Chiang Dao is a tiny mountain town 70 kilometers north of Chiang Mai offering very little in the realm of things to do, but providing a very picturesque backdrop for twiddling one’s thumbs. Located at the base of Doi Luang Chiang Dao, the third tallest mountain in the country, the town is known as a base for exploring expansive caves and a pristine, wild national forest. A cluster of hotels and guesthouses have cropped up where mountain meets river on the outskirts of town, but there are no buckets of liquor or body paint, fire-dancing bonanzas common to other bebungalowed areas.
Though it’s known for its nature, I was drawn to Chiang Dao for the culture. We heard rumors that a Tuesday morning market drew mountainside-dwelling ethnic groups down into town to sell their wares and buy or trade supplies for the coming week. In order to keep the part of my brain honed in international development classes from hurting, I’ve limited my hill tribe gawking to museums and economic interactions, so I jumped at this opportunity.
A Little Rant About Hill Tribe Tourism in Thailand
Shot from the hip on the back of a moving motorbike in a greatly creeptastic move.
I know; I’m obnoxious and slightly hypocritical. I want to interact with the hill tribes! I do! I want to see their way of life, but I want to do so respectfully, without supporting operations that exploit. I worry that gawking at villagers going about daily life puts an emphasis on their “otherness” rather than celebrating diversity in a constructive way. The common analogy is that of the human zoo, and I think it is a fitting description, but moreover I worry about the effect of the industry on the sustainability and viability of that way of life. When communities make money and survive on being a spectacle, the actual economy dries—there’s also more room for exploitation in this model, by tour operators and others.
It’s better, I think, to learn and do your gawking remotely, in museums and on the internet, and to limit interactions to economic exchanges. Hill tribes can continue to live and govern themselves relatively autonomously and with dignity if they can make a good living. Buying coffee grown and roasted by hill tribers, for instance, provides good money for skilled work. Purchasing traditional handicrafts is popular as well, but the effect of urban tastes and buying patterns mean that lots of the crafts you might see aren’t traditional. I’m not sure I care about that as much, though.
About the Stretch of Highway Between Chiang Mai and Chiang Dao
I did NOT see an elephant. I demand that the Kingdom of Thailand reimburse my gas expenditures.
We set off on our little orange scooter on a Monday afternoon, passing small towns, forests, agricultural fields, and elephant crossing signs(!), while being passed by faster motorcycles and big vehicles carrying lengths of pipes and loads of people. While rather accustomed to Thailand’s lush greenery and fertile grounds that contrast so much with the rugged, coastal-plane-meets-fault-line terrain of my home town, the start of the rainy season has produced foliage that steals my breath.
I know nothing about the animism practiced by many southeast asians. Nothing. But I can see how when living in an environment teeming with life, one could easily conceive of spirits. The landscape takes every moment to let us know, without a hint of modesty, that it is alive.
“I sustain,” sing the mountains.
“I am thriving,” boast the trees heavy with sweet, delicious fruit.
While a new class of urban foragers scout edible wilds in the states, the trees of Thailand just plop gifts of ripe fruit right in front of you, as if producing it were nothing. No big deal/mai pen rai/ไม่เป็นไร.
Impressions of Chiang Dao
The cloud shroud from our bungalow.
Chiang Dao is tiny. It’s a strip of road with a few restaurants, food carts, tire repair shops, and a few home goods stores. In the afternoon, the only commercial operations using electricity for lighting were the chains: 7-11 and Tesco Lotus. The majority of the townsfolk appeared to be just chilling with each other in the various shops, eating food, watching TV. Kids leaving school piled into pick-ups and waved at us nicely, smiling and genuine.
We followed the signs indicating the location of the guesthouses, and pulled into the first one, a series of bungalows across from some farm houses and fields. Our little standalone room stood behind a series of trees bearing fruit and flowers in the shadows of the mountain. The lawn was infested with chickens and chicks of various states of development that were occasionally cleared by the fluffy pet dog on the property. We didn’t eat in the hotel’s restaurant, but I assume it had great chicken fried rice/kow pad gai/ข้าวผัดไก่.
Look at this cocky…baby cock?
An afternoon ride around the village confirmed our suspicions that there is nothing to do in Chiang Dao. So we bought snacks and beer, sat outside and watched the clouds shift atop the mountain and listened to the riotous cacophony of nature, with its scurrying chipmunk-like creatures, songs of birds in trees, squawks of birds on the ground, and symphonies of beetles. We watched the clouds shift around the mountains with the same lazy awe devoted to waves crashing at the beach.
The neighboring bungalows had longer-term residents: European retirees and travelers who stayed on, watering plants and growing their own, making the property feel a bit more like a commune than a guesthouse. At once, I saw the appeal, yet also the abject boredom that must come from living in this place without an occupation. The mountainside peace and splendid views surely soothe and calm, but the skittish internet and the TVs with reception for only a handful of the 500 terrible channels promised would make terrible company. Perhaps these folks interact with the other travelers who come through or have the language skills I lust for. Maybe they came to these little cabins to avoid people. Maybe they prefer chickens for company.
Noodle stand in the gold store’s parking lot.
Come dinner time, we meandered onto the strip of road that comprised the main town. We looked for a restaurant at first, before settling on a noodle stand with a series of foldable tables, plastic stools, and condiment caddies that mark a great place to eat. We ordered two bowls of something I could barely read, let alone pronounce, and were surprised and delighted to find ourselves slurping ramen-style noodles out of a broth studded with dumplings and other surprises. When it started raining, we just picked up our table, moved in under an awning and turned around to see this:
There’s nothing to do in Chiang Dao, true, but sometimes it’s worth doing nothing. Sometimes doing dilutes all the somethings.
Notes on the market to follow, as this post is already too long.
Hi! I'm Susan, and this is my travel journal. You can read more about me here.
My Web StoreThese are travel products I have used on the road, curated especially for you.