A Place to Level Out - Chiang Dao, Thailand

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June 21st 2012
Published: June 28th 2012
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Forest 2Forest 2Forest 2

During hot summer days roofing, my father and I used to discuss how a large tree, in addition to shade, seemed to cool the temperature in the proximity significantly. Chiang Dao proved our suspicions, with a significant temperature drop in the forested areas.
It began as all good trips in South-East Asia seem to, by word of mouth. I had never heard of Chiang Dao, and when I finally found it in some travel literature I learned that there was a big mountain, a big market and some birds, and I heard mention of a gourmet dinner menu at a place called Chiang Dao Nest. Sounds ok, but not jump out of your seat and catch a bus to Chiang Dao type of stuff. Thus, our trip itinerary included over a week in Chiang Mai following our trips to Sukhothai and Mae Salong, but Chiang Dao had not made the cut. While I was speaking about our travel plans to my friend Gary, he mentioned that we might stop in Chiang Dao on our way to Chiang Mai. But we were anxious to eat Mexican and Indian food, go to reggae bars, shop at big night markets, and other Western comforts offered in Chiang Mai, but denied to us in our hometown of Nakhon Sawan. 'Just swing through for a day,' he suggested, 'it's a good place to relax.' What an understatement.

When we arrived at the Chiang Dao bus station, we didn't
Open faced paniniOpen faced paniniOpen faced panini

We certainly can't get this in Nakhon Sawan.
have much of a game plan. As a matter of fact, we hadn't even looked at a map to realize that the bus station was kind of isolated, the town being still further up the highway, and the guesthouses about 8 km in a completely different direction. Luckily we had decided to bring one of our lap-top computers on our travels, along with my $15 / month wireless internet USB stick. We read a few reviews and got the phone number for Chiang Dao Nest 1 (there are two different sites under the same ownership). The woman at the station called a Songthaeu to pick us up and we headed towards town. As we headed up the main street into a town like any other, the feeling of 'why did we waste time stopping here' began to creep into my mind, but it wasn't long before we hooked a right and began driving up a rural road. From here, we saw an enormous limestone outcrop growing larger in the distance, and the rural countryside soon became dense forest. The late afternoon sun peered through the trees, and the forest was absolutely brimming with the sounds of life. The temperature cooled significantly in the shade and proximity to the trees, and the air felt fresh and clean. The Songthaeu stopped at what, if not for a fence and a collection of wooden bungaloes, seemed nothing more than a small forest clearing. We were surrounded on three sides by imposing mountains staring down over the peaks of dense forested hills. We were greeted by a wonderfully friendly Thai woman who helped us register and asked us if we would like something to eat. Being that we are all but denied any type of Western food in Nakhon Sawan, and seeing the menu of fresh salads, panini sandwiches and pastas, we decided to eat right then and there. We set down our luggage on the floor and placed our orders.

After a freshly prepared and unparalleled Western meal (in Thailand as well as most fine cafes and bistros in America) we inquired about motorbikes and a map of the area. We were very pleased to receive a well drawn out map, including scenic overlooks, 'pretty road(s)' and 'scary dog(s)' that had been produced by the proprietor herself. We were slightly less enthusiastic about the fact that there were no motorbikes to rent, and the closest rental place was a $6, probably 1 hour (by the time the Songthaeu arrived) ride back into town. She did suggest that a neighboring guesthouse, the name of which escapes me, might have one for rent. When we arrived at the nearby guesthouse we found that they did indeed, however they wanted an astronomically high 400 baht ($12) for 24 / hours. Having never paid more than half that price, I was slightly taken a back. Then again, we were in the middle of nowhere, motorbikes were at a premium, and this guy knew it. We reluctantly agreed.

That night we ate dinner at Chiang Dao Nest 1's self-proclaimed 'world-famous European gourmet kitchen' with meals bringing a hefty price tag of between 300 - 400 thb ($9 - $12) per plate, which is nearly unherd of in most parts of Thailand. We enjoyed one appetizer (a decent curried crab salad), two meals (slow-roasted pork loin with sweet-potato croquettes and pumpkin raviolli with creamy parmesean sauce - both very good but not exceptional) and two delicious hefeweissen beers from Belgium. The entire spread totaled us about $30, which may sound either cheap, fair, or outlandish, depending on
View from the front porchView from the front porchView from the front porch

Not a bad view to wake up to.
the part of the world where you happen to reside. For us, the dinners were good but did not quite justify the price, which suprised us after the exceptional lunch we had enjoyed only hours before at the same site. Nevertheless, Chiang Dao Nest 1 may not be the ideal stop for a backpacker on a budget, but if you are looking for a place to experience a little bit of rugged luxury in the middle of nowhere, it is the place to be.

That night Tara and I used the Nest's locally made tamarind soap and kaffir lime leaf shampoo in the heated showers, then changed into the bathrobes which had been so generously provided. Afterward, we sat and sipped locally produced wine and listened to the sound of night insects on the most comfortable bed I have yet had the pleasure of sleeping upon here in Thailand (recall that we slept on a box-spring at our first apartment). For $30 a night, we couldn't complain, for although that is a small fortune on our current salaries, we were able to simply swipe our check cards from America and pretend it didn't happen, being that neither of us
Stir-fried vegetablesStir-fried vegetablesStir-fried vegetables

Part of the vegan breakfast.
could tell you our balance within a few hundred dollars, let alone thirty.

When we awoke the next morning the forest was literally buzzing with life. I stepped out onto the porch and relaxed on the railing-turned-recliner while watching the local songbirds swoop by against the backdrop of the majestic Doi-Chiang Dao (Chiang Dao mountain). The sky was a vivid blue, and in every direction bright yellow butterflies fluttered amongst the flowers. When Tara came out to join me we decided on the spot that we would certainly need to stay at least another night.

After a quick swim in the swimming pool surrounded by bamboo, the height of which dwarves many large North American pine trees, that creaked and moaned as though it was going to collapse upon us, we dried off and decided to take the motorbike for a spin through the environs. On a side note, the pool at Chiang Dao nest is surrounded by dragon flies and very large honey bees, so if either bother you, do avoid the pool. Since it was Tuesday morning we decided to head to the weekly market which, according to Lonely Planet, is where "hill tribes come to sell their wares." Not exactly, and perhaps even a gross misrepresentation, as there were only a few hill-tribe women in a mass of vendors hawking produce, snacks, used clothing and lots and lots of the normal market fare. In comparisson with the size of the town, the market is quite large, and I would suggest a visit if you happen to be there on a Tuesday, so long as you aren't envisioning yourself bartering amongst ornately dressed hill-tribe woman for expertly knit, carved and crafted goods.

We returned to Chiang Dao Nest 1 and took a short hike from up above the nest down to the entrance of the cave. The forest was a bit dry, being of course the end of the dry season, but we still saw many beautiful birds and butterflies, as well as the most dangerous looking ant I have ever seen - large, red and black with huge pincers and what can best be described as grappling hook type spines rising up from it's back. We heard the cave is a good stop for visitors, but we were feeling a bit caved out and decided not to enter. We got back on the bikes
Our BungalowOur BungalowOur Bungalow

At $30 per night, it may be out of the backpacker range, but we certainly couldn't complain.
and drove down what was labeled as 'pretty road' on our map. The aptly titled drive took us through the unspoiled countryside, bordered by the mountain ranges that shoot up unexpectedly, seemingly from nowhere. I almost crashed the bike when a five-foot long snake came slithering in front of us though Tara, who was enjoying the view, never even saw it.

That night we had dinner at Chiang Dao Nest 2, which features upscale Northern-Thai dining. Again, we weren't terribly impressed with the food, as there are vendors in Nakhon Sawan who prepare equally delicious dishes at around $1, as opposed to the $4 - $8 plates here. All in all, in my opinion, the dinners at Nest 1 and Nest 2 are good but not great. The prices are definitely a bit steap. However the breakfast and lunches are phenomenal, and are very reasonably priced. The ingredients are very fresh, and the flavors are subtle but perfectly balanced. If you are living and teaching, or just visiting Northern Thailand, and you want to get away from the crowds of pseudo-hippy backpackers in Pai, or the crowded streets of Chiang Mai, Chiang Dao is one of those places where you can travel back to how I imagine Northern Thailand must have looked 40-years ago, while still enjoying a touch of luxury and some delicious food. It is indeed a fine place to set your worries aside, glance out and absorb the magnitude of the mountains, or simple let your mind drift with the calm sway of the trees.

Additional photos below
Photos: 21, Displayed: 21


Rock climbingRock climbing
Rock climbing

Part of our short hike at the base of Doi Chiang Dao. To hike to the top of the mountain requires you to register well in advance.
The restaurant at Nest 1The restaurant at Nest 1
The restaurant at Nest 1

Delicious breakfast, lunches and (slightly over-priced) dinners. Our first dinner here was interrupted by screaming - a boy was bitten by a giant centipede - the doctor was called immediately but since there was no swelling at his joints, it was decided that he would live.
German beersGerman beers
German beers

Delicious hefeweissen beers are a welcome change from Leo and Singha
Forest 1Forest 1
Forest 1

During hot summer days roofing, my father and I used to discuss how a large tree, in addition to shade, seemed to cool the temperature in the proximity significantly. Chiang Dao proved our suspicions, with a significant temperature drop in the forested areas.

28th June 2012

Wonderfully written blog Dan. Maybe expressive writing was more of a forte of yours. Enjoyed this majestic hidden treasure of Thailand. Excluding the snake. Glad there's no picture.
29th June 2012

Thank You
Thank you Diana, I always have loved to write, but there isn't much of a career in that anymore. If / when you come to visit I know Mae Salong and Chiang Dao would have to be on your to do list.
29th June 2012

Thank You
Thank you Diana, I always have loved to write, but there isn't much of a career in that anymore. If / when you come to visit I know Mae Salong and Chiang Dao would have to be on your to do list.

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