Chiang Dao is a lovely remote northern town located in the Chiang Mai Province, which was founded in the 18th-century as a place of exile for phi pop, a name given to spiritual people. Apparently these individuals were suspected of being in possession of some sort of evil force associated with signs of madness, but in fact, this was mistaken for malaria. Thank goodness, this is not the case today. Thai's are superstitious by nature, but the ones here weren't showing any of it.
The town can be reached by taking Route 107 from Chiang Mai starting at the Chang Phuak Gate. Travel distance is approximately 70 kilometres (45 miles). The road will take you past rice paddy fields and some small villages before it begins to climb upwards past the town of Mae Taeng and then on to the Mae Ping Gorge. Ahead of you, to your left, as you follow the river through the countryside, it eventually takes you to the massive outline of Doi Chiang Dao mountain.
This massive mountain is the third largest in Thailand and stands tall at 2,285 metres (7,500 feet). It features a mixture of tropical and pine forests and is also home to several Lisu and Karen hill tribe villages. Both the peak and surrounding area are characterised by dense teak forests and some spectacular rugged limestone scenery. There's a dirt track heading due west from Route 107 for more or less 10 kilometres (6 miles) that takes you right up to the mountain.
Somewhere along the way, the pass will lead you to the friendly hill tribe village of Pakkia. However, I need to remind you, entry to the sanctuary is restricted so you may need to get permission. This can be obtained from the wildlife office adjacent to the Tham Pha Plong Monastic Centre, which you'll find at the foot of the mountain.
At the far end of Chiang Dao town, you will find a simple road leading off to your left for about five kilometres (three miles) and heads towards some rather interesting caves at Tham Chiang Dao. The extensive network of caves here runs under the mountain for as much as 14 kilometres (8.5 miles). Far too long for just a casual stroll. Some parts are inaccessible to the public. The caves are open daily from 8:00 am until 5:00 pm and there is a small admission fee of 10 Baht.
Just outside the main entrance to the caves, you will see a refreshingly crystal clear pool filled with water that comes directly from the mountain-side. It lends itself to a pretty cool ambience, especially if you are in desperate need to stay away from the extreme heat of the day. The pool is also full of some large fish. As with most of the caves in Thailand, this one also has its fair share of bats.
The caves at Tham Chiang Dao, house limestone Buddha images thought to have been left over the years by Shan Pilgrims from Burma but the real attraction is the stalactites and stalagmites. Lantern carrying tour guides are on hand to lead you deep down into the very realm of these cavities so that you may revel in the emotions brought on by the magnificent sights and sounds that these impressive features communicate. Your guide will escort you along some rather eerie, though fully illuminated walkways through several chambers.
Near the caves is Wat Tham Temple, which houses a Buddhist
meditation centre and a small room displaying gongs and other musical
instruments. Just beyond the temple and beside a huge tamarind tree and
pond, is a Burmese Chedi dating back to 191 A.D. I'm told it
was built by an ascetic named Ukanta whose origins came from Burma? It's
called Twenty Five Tops Pagoda due to the number of Spires in its unique structure. See photo at the top of the page.
48 kilometres (30 miles) from town are two caves at Tham Tup Tao. One is Tham Pha Kao, the cave of light and houses two immense Buddha images and a stalagmite carved in the shape of a group of elephants. The other is Tham Pha Chak, the cave of darkness because it can only be explored by lantern. This one can be a bit scary and you need to watch out for the huge colony of bats.
Some of the best activities and adventures to enjoy in the north-west heartland of Thailand include river rafting and elephant trekking, which are often combined with visits to the hill tribe villages.
For starters, why not drop in at the Elephant Training Centre not far south-east of Chiang Dao. It is in a wooded area on the banks of the Ping River. The centre opens daily from 8:00 am until 5:00 pm. There's an entry fee, but I cannot remember exactly what the price was charged for tourists. Go there anyway and just enjoy the shows.
There are daily displays for your amusement featuring elephants demonstrating effortless log lifting skills. Somehow elephants make the logs look like toothpicks, picking them up and dragging them with such simplicity across teak-shaded open spaces. Watch as a line of elephants stroll into the river to have their daily bath.
Thereafter, reward them with one of their favourite meals, bananas. Just as well this is tropical territory as bananas are abundant and grow just about anywhere. After the shows, go take an elephant ride. Remember, you haven't yet experienced Thailand if you haven't taken an elephant ride. It's an absolute must. Since you are here, go and enjoy a 45-minute river raft trip down the Ping River too.
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