden Triangle view point

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 Mekhong 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 snaps. The opium museum does offer an interesting history and background to the area though.

After the Golden Triangle, head back to Chiang Mai via Chiang Saen, which was once an ancient capital of Thailand. It boasts the famous White Temple (Wat Rong Khun).

White temple 'Wat Rong Khun' in Chiang Rai


Transport

This itinerary is possible by public bus Green Bus, 053 266480, [3]. ] except for some more remote parts such as Doi Angkhang and Mae salong where you will have to catch a local 'songtiaw' a pick up taxi service for locals.

Self-drive is also an option, but 4wd is needed for Doi Angkhang which has steep mountain roads and hairpin turns

Another option to explore Chiang Rai province is to hire a car with driver and guide * +66 (0)855 480 884, [4].

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