Authentic Traveling

Stories from off the beaten path

Category: Thailand (Page 1 of 2)

Epic Northern Thailand Motorcycle Journey

It has been a dream of mine for years to go on a long motorcycle adventure throughout Northern Thailand. Ever since I first completed the Mae Hong Son loop in 2013, I’ve been dying to come back to Thailand for more riding. In February 2017, I fulfilled this dream by renting out a bike and riding 5,000 km over a period 19 days throughout every northern province.

In order to help others take part in the trip of a lifetime or just for those that are curious, I am going to use this post to discuss the logistics of my trip and break down my itinerary into smaller posts going into further detail on each destination.

I’ve previously lived in Thailand as an English teacher so I am much more familiar with Thai culture than most. When I lived there, I was extremely motivated to learn Thai language studying almost constantly. Now I speak with moderate fluency which certainly helped make things easier for me on this trip. Due to my language ability I was able to talk with local people and learn more about their lives, but this is by no means an impossible trip for those that do not speak Thai. I strongly recommend learning  few phrases before going out though.

The Itinerary

Day One – Got up early to rent my bike in Chiang Rai from Chiang Rai Big Bike Rentals as soon as the shop opened. I had been in Thailand for a couple days prior resting and recovering from jet lag before beginning this trip. On my first day, I drove to Nan stopping to see the White Temple, also known as Wat Rong Khun, just south of Chiang Rai.

White Temple Wat Rong Khun

Wat Rong Khun (White Temple)

Phayao

Phayao Province

Nan

Makhwaen Fried Pork

Day Two – Explored Nan Province enjoying the Saturday night market and visiting the salt mining village, Ban Bo Kluea, and Doi Phu Kha National Park. My favorite part of Nan was eating pork fried with “makhwaen” at the Saturday night market. Makhwaen is a herb endemic to Nan giving the pork a unique flavor that can’t be found anywhere else in Thailand. After Nan I spent the next night in Phrae. Read my guide to Nan here detailing everything I did. 

 

Nan Province

Nan Province

Day Three – Had an excellent dinner and breakfast at Chatwaran Homestay in Phrae then drove to Lampang to spend one evening. Learn about the best things to do in Lampang here. When I was an English teacher in Thailand, I lived in Lampang so I had a chance to visit some old friends while I was there.

Authentic Traveling

Staying at Chatwaran Homestay

Lampang, Thailand

Lampang, Thailand

Day Four – I left Lampang early in the morning driving through Uttaradit and Phitsanulok to get to Phetchabun spending the night just outside the beautiful and trippy modern temple called Wat Pha Sorn Kaew.

Wat Pha Sorn Kaew

Day Five – I continued further to Loei Province to visit the beautiful Tham Erawan Cave . After the cave, I spent the night along the Mekong River in an old traditional wooden home in Chiang Khan. Laos was only just across the river so much of the food in Chiang Khan was Laotian. I had some wonderful jungle curry at a restaurant right along the river.

Tham Erawan Loei

Day Six – Checked out early from Chiang Khan and drove to Phu Rua National Park to camp under the stars.

Phu Ruea National Park

Day Seven – Traveled from Phu Rua National Park to Nakon Rachasima Province to visit the famed Khao Yai National Park. While Khao Yai had a lot of natural beauty, I thought it was a little over crowded with weekenders from Bangkok. I did see some famous places like this waterfall from the movie “The Beach”.

Khao Yai National Park

Waterfall from the famous movie about Thailand – The Beach

Day Eight – After a day at Khao Yai, I went west across Central Thailand to Kanchanaburi Province. It was rice fields like the one below for hours upon hours until I reached my destination.

Thailand Rice Field

Day Nine – I got a good night sleep in Kanchanaburi’s provincial capital before trekking deeper into the province first checking out Wat Tham Suea and then driving up to Sangkhlaburi to visit the famous Mon Bridge and eat delicious hill tribe food.

Wat Tham Suea

Wat Tham Suea, Kanchanaburi Province

Sangkhlaburi Mon Bridge

Mon Bridge in Sangkhlaburi

Three Pagoda Pass

Day 10 – In the morning, I went up to the Burmese border crossing at Three Pagoda Pass and technically stepped into Myanmar. After lunch I drove along the tortuous road up to Thong Pha Phum National Park for the highlight of my entire trip – spending a night in a real Thai tree house.

Thong Pha Phum Tree House

Thong Pha Phum Tree House

Day 11 – After a wonderful nights sleep, I left my tree house and went up the road to E-Thong, another small village along the Thai-Burmese border. I got a nice breakfast at one of the cafes along the lake and then spent the majority of my day riding straight to Kampaeng Phet. This was an intense 500-600 kilometer day.

E-Thoeng

E-Thong

Day 12 – I drove from Kampaeng Phet into Tak province through Mae Sot and up to Tha Song Yang, an isolated region of Tak province straddling the Burmese border. The road continues further to Mae Hong Son province, but I stopped to spend the night in Tha Song Yang. Tha Song Yang is a quiet remote town in an area of Thailand without much traffic. When I went out to dinner, the people looked at me like I was the first foreigner to ever visit this place.

Tham Mae Usu

Mae Usu Cave

Day 13Got a local tour of Mae Usu Cave in Tha Song Yang then continued northward into Mae Hong Son province spending the night in an authentic Thai Yai home stay program at Ban Muang Pon. Ban Muang Pon was another major highlight of my trip. I spent hours talking with my host that evening and learned so much about life for many of the minority communities in Mae Hong Son Province.

Ban Muang Pon Homstay

Ban Muang Pon Homestay Breakfast

Khao Soi Mae Sai

Khao Soi Noodles

Day 14 – Left Ban Muang Pon to Mae Hong Son’s provincial capital to spend sometime relaxing and eating khao soi at Khao Soi Pa Noon, a famous restaurant in Mae Hong Son. After lunch, I went into the mountains to visit my favorite place in Thailand, Pang Ung, a hidden Alpine lake and royal development project. I spent the night camping by the lake at Pang Ung.

Pang Ung

Pang Ung

Pang Ung

Tent Camping at Pang Ung

Day 15 – Leaving Pang Ung, I traveled towards Pai stopping in the remote Shan mountain village of Mae La-Na. I spent the night at a cool guest house on a farm a little away from the village called Maelana Garden House. We didn’t have power most of the night, but it ended up working out for the best because I had a memorable traditional candle light Shan dinner at the guest house.

Day 16 – Returned to Chiang Mai for a much needed rest day. I spent some time eating at my favoriate khao soi restaurants – you can see the entire list here.

Chiang Dao Caves

Day 16 – Traveled north to Doi Ang Khang National Park stopping at the Chiang Dao Caves on the way up. At the caves I got an awesome tour by a local elderly Thai man with a gas lantern. Very cool.

Day 17 – Doi Ang Khang was freezing for Thai standards, but after waiting for it to warm up a bit in the morning, I walked around the gardens and fruit orchards before continuing back down to Fang – a city nearby Doi Ang Khang. In Fang I stopped to eat at one of my favorite restaurants – Phumanee Home Hotel. I like this hotel/restaurant so much because it essentially acts as a non-profit organization supporting their hill tribe community far away in the mountains. The hotel is a showcase for hill tribe culture serving delicious food in the restaurant that is extremely different from normal Thai food.

Day 18 – I spent my final night in Ban Thoet Thai – a remote mountain village that up until the 1980s was completely isolated from the rest of Thailand due to lack of sealed roads. The town was a famous place because it was home to one of the largest opium warlords in Thailand due to its remote inaccessible location. I spent the night in a nice guesthouse along the river called Rim Taan Guest House. After Ban Toet Thai, I rode over to Doi Mae Salong to check out the beautiful pagoda at the top of the mountain before returning to Chiang Rai to return the bike.

Elephant Crossing Thailand

Caution: Elephant Crossing

Day 19 – With the bike returned, I boarded a flight to Bangkok to rest for a few nights before continuing my journey to Mauritius off the coast of Africa.

How I Rented My Bike

Renting a motorcycle in Thailand is easy and cheap. A scooter can be pretty much rented anywhere, but for bigger bikes, there are two excellent foreign-owned specialty shops in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. I personally think the shop in Chiang Rai has a little better value than the one in Chiang Mai, but regardless these two are the best places to rent.

In Chiang Rai, I rented my bike from Chiang Rai Big Bike Rentals. Not only was the bike in excellent condition, but this business lets all of its customers rent their protective gear for no additional cost. It would be foolish to go out on the roads without a proper jacket, shin guards, helmet, and gloves. CR Big Bike rentals gives these all to their customers for free. Not only that, but they also lend out GoPros for free as well. The other thing I like about this company is that they don’t put massive stickers advertising their business on the bikes. These just look so ugly, and I am glad CR Big Bike Rentals keeps their bikes looking nice.

The other major rental company is Tony’s Big Bikes in Chiang Mai. Unlike their competitor, Tony’s does not offer free protective gear (except helmets), and all their bikes are plastered with advertisements for their business. In my opinion, it would only be worth renting from Tony’s if I wanted to stay and ride around Chiang Mai otherwise its worth going up to CR Big Bike Rentals.

Safety

Motorcycle safety is a serious concern in Thailand, but generally not for the reasons many people think. I’m not an expert on motorcycle safety nor am I claiming to be, but as someone who has done some riding in Thailand, I will elaborate on my experiences and offer some general safety tips that I have unfortunately had to learn the hard way.

I’ve heard many people say before that Thai drivers are crazy, but to be honest those same people say Indian drivers are crazy, and Italian drivers are crazy, and German drivers are crazy. The list just goes on. Despite what people say, I’ve honestly found Thai drivers to be quite responsible and predictable. There are clear rules on the road and if they are followed, there won’t be any issues. Thais tend to be more overconfident in their overtaking abilities than other drivers, but besides this, I’ve found them to be quite courteous  and predictable.

In my personal opinion, I actually think its safer to ride a motorcycle in Thailand than it is in my home, the United States. The reason is because there are so many more people riding in Thailand than the US so drivers tend to be more aware of their surroundings in Thailand.

Road conditions, however, are a serious issue in Northern Thailand. The mountainous terrain coupled with occasionally poor roads is a combination for disaster. The most serious safety issue, in my opinion, is riding downhill with twists and turns in the road. When going down hill, riders MUST keep their bike in low gear. They MUST go slow, and they MUST only use their front brake. A little gravel around a hairpin turn with too much speed can lead to a nasty skid. It’s happened to me before, and I’ve seen it happen to others. Going downhill is the most serious safety concern while riding. I always go slow and pay close attention to the road at all times while going downhill.

Furthermore, wet roads can be just as bad as going downhill. I would not ride my bike while it was raining unless I had no other choice. If I did ride during the rain, I went way slower than I normally would and anticipated much longer stopping time. On wet roads, it is very easy to skid out.

Before riding, I suggest taking a look at this motorcycle safety informational video. Its a bit old and cheesy, but it gives some really good advice.

Where To Stay

One big question I get asked is where I spent the night along this trip. Fortunately in Thailand, accommodation is cheap so I mostly spent the night in private rooms at guesthouses. A couple of times I stayed in hotels or hostels depending on whatever was available.

My personal favorite way to find accommodation is by using Booking.com. This website is different from other travel sites because any small guesthouse or hotel can get themselves listed online. They just need to pay a portion of their revenues to Booking.com. In Thailand there are dozens of unlisted hotels and guesthouses in every town, but recently more and more of them are getting online. I like to make bookings because it is just so convenient to have a booking and know your room will be saved especially if arriving late. I would hate to spend all day worrying that I might have to spend hours looking for a hotel at an affordable rate after a long day of riding. While its always possible to find a hotel, Booking.com guarantees that I get the cheap one reserved.

Agoda is another popular website for booking, but it is owned by Booking.com so I’ve found the listings to be pretty similar. Agoda is based out of Singapore and tends to focus more on South East Asia.

While Booking.com is quite helpful, only about half the time I was able to use them to make a reservation. The other half I was so off-the-beaten-path that I couldn’t find anything where I was going. In these cases, I used Lonely Planet’s Thailand Guidebook or just hoped to find a hotel in town. Many Thai cities have tourism bureaus with information listing all the hotels in their province. This helped me out a couple of times to find unlisted hotels.

Finally staying in national parks is another great option. It is possible to camp for cheap in any National park in Thailand, but not all parks rent out tents themselves. To see if tents were available, I would usually just call ahead to make sure before I arrived. Many national parks also have bungalows for rent, but the price varies extremely between national parks. I’ve seen some two-person bungalows for 300 bhat and other times a similar bungalow for 1,000.

What to Bring

I packed light because I knew I would need to carry everything on my bike. I normally travel with a 55L backpacking bag, but I took most of my clothes out, left them at the bike shop, and traveled with just the bare minimum. I strapped my bag to the back of my bike using bungee cords lent to me from the shop.

I really only had a couple different pairs of clothes and washed them every few days. Besides clothes, I had camera equipment, toiletries, sandals, swimsuit, and a few odds and ends.

The only thing that I probably should not have brought was my laptop. As a blogger and photographer, I wanted to be able use lightroom and write on the go, but I think the bumps from riding actually broke my laptop. It stopped working about 2/3rds of the way through the trip. I got it fixed later on in Bangkok, but the patch only lasted for a few more months. At any rate, it was an old laptop and probably would have broken some other way. Now I have a new one I had been thinking about buying regardless.

Final Thoughts

Of all my travels, this was probably the best thing I ever did. I had been wanting to make this trip ever since I got my first taste of motorcycling in Thailand by completing the Mae Hong Son loop in 2013. Now that dream had finally come to fruition.

While I had been thinking about this trip for sometime, I actually barely did any planning before. I reserved my motorbike, but outside of that I didn’t even start thinking about my route until the night before. I did this purposely because I wanted to go into everything raw. I wanted to just wander and see where the road took me.

My final thoughts are for someone thinking about doing a trip like this – just go for it. I did it with almost no planning and had the time of my life. If you have any questions, please let me know in the comments below. I will do be best to update this article as new questions are asked.

Nan Province Thailand Travel Guide

Nan Saturday Night Market

Nan Saturday Night Market

Nan is one of the most distinct provinces in Thailand. Surrounded by mountains, it has been isolated from the rest of the country for centuries allowing a unique culture and separate kingdom to develop distinct from the Lanna culture based in Chiang Mai. It wasn’t until 1933 when Nan finally integrated with the government in Bangkok to become apart of the country known today as Thailand.

Nan was the first stop along my motorcycle tour around Northern Thailand, and I had a wonderful time exploring this unique province. Nan is easily accessible from most of Thailand having its own airport and bus station that connects to all major cities in the north as well as Bangkok. Nan is an easy place to get to for a short weekend getaway.

Nan Hostel

Nan Hostel’s Owner

Where To Stay

Accommodation in Nan is also inexpensive. I initially thought that because Nan was a smaller town, only higher end hotels would be available. But after searching around, I was surprised to find out that Nan has its own hostel – Nan Hostel. I stayed in Nan Hostel on my trip, and the lady that owns it was incredibly nice. She told me all about the different things to do in Nan and gave me a map which helped make my time there very memorable. They also serve free breakfast which can’t be beat. The hostel is in a great location right near the main bus station so it is very accessible.

Besides Nan Hostel, there are a plenty of other hotels in the area for all different price points, but as a budget traveler nothing beats Nan Hostel. If you’re looking for a hotel, check out Booking.com for options in the area.

Pineapple Nan
What to Do in Nan

The best way to experience Nan is to spend Saturday night in the provincial capital to see the Saturday Night Market. This market really is one of the best representations of Northern Thai culture I’ve ever seen on display. They have all sorts of Northern foods, gifts, and even bands and dancers playing the traditional Northern Thai music. Nan’s Saturday Night Market is within walking distance from Nan Hostel.

makhwaen

Nan is known for being the only place in Thailand growing a distinct herb called “makhwaen” similar to Sichuan pepper. This herb is generally used to treat coughs and sore throats, but the people in Nan like to put it on fried chicken and pork. It gives these traditional Thai snacks a unique spicy flavor that cannot be found outside this province. I was able to find a couple of vendors selling fried pork or chicken with makhwaen in the market.

Nan Saturday Night Market

Before or after the market, make time to visit the Wat Phumin – home of the famous Thai murals seen on calendars and postcards throughout Northern Thailand. The temple is located right next to the market.

Wat Phumin

Wat Phumin

Wat Phumin Paintings for Sale by James Antrobus (Flickr)

Besides this main temple, there are also many other famous temples around the city or just outside that the owner of Nan Hostel suggested I visit. Unfortunately I did not have the time this trip, but Nan Hostel will provide their guests with a map of the area explaining these various temples. The best way to explore them would be to rent out a motorcycle and visit them independently.

Khun Nan National Park

Exploring Nan Province

Nan Province isn’t just about the capital city. In fact, there are numerous interesting places to explore throughout the province. The best way to visit would be by renting out a car or motorcycle; however, a few places are accessible by public transportation.

Ban Bo Kluea was originally a salt mining village near the Laos border, but now it has become a bit of a tourist destination mostly for Thais. “Kluea” means salt in Thai so the town is aptly named. On the weekends along the river running through town there is often a local artisan market selling various Northern Thai goods. There are also many women walking around dressed in their traditional clothes that are definitly worth getting a picture with. The people of this village are Htin – a minority hill tribe in Thailand and Laos. These people have a distinct culture from the rest of Thailand.

Ban Bo Kluea

Ban Bo Kluea

Doi Phu Kha National Park is a great place to visit and cool off in the mountains in central Nan Province. I did not have time to stop and go into the park, but there are many different hikes available for visitors up to mountain peaks or to waterfalls. There are also bungalows available to rent for decent prices for single or small groups of people. One of the most interesting part of this mountainous area is all the different hill tribe people living there. There was a viewpoint along the road between Ban Bo Kluea and Doi Phu Kha that had a small parking lot and some hill tribe people selling food. I had a delicious snack – black rice with sweet taro wrapped in a banana leaf then cooked over an open fire. See the picture below. There are all sorts of delicious hill tribe treats being sold throughout this area so just dive right in and see what you like.

Nan Province

Views North of Nan

Hill Tribes Nan

Hill Tribe Taro Snack

Hill Tribe Taro Snack

After Nan, I continued onto Phrae, Lampang, and finally reached this really trippy Temple in Phetchabun Province. This visit to Nan was one part of my Epic Northern Thailand Motorcycle Journey where I hit every province in the North.

Wat Pha Sorn Kaew: Trippy Thailand Temple

Wat Pha Sorn Kaew

Wat Pha Sorn Kaew is possibly the coolest temple I’ve ever visited in Thailand. It was completed in 2004 so it is a modern Thai temple contrasting with many of the ancient temples throughout the country. I came here while on my Epic Northern Thailand Motorcycle Journey, and it was one of my favorite stops.

The main temple, known for its series of five Buddha statues, is located on a mountain surrounded by yet higher mountains in the northern part of Phetchabun Province. The surrounding temple complex is adorned with over 5 million colorful mosaic pieces.

Wat Pha Sorn Kaew

Getting to Wat Pha Sorn Kaew

The temple itself is located in the sub-district (tambon) Khaem Son of the district (amphoe) Khao Kho in Phetchabun province. There is no specific public transportation to this area, but it is possible to get dropped off by a bus traveling along the main road and then return by waiting for another bus at the local bus stop.

To get there by public transportation first take a bus to Phitsanulok’s provincial capital. From there, take a smaller local bus or van to Lom Sak. This is a town about 30 kilometers past the temple. Tell the driver to drop you off at either Tambon Khaem Son or Wat Pha Sorn Kaew. The first is the town where the temple is, and the second, referring to the temple, means you would likely be dropped off at the road leading up to the temple. From Phitsanulok it is possible to visit this temple in one day.

While it is possible to do this by public transportation, the road out from Phitsanulok has many different waterfalls and interesting places to visit. It could be fun to do this trip on a scooter or with a car, but compared to this final temple, the waterfalls aren’t even close. When I came here I had my own motorcycle so I drove myself, but in hindsight it would be pretty easy to get here with public transportation.

Wat Pha Sorn Kaew

Where to Stay in Khaem Son

When I visited Khaem Son, I arrived later in the evening so I needed to find a hotel to spend the night. Most of the hotels were higher end resorts, but I did manage to find a decent room at an unlisted hotel towards the west end of town on the north side of the road. I wish I could remember the name, but the hotel was about 500 bhat a night and very clean and comfortable. It was probably the cheapest option in town.

There are also tons of restaurants on Khaem Son and even more coffee shops and eating options over by the temple.

Wat Pha Sorn Kaew

Wat Pha Sorn Kaew

The best time to visit this temple is at sunrise. The complex is huge and when you enter, you will need to take off your shoes so try to remember which way you came in so you don’t lose them. Besides the main Buddha statues, there numerous smaller temples with beautiful mosaic tiles throughout the complex. When I was there in the morning I saw a stunning peacock strutting in front of one of the temples. I think it meant good luck for me to see a magnificent bird like this.

Wat Pha Sorn Kaew Peacock

Wat Pha Sorn Kaew

Rubbing gold leaf on these Buddha is a way that Thai Buddhists “make merit”.

Wat Pha Sorn Kaew Wat Pha Sorn Kaew Wat Pha Sorn Kaew

Pang Ung Travel Guide

Pang Ung

Pang Ung is my favorite place in Thailand. Hidden away in the mountains of Mae Hon Son province lies a small alpine lake and hill tribe village often called the “Switzerland of Thailand”. The road to reach Pang Ung is steep and windy keeping Thai tourism to a minimum let alone foreign tourism.

I’ve been to Pang Ung twice, and both were absolutely incredible. While there isn’t a whole bunch to do at the actual lake besides hangout, eat, and enjoy the views, there are many cool areas on the way to and around Pang Ung to explore. This article will first focus on Pang Ung and then discuss other things to do in the area. My most recent trip to Pang Ung was a part of a much larger three week Northern Thailand motorcycle adventure.

Pang Ung was originally an area where local minority hill tribe villagers grew opium which heavily degraded the surrounding forest and wildlife. In 1979, the King of Thailand visited the area and decided to start a royal development project in order to protect the land. The King wanted to give the local villagers jobs that would encourage them to stop growing opium. The lake was dammed and turned into a tourist destination which helped open up this whole area in Mae Hong Son province to tourism. The King also started an agricultural research center to help the locals cultivate different kinds of crops. In turn these projects have provided more sustainable jobs to the locals living in the mountains.

Pang Ung Motorcycle

Getting to Pang Ung

According to my understanding there is no public transportation to Pang Ung, but there have been reports of a twice daily bus to the lake. Discovery Thailand says there is a local bus leaving Sai-Yud market in Mae Hong Son for Pang Ung at  09:00 a.m. and 03:00 p.m.

Given that its not certain this bus is still running, the best way to get to this area is to rent a car or motorbike from Mae Hong Son’s provincial capital and make the hour trip independently. Some Thai tourists rent out vans and visit locations in this area as a tour group, but with a hired driver it would not be possible to spend the night in Pang Ung which is one of the main highlights.

Pang Ung Tent

Where to Stay in Pang Ung

The best place to stay of course is in one of the tents right on the lake. Before getting to Pang Ung, there is a small Shan minority village called Ban Ruam Thai after which the road continues into the royal development project area. There is usually a man at a small gate guarding the entrance. Even though the sign says there is a fee to enter the area, I’ve never been charged. Once inside the park there are several accommodation options. There are small privately owned bungalows in the first area, but further down the road there are a series of privately owned tents set up with bedding already inside. These tents are pretty much ready-to-go and can be rented from the folks selling tea, coffee, and supplies nearby.

Pang Ung

View from my tent

Pang Ung Tent

The park also rents out government-owned bungalows and private rooms that are of a nicer quality, but much more expensive than the other accommodation. Most of these bungalows are meant for large groups though I believe a few are smaller ones. There are a few set back in a garden area and a few more inside a building that looks a bit like a park ranger office. There are also on-site showers, toilets, and sinks, but they only have cold water. Make sure to take a shower during the day!

Thai Food at Pang Ung

Excellent grapow gai right on the lake

In the town before the park there are also a few more bungalows and home stays. Around Christmas, New Years, and weekends during January it is advised to call ahead and make a reservation or arrive early, but during the week and off-peak season there is no need.

According to Discovery Thailand, the Pang Ung park office is open everyday from 08:00 a.m. – 04:30 p.m. For more information and to reserve accommodations, call +66 5361 1244 or +66 5361 1649.

Pang Ung

Dinner at Pang Ung

Pang Ung Sunset

Pang Ung Sunset

Enjoying Pang Ung

One of the best things to do in Pang Ung is to just hang out and enjoy the lake. There are various restaurants in town and coffee shops as well as more restaurants along the lake. It is a great place to sit back and enjoy a picnic or have drinks with friends.

Besides hanging out, it is possible to rent a bamboo boat with a guide and go for short trip on the lake. There are also plenty of hiking options in the area, but there are no designated paths so one would need to hire a local guide to go hiking. I’ve never done this before, but I am sure it would be possible by asking around.

Pang Ung

Attractions Around Pang Ung

Pang Ung is actually just one of many destinations in this mountainous area. There are tons of things to do for all kinds of adventure seekers.

Along the main road before the Pang Ung turnoff, one of my favorite places is Nam Tok Pha Suea or Pha Suea Waterfall. This waterfall is nearly impossible to miss along road leading to Pang Ung as there is a large vehicle turnout and parking area at the entrance to the waterfall. The name Pha Suea means “sheet of cloth” in Thai because when the waterfall is running at full blast during the rainy season, the cascading waterfall looks like one giant sheet of white cloth.

Nam Tok Pha Suea

Pang Tong Palace is another interesting attraction worth a visit. It is another royal development project like Pang Ung, but instead of a lake, this area focuses on agriculture. There are several beautiful gardens that are nice to walk through as well as coffee and fruit plantations. There are sheep and horses in the area that visitors can feed and a small zoo with peacocks, hornbills and other birds. All the information is in Thai and it would likely be difficult understanding anything without a translator, but the area is nice to enjoy for the beautiful scenery.

For an interesting accommodation really off-the-beaten-path there are a few home stays in this area of the mountains rarely visited by foreigners (if ever). One I particularly noticed was in a small village right before the turn off to Pang Ung. It was a traditional Mon home stay. I have never stayed here before, but I have always wanted to check it out both times I’ve come to this area. If you do, let me know how it is in the comments. The contact information for this home stay is in the photo below. Also if you’re looking for another home stay program in the area, check out my article on Ban Muang Pon Home Stay.

Near Nam Tok Pha Suea there is a small bamboo forest/park worth a short visit. It is clearly visible for the small parking area along the side of the road. It it essentially just a giant bamboo forest with massive trees. Some areas have been cleared to make way for a small garden and buildings that probably used to be restaurants but they never had enough demand to keep them open. There is also a nice 15 minute hike through the bamboo forest on a clearly marked path.

Ban Rak Thai

The most popular destination in this area is Ban Rak Thai located at the very end of the main road right near the Burmese border. Ban Rak Thai is a small village and enclave of Chinese immigrants that fled China after clashing with Mao Zedong’s armies in 1949. Their history is long, but they have now opened up a series of tea shops, hotels, and Chinese restaurants around a small lake. You can read more about Ban Rak Thai in this excellent New York Times article.

Ban Rak Thai can be a little on the commercial side, but this place primarily is geared toward Thai tourists so there are hardly any foreigners visiting. It is a nice place to relax, enjoy some tea, and hike in the surrounding mountains. In the winter the area will get extremely cold at night. Usually early in the morning the town is filled with a thick blinding fog from the lake that is definitly worth seeing in person.

As is probably clear by the photos, this is my favorite area in Thailand and probably even in the world. Its number one on my list favorite destinations. If you got a chance to visit and this article helped you, let me know in the comments below.

 

Sangkhlaburi Budget Travel Guide

Sangkhlaburi Mon Bridgea

Sangkhlaburi is an idyllic Thai mountain village far off the beaten path for most foreign tourists in Thailand. Deep in Kanchanaburi Province, this town is extremely isolated as it can only be accessed by one road leading  into the mountains. Sangkhlaburi is about two to three hours from Kanchanaburi’s provincial capital just before the road ends at the Burmese border. The town is known for its beautiful temples, historic wooden bridge, and unique hill tribe culture.

I had an opportunity to visit Sangkhlaburi on my three week motorcycle journey throughout Northern Thailand. I really enjoyed this area and strongly recommend it to others looking for a Thai adventure because it is extremely welcoming to the budget backpacker yet so far away from the commercialization of many Thai tourist destinations.

How To Get There

Buses leave from Mo Chit station directly to Sangkhlaburi several times a day with the first going at 5:00 AM. The journey will take 7-8 hours. There are also more buses and minivans from Kanchanaburi bus station heading to Sangkhlaburi throughout the day. From the bus station, its possible to get a songtaew or motorcycle taxi to hotels and guesthouses in the area.

Where To Stay

If you want the true authentic Thailand experience, stay at J. Family Homestay. J – the owner of the home – is an older Thai lady with a huge personality. She used to live in America and speaks English quite well. J’s daughter runs the day-to-day operations at the home and generally will be the first to greet guests when she isn’t caring for her adorable children.

The home is an old two story wooden house with guest rooms upstairs. As is tradition in Thailand, the mattresses are on the floor giving it that extra Thai feel. If I recall correctly, the price was 200 bhat per person in a shared room with two beds. As the homestay wasn’t busy, I had the room to myself. They also rent out motorcycles which are a great option for checking out the surrounding area. The house is technically close enough to walk to the Mon Bridge or Night Market, but everything is much easier on a motorcycle.

What To Do

Unfortunately I only had one night in Sangkhlaburi which was not nearly enough. With prices like 200 bhat a night, I could have stayed here for a week enjoying all there is to offer, but I was on a motorcycle trip traveling at a much faster pace. There is a large NGO community in Sangkhlaburi so there are many opportunities to volunteer. In fact, a nice Japanese man staying at J’s Homestay asked if I’d help out with his non-profit foundation for the day teaching and playing with kids, but I had to turn him down since I didn’t have enough time. Besides volunteering, there are other opportunities to learn Thai language or Thai cooking.

Mon Food Sangkhlaburi

Mon Food

My first night, I went out for dinner at the local night market just up the street from J Homestay. This market runs every night, but it is much bigger on Saturday nights. While I was there I saw several different stalls selling traditional Mon food, some of which I had never heard of or seen before. I stopped at one stall and met a very nice family who I ended up chatting with for a couple of hours in Thai. They had an adorable 8 year old daughter who initially was shy of me at first, but when she learned I could speak Thai she completely opened up. She was quite adamant that mermaids exist in the real world and showed me several YouTube videos confirming her theories. Too cute. I learned the family lives just next door to J’s house, and they made me promise that I’d come back to Sangkhlaburi one day.

Besides the night market, the main attraction in town is the Mon Bridge – a 440 meter wooden bridge connecting the town with the Mon settlement on the other side. The best time to view this bridge is early morning or around sunset when the lighting is just right. Once on the Mon side (the opposite side of J’s Family Homestay) there are several shops and eateries. On the Mon side, after the bridge just to the right there is a small shop – usually packed full of Thai people – selling Jok. Jok is a morning rice porridge that is a very popular breakfast in Thailand. Sometimes it can be a bit bland, but this restaurant added just the right amount of seasoning and spices making it perfect. I ordered a second bowl.

Jok Sangkhalaburi

Jok – Thai Rice Porridge

Wat Wang Wiwekaram Sangkhlaburi

Wat Wang Wiwekaram

Another great place to check out is a beautiful golden temple at the other end of town. Besides the temple, there are several shops nearby selling a variety of souvenirs.

Three Pagoda Pass

A little further from town and best visited by renting a motorcycle is the Thai-Myanmar border at Three Pagoda Pass. The name “Three Pagoda Pass” sounds really epic, but in reality, the name just comes from a small flat area nearby the border with a few small pagodas. There is, however, some shops selling cheap goods and a cool sign at the border crossing. It was actually possible to “enter Myanmar” at this post, but I couldn’t go very far. The guards were quite nice, but they told me I couldn’t cross a certain barrier and enter the small town on the other side. They said I technically was in Myanmar where I was standing though. So I guess that was cool.

After checking out the border, I got some lunch at a nearby noodle shop and continued on my way to Thong Pha Phum National Park to stay in a tree house for the night. Read more about my adventure here.

 

 

 

Tham Mae Usu: Hidden Cave in Thailand

Tham Mae Usu

Tham Mae Usu is a little-known cave along Highway 105 in Tak Province, Thailand. On my motorcycle trip throughout Northern Thailand, I had an opportunity to stop at this beautiful cave. Hopefully this information helps more people discover these hidden gems in Thailand.

The cave is situated about 2 km off the main road on a smaller road that runs through a village before reaching a clearing and parking area for the cave. Depending on the time of day, there is a small desk located outside the cave staffed with local boys from the nearby village. During rainy season, the cave is likely closed due to flooding. At the desk, they offer a mandatory guide service where they can take you on about a 2 km hike into the cave, out the back entrance, and around the forest area nearby. The service is free technically, but a 100 bhat tip for each guide is expected at the end. Do not expect any English though.

As we entered the mouth of the cave we began to hear bats above. We walked along the river and then crossed it and continued further into the cave to see stalactite formations. The cave is best viewed at sunrise as the entrance faces east so the morning beams penetrate it with beautiful rays of light. I got there a little later in the morning, but I wish I had gone earlier.

Tham Mae Usu

Tham Mae Usu

By the time we reached the darkest part of the cave, we could begin to see the light at the other end where it exits into the jungle. We had to do a little climbing and more walking before we got out into the forest. The boys explained to me that sometimes elephants come out into this forest area to work. There are no wild elephants in the area, but the local village has a work elephant that sometimes preforms tasks in the area.

We continued the additional kilometer back to the cave entrance by walking around the outside before finishing the tour. I thanked the boys, handed them a tip, and got on my way.

Tham Mae Usu is a short visit, but a cool place worth checking out if in the area. My best recommendation is to get there early for the epic morning photos.

As for accommodation nearby, I stayed at Tha Song Yang Hill Resort which was about 15 minutes from the cave. The budget rooms were not that nice; however, next door I saw an advertisement for a local home stay. It looked interesting, but I didn’t get a chance to check it out. I probably would have stayed there instead. Additionally the town of Mae Tan nearby didn’t seem to have any hotels, but there were several Thai restaurants for dinner. I also saw coin-operated laundry machines in town. It would have been better to use those than my hotel sink that night!

Tham Mae Usu

Tham Erawan – Hidden Thai Cave

Tham Erawan Loei

Tham Erawan is a beautiful cave hidden away in a mountain in Loei Province right near the border with Nong Bua Lam Phu Province. The cave is a truly off-the-beaten-path Thailand destination that many foreigners never visit. In fact, most Thais will be unaware of this cave. I came here on three week motorcycle trip throughout Northern Thailand.

At the base of the mountain there is a large temple complex housing the monks that look after the cave. The walk to the cave entrance is a 20-30 minute hike up several series of steps. While the hike is quite exhausting, the path is of high quality and easy to navigate.

At the entrance there is a beautiful Buddha statue looking out on the rice paddies below. Continuing further into the cave, there are paths illuminated by small lights put there by the monks. About half way into the cave, there is a small hole connecting the roof with the outside world. During mid-morning to early afternoon, it is possible to see a beautiful sunbeam flowing into the cave through this hole. Unfortunately I arrived there too late in the day to see it. I could only see the beam casting some sun high up on the cave wall.

Erawan Cave

Continuing further into the cave, there are several Buddhist shrines. Some of the shrines have statues while others are based around some sort of holy rock. Finally at the back of the cave, there is another steep metal staircase leading to a view platform on the opposite side. The only way to get to this platform is through the cave. The cave is actually quite tall and spacious inside so there is no need to worry about claustrophobia.

When I visited Tham Erawan, as usual, I was the only foreign visitor. I met an interesting Thai family that was walking down from the cave with me as I left. They had come from a neighboring province to check it out, but were quite surprised to hear I knew about it. A cave like this usually isn’t well-known enough to attract any Bangkokonians, let alone foreigners. Most of the visitors tend to be from the surrounding area.

When I got back down, there were some ladies selling cold water at the bottom. This was a necessary stop. As I sipped my water, I watched several of the monks preform their daily chores of sweeping leaves before I hopped back on my motorbike on my way to Chiang Khan.

Tham Erawan

Camping in Phu Ruea National Park

Phu Ruea National Park

Less popular than nearby Phu Kradueng National Park, Phu Ruea is a truly off-the-beaten-path destination for adventure seekers in Thailand. Phu Ruea is a national park located in Loei province that is popular with Thai tourists for its sweeping views and chilly nights. Phu actually means “mountain” in local Issan language so it makes sense that all the mountains in this area contain the prefix.

I passed through Loei on my three week motorcycle trip around Northern Thailand, and I wanted to spend a night camping under the stars on Phu Ruea. Phu Ruea has several campsites throughout the national park, but the best one is obviously on the top. Up there, park rangers rent tents to campers for less than 300 bhat a night including tent, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, and pillow. There is a full bathroom facility with toilets and showers (cold water only), and a restaurant onsite. It is also possible to get 3G data coverage at the camping area.

The park was easy to find off the 21 highway in Loei which is lined with coffee shops, Thai restaurants, and tourist attractions. Once I reached the park, I went up to the guard and paid the entrance fee. Normally the fee is 200 bhat for foreigners, but I used to be an English teacher in Thailand several years earlier. I was smart and saved my work permit before I left so when I return to Thailand, I can usually get discounted admission into the national parks. If they technically scrutinized my documents, they would see it is no longer valid, but most Thai guards would never bring it up for fear of causing an awkward situation.

Phu Ruea National Park

Phu Ruea National Park Sunset – More on Instagram: @Authentic_Traveling

Once inside the park, I drove several kilometers to the campground where I was able to rent my tent. The camping area is about two kilometers from the actual summit. It is not possible to drive to the summit, as the road is closed 1 km before the top. When I wanted to visit, I drove my bike up the hill, parked, and completed the last part on foot.

When I arrived there, as is quite common with remote national parks like this one, I was the only foreigner . This attracted quite a lot of attention as all the Thais kept looking at me and wondering what I was up to. I think they were just shocked to see a foreign tourist straying this far away from Pattaya.

Phu Ruea Tent Camping

Tent For One

The tents came already set-up so I just needed to prepare my sleeping bag and I was finished. I used the rest of my free time to check out the summit before getting dinner in the restaurant area. There must have been three to four different stalls open for business as well as several shops selling woolen hats and other souvenirs for Thais that have never experienced cold temperatures.

As the sun began to set, I went back to my tent to get my camera ready for what was surely the highlight of my visit. I walked a few minutes up the road to get away from the residual light to capture the beautiful night sky. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that night gazing off into the distance from this beautiful mountain.

Phu Ruea National Park

By the next morning I was a little to tired to get up for sunrise, but many of the Thais staying there were up early hiking up the mountain for that beautiful view. One of the highlights for them at the top of the mountain is a temperature gauge that sometimes in December reaches 0 degrees Celsius. For Thais who think anything below 15 will kill them, this is quite a sight.

When the crowds came back from the top, I was awoke by their noise and decided to start packing my bags for the long journey ahead. I had spent three days in Loei now, and I knew I needed to get moving to make it the 430 km journey to Khao Yai National Park before dusk.

Spending the night on Phu Ruea was certainly an experience I’ll never forget. This was my first time rolling up to a national park in Thailand and renting a tent without any reservations. The process was so simple and easy that I started to spend more nights in national parks during the rest of my trip.

Phu Ruea Sunset

Top Khao Soi Restaurants in Chiang Mai

Khao Soi

Khao Soi is the quintessential Northern Thailand dish – a soup-like meal consisting of egg noodles, pickled mustard greens, shallots and lime topped with deep fried crispy noodles in a coconut curry broth. After living in Northern Thailand for over a year and having traveled to every province, I consider myself to be somewhat of a connoisseur for this delicious dish. Friends and colleagues have always recommended different khao soi restaurants in Chiang Mai claiming them as “the best in Chiang Mai”, but recently I decided to put that to the test.

Khao soi is typically served only for lunch so over two mornings in Chiang Mai, I visited a total of six “top” khao soi restaurants sampling the fare to determine who truly deserves the title “Best Khao Soi in Chiang Mai.” Here are the official results:

Khao Soi Lam Duan

Khao Soi Lam Duan

Khao Soi Lam Duan was a little thicker than others giving it a unique earthy flavor compared to spicier khao sois elsewhere in Chiang Mai. But while this restaurant has been talked about before, there wasn’t necessarily anything jumping out about it to put it higher up on the list.  It’s worth a visit if you’ve already checked out the rest on my list. You can find the location here.

Khao Soi Islam Chiang Mai

Khao Soi Islam

Khao Soi Islam has been hyped up a lot, but to be honest, their khao soi is not actually that good. Its different from the more common version of khao soi because the owners stick to the original recipie brought to Thailand by the Yunnanese Muslims. While I wasn’t a fan of this original version, this restaurant makes the list because of their massive halal menu to go along with the khao soi. They’ve got everything from goat’s milk to biryani, but you won’t find any pork here! The Muslim population in Northern Thailand is very small so coming across a restaurant like this is a real treat. Link to the location on Google Maps.

Addy’s Smoothie Shop Khao Soi

Addy’s Smoothie Shop

With a name like “Addy’s Smoothie Shop”, many wouldn’t consider it to be one of the great khao soi joints of Chiang Mai, but this little hidden shop near Thapae Gate makes a killer bowl. Originally just a smoothie location, the lady running it branched off into khao soi several years ago. Now most of her customers just come for the khao soi, but the smoothie shop name remains! Different from the rest, the broth at this shop was less spicy but rather more rich with almost a Burmese/Indian twist. Of course, when you’re done, don’t forget to get one of her famous smoothies. Google Map location here.

Khao Soi Nimman

Khao Soi Nimman

Most of the restaurants on this list are essentially food halls for the masses, but Khao Soi Nimman serves their dish up in restaurant that is a step above the others. For those a little afraid of diving right into the street food version or those traveling with families, this is the ideal place to grab a bowl of khao soi. Extremely popular with Thais, the menu expands well beyond khao soi offering many traditional Northern Thai dishes as well as fresh espresso and lattes. While the khao soi here costs about twice as much as anywhere else, the portion size more than makes up for it. I thought generally the khao soi was good all around, but the only reason it came in third was because eating in a proper restaurant isn’t the “real” way to have khao soi at least in my opinion! Get the location here.

Khao Soi Samer Jai

Khao Soi Samer Jai

Khao Soi Samer Jai is almost a Chiang Mai institution. The restaurant is massive and fills up completely every lunch rush hour with hungry local Thais. I can clearly see why they come because the khao soi was absolutely delicious. The broth was the best I’ve ever had. Usually I need to spice up my khao soi, but this one packed a punch needing nothing extra. It was very hard giving Samer Jai the number two spot, but I felt like it was somewhat lacking in meat compared to others. If you visit, make sure to order bottled water because they have their very own branded bottles – Samer Jai Water. The restaurant is so famous and popular in Chiang Mai that they went the extra step even with the branding. Click here for location.

Khao Soi Mae Sai Chiang Mai

Khao Soi Mae Sai

And the winner is Khao Soi Mae Sai! Just absolutely everything about this khao soi hit the spot. The broth was perfect, the deep fried egg noodles were crispy, and they loaded it up with meat. Not only were there thin strips of pork, but they also topped it off with a huge helping of minced pork. Once I stirred my bowl, the minced pork was spread throughout giving every bite that extra kick. In fact, this one was so good I ordered a second bowl! The restaurant is a bit smaller than some of the larger Chiang Mai khao soi institutions and located off on a small soi giving it that extra hidden feel. Make sure to order a glass of their delicious Iced Thai Tea. It was one of the best I’ve ever had. Google Maps location here.

Honorable Mentions

Unfortunately when I was in Chiang Mai “Khao Soi Khun Yai” was closed for school holidays so I was unable to try, but I have heard great things. I also was not able to make it to a non-descript khao soi restaurant slightly south of the old city just called “Kaw Soi Restaurant” on Google Maps. I’ve heard the name floated around before as a possible contender for this list. Both will have to wait for my next visit to Chiang Mai.

All in all I think this was probably one of the most fun things I’ve done in Chiang Mai before. I’ve visited the city so many times that many of the sights get boring for me now, but driving around trying to taste every bowl of khao soi was a real treat. If you have some time in Chiang Mai, make sure to go on a khao soi tour yourself!

Wat Phra That Doi Phra Chan Visitor Guide

Wat Phra That Doi Phra Chan

Wat Phra That Doi Phra Chan is perhaps one of the most beautiful and least known Buddhist temples in Lampang Province, Thailand. Not even on the official tourist map for Lampang, this temple is seldom visited by Thais from the provincial capital and even less frequently seen by foreigners. Although quite easy to get to from Lampang’s capital, visiting this temple will give even the most intrepid travel a truly off the beaten path Thailand experience.

How to get there

The best way to reach Wat Phra That Doi Phra Chan is by motorbike or car from Lampang’s provincial capital heading south along Highway 1 until turning off for the temple. The signage to reach this temple is not that good so the best way to find it would be to use Google Maps. The location can be found here.

There are two main temples here worth visiting. The first is near the parking area at the base of the mountain while the second can only be accessed by the free songthaew service bringing passengers from the parking area to the temple atop the mountain.

Wat Phra That Doi Phra Chan

The Temple

Wat Phra That Doi Phra Chan is absolutely beautiful. Rather than the ancient temples throughout Thailand, this temple has only been completed in recent years blending the old with the new architecture. Aside from the architecture and striking Buddha images, the view on top is quite incredible. The image of a valley filled with rice fields against a backdrop of hazy mountains is the quintessential Northern Thai picture. I could spend all day just taking in this amazing view.

Even though I visited during the hot month of May, this temple is also quite popular for locals during the winter when the valley fills with fog creating a spectacular scene.

While I was there many curious Thai visitors tried to strike up conversations with me on all the usual topics – do you have a girlfriend, how old are you, what is your job, where are you from etc. While I initially engaged in conversation with just a few folks, before long I was entertaining a whole extended family. One of the mothers was even trying to set me up with her daughter. Only in Thailand.

Final Thoughts

I spent over a year living in Lampang’s capital, and I had never even heard of this temple until recently. I actually discovered it through asking local Thais about hidden places in Lampang last time I was there. Ironically the people I asked hadn’t even been themselves. I was back in Lampang on a short motorcycle journey through the north, and this temple made for an excellent side trip. Northern Thailand has so many hidden gems like Wat Phra That Doi Phra Chan. I hope one day I can come back to discover them all.

Lampang Province

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