November in Thailand brings the end of the rainy season and ushers in the “cool” months of the year. For Bangkokians, that means donning a scarf, leather jacket and low level winter garb whilst pretending it isn’t 32C outside.
In the north, however, the cool season means just that, making it a popular getaway destination.
We haven’t really explored Northern Thailand much, so for this trip we decided to rent a car and drive a lazy loop around some of the more picturesque sites. The famous tour in these parts is undoubtedly the Mae Hong Son loop, but after a bit of researching we settled on a rough version of the less-travelled Mae Salong loop.
Overall this has taken us 9 days to be able to spend a good amount of time at each stop – this is a holiday not a sprint. You could do it in 5, or you could extend it to spend some more time in Chiang Mai at the back end.
You could equally do what we tried and failed to do – rent transport in Chiang Mai and drop it off in Chiang Rai. Ultimately we weren’t able to find car hire to do this, but it was a public holiday and so cars were in short supply all round!
The lazy Mae Salong loop
The Mae Salong loop is a beautiful and varied trip. On the way we’ll take in spectacular starscapes served up next to Korean BBQ in Chiang Dao, winding mountain roads up to a tea-soaked slice of southern China in Mae Salong, before basing ourselves in Chiang Rai for a few gentle days of coffee, culture and relaxation.
For a bit more in depth info on attractions on the loop, plus a couple of extra stops, be sure to check out the excellent guide at Travelfish – in my opinion easily the best resource for info on any Thai destination and seemingly for most of southeast Asia.
As we are typically sedentary creatures, we prefer fewer stops and more time at each place to explore, relax and unwind. So you can think of this as the lazy Mae Salong loop, Mae Salong Lite or even Mae Not Salong (stretching?). In any case, we wanted more views like this and less time on the road.
The Mae Salong loop is best done in November-February, when temperatures are cool but the rainy season has passed. Google Maps was more than adequate for directions, except for getting from Mae Salong to Chiang Rai!
Stage 1: Chiang Dao from Chiang Mai
We started our trip as all good journeys should start – with a creaking, 13 hour overnight train journey from Bangkok. I’ll write up something separate about the train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai but if you plan to do it and remember nothing else – bring food.
Well-nourished on crisps and Dunkin’ Donuts hastily plundered from the station, the train spat us out at a very sleepy Chiang Mai around 7.30am.
After a bleary coffee and Khao Tom from the station cafe, our rental car turned up, handily delivered by Budgetcatcher with whom we had a really easy rental experience. Our ride was a ubiquitous Toyota Yaris with minimal grunt. If you were doing this trip in the wet season or with more than two people, a four wheel drive would be handy, but for us this handled the mountains just fine.
Having previously spent a lot of time in Chiang Mai, we didn’t hang around and headed straight for our first stop some 80km north – Chiang Dao.
Chiang Dao – literally City of Stars – is a small town straddling two sides of the highway north of Chiang Mai. The drive is gentle but notably uphill, and the area is dominated by the huge Doi Luang mountain which is visible from everywhere in town.
Chiang Dao is one for the nature lovers, and we spent 3 days exploring its varied delights.
Accommodation in Chiang Dao skews heavily to the rustic and nothing is expensive. We stayed at Saranghae Resort, a relatively new small operation run by a lovely Thai-Korean couple. A princely 1,200THB a night got us a comfy and cosy log cabin surrounded by some rather lovely mountainside views and little else beyond the sounds of birds and insects. The air is warm by day and distinctly cool by night – when we visited in November it was certainly jumper weather in the evenings, so do bring warm clothes!
Nest 1 and Nest 2 are the most famous places to stay in Chiang Dao, but we liked Saranghae for it being small and quiet. Saranghae also has two significant advantages; first, the owner has become a very keen photographer since moving here, and will happily help you get snaps of the quite dazzling night sky. The City of Stars truly does live up to its name. How dazzling your own poses are remain entirely at your discretion, and as usual we made the silliest pose we could think of.
The other upside to Saranghae Resort is their nightly Korean menu including a tasty pork BBQ served with all the trimmings at your table. The friendly family dogs who amble around the resort also seem rather partial to BBQ, and will be your best friend as long as there are leftovers nearby.
If you did nothing else in Chiang Dao, you could easily spend a couple of days lounging around the resorts, taking in incredible local coffee at Chai Cafe and rolling through the excellent food options at Saranghae Resort, Nest 1 and Nest 2. We also really enjoyed Nakara Cafe just the other side of Chiang Dao town for a breathtaking slice of Thai vista.
If you want to get a little more active before continuing on the Mae Salong loop, here are some suggestions:
Chiang Dao Cave
A bit of a surprise bonus – this absolutely gigantic set of caves wends its way deep into the mountains. A pretty dull first 100 metres masks the real fun, which is to hire one of the many guides waiting inside for 200 baht per group, then follow them into the darkness exploring the chambers. You need a guide by rule to do this, as the unlit caves are full of holes and side-passages, so on you’re own you’d quickly run into difficulty. The faintly terrifying stroll and crawl is well worth the cost of the guide, assuming you have no issues with the dark, small spaces, bats or spiders of ever-increasing size.
Entry is 40THB and dress as though you were going to the temple (cover shoulders and long trousers).
Hiking and Hot Springs
Whilst you can hike to the top of Doi Luang, Thailand’s third highest peak, it’s a multi-day which requires a lot of preparation and several weeks advance notice for permits. For the lazy Mae Salong loop enthusiast, more genteel hiking may be preferred. Our resort was able to set us up with a local guide who took us on an interesting, moderately difficult sojourn through the jungle. Led by a local villager, a local homestay owner and a smiling woman who was there to forage chestnuts, we hiked around the lower reaches of the mountains for around 3 hours.
The local guide was extremely knowledgeable and constantly digging up fruit, nuts and leaves for us to smell, taste and cart back to the village for dinner. We helped them find a few things to take back before we were all forced into a hasty retreat by the biggest bee I have ever seen. It was a good morning.
Afterwards they had booked us a private onsen at the Chiang Dao Hot Spring which was a nice treat – and certainly more appealing than the concrete tub free-for-all a few metres away.
The hike and hot spring in Chiang Dao set us back just 450THB per person.
Wat Tham Pha Plong
Dare you tackle the 500 remarkably easy stairs to Wat Tham Pha Plong? You could. There’s not a lot up there but the contrast of the temple buildings and the limestone mountain walls behind are very pretty. The main part of the temple is under renovation as of November 2020, so you won’t get up to the high viewpoint or see much, but it’s a nice walk up and doesn’t take too long.
Stage 2: Doi Mae Salong
Departing Chiang Dao, it’s around a 2.5hr drive up to our next adventure, Mae Salong (of the Mae Salong loop fame).
The road is steep and winding in places, especially before you hit Fang some 80km away from Chiang Dao. This trip was actually our first time driving in Thailand, but overall the experience was fine. The main thing to watch for on the mountain roads is questionable overtaking. This is far too common as cars and especially trucks try to zip around the heavy lorries that lumber up the hills. Be sensible and patient.
The scenery in the mountains is beautiful, and you can break up the journey at any of the well-signposted coffee shops.
After passing through Fang and Tha Ton, the road turns off towards Mae Salong and kicks up through 14km of some of the steepest, twistiest asphalt I’ve ever driven. I thought it was great fun. Frankie felt otherwise.
Mae Salong itself is a sinuous sliver of a village stretched across 5km of steep mountain ridge. At initial view, you would wonder who would choose to build a village up here. Then you read about the history of Mae Salong and its Chinese KMT founders and it makes a bit more sense.
There’s a hum and character to the town that is remarkably un-Thailess a sleepy backwater than a constantly buzzing little patch of southern China. It’s worth coming here for that experience alone.
The history of Mae Salong means that a large portion of today’s residents speak Chinese as a first language according to our hotel owner – although everybody does speak Thai. Descendants of the KMT seem to make up the bulk of people, but the town is also home to many people from the hilltribes dotted liberally around the area. So whilst you’ll hear and a lot of Chinese spoken, you’ll also see the occasional pickup truck full of Akha women in traditional outfits trundling past.
We based ourselves around the known centre of any town, the 7-Eleven. We stayed at Ama Mae Salong, a perfectly tidy guesthouse well-located for many sights and restaurants in town. It also has excellent, if restricted for most rooms, views out over the surrounding valleys and mountains.
A speciality here is Yunnanese food, and just downhill from Ama on the main road is a Yunnanese noodle restaurant that was perpetually heaving when we visited and where the whole family was enlisted – kids peeling garlic while grandma folded dumplings to accompany the noodles.
We found that this was for good reason, as the family dished us up steaming bowls of chewy noodles with an absolutely nuclear (but delicious) chilli-garlic paste to accompany it. A large bowl was all of 50THB. Feeling peckish, we also ordered a large plate of gyoza at 80THB, and you can imagine our surprise when 20 hot, part steamy part crispy beauties found their way to our table.
I could eat both of these things daily and never get bored.
More fun was had at Xin Shi Dai bakery, where the owner served us up Yunnanese pizza with – his words – very many cheeses.
For the best views in town, we hauled ourselves up the rather more demanding than Chiang Dao 700 steps to the pagoda. You’ll struggle to find better views than these.
Today, Mae Salong is perhaps most famous for its Oolong tea, and with this in mind we set out on a small hike between Ama in the centre of town, and the Wang Put Tan tea plantation across the valley.
I’ll be honest, this wasn’t totally smooth sailing as we lacked a map, any real directions and also any sense of direction. After walking into an Akha village, we stopped to ask directions and then followed a series of local tracks down and up into the plantation.
This turned out to be well worthwhile with not a soul around and lots of lush scenery.
The Wang Put Tan plantation itself is lovely, and you’re pretty much free to wander around the steep terraces as you please. At the is a very modern and new cafe where you can try their excellent teas and perhaps a slice of cheesecake after your walk.
We also walked back to the village on a similar but far more successful route, which I have mapped below for anyone who fancies trying either direction. It is certainly steep, but we really enjoyed it and it’s only 3.5km, taking us just shy of an hour.
Around Mae Salong town itself are an abundance of tea shops where you can sample to your heart’s content. In the morning there’s a market and there’s an all day tea market further up the hill.
We liked Mae Salong for a number of reasons – the cool, fresh air in the morning and evening, the Chinese vibe and cuisine, the vivid natural and man made landscapes, the combination of woodsmoke and jasmine flowers on the breeze. It was a very worthwhile stop on our trip and an easy place to spend 2 nights.
Stage 3: Chiang Rai
The closing chapter of our Mae Salong loop was a couple of days in Chiang Rai. From Mae Salong it’s only about 1.5hrs – but do be sure to come back on yourself when leaving Mae Salong. Google will try to take you down a road that the Ama owner openly laughed at when we showed him, and I’m guessing he knew a thing about mountain driving.
We primarily used Chiang Rai as a place to relax and unwind after being more active early on. A stay at Mora Boutique hotel definitely aided that relaxation and we saw why it is so highly regarded for comfort and service.
Us sitting by a pool is not the content you came here for (is it?), so I’ll wrap up this Mae Salong loop journey pretty shortly. What I would say about Chiang Rai is that the Blue and White temples are really something else and certainly worth visiting to bask in the glorious intricacy and borderline insanity of their design. You want neon? You got it. Big creepy patch of hands and skulls? Tick.
There are also a few good riverside cafes to check out, we loved Chivit Thammada which is next to the Blue Temple. Come for the coffee and cakes, stay to watch the Instagram photoshoots.
You could of course do one of the million and one day trips from Chiang Rai to Doi Chang, Phu Chi Fah and beyond. Or you could sleep late and read books. Your call.
One way rental for the Mae Salong loop
Now – ideally, you would either want to have another night or two in Chiang Mai if doing a closed loop, or to drop off your hire car in Chiang Rai and fly out. We rather muffed up on achieving either of these and had to schlep back to Chiang Mai (3.5hrs), gobble a world-beating pastrami sandwich at Butter is Better (go there, and if possible go now) and then get on a plane.
When planning your trip, see if you can arrange a one way drop off at Chiang Rai airport. We probably just left it too late but book a car early and you will likely get free cancellation anyway, so there’s no risk.
We had a great time exploring the highlights of the Mae Salong loop. These destinations showcase a lot that is good about Northern Thailand and a lot that you wouldn’t think of when picturing Thailand. The mountain scenery, abundance of activities, gorgeous food and engaging people were a figurative breath of fresh air, while the cool, sparsely populated mountainsides were a literal one. While we were lucky to be able to go now with limited other tourists, this trip would be a winner at any point, with plenty to enjoy for outdoor lovers, foodies and culture buffs alike. A bit of bliss in Northern Thailand.