I didn’t see much of Chiang Dao before my bag and I were whisked into a waiting songthaew bound for a 10-minute ride up a winding hill to Malee’s Nature Lovers Bungalows.
There was nobody in sight, so I stooped to pet a tail-wagging dog and waited, still recovering from the efficiency that had brought me so quickly from bustling Chiang Mai to this remote bungalow on the side of Doi Chiang Dao Mountain in a sleepy part of northern Thailand.
I jumped in surprise when a man materialized from somewhere behind me with a soft “hello?” Malee’s husband, Kurt, a gentle Swiss man who referred to Malee as “the boss,” easily swung my backpack onto a shoulder and laughed over his shoulder when I inquired about an ATM.
Showing me into my clean and cozy bungalow, he handed me a map of the area and informed me that the only ATM was all the way back in town. I looked down at the map. I was really in the middle of nowhere.
In turns out that, other than the ATM (which Malee’s brother drove me to the next day), everything that I needed to see in Chiang Dao was within a 10-minute walk of the Bungalow. And I soon learned exactly why Kurt called Malee the boss. My hostess was everywhere all at once, cleaning the pool, organizing rides into town, and cooking a Chinese New Year feast for all of the guests lucky enough to be there on that first New moon of February.
Temple in the Sky
Before my arrival, the only thing that I knew about Chiang Dao was that there is a bad-ass cave that you can clamber through with lanterns, so I was pleasantly surprised with the circle on my map that showed a mountaintop temple just a 12-minute walk (and a 500-step climb) away.
I set out for Wat Tham Pha Plong with no expectation other than a good view and a good workout, but right away I saw that there was more to this temple than scenery.
A note at the bottom of the stairs asked guests to help carry crates of eggs and boxes of mail to the monastery kitchen at the top, so I grabbed a carton and started the climb. All along the way, inspirational signs moved me up the stairs.
At the top, after depositing my crate in the kitchen, I climbed yet more stairs into a small museum dedicated to Luang Boo Sim, a revered monk who was known for meditating in wilderness and caves and who spent his last years at this temple on a mountain.
I climbed still more stairs and entered into the circular chedi. There was nobody but me and the surrounding wilderness, and I could see why Luang Boo settled here to pray in solitude.
While meditation is never easy for me, I spent hours quieting my mind in this peaceful, mountaintop temple over the course of my three days in Chiang Dao.
A Temple Beneath the Ground
From a mountaintop temple to one beneath the ground, Chiang Dao is a place to appreciate the calm of the sky and the cool of the earth.
The Chiang Dao Cave is really a network of five caves surrounded by a temple that leads right up to the mouth of the cave to reveal a system of crystal and limestone foundations throughout the meandering underground caverns.
I opted for Tham Seua Dao, or the “easy” cave, the one where no guide, lantern or crawling is necessary. Actually, I wasn’t really given an option, since I arrived an hour before the 5:00 closing time, and the guides seemed to be packing up and heading home.
But that was OK with me. I was allowed to wander nearly alone through the cave, enjoying a peek of surprise statue here…
…ornate artwork there…
…intricate carvings everywhere…
The caves beneath Doi Chiang Dao Mountain had a way of making me feel delightfully small in a vast and mysterious underworld.
City of Stars
Chiang Dao means City of Stars, but to call it a city would bely the very reason that the stars are, indeed, remarkable. There are no city lights in sight. This remote corner of the world is certainly off the beaten path and well worth the trip.