Northern Thailand

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Getting behind the wheel

Written by Chaz on 24 June 2011

We had always planned to do a couple day trips using Chiang Mai as a base. So after getting a recommendation from one of our guidebooks for a car rental company and scoping out their website, I decided I was brave enough to take control of a moving vehicle in the insane Thai traffic. Not only are drivers aggressive, but they drive on what I would call the wrong side of the road. And though it was touch and go at first, I quickly adjusted, and before too long, we were zooming through the Thai countryside. Fortunately, we had gotten a GPS from the car rental company, so a nice British woman was giving me directions.

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We began our first day with the car, last Saturday, with a trip to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, a Buddhist temple atop a mountain in a national park near Chiang Mai.

“What could possibly go wrong?”, I jokingly asked. Little did we know that it’s traditional for the freshmen at local high schools to march up the winding road to the temple at the start of each summer. As a result, we literally found ourselves driving through thousands and thousands of schoolchildren. This did not seem to concern most of them.

(In case you’re wondering what the strange background music in those videos is, it’s from the only CD we had with us — the smooth-jazzified versions of American pop songs that we bought in the Bangkok street market.)

The temple itself, once we finally made it to the top of the road and then up a long, crowded set of stairs, was actually beautiful. Unfortunately, it was too foggy for a view back down to Chiang Mai.

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From Doi Suthep, we headed north to the tiny town of Chiang Dao, about 75 kilometers from Chiang Mai. Before we knew it, the city had faded away completely, and we found ourselves in the beautiful Thai countryside.

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After a bit of searching around the middle of nowhere, we found ourselves at the Chiang Dao Nest, an adorable little restaurant-hotel with little bungalows. The Nest seemed to rise out of the woods like an oasis of delicious food.

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The Nest had a creative menu of mostly Western food, which was totally incongruous with its surroundings, and Emmy ordered a curry chicken salad with cashew, one of her favorites from a Rhode Island restaurant. I ordered one of their two Thai items, the “ka-pow!” stir-fry. Emmy enjoyed her salad, though the chicken was warm, which wasn’t quite how salads of that kind are made back home. My stir-fry was fantastic, though I did get mocked by the waitress for the sweating produced by the combination of the high heat and extreme spice.

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After lunch, we explored the Chiang Dao Cave, which was actually quite deep and reminded me of Carlsbad Caverns on a smaller scale. (Light conditions in the cave did not permit beautiful photography.) After running from the cave to the car through a mid-afternoon monsoon, we set off back toward Chiang Mai, planning to turn off toward the mountain town of Samoeng. After a quick stop at the Four Seasons Resort, located outside of Chiang Mai, we found ourselves winding our way into the hills. The roads through the mountains were incredibly beautiful, rivaling some of the nicest I’ve seen in the U.S.

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We were guided along our drive by helpful Thai roadsigns that warned us of hazards such as elephants and deer that run out of the forest because burning trees are falling on them.

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Our second trip out of Chiang Mai, on Monday, took us south to Lamphun and Lampang, two fairly nondescript Thai towns. Lamphun was much closer, and not long after setting out from Chiang Mai, we arrived at the town’s largest temple.

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We took a detour on the way from Lamphun to Lampang to stop at Wat Phra Phut Ta Bat Tak Pah, a huge temple complex that had one temple right off the road, a sprawling monastery behind it, and a second enormous temple up at the top of a mountain, up about a thousand steps. Needless to say, by the time we reached the second temple, we were winded and sweaty.

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As we got close to the top, we realized that we had neglected to bring any water with us, since we hadn’t quite realized the effort we were going to have to put in to reach this temple. Fortunately, capitalism came in quite handy, for what did we find at the top of the huge staircase, next to this temple in middle of nowhere Thailand? A convenience store, of course.

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The drive to Lampang, which was significantly further away from Chiang Mai, took us through a very rural area on an extremely impressive highway (the GPS called it “Super Highway”) through a mountain pass. It was much nicer than several highways I’ve had the pleasure of driving on back home, and the scenery was beautiful, too.

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When we arrived in Lampang, we realized that we really hadn’t had a reason to go there in the first place. The only sights we knew of were more temples, and on our last of thirteen days in Thailand, we had really had enough temples. We were also both starving and more than a little turned around in this unfamiliar town, so we basically wandered the streets until we found Riverside Restaurant, where we had a more-or-less mediocre Thai lunch of fish salad with mango sauce, chicken with basil and chili, and pad thai — our last in Thailand.

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The drive back to Chiang Mai was totally smooth. I’m really glad we got out into the country, and especially that we chose to do it in a car, which gave us flexibility to stop wherever we wanted and explore whatever struck our fancy. Some of the scenery we saw, especially, sticks with me as one of the most memorable things about our time in Thailand.

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