600km Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai Road Trip

What was Tom thinking, our experience of Thailand’s roads so far has been one of chaos, a substantial lack of safety and outright danger and thats just as pedestrians! However he suggested we drive a 600km road trip? As Top Gear often said, what could possibly go wrong?

Thankfully we are glad to say the entire trip went completely to plan, and was one of the best things we have ever done! This is mostly down to the immense planning Tom committed himself to the week prior to ensure smooth running of both days and making the most of the route to include some of the best sights northern Thailand has to offer!

First things first, car hire, after some research Tom decided to commit to hiring from North Wheels. The booking process was easy and our car was delivered to our apartment Thursday morning 8:30 sharp with a full tank of fuel ready to go. Total cost of car hire for 2 days was 2,900 Baht (£67), which includes a 600 Baht (£13) cost for a GPS device as an emergency backup. Some of the areas we planned to visit were extremely remote, we were unsure of the quality of the phone signal to use google maps and decided having the GPS would be a good safety net. The car itself was more than okay and was a pleasure to drive on the trip, a modern 1.5 petrol Honda City, not the Land Rover Tom would have liked, but beggars can’t be choosers!

After signing the paperwork and being handed the keys we packed up the car and hit the road. Our first challenge was getting out of Chiang Mai. This was a true trial by fire, as we knew this would be the most difficult part of the whole journey. The city traffic is heavy, fast paced and unpredictable, lanes are often blocked by parked cars and the hundreds of motorbike riders show no fear whilst only sporting their hair as a helmet. Although the twenty or so minutes it took to get out of the city were nerve racking at first, Tom became accustomed to the driving very quickly, being confident not hesitant, committing to gaps and generally driving with awareness and conviction lead to fitting right in.

Once out of the city we were immediately into the territory we wanted to see and explore, surrounded by the endless forests, hills and mountains of the national parks the drive was every bit as scenic as we had hoped. The sunny weather was a blessing and really added to the atmosphere as we traversed the hills on the winding roads. A word on these roads, there is still plenty to be wary of and it would be easy to just get lost in the scenery and eating up the miles. Although the traffic is sparse in comparison to the city there is still a good amount of traffic using these roads between cities, and cars overtaking is probably the biggest peril. Getting stuck behind a slow moving pickup which is loaded higher than a regular truck in the UK is a common occurrence, and with very little straight bits of road, often at times a sizeable line of traffic forms. And almost every time we encountered a scenario like this there was a minivan overtaking 5-6 cars at a time, at high speed, through the blind bends on the wrong side of the road.

When met with a car coming in the other direction they waste no time pulling straight across back into the lane, so be ready to jump on the brakes and swerve into the hard shoulder to give the mad man some room. We did thankfully only once encounter an impeding head on collision with a car which took a very poor overtaking decision, we quickly moved into the hard shoulder to allow them to pass in our lane without an incident.

Another surprising encounter we experienced was the road itself, it just sort of.. ran out. Still bewildered by the Jurassic Park scenery as we rounded a corner on one of the main routes between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai we found the tarmac just stopped! All of a sudden we were driving over extremely wet and slippery mud. As well as this the potholes were big enough to warrant driving no faster than 1 mph to preserve the car and ourselves, but of course Mr Minivan was still overtaking at high speed on the wrong side of the road. Once we were through the several points of construction work to actually build the road we were driving on we reached our first stop of the day, an hour and half outside of Chiang Mai, the Mae Kachan Hot Spring and Geyser.

Easy to find, it is right by the roadside and has grown into a sizeable tourist attraction. The bubbling extremely hot waters were the first thing to greet us as we pulled into the parking area. The water sloshes out of it’s contained area regularly and staying back is well advised, however it is still possible to buy an egg to boil on the end of a stick in the water. Despite people boiling eggs with the water, a British lady still decided to try dipping her hand in the water to test the temperature. Tom saw this unfold and found it highly amusing when she screamed and realised just how hot it was. She won’t be doing that again in a hurry. 

All around the outside are places to shop, eat and rest, but the main attraction for us was the abandoned temple construction just along the road and was the main motivation for the stop.

This derelict structure holds some secrets, although it looks like a complex solid construction from the outside, we were surprised to learn the top section is mostly a well made facade around an internal metal lattice work. Electrical wiring hung exposed out of the walls and pillars, making this place a whole lot more modern than it intends you to think. We couldn’t glean exactly what this place was meant to be, either a part of the Geyser attraction which went bust or something else entirely? But it was cool to see and explore and was a welcome first rest stop on our journey.

Back on the road and another hour and a half of driving through rice paddies and small villages we came to our next stop, The White Temple.

We arrived at one of the most unique temples in all of Thailand, it was an impressive sight to see. This is one of the biggest tourist attractions in the area and it showed, there were hundreds of people all clambering and jostling to take photos of themselves posing on it’s bridge of ‘Rebirth’. A total cost of about 100 Baht for the two of us to enter the grounds of the temple is more than reasonable looking at how big the grounds are and how well maintained it all is. Tom fought his way to the front of posing people to set up his tripod and capture some images. We stood there for nearly an hour waiting for a clear shot, but it never came!

The temple itself is incredibly aggressive looking, with skulls, sharp points and suffering people moulded into it. One of the most unique things about this temple is the pit of hands which are reaching up as if to be saved.

This is a representation of hell and despair caused by greed and temptation, and the only way to avoid it is to cross the path of rebirth into the temple itself. Inside the temple is shockingly small, when compared to the large grounds which surround it.

Back on the road again, and this time a detour from our route to the final destination. We drove deep into the national park on some sketchy roads in search of one of the largest waterfalls in Thailand. Khun Korn Waterfall stands at roughly 75 meters tall, with an extremely powerful flow of water.

It took about an hour of hiking through thick forest, some water crossings and muddy terrain underfoot before we reached the waterfall. Whilst trekking through the forest we encountered enormous bamboo plants lining the pathway and creating natural tunnels to navigate. We saw (and heard) all kinds of wildlife, including some of the biggest butterflies we have ever seen. Although, thankfully, no tarantulas! We were sweating from the heat and humidity when we arrived at the waterfall. It was deafeningly loud and the spray was immense, constantly hosing us down. Although it helped cool us, it made the task of photographing it extremely difficult! Megan chose to stay up high, but Tom wanted to get closer to the action. Tom clambered down the incredibly wet rocky terrain to the foot of the waterfall in an attempt to get an image. When he returned he looked as if he had just got out of the shower!

After another trek back through the forest we were back on the road! We drove for almost two hours before arriving at our final destination, a short distance from Mae Sai, a town at the Myanmar border. There are several police checkpoints on the roads leading to and terminating at the border. We were stopped a couple of times, but when they saw that we were British, they smiled broadly and waved us on our way. This final destination was the motivation for our whole trip. Tom found out about a pagoda and walkway in a rice paddy at the foot of some hills from a local guide. This time of year is perfect for a rice paddy photo, since harvest in this part of Thailand does not occur until November. This was a photograph that Tom really wanted to capture and was conveniently located at the rear of our hotel.

We were nearing the hotel and we were late, sunset was happening exactly how Tom had planned, but we were still 20 minutes away from the location. When we arrived the sunset was lingering. Tom decided he was going to try to get his planned photograph. He picked up his bag and tripod and took off running through the hotel resort grounds. He shouted to the receptionist as he ran past that he would be back soon to check in. He made it in time to capture the image as planned, which topped off our whole day, watching the sunset disappear behind the hills, with nothing but absolute silence around us. What an amazing day!

We experienced far too much on our two day journey to be able to fit it all into our blog. We cant really capture in words the amazing sights we encountered, it was more a case of “you had to be there” to experience and appreciate what we saw. We are planning our next road trip, to the highest point in Thailand, check back soon to find out what we get up to!

Megan & Tom

2 thoughts on “600km Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai Road Trip

  1. Loving your b!og. My son Ben has just been to Vietnam, did a 10 day trek on a motorbike. Loved it, would go back. Ha Giang Extreme Motorbike Loop. Have a look on vietnamcoracle.com.
    Enjoy x

    Liked by 1 person

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