Activities,  Motorbiking,  Thailand,  Travel Guide

Off The Grid In Northern Thailand

There’s a reason why the blog has been quiet. We have been heading further north from Chiang Mai after saying goodbye to our friends Scott and Sarah. It is a very special little world up here. Sometimes we go days without spotting another tourist or meeting anyone that speaks English. We order food and bargain room rates by pointing at things and using our little Thai which consists of numbers and “thank you”. The people here are very honest, open and most welcoming. Most places require a bike to get around and it’s best not to expect or research and just go. It is a great adventure. So here’s a bit of a rundown.

Chiang Dao

We paid 40baht each to get from Chiang Mai to Chiang Dao on a local bus. It is the red bus from Chang Pheuak station headed for Tha Ton. A tuk tuk from old town is 40baht per person. We were hit by heavy rain and everyone scrambled to shut the windows. Soldiers, old ladies and children were sitting in the aisle while the rest of us were bunched up on the benches. There’s a bus stop near 7-11 in Chiang Dao that we missed. We stopped at the bus terminal and while Emma minded the bags I walked back to 7-11 to hire a motorbike right next door. The lady speaks no English and has printed instructions on the wall. After lots of pointing and silences with awkward smiles, I got a Honda Wave i 110 and went back to pick up Emma. A couple of kilometers away we found and settled for a very cool little bungalow at Chiang Dao Hut. We had dinner at Nest 2, which was ok, but overpriced for what it was. The next day we slept in and had a coffee at Black Cat Cafe/Bar near the Super Highway intersection. The owner has great tips for the area. Then we spent most part of the afternoon in the Japanese run Hot Spring. For dinner we savaged food from the bi-monthly walking street market (Friday).

The next morning at 6am, we rode our bike through the fog to Arunothai to visit a local market. No tourists and the real deal. Arunothai is a Chinese / Yunnan village. We sat down for delicious breakfast noodles next to a charming old lady smoking her water pipe and selling pickled cabbage, chillies and bean curd. The area is very remote and we rode along a few roads and reached the northern checkpoint to Myanmar, where a military official chatted to us and told us we can’t go any further in the most friendly manner.

So we headed back to Chiang Dao with a very fond memory. In the evening we walked up 510 steps of enlightenment to the very impressive and remote Wat Tham Pha Plong edged into the hillside. We watched the sunset and made a donation. I rubbed the Buddha’s belly and a marble dropped and rolled onto the floor. Classic Lionel.


The next day I returned the bike and we caught the same red bus to Fang. Unless you are already on a bike, I’d probably skip this place. There is not much to do here and no way to rent a motorbike. Food is plentiful and we stayed in a Shining type hotel called Preeya Mansion. The decor is super tacky and most of it is still wrapped in plastic. Creepy but good value at 300baht. The reason we stopped in Fang was for the Sunday hilltribe market, which turns out no one knew about and didn’t seem to exist. We got a very good coffee instead and saw a few women in hilltribe dress every now and then, wondering if there was in fact a secret market somewhere. The other reason was that it is marked as a base to Doi Ang Khang, which without a bike we could obviously not get to.

To get out, we camped on the intersection with our bags, waiting to flag down a bus headed for Tha Ton. We ended up taking a Songthaew at 25baht each, planning to head to Chiang Rai. On it, we met an old Thai lady who spoke great English. Turns out she worked for the US military for 10 years and then the UN for 4 years. Now she runs a bamboo rafting business in Tha Ton. She kept telling us to get off at Tha Ton and spend a night so we can explore her home town. The whole 40 minute ride, she never let go of my arm and hand. She convinced us and we jumped off and settled at Thaton Garden Riverside. Forget the other places unless you have cash.

Tha Ton

It took a little while to rent a bike. The lady across the ferry station is quite rude. Turns out she’s in “the book”, so I immediately turned away. We hired a rattling old Honda Dream at Thaton Riverside Guesthouse. Then we started to discover the very cool mountain behind us which features 9 levels of Buddha exhibitions, some very impressive. The 9th level has an awesome viewpoint. Unfortunately it was way too hazy for great pictures. We had dinner at a restaurant about 500 meters down the first left turn after the bridge heading south. We were met by a very welcoming host family (and dogs and cats) with delicious food. First it was just the husband, who cooked both a red and green curry from scratch. Then the rest of his family arrived and circled our table trying to help out to make sure their only guests were well looked after. The red curry was incredible. Then he made us a passion fruit drink – superb. Both dogs laid at our feet and a black cat had nested itself right behind Emma. It got very keen on our curry and I had to move it a few times until it finally was hanging by its claws from Emma’s pants. After dinner, their son explained the history of the area and recommended places to visit the next day. Early the next morning I rode up the mountain before sunrise, hoping to capture some great images. Unfortunately, it was very foggy at the top. I still won’t forget the cold morning air and the 100s of monks walking down the hill to get food donations in their orange robes. I was alone at Wat Tha Ton and the 35 feet tall standing Buddha as the orange morning sun tried to shine through the fog. There was only a cat that rode on the back of my bike for a bit.

Later, after I was able to wake up Emma, we explored the area together and caught a Songthaew to Kiu Sataa (Doi Mae Salong turnoff) where we changed to another Songthaew (30 baht) to Mae Chan, where we finally shared a third Songthaew with Taiwanese tourists to Chiang Rai, all in all at 140baht each.

Chiang Rai

A great little place. It has all the comforts without having sold out and there are far less tourists littering the streets compared to Chiang Mai. Head straight to ST Rental to get a bike. They are hassle free and an excellent, fast service. 150baht per day for a 100cc and 200baht for our Honda Wave S 125. The central market here feels authentic and the town itself is very relaxed. It didn’t take long to find cheap accommodation at Baan Bua Guesthouse. Then there is the food. It is impossible to go hungry here. There are street stalls everywhere and a local food market just north of the clock tower. About 100 meters south of the clock tower there is great Khao Soy and a special local dessert. We spent a day exploring the surrounds, which included the White Palace (Wat Rong Khun), Singha farm, Chiang Rai beach and Wat Phra Kaew (the Emerald Buddha).

Then we got our bike checked at ST Rental to make sure it is good to go for our upcoming unknown number of days Golden Triangle loop.

So far we rode to Mae Salong, Doi Tung and are now in Sop Ruak; on the worst road in northern Thailand yet, through many border checkpoints and right past Myanmar’s machine gun bunkers.

More to come …


  • Devon

    Found your blog recently. Travelled in some of the same areas last year and returning this Dec for more. Great descriptions and appreciate the inclusions of prices. It gives people a good base for bartering when their feet hit the ground. Stay safe and enjoy your travels.

  • Lisa

    My favourite parts:

    “I rubbed the Buddha’s belly and a marble dropped and rolled onto the floor. Classic Lionel.”

    “I had to move it a few times until it finally was hanging by its claws from Emma’s pants.”

    “Later, after I was able to wake up Emma…”

    Also, I like your sunnies Emma. They suit you, which means they’ll suit me and I’m going to get a pair when the sun comes out again in ten months.

    • emma

      Come over here! Your money will stretch further in Asia. The sun is always out so I plan on expanding my sunglasses collection! 100 baht! $3.50! Though I’m pretty sure it’s just coloured plastic, not even UV eye-protecting glass..

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