Chiang Dao in threes

May 4th, 2009 by scott and becky

We stayed in Chiang Dao for three nights, and other than resting, we did three things: we visited a beautiful monastery, we hiked over a small mountain, and we visited the famous Chiang Dao caves. We also ate dinner at three different places: the Chiang Dao Nest, Malee’s Nature Resort, and Chiang Dao Nest 2.

Tham Pha Pong is a beautiful cave monastery, founded by Luang Poo Sim, a famous Buddhist monk here in Thailand. When he established it in 1967 it was deep in the wilderness in these remote mountains, but civilization has caught up, and now it’s just up the road from the Nest. It is a beautiful spot, with a steep climb up more than 500 steps to reach the monastery, and a further climb to the cave and the chedi. We went late in the day, and saw almost no-one there except the monks. There were many Buddhist sayings posted as we climbed to keep us focused, and the cave and chedi were a beautiful combination of natural and man-made materials, surrounded by trees. Becky followed a path beside the main altar, and discovered the tomb of Luang Poo Sim. At first she thought she was seeing a live monk sitting in lotus position in his monk’s robe, but looking closer she saw he was neither moving nor blinking. He does look very lifelike though!

Our hike began at about 10 am the next morning. It was supposed to only take 1.5 hours; however, that doesn’t account for getting lost. We would have been fine had we not gotten a few tips from Wicha at the Nest prior to departure. For anyone doing the walk, the most useful tip we can give is if you see the blue and white placards (all in Thai) regularly, you are on the correct trail. It is easy to follow a wrong fork and end up on some other trail – we were warned about there being many trails used by mushroom pickers.

Our first 15 minutes of hiking was OK, but then Scott decided to take Wicha’s advice to keep right, since the mushroom trails are generally to the left. We climbed under a marked cut in a barbed wire fence, then climbed up a muddy track beside the fence for 30 minutes. The trail continued to follow the fence line, and didn’t seem very “naturey”, so we turned around the retraced our steps. Not long after getting back on the real trail, we saw a telltale placard. We managed to stay on the correct trail through several forks and cross paths; however, as we approached the end and a steep downhill segment, we lost the trail. We went down for 10 minutes, and decided we were committed. We really did not want to climb back up again! So, we followed the steep downhill trail. Becky slipped and fell a couple of times, getting herself nice and muddy. We managed to get down to find ourselves only 10 meters from the real trail, which looked to be less steep.

The trail brought us out in back of the monastery near the caves. At first, we weren’t quite sure where we were, but we wandered around a bit and found the front entrance, with its souvenir stands and restaurants. After a brief lunch stop, we entered the caves – 20 baht each for entry to the first area. After about 100 m we came to a large room, filled with guides and their kerosene lanterns. We hired a guide for 100 baht, and he was well worth it. The caves rooms were large, with very small connecting tunnels and we saw just how easy it would have been to get lost. There were many interesting shapes and patterns in the limestone, unfortunately our photos don’t do them justice. We walked almost 2 km of caverns, and there is at least another 700 m section which we skipped, as well as many side passages which only the locals know. Unfortunately our trip ended in disappointment for Becky. She was really looking forward to the reclining Buddha at the end, but was not very impressed. They did have the fortune sticks, with English translations of the fortunes. We made a donation, gave them a shake and read our fortunes. Perhaps we should have looked at the English first though – neither of us could make any sense of our fortunes when we read them.

Our first night in Chiang Dao, we enjoyed a gourmet western meal at the Chiang Dao Nest restaurant. Scott noticed a lady seated alone, and invited her to join us for dinner. Meg is originally from England, but moved to Chiang Mai last year and is teaching English and current affairs to Burmese refugees. We enjoyed the wonderful food at the restaurant, and great conversation. From Meg’s description, there’s a strong need for both education and advocacy for the Burmese refugees, and it sounds like very interesting work. The food is still cheap by western standards, but very pricy for Thailand – we spent over $40 CAD (1200 baht) on dinner for two without wine. The same meal would have been well over $80 in Ottawa though, so we aren’t complaining.

Our second night, we went next door to try some Thai food at Malee’s. The owner there was very friendly, and cooked us some wonderful curry and a cashew nut stir fry. Yummy and very filling! We talked briefly to another touring cyclist from Brazil. A few years ago he rode from Vietnam to Spain via India, but this time he was on a short trip hoping to ride into Burma, which he was forced to skip on his last ride. We invited him to join us for dinner, but he was planning an early start and wanted to go to sleep. Unfortunately, we never caught his name.

On our third night, we walked down to the Chiang Dao Nest 2 restaurant where they serve what we’d call Thai fusion. Again Scott noticed someone sitting alone, and invited Melanie, a traveler from Germany, to join us. She is on a three month trip through SE Asia after completing university, much more adventurous than we were at that age! We enjoyed some not-quite spicy enough Thai food (we asked for medium, and it was not spicy at all). Chiang Dao Nest 2 also serves wine by the glass, so we enjoyed a couple of glasses of wine and some great conversation. Melanie was headed on a trek into the hills and staying with some of the hill tribe people, and we’re curious how that goes. It’s something we’ve chosen not to do this time.

We found the Chiang Dao Nest 2 expensive for Thai food, and the staff completely disappeared, such that we had to hunt for them when we wanted water and more wine. Overall, we’d recommend Malee’s for Thai food and Chiang Dao Nest for a gourmet western experience.

Before leaving, we learned that the staff at Chiang Dao Nest had dubbed our bikes “The Sleeping Bicycles”. We love it!

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