Planning on visiting Chiang Mai? Great! Then you really should also visit Chiang Dao, a small and laid-back mountain town. We were astonished in every way at what Chiang Dao had to offer: mountains, green jungle, fancy dining spots, local markets, hot springs, streaming waterfalls and mountains of ice-cream.

1. Chiang Dao Cave

A visit to the town’s most famous attraction, the Chiang Dao Cave (Wat Tham Chiang Dao), is a must. It contains several rooms, some of which have been illuminated and adorned with statues of the Buddha and other religious effigies. In most of them, however, it’s pitch-black and you’ll be unable to see further than an arm’s length.

You can explore a part of the cave system on your own, but we recommend experiencing the visit in full and go further into the cave with a guide. Along the way you’ll come across some gorgeous stalactites and stalagmites, a sight that got our guide’s imagination going, with him recognized the strangest shapes (“look like elephant, look like papaya, look like waterfall”).

To go from one chamber to another, it will sometimes be necessary to squeeze yourself through some rather small openings… on all fours, in the dark. We really enjoyed it, but get that this might not be everybody’s cup of tea, especially if you’re claustrophobic.

Where: Side road of Road 3024, Amphoe Chiang Dao, Chiang Dao, Thailand
Working hours: Every day from 7:00 AM to 5:00 PM
Entrance fee: 40 baht per person, 200 baht for a five-person guided tour.

Wat Tham Cave in Chiang DaoWat Tham Cave in Chiang DaoWat Tham Cave in Chiang Dao

2. Hot Springs

Chiang Dao has two hot springs: the ‘Chiang Dao Private Hot Spring’ and the ‘Pong Arng Hot Spring’.

Don’t worry about skipping the “Private Hot Spring”, which amounts to a handful of concrete water tanks to which hot water is transported using plastic tubes.

The “Pong Arng Hot Spring”, however, is more than worth a visit. Located about 20 miles outside the city, in an immaculately maintained National Park (Pha Daeng National Park), it contains several blissful hot springs in which you can immerse yourself. We advise skipping the first pools because the water’s temperature is over 50 degrees Celsius (or more!) here. A bit further along, you’ll encounter pools with more pleasant temperatures of around 30 degrees Celsius.

This hot spring is almost exclusively frequented by Thai people who’ll be genuinely surprised at the sight of Western visitors. So please bear in mind that wearing a bikini or a bathing suit is considered extremely inappropriate. Instead, enter the water fully clothed and bring a set of dry clothes. There are basic shower facilities and dressing rooms.

Where: Pha Daeng National Park, Road 1178, Mueang Na, Chiang Dao District, Chiang Mai 50170
Working hours: Every day from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM
Entrance fee: 100 baht per person, 20 baht per motorbike (ticket is also valid for the Sri Sangwan Waterfall, which is right next to it).

Pong Arng Hot Spring in Chiang DaoPong Arng Hot Spring in Chiang Dao

3. Sri Sangwan Waterfall

The Sri Sangwan Waterfall is also in Pha Daeng National Park, nearby the aforementioned hot spring.

Thanks to the minerals contained in the water, the rocks of the waterfall aren’t slippery (much like the Bua Thong Waterfalls in Chiang Mai), meaning you can climb up and down through the water with no effort at all. Atop the waterfall, there’s a deep pond, which is a great place to relax and for watching the birds and the butterflies fly by.

The Sri Sangwan Waterfall is mainly visited by locals as well, so please make you sure to bring appropriate swimwear. Near the entrance are the toilets, where it’s possible to change. It’s a really fun and pretty outing in the middle of nature!

Where: Pha Daeng National Park, Road 1178, Mueang Na, Chiang Dao District, Chiang Mai 50170
Working hours: Every day from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM
Entrance fee: 100 baht per person, 20 baht per motorbike (ticket is also valid for the Pong Arng Hot Spring, which is right next to it).

Sri Sangwan Waterfall in Chiang DaoSri Sangwan Waterfall in Chiang Dao

4. Lisu village

Deep in the jungle, about 10 miles from the Chiang Dao National Park’s entrance, you’ll come across a valley with a small village peopled by Lisu, a Tibeto-Burman ethnic group.

It’s possible to go camping at the foot of the gorgeous mountain, Doi Luang Chiang Dao. On weekend it gets very busy here. The camping sites are managed by the Lisu, who all run their own campsite business by renting out a couple of tents, pitched on a rather straightforward platform made of bamboo. Their clientele consists mostly of people who live in Chiang Mai, looking to get away from the hustle bustle of the city for a couple of days.

Though not necessarily worth the effort of going there by taxi, it could be a nice place to visit if you’re planning on riding a motorbike through the mountains. In any case, we enjoyed having a soda there and watching the Thai tourists unabashedly taking their holiday snaps in front of the Doi Luang.

The road to the Lisu village is well-maintained, but does require a fair bit of motorbiking skills. Don’t go if it’s raining, as there’s a chance of large boulders falling on the road!

Lisu village in Chiang DaoBeautiful view from Chiang Dao's Lisu village

5. Doi Luang Mountain at 2,225 meters

For a brief time, you’ll be standing above the clouds and be able to take in the breathtaking 360-degree view atop the Doi Luang Chiang Dao. This is Chiang Dao at its very finest!

The hike to the top of Thailand’s third highest mountain is as spectacular as the view once you reach it, and is strewn with banana forests, dense jungle areas, spectacular viewpoints and muddy paths. And then there’s the incredibly rare Parrot Flower, which blooms from November until December, only on this specific mountain in Thailand.

Sander made this demanding day trip (a hike of more than 9 hours) with our friend and guide Ooh, and thought it was indescribably beautiful. He recommends spending the night to see the sunset and sunrise, which is very popular among the Thai.

Where: Chiang Dao National Park
Working hours: Friday to Tuesday in the months between November and February
Entrance fee: 2,500 baht for a guided day trip for one or two people that includes food and drink.

Sander and Ooh at Doi Luang Chiang DaoRare parrot flower at Doi Luang Chang DaoHiking to the top of Doi Luang Chiang Dao

6. A mountain of ice-cream

Not in the mood for climbing high mountains? Why not just eat a mountain… of ice-cream, while marveling at the Doi Luang through your binoculars?

DoiLuang CrayFish Farm is a super cute cafe along the river which we happened to stumble upon. Everything there is sweet: the music, the colors of the umbrellas, the Italian sodas and the huge ice-creams available, with flavors ranging from green tea to chocolate with Oreo toppings.

We kept it civilized and only had a cup of coffee while admiring the appetite of the Thai people around us. Aroi mak mak!

Where: Bridge over the Mae Nam Ping, Chiang Dao
Working hours: Every day from 9:00 AM to 7:00 PM

DoiLuang CrayFish FarmIcecream at DoiLuang CrayFish FarmDoiLuang CrayFish Farm

7. Haute cuisine

Though you might not expect it, Chiang Dao is a great place for food. These are our five favorite restaurants in Chiang Dao:

Go to Nest 1 for fancy European dishes. They serve a three-course dinner of pasta, risotto, and homemade cheesecake, among other things. If you’re going there for lunch, try some of their excellent bread. Reservations for dinner should be made at least a day in advance.
Nest 1 | Chiang Dao, Chiang Dao District | Website

Nest 2 serves some extraordinarily good Thai food, with lots of specialties from the north in particular. Not only does it taste good, but the presentation is gorgeous as well. We recommend making a reservation for dinner, but for lunch on a working day that won’t be necessary.
Nest 2 | 144/4 M.5, Ban Tham, Chiang Dao | Website

Sanae Doi Luang is a fantastic place to have lunch. This very classy restaurant, in a garden with tables among the flowers and streaming waterfalls, exudes grandeur. The majority of the guests are Thai, which makes it even better.
Sanae Doi Luang | 107, Chiang Dao Subdistrict, Chiang Dao | No website

Chiang Dao Resto is yet another beautiful lunch spot, not just because of the gorgeous Thai food, but also because of its garden setting and impressive view of the Doi Luang Chiang Dao.
Chiang Dao Resto | 525,525 M. 1 Mueang na, Chiang Dao, Chiang Dao District | Website

And if you just want to have some good Thai food (no frills) we recommend Hug Pinto. Don’t expect a view or atmosphere, just a plate of piping hot food for a very reasonable price. The owner speaks good English and will alter the dishes to your taste.
Hug Pinto | Left of the 7-Eleven on Road 1359, Chiang Dao | No website

Nam Phrik at Sanae Doi Luang in Chiang DaoSanae Doi Luang in Chiang Dao

8. Walking Street

Thursday night is the night everybody in Chiang Dao looks forward to, as after sunset the street near the Tesco Lotus is closed off for the weekly “Walking Street”, a market with mainly lots of eating stalls, but also but stands that sell clothes and toys.

The whole town comes together here, as it’s the perfect place to grab a bite to eat and discuss the events of the week. We enjoyed strolling along the market while people watching.

Not around on Thursday? Every Tuesday morning there is a big market in the center of town worth visiting.

Where: A side street, past the bus stop, or Tesco Lotus, Ki Lek, Mae Taeng District, Chiang Dao
Working hours: every Thursday from 5:00 AM to 10:00 PM
Entrance fee: Free

Chiang Dao's Walking Street

9. Staying at a Thai family

We spent five nights at Dreamhome Guesthouse, in a gorgeous bungalow near the water, with a huge river terrace. This small guesthouse is run by Oi and her son Ooh (the guide), who warmly welcomed us and showed us around in Chiang Dao. We were treated as guests and honestly felt like a part of the family for our brief stay – an extraordinary experience.

So if you’re planning to visit Chiang Dao, don’t let this opportunity go to waste. Please give them our best!

At Dreamhome Guesthouse with Ooh and OiDreamhome Guesthouse in Chiang Dao

Getting to Chiang Dao

Chiang Dao’s natural surroundings are only an hour and a half’s ride away from Chiang Mai.

There’s a bus with rotating fans that leaves from Bus Terminal 1 (Chang Phueak Bus Terminal) every half an hour for 40 baht per person. For a more comfortable journey, take the minivan (VIP Van) with air-conditioning for 150 baht per person.

Make sure you tell the taxi driver you want to go to Bus Terminal 1, as there are no buses to Chiang Dao from Bus Terminals 2 and 3.

To get around in Chiang Dao, you can hop on one of the shared taxis (songthaew), easily recognizable by their yellow color. Tourist prices can be steep though.

The best way to explore Chiang Dao is either by motorbike or by (rental) car. Rent your motorbike at “Go Koko Home”, right next to the bus stop from Chiang Mai, across the street from the Tesco Lotus. If they don’t have any available, go to “The Cave Bar”, just past Nest 2, that also rents quality motorbikes. The fee is about 300 baht per day.

Will you be visiting Chiang Dao?!

Mariska

Author Mariska

Traveler, entrepreneur, book lover, foodie. In Thailand, you'll find me driving around on my motorbike, on the lookout for new hotspots.

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