Chiang Mai is a good place for an American expat to live. It’s a large enough city where an expat can find European and American restaurants, entertainment and shopping for anything we have learned to need in American life. Pizza, decent internet, movie theaters and nice condo apartments are easily available and affordable to us. Chiang Mai is a central hub city for the region, so it does have the occasional traffic problem, sometimes there are crowds at the shopping mall and lots of tourists always. Sometimes it is nice to escape to a little village outside of town to have the Thai experience of relaxation and calmness amongst the farms and rice fields. I enjoy seeing a cow or water buffalo mosey around the field next to the road, and a road with no traffic except my motorbike or car, and views of the near distant mountains. It all seems to add to the closeness I feel with Thailand. I get this with short trips just outside of Chiang Mai in the south of the City taken on a lazy nice day (and most days are nice and lazy). Sometimes I go with a real itinerary plan, and other times I just wander down roads with no idea of where exactly I will end up. I like to get out of town at least once a week, even if it is not very far. Business in Chiang Mai is cooking and the city is expanding like crazy. Where there were once only small farms close to town, Hang Dong, Bo Sang, San Kamphaeng and other districts surrounding Chiang Mai now are filling up with beautiful gated home communities. Those with resources have moved into these areas, including lots of expats, which have also meant the building of shopping centers and supermarkets and big restaurants. It does make it comfortable for expat living, but sometimes it is nice to think about what quiet Thai village life can offer that disappears with modern development. I like to drive due south of Chiang Mai on highway 108 (called Hang Dong Road at this point) through and past Hang Dong, and then you first reach the town of Sanpatong in about a half an hour. This town is on a growth path as well, but still retains some of the pleasantries of small town life. On Saturday mornings Sanpatong has its major market day in the middle of town, complete with a thriving farm buffalo market and loads of used motor scooters sold by individuals. A complete market that sells just about everything — but no tourist trinkets — has mushroomed all around the buffalo market, making it a great place to find useful household stuff at prices that can be bargained. And lots of fresh off the farm food as well. Farmers from outlying villages and remote little valleys make it a weekly trek for both selling and buying. In Sanpatong, you can watch for the signs on the main road to get to the wood carving villages such as Yuwa village. This is where many of the intricately carved wood art pieces and furniture are made that are sold in the Chiang Mai and Bangkok markets, and you can get elaborate carvings at a much lower of the cost here than in the cities. You will also find greater variety than what is available in the city markets, and can watch the carvers as they are making their artwork. I have been able to get custom made pieces here as well after describing exactly what kind of design I want. I wrote a posting last year about the wood carving villages near Sanpatong. Actually, if you take any of the tiny roads off to the west of Sanpatong, you will end up in some small farm village with a two or three table local market of local grown fruits and veggies. You might find an interesting coffee house and most villages will have a Thai temple in the center. Once the wife and I were wandering about a small village and we were invited to look over a nice resort nestled in the town. The gave us a full blown tour of the place and we so impressed, we decided to stay for the night. It was really good and have since recommended this resort to others. My tripadvisor review of the place is here. Off the main road you could end up near the farm village of Doi Lor, where you will find an amazing Ganesh Museum (look for the official sign in English for the Ganesh museum on the main road). Lord Ganesh is a Hindu God of Wisdom that has an elephant head, and you will find one of the finest collections of Ganesh statues anywhere outside of India. It makes for a very interesting little side trip. If you just keep heading west on the paved road, you will end up in some interesting farm villages that are always interesting to wander around in. It’s always easy to get back to the main highway by just heading away from the big mountains (traveling East). If you continue traveling south down the main highway 108, the Chiang Mai-Hod road, you will reach the cross of highway 1009, the Jonthong road, with the sign for Doi Intanon National Park. Turn right here and go through the farm country for about an hour and eventually you will reach Doi Inthanon Park, the home of the highest mountain in Thailand.
This is actually a very big park, and one can easily spend a few days experiencing the wonders of this place. There are several waterfalls here, and the Mae Ya Waterfall has been called the most beautiful in Thailand. It has several tiers and it is inspiring. If you drive up to the summit, you will find the Ang Ka trail that takes you on an easy path through moss covered lush forest with amazing flowers and birds. The trail itself is less than a half mile long and very easy for anyone to take, but you can spend a couple of hours going through it because you will be stopping often to savor the surroundings. Much of the trail is on wood walking planks and not rigorous at all for anyone. If you make your way out of the park, head back down highway 1009 to the main road (highway 108) and continue heading south, the country will quickly become more rural with only a few sparse communities every once in a while The main road quickly get immersed into a slower paced rural country setting. The road gets a bit smaller and shops get fewer and far between as you travel along. A bit of construction on Hwy 108 is going on until you reach the town of Had (or Hot). About 80km. from Chiang Mai you will reach the small town of Hod (or Hot). This town (and the whole area) is way off the beaten tourist path, but an interesting place to hang around and get into the Thai rural lifestyle. There’s always the occasional coffee house and temple to stop at, but no great attractions other than the whole place in its entirety. One thing for sure is when you do encounter people, they are much friendlier than you find in the cities. They don’t see a lot of farangs — foreigners — out here, and they are pleased just to make contact and test out the half dozen words of English they learned in school. Lots of smiles, lots of pleasantries. From Had, the road turns right up into the mountains.
It is only 100kl to Mae Sariang, but the road is very windy and you often find yourself moving slowly up the mountain. If you take a lot of stops (which I recommend), this leg of the trip can take up to 4 hours. On this stretch there are some easy diversions into a few hot springs and parks. Near the beginning of the leg you will be next to a river which offers a good lunch, eating on a little perch in the river. They BBQ chicken and fish caught fresh from the river. Past the river and climbing up the mountain you will pass through several hilltribe villages perched on the hills along the road. Very little in these villages to accommodate visitors, but beautiful terraced rice fields, banana plantations and tea farms make for great picture taking.
You will reach the town of Mae Sariang, which is a good place to pull in for the night. Mae Sariang is a charming little town with several of guest houses and small cafes and a couple of bars all done in Thai and Burmese style. These are located along the river just to the west of the main part of town with a sizable market place. Several large Northern Burmese style wood buildings dominate the downtown that have a unique style. Many of the buildings are constructed of weathered old wood, and the whole town has kind of rustic feeling.
Not far outside of town is a small trading town of Mae Sam Laep on the banks of a river where the other side is Burma. That border town feel with sellers that came across the border on less than official trading, gives it the place a kind of rough interesting flavor, but it seems too small to warrant much attention from the authorities. You will see Thai solders walking around sort of keeping an eye on things. I have been told that savvy buyers are able to buy gems from Burma here. Most of the people living in this area are Shan people that populate most of Northern Burma and Karen Hilltribe people. Most wear native style clothing and much of the food has the Burmese influence. It is a beautiful countryside, a completely different world from in Chiang Mai and makes for a very interesting short trip. To me, much more relaxed. Maybe not such a bad place to find a piece of good land and have a house built, but an expat won’t get those mass market essentials we get so used to having. The scenery here is magnificent and you can definitely feel yourself unwinding away from the noise of tourists and commerce and so many people that are a part of Chiang Mai.
After a night in Mae Sariang, you either head back to Chiang Mai, or continue on your trip to make the Mae Hong Song-Pai loop over the mountains back to Chiang Mai. I usually just end it here and head back home. It is an easy trip to make with great views and lots of nature and pleasant rural farms that puts me to that great state of relaxation. Quiet and peaceful. Every once in awhile you run across a farang that is obviously living out in these rural areas. They stand out amongst most of the other locals. So what do I think about expats that have forsaken their easy access to 7-11 stores, shopping malls and so many great restaurants to live in a quiet environment with fresh air, fresh food and a healthier lifestyle that is more isolated from the modern conveniences? I feel a bit envious. To get to the larger town of Mae Hong Song, you simply continue up Highway 108 for a very slow 250kl. It will take the better part of the day to complete this trip leg if you make lots of stops (which I like to do) and once in Mae Hong Song, there are plenty attractions in town. I will do a special post a little later just about this town. Mae Hong Song is a good place to spend the night, with lots of accommodations and eating places available.. From Mae Hong Song, it is a good trip eastward to Pai, spending the night there, and followed up the next day with the curvy mountain road back to Chiang Mai from north of the City. So a good three day itinerary would be first night in Mae Sariang, second night in Mae Hong Son and third night in Pai. It would be very pleasant doing this on a small motorbike (but expect going slow as you climb the hills).