The year was twenty-fifteen, I was an eager new explorer having recently discovered the digital nomad life and set out on a one way, endless journey across Southeast Asia. Chiang Mai had become my home base, and I was eager to explore the region.
It was the idea of leaving without a plan, I think that was the most exciting part. I had spent my first month traveling full of adventure and excitement, booking budget rooms on a whim & deciding on a day-by-day basis how long to stay before it was time to move on.
However, Since arriving in Chiang Mai and renting monthly apartments, life had become less unpredictable. I ached a little for the constant whirlwind of unplanned travel, and got itchy feet for an adventure.
Renting a car in Chiang Mai & driving in Thailand
Prior to coming to Asia, I had never imagined renting a car here, images of Bangkok traffic jams filled my mind. Yet, somehow in the glow of life aboard, things eased up, knowing the roads and the culture a little better made driving a little less intimidating and a opened up more possibilities.
Yet, I was wary.
I’d not yet been scammed, stolen from or seriously ripped off in my three months in Thailand so far, but the stories of vehicle rental scams still lingered in my mind. We were cautious to ask around and research before choosing a car rental service, which really paid off.
We were pointed in the direction of a company called Budget Catcher. Small, locally owned and friendly with fantastic prices and great service. The rental car was in excellent condition, came with full premium insurance and only cost us 799 Baht per day with a 3000 baht deposit (this was in 2015, mind you – I’m sure prices are different now!)
I can’t compliment Budget Catcher enough, everything was smooth & helpful and with absolutely no issues around getting our deposit back at the end.
Driving in Thailand is no-where near as bad as I imagined (not that I was the driver on this occasion, but I certainly observed) although every time you settle into the routine something bizarre and totally Thailand happens to catch you off guard again. Things like motorbikes whipping past without warning, songthaews pulling out into the wrong lane on a blind corner indicating you to undertake them and cars traveling the wrong way down four-lane super-highways.
Brunch stop in Mae Rim, on the outskirts of Chiang Mai
Whilst busy romanticising the town of Mae Rim, I’d imagined the quaintest of small village, sumptuous local northern Thai food and wood carvers sitting roadside peddling intricately designed furniture made from local teak.
Oh, how wrong could I be.
Mae Rim is essentially a suburb of Chiang Mai and a good indication you are headed out of town, this part of town is just made for tour busses. Giant tour busses that shuttle hoards of visitors over to the nearby attractions such as tiger kingdom and the elephant camps.
The road is a busy highway and there are very few cafes or places worth stopping on the main stretch. In the end, brunch was found at See Pak Restaurant , tucked away just off the main stretch, a focus on American food (But also some good Thai to be had) with great atmosphere and good food.
Lunch under Doi Chiang Dao
The industrial buildings and run-down abandoned store fronts thinned out, and all remnants of the city faded into the background as we spent the next hour or so venturing towards the Chiang Dao caves. Houses gave way to rice paddies, dense jungle and farmland as we eased our way up into the mountain ranges of northern Chiang Mai.
The air was a little cooler up here, but still smokey from the nearby residents burning piles of reeds, as well as the far-off hill tribes that burn parts of the forest supposedly encouraging the growth of a rare and profitable mushroom.
The ‘Burning Season’ is unfortunately a yearly event for northern Thailand, as well as parts of Myanmar and Laos, driving many expats and tourists south to other parts of the country from February until April.
Heading down a particularly scenic stretch of road we stopped in at a local restaurant for lunch. It had an impressive amount of landscaping, and a large tranquil pond with a small jetty jutting out. Manicured gardens, colourful flowers and intricate sculptures surrounded the jungle-like dining area where we sat & devoured fish with herbs and lime sauce.
Ambling back out to the car, full and satisfied with the delicious meal and such gorgeous natural settings, it was time to continue the journey up to the Chiang Dao caves.
Exploring the Chiang Dao caves
Entering the Chiang Dao cave began with a walk through a tiny, picturesque mountain village dotted with cute little coffee shops and vendors selling fresh, locally produced coffee.
A huge golden entrance archway loomed over head as we admired the incredible scenery.
Orange-robed monks (a familiar sight in Thailand) meandered through pathways and gardens to intricately designed buildings and temples, woman sat in a covered pavilion weaving baskets with their hands.
The only thing separating us from a large, stone staircase heading into the mountain now was a bridge passing over the temple’s pond, with fat orange Koi Carp and gigantic catfish swimming around peacefully as a small green turtle floated over top.
Heading up and then down into the cave was similarly film-worthy. Buddhas carved into the stone walls and shrines on the floor. We soon met our guide who carried a lantern to guide our way as we descended into a deep and dark cave full of ancient buddhist treasures.
The air was thick and humid, much warmer than the air we had left behind outside.
Huge limestone formations hung all around we were led through areas the height of a football stadium, and tunnels so small we needed to crawl through. Throughout the journey, different limestone formations had been named by the locals and decorated with ribbons to honour them, we passed many different shapes – families of frogs, birds and a large formation in the shape of an elephant lung.
Just the fact that wildlife existed in a cave initially surprised me, the environment was different than I pictured and clearly more conductive to living things. The first living thing I encountered was one of the largest spiders I have ever seen; much more pleasing to me were all the small black bats hanging from the ceiling of the cave further in.
The Chiang Dao cave was a wondrous visit.
A detour to Pai for the night
We left Chiang Dao caves in high spirits, and with itchy feet to see more of this part of the country. In an overly optimistic moment we grossly underestimated the time and effort it would take to reach the town of Pai, and booked ourselves in a room there for the night.
Many of the five hours that followed involved me relaxing solo at an isolated, rural, roadside gas station as the sun set while my partner in crime ventured off in search of the nearest ATM to pay for the gas we’d pumped, at the gas station who only took cash.
Once that debacle came to completion, we moved on to a very tumultuous ascent into the steep, windy and dark roads that lead to Pai.
It was months later before I learned most visitors just take the small plane over, rather than risk these treacherous roads.
I would advise anybody following in my footsteps to make this journey in the daylight.
As it turns out, our accommodation had pinned themselves at the wrong location on Google maps. As we sat parked down a dark gravel road in rural Pai, wondering what on earth to do next, we encountered two lost girls on a motorbike who by chance were looking for the same place.
By 10.30pm we had checked into our room for the night, at the lovely and accordingly well-rated (but at the time inaccurately mapped) Baan Katisod.
Late night dining in Pai
Due to the restaurants en-route to Pai all being closed after dark, by the time we reached our room we were ravenous and exhausted. After a quick drive down the road in a semi-zombie state we stumbled upon a surprisingly stunning restaurant that had recently opened, and were still available to put us together some dinner.
Thien Artspace is , I believe, also an art gallery. We arrived too late to spot any art, but the whole establishment was a work of art in itself. Meticulously designed with very trendy Asian influence in mind there was all manner of indoor & outdoor seating, mostly involving beautiful cushions and low tables. The ceiling was designed like a woven basket and a koi pond complete with bridge led you from the entrance, past the DJ table over to the bar.
Seeing Pai in the daylight
On the second day of our northern Thailand adventure I woke to an unfamiliar experience – the cold. Not something I’d felt for almost three months of traveling now.
It was a nice experience to be snuggled into a cosy bed with a mosquito net fort while the air was crisp and cool. However, the climate in Pai in this sleepy mountain village is only cold throughout the night, with daytime temperatures this time of year soaring up to the early-mid 30’s (celsius, that is) in the afternoon.
Pai a very scenic mountain village that has had a tourism boom over the past 5 or so years, transforming from a sleepy town full of hill-tribe locals to a melting pot of alternative and ‘hippy’ tourists from around the world. It is pretty easy to find a yoga school, pair of harem pants or an affordable bungalow amongst the rice paddies to sleep in at night.
Mid-morning we ventured out into our first daytime viewing of Pai, and it was just as scenic as we had hoped. Mountains, hills and greenery everywhere. Beautiful buildings, rivers and rice paddies, quite the change from Chiang Mai city that we have become used to. We visited the walking street market and had a quick and easy breakfast at a Thai-German cafe.
Originally planning to look around the town longer, our attempts at extending the car rental failed and in order to make it through the hilly-pass before sunset we would need to get a move on. After reviewing the internet for things to do, we decided to head west for the afternoon.
Sight-Seeing at Santichon
Not far out of Pai is a Chinese village that goes by the name of Santichon, settled by escapees from Yunnan, Southwest China.
It was incredibly beautiful, with so much attention paid to the details. At some moments it felt more like a theme park than an actual village, however behind the ‘tourist’ part there is a definite community settlement.
There are lots of tiny little Chinese houses decorated with ornaments and lanterns selling a variety of teas, ornaments, and Chinese sweets. I taste-tested a beautiful jasmine fragranced green tea, admired all the gorgeous tea sets and brought a bottle of coffee wine that had been produced in nearby Chiang Rai.
The main road into the Chinese village was well signposted, and lined with street vendors selling a variety of Chinese tea, snacks, trinkets and food.
Snacking at the Jungle Cafe
Continuing on the journey up into the hills, in search of waterfalls, we arrived upon a stretch of road dotted with small cafés. The Jungle Cafe was the winner of my attention.
It was idyllic, my idea of total relaxation. Sunny & surrounded by nature, reggae music, hammocks and good food. A couple of backpackers were playing on the pool-table while I enjoyed a delicious fruit salad of mandarins, dragon fruit and papaya with yoghurt and honey. I would love to have found this spot sooner & stayed for a week more.
Waterfalls at Mo Paeng
Winding up and into the hills in such perfect weather was as good as it sounds, it was a welcome break to be out in nature again. The Mo Paeng waterfalls were only a few more minutes up the hill from the Jungle Cafe and when we arrived we found a few other tourists around sunbathing, however it certainly wasn’t overcrowded or unpleasant.
All up, Mo Paeng waterfalls are only 9km outside of Pai and are an easy spot to find if you are looking for some big flat rocks to sunbathe on, beautiful natural scenery and pools to swim in. The water was quite cool and nobody was swimming, but on hotter days people dip into the clear pools and are often seen using the flat rocks of the waterfall as a natural waterslide.
The basin is surrounded by banana palms & jungle and as you kick back & relax in the sun you can spot a number of differently coloured butterflies.
From the carpark at the top, the waterfalls are only a couple of minutes walk away. Unlike some other waterfalls in the region these are very easily accessible and suitable even for people without hiking gear or the stamina to walk for long distances.
The long drive home to Chiang Mai
The journey back to Chiang Mai was a race against the sun. After the harrowing experiences of driving on the 1096 in the dark the night before, getting to the other side of the hill range before sun-down became rather important to us.
Driving these roads during the day was much easier than at night, the scenery much better too. There are various national parks, geysers, hot-springs and street vendors selling the usual bits and pieces.
Stopping at a roadside restaurant & market it quickly became apparent that this was where the tour-buses were paid to stop. Lot’s of seating, low quality food & over-pricing tend to be the standard in these tour-bus truck-stop areas. The food looked unappetising and the chicken was sitting out in the sun, pre cut into un-appetising little bits ready to be cooked. We skipped on the meal and loaded up on pre-packed snacks before continuing on our journey.
We made it out of the hills just as the sun was setting and joined the rush-hour traffic heading back through Mae Rim to Chiang Mai, feeling rather pleased with ourselves for successfully navigating the Thai roads.
Overall, it was a magical 2 days. We experienced rural Thailand, jungles, waterfalls, caves and temples as well as observing what life is like closer to the Burmese border. Thanks to avoiding the ‘big’ tourist attractions around Mae Rim and focusing more on natural attractions it was also a very cost effective trip. If you are in or around Chiang Mai, I highly recommend hiring a car, bike or driver and getting out and exploring – there is so much beauty you will miss if you spend your entire stay in Chiang Mai!