Chiang Rai is a popular destination for tourists wanting to do a 2 or 3 day trip from Chiang Mai and explore more of Northern Thailand. To get off the main tourist trail (the direct road from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai) a recommended route is to head from Chiang Mai 77km north to Chiang Dao, one of the 25 districts of Chiang Mai and home to Chiang Dao mountain the 3rd highest mountain in Thailand. In previous times this was a busy trade area where goods were transported to and from Burma. 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. Approximately 90km north of Chiang Dao lies Doi Angkhang.
Doi Angkhang largely unknown to foreign tourists but a famous destination for Thai tourists is a wild and mountainous frontier range which lies at the edge of the Thailand Burma border. A cluster of peaks and valleys it is also home to colourful hilltribes such as the Palong, Lahu, Lisu and Hmong.
Sitting at one of the most remote corners of Northern Thailand you will definitely feel you’re at the end of the road and on a remote and wild precipice. Here you can enjoy an idyllic location, the views, cool climate, fresh mountain air and hilltribes.
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 binoculars you can even see the waving Burmese flag indicating the Burmese military base on the other side. Next to this are several Palong, Lahu and Lisu villages which you can visit and still remain very traditional.
One of the key attractions here is the Royal Agricultural 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, 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 hilltribes off growing opium to more productive crops.
After Doi Angkhang head towards Fang and then Thaton, a district nestled between the Kok River and border of Burma. 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 Thailand Burma 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 a handful of hotels and guesthouses.
From Thaton it is also possible to take a boat down the Kok River southwards to Chiang Rai.
Continuing on this route though, head 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 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), washed down by oolong tea.
After Mae Salong depart back down to the lowlands towards Mae Sai the most northerly point in Thailand. On the way a fun stop off is the Fish Cave ‘Tham Pla’ whilst there are lots of fish 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 Burma and visit the town of Tachileck.
After Mae Sai town it’s time to head back on the main tourist trail to the Golden Triangle a once infamous opium trading point in former times and the where the Mekhong River converges to form the meeting point of 3 countries; Thailand, Burma and Laos. This is probably where the name ‘Golden Triangle’ comes from, however another reason could be because of the amount of gold being circulated in exchange for commodities and Opium.
The Golden Triangle is very much a tourist affair with large tour buses and bustling tourists snapping away with their cameras. The opium museum is worth a visit and offers an interesting historical insight to the area and the opium trade.
Chiang Saen a sleepy town on the banks of the Mekhong, whilst not a lot of tourist activity goes on here, it keeps itself busy as a port where riverboats carry cargo to and from China’s Yunnan province. From here it is also possible as a tourist to take a ferry to Yunnan. Chiang Saen also bears historical significance as this was one of the first places of civilization in the Lanna kingdom. It’s ancient roots can be seen in the old and beautiful temple ruins here such as Wat Jedi Luang and Wat Prathat Doi Jom Kitti where if you look closely enough an influence from Cambodian architecture is evident in their designs, bearing similarity to temples such as Angkor Wat. More historical information and relics from this era can be seen at the Chiang Saen National Museum.
Back on the main highway to Chiang Mai the last and a worthwhile stop-off is the famous White Temple of Chiang Rai (Wat Rong Khun) a spectacular looking temple all in white, a showcase for Thailand’s modern art and architecture.
A minimum of 3 days and 2 nights is recommended to do the above route which goes from Chiang Mai – Chiang Dao – Doi Angkhang – Fang -Thaton – Mae Salong -Mae Sai- Golden Triangle – Chiang Rai – Chiang Mai. This trip covers both tourist and non-tourist sites, taking you through some beautiful natural scenery such as paddy fields and mountain backdrops, hilltribe villages and the Thailand/Myanmar border.