Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai in 3 days
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.
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. It may not always be easy to find somewhere convenient to eat whilst travelling so pack some snacks and drinks to put you on between stops.
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 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 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.
One of the key attractions here is the Royal Agricultural Project Centre (sign-posted Royal Angkhang Reseach Station) 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  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.
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.
Places of interest include Martyrs Memorial Museum (dedicated to the original settlers of Mae Salong) and Phra Boromathat Chedi (built on a hill in honour of the late Princess Mother, Srinagarindra). Next to the chedi is the Princess Mother Hall, which can be reached on foot up a 718-step staircase or via car along a steep, winding road.
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:
Day 3) Mae Sai - Golden Triangle - Chiang Rai
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.
Crossing the bridge over the fish pond fed by the crystal clear stream running from the base of the mountain you can climb up nearly 300 hundred steep stone steps to the gorge that is supposed to look like the tail of a fish where the cave derives its name.
At the other end of the temples grounds is the rarely visitted Tham Ku Kao (Turtle Cave). The cave is several hundred metres long, unlit so bring you own torch, with a hard packed chalk floor which is wet and slippery most of the year. The roof drips and the walls are slick with moisture; the floor with bat droppings.
About 15 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. It costs $10 or 500 baht to cross the border (subject to change so please check). Once on the Myanmar side, there’s a bustling marketplace mostly full of counterfeit goods, and plenty of little stalls featuring Burmese food. Also, atop a hill near the border is the temple Wat Phra That Doi Wao, which is said to provide some nice views.
After Mae Sai it's time to head back south on the main tourist track towards the Golden Triangle: an infamous opium trading point in former times.
On the approach to the Goldern Triangle you pass the Golden Triangle Park Hall of Opium which offers an interesting history and background to the area (entrace 200 baht). Alternatively a smaller option is the 212 House of Opium (Museum) (entrance 50 baht including postcard) just across the road from the Golden Triangle and next to Wat Pra That Pukhao.
The Golden Triangle itself is very much a tourist affair with large tourist vans and tourists bustling to take their snaps. 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.
Additional Day on the outskirts of Chiang Rai
If you want something relaxing we recomend staying outside the city at Bura Resort. This is next to Lam Nam Kok National Park and Pong Phrabat Waterfall. It's a very scenic region, you may find you wish to stay for a few relaxing days at the beautiful resort before heading in to Chiang Rai city centre.
In the morning go to Pong Phrabat Forest Park and and hike 1km though the woods up to Pong Phrabat Waterfall. Unlike many of the other waterfalls in the area, these falls do not receive too many visitors, so you can relax, swim and picnic near the falls without being disturbed. Free Entry.
After lunch (1pm) go to The Black House aka Baan Dam (sometime incorrectly referred to as The Black Temple), the estate of Thai National Artist Thawan Duchanee and his artful portrayal of hell. The stark decor and animal bones/skins adorning each room make Duchanee's estate the complete opposite of the White Temple, the glimpse of heaven designed by his teacher Chalermchai Kositpipat. Open 9am-5pm daily (closed 12-1pm). 80 Baht for adults.
Finally head to Pong Phrabat Hot Spring; the water here reaches temperatures of 60C and bathers have the choice of soaking in the public pool or paying extra for a private tub. Mainly aimed at locals this is a no-thrills spa, but it's clean and inexpensive.
In the evening continue on to Chiang Rai centre (as per below) and enjoy the nightlife.
Chiang Rai at Night
If you'd like to check out what nightlife Chiang Rai offers then pick a centrally located hotel. Compared to Phuket, Pattaya and even their quieter cousin Chiang Mai the Nightlife in Chiang Rai is pretty low key but it can be fun.
Every evening, at 19:00, 20:00 and 21:00, the Chiang Mai Clock Tower comes to life in a light-and-sound display. Built in 2008 to honour His Majesty King Bhumibhol Adulyadej, it bears the signature style of Chalermchai Kositpipat, the artist who conceived and built The White Temple.
For dinner we recommend the Night Bazaar & Food Court where you can do a bit of shopping then choose a meal from dozens of small business and catch a show. A typical show will consist of some ladyboy dancers, a comedy / cabaret act (mainly in Thai), and some live music; this is very popular amongst Thai's so a must for visitors who want something authentic.
If beer bars are more your scene head to Jet Yod Road which is lined with farang-friendly bars, restaurants, and guest houses. If you want to go on to a disco later in the night get a tuk tuk to Tawan Daeng (2km South); Par Club is the biggest discoteque in the area but other recommendable places in the area are Sugar Beat and U-Turn bar. Alternatively a popular hangout with the young hip crowd recently is at Sohub on the corner of Sanambin and Banphaprakan roads.
Final Day) Chiang Rai - Chiang Mai
In the morning you may wish to spend a couple of hours taking in some sights within Chiang Rai such as Wat Phra Kaeo, where the famous Emerald Buddha (now housed in Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok) was first discovered. The story of the Emerald Buddha is famous throughout Thailand as, a few hundred years ago, it was hidden inside a chedi and covered in stucco to hide it from the Burmese. People forgot the Emerald Buddha existed until the chedi was hit by a bolt of lighting that cracked the chedi open and the statue could be seen inside.
When you're ready to leave Chiang Rai head South (12km) to the famous White Temple aka Wat Rong Khun. Here would be a good opportunity to get some lunch at the nearby cafes.
Heading back to Chiang Mai you can take the 118 or if you take the slightly longer route down the 1 you can stop at Pu Kaeng Waterfall in Doi Luang National Park (50km South of Wat Rong Khun). Entrance fee is about 150 baht for 2 people and a car. Here you could simply cool off in the waterfall or spend a little longer and go exploring the park. You can even camp overnight. (Closed July 1 - September 30)
Carry on back South along the 1 then West along the 120 will bring you back to the 118 within a couple of hours (120km) - alternatively it's almost equidistant to return North up the 1 then South along the 118. Just 12km South of where the 120 meets the 118 you will find Sampuron Tavieesin Hotspring which claims to be the highest hot water spring in Thailand. This makes a nice stop to soak you aching feet or why not boil an egg?
Continuing South for about 1hr (60km) will bring you back to Chiang Mai.
This itinerary is possible by public bus Green Bus, ☎ 053 266480, . edit] 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; a 4wd may be preferable for Doi Angkhang which has steep mountain roads and hairpin turns but as long as your car is in good working order it should not be a problem for experienced drivers. Car hire is about 1200 baht a day from most hotels and / or tour operators.