I’m recently back from Thailand….again!
It seems every time I return to Thailand I find a new favorite place I’ve never heard of. Last time I was there, two years ago, I discovered the Grand Canyon of Chiang Mai and was shocked I’d never heard of it during my previous trips, and delighted when I saw how beautiful it was, and how refreshing it could be to go for a swim on a hot and humid day. Unfortunately, what used to be a largely untouched reservoir with cliff jumping and a few bamboo docks to sunbathe on is now a large, family-friendly water park with a steep admission fee. A lot can happen in two years!
This time, I wanted to do a hike. I haven’t done much hiking in Thailand since most of my time has been spent in the flat rice fields of the Northeast teaching English abroad, but this trip was nearly two months and I found myself craving nature.
A little research led me to hike Chiang Dao Mountain (Doi Chiang Dao), which is Thailand’s third tallest mountain (Doi Inthanon is the first and Doi Suthep, home of Chiang Mai’s most famous temple, is the second, though both highly touristed in comparison) and, to my delight, everything said it was the most beautiful one of all. Plus, it was only a two-hour drive from Chiang Mai, which solved my reluctance to get on a bus (thanks to my relentless car sickness).
I rented a motorbike and scooted my way north. As soon as the mountains were in view, I felt like I was coming back to myself. I hadn’t even realized I’d been feeling stifled in the city, but now I smiled with glee. The mountains, the small town, the cool air….everything about this place spoke to my heart.
I kept driving until I found a quaint little bungalow to sleep in at Chiang Dao Huts. For $10/night, I had a private hut just at the base of the mountain and a few kilometers from the park entrance. I slept better than I had in the previous week and a half, thanks to the jungle sounds outside my open windows.
The hike up Chiang Dao Mountain was just was I was looking for: a semi-strenuous summit climb (to 7,135 feet above sea level), with a better-than-expected view from the top. I felt rejuvenated after only a few hours on the trail, just me and nature against the world. It worked my body and my soul in ways that were much needed after seven weeks in Thailand without much exercise (aside from a few days of rock climbing — more to come on that). I returned to Chiang Mai feeling re-inspired, and ready for what would become a 35-hour transit back home.
Getting to Chiang Dao from Chiang Mai:
I highly recommend renting a motorbike or car and driving yourself from Chiang Mai. It’s a straight shot on a highway (not a super highway) with wide shoulders and few curves so I felt perfectly safe going on my own (though please wear a helmet and have some experience driving in Thailand first!). You can also opt to take the bus and rent a motorbike when you arrive, but you’ll want your own wheels to get to the trailhead.
Take highway 107 north of Chiang Mai for 70 kilometers and it will lead you straight there. You can opt to take a right onto highway 1359 which will take you into downtown Chiang Dao town, or you can turn left onto 3024 for the entrance to the Chiang Dao National Park. There are lots of guesthouses and a few restaurants along the way. I stayed at Chiang Dao Huts, where I had a basic private bungalow for $10/night and three restaurants across the road to choose from.
Getting to the trailhead for Chiang Dao Mountain:
Take Highway 3024 past Chiang Dao Huts and The Nest. It will fork here.
Go left if you want to hire a guide (required by park rules…but keep reading if you want to go without). On the right-hand side, you’ll see a sign for the Wildlife Sanctuary up a steep hill. Go there and ask for a hiking guide. It should cost 1,000 THB for a one-day trip.
There is also camping just below the summit. You can choose to hire a porter/guide for an overnight trip if you want to experience sunset/sunrise from the peak. If I’d had more time, I likely would have considered this since the view is spectacular.
If you don’t want want to hire a guide, go right. Follow the road until you come to the gated park entrance, where a ranger will stop and ask what your plan is in the park. Tell him you are NOT going walking/hiking. There is a cafe at the end of the road (pictured on the map in his booth if you need to point it out) and you can tell him you just want to go there and take pictures of the view. There isn’t a lot else to do in the park, so he may doubt you and tell you that you need to go back to the office and get a guide. He might say “ticket” but he can sell you a park entrance ticket. What he means is a guide. Insist on not hiking and you should be fine.
It’s 200 THB for foreigners to enter the park. Buy your ticket and head inside.
A little over 8 kilometers in, you’ll notice a dirt parking lot on the lefthand side of the road, with a bamboo structure. You can’t miss it. If you go too far, you’ll notice you’ll be driving away from the mountain, so it’s pretty obvious. Park here and look for the sign that says “No Entry.” That’s the trailhead.
Follow the trail up for about an hour, and you’ll come to a junction with a sign (in Thai). Go left.
In about another hour, you’ll come to another juncture just before the camping area. Go left again. Initially, it appears there are a lot of different trails but most of them are just to campsites. Stay on the main trail and it will be the only one going all the way up.
After the camping area, you’ll walk straight up a limestone hillside. You’ll look behind you, noticing how gorgeous the area is, but nothing will prepare you for the beauty once you’re at the top.
Red tape for hiking Chiang Dao Mountain:
Everything will tell you that you need a guide to summit Chiang Dao Mountain, and everything will be right. You can choose to follow the rules and pay 1,000 THB ($30) to have what I noticed to be more of an escort and/or porter than a guide (unless you speak Thai), or you can be a rebel and go without. There’s really no need for a guide since the trail is nicely maintained, and there’s really only one way to go (see directions above for specifics). If I thought this was taking money out of needy hands I wouldn’t suggest going without, but this is a national park service, and I do not believe that to be the case (though I can’t say for certain).
Tips to hike Chiang Dao Mountain:
Drive yourself to the trailhead. At the summit, I met two guys who got stuck paying 1,200 THB ($38) for a taxi to take them to the trailhead and back, which is only a few kilometers each way. A motorbike costs 250 THB/day (if rented in Chiang Mai) or 400 THB/day (if rented in Chiang Dao). Or you can hitchhike (very common).
Get an early start. I’d read estimates of the hike taking about 7-8 hours up and back. It took me a little over six because I was by myself and stopped infrequently, and spent just enough time at the top to eat lunch (because I was cold!). Regardless, I recommend getting an early start to be back in time to go to the hot springs.
Don’t look like a hiker: Upon entering, I realized I looked like I was going for a hike dressed in my attire and with two big water bottles hanging onto the sides of my pack. Anything you can do to conceal the fact might help you get past the guard!
Pack for cooler weather: It was November, so the temps are heading into their annual lows and I was cold the entire time there since all I brought to Thailand was shorts and dresses.
Hiking clothes: Like any summit hike, plan for it to be cooler at the top, though hot and sweaty as you work your way up. I did it in sneakers and was just fine, though the trail is mostly dirt so it was a bit muddy from the early morning rain. I probably wouldn’t attempt to hike Chiang Dao in rainy season (July- October).
Lots of water and snacks: I took 3 liters of water and was happy I had them all. Go to 7-11 (in Chiang Dao town) to get snacks and water for the trip.
Bug spray and sunscreen: pack it.
Hot spring: There is a natural hot spring near the river if you drive away from the park on 3024 back toward the main road (107). You’ll come to an intersection at 107, and you want to go right onto the road that’s heading diagonal on the same side of 107. Take it all the way to the end and you’ll see the springs, which are several troughs of water, big enough for 2-3 people in each and of varying temperatures. It’s free to use.
Would you like to hike Chiang Dao Mountain? Do you have any tips/tricks to add to this list to hike Chiang Dao Mountain?