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North Star

By Roy Hamric
29 January 2006 18:55
Beyond Chiang Mai: spelunking, bird-watching and meditation in the mountains

The Chiang Dao mountains rise straight up from a valley plain, a sudden, looming mass, reminiscent of the mountains painted on Chinese scrolls. Dao means “star,” and the mountains, about 75 kilometers north of Chiang Mai, were among the reasons we came to this tranquil setting.

Chiang Dao peak, the country’s third highest at 2,175 meters, offers trekkers stunning hikes and stark beauty in relative isolation.

But Chiang Dao Cave, Thailand’s largest and deepest, is the number one attraction at Chiang Dao village, which lies at the base of the mountain, nestled beside a soaring rock wall. An hour-long cave tour wanders through cavernous rooms and – for the adventurous – tight crawlways (optional). A clear spring flows out of the cave and through the quiet, heavily wooded village.

Anyone looking for a secluded mountain getaway in the North will find Chiang Dao village a relaxing, bucolic setting: no bars, little traffic, one small shop for buying essentials. It is a place where slumbering dogs take over the narrow, main street by early evening.

One recent day, we strolled through the village’s sprawling herb and plant market, which specializes in natural remedies. There were roots to relieve exhaustion, to make yourself charming, to relieve beriberi, diarrhea or diabetes and to make yourself invulnerable to black magic.

My wife took the untroubled route, opting for a package of herbs to impart healthy skin, which included lemon grass, mushrooms, lotus seeds, galangal and wild grasses. It works great, she told me later.

As the sun dropped behind the mountains, long shadows moved across the car-less streets. To prepare for the next day’s activities, we strolled over to one of the village’s truly magical weapons: Wicha and Stuart Cavaliero’s Western gourmet cuisine at the Chiang Dao Nest guesthouse (see “Wish You Were Here?”).

The Western food here is unlike any other around. But their guesthouse has grown into more than a gourmet outpost.

“It’s really evolved so that we’ve almost become a travel agency” for northern Thailand, Stuart said. “Tour trekking – that’s what we do most.”

Using his background in marketing, he created a website (chiangdao.com) to serve as an information source for the area. He even gives space to his competition, believing that everyone will prosper as the mountains become better known as an outdoor destination.

Wicha told us they don’t want to use English-speaking guides. “It’s better for us to use hilltribe villagers who speak a few English words. They can also communicate by hand [signals] – it’s working fantastically.”

The couple clearly is working hard to give back to the community. Stuart works each week as a volunteer English teacher at the local school, and they recently donated money to build a dormitory for its hilltribe students.

“In some ways, we’re pushing ourselves to the limit, and we’re finding what our limits are,” Stuart said of his new expatriate life. “But it’s a privilege to live here. Our appreciation for nature has grown. We’re very attuned to nature here.”

Among the area’s pleasures are an estimated 300 bird species (Den Ya Khat, or DYK, is one of the country’s most famous birding sites), a large and varied butterfly population and huge expanses of untouched nature.

An Australian couple, brushing off dust, had just returned from a three-day mountain trek.

“Our guide took us through four Lisu villages,” said Sharene Chatfield of Perth. “The trail was up and down, but not too bad. Later, we walked to a waterfall where we saw a cobra and we saw leeches when we walked through a stream.”

She recommended the three-day trek through ethnic villages. We learned that an estimated 20,000 hilltribe people are scattered throughout the mountain range. They are mostly engaged in growing cabbages, corn, rice, soya, peanuts and fruit. Villages usually comprise 30-50 families.

Lisa Thompson and Alex Fisher of Austin, Texas, had also just returned from trekking, rafting and riding elephants. “It was wonderful,” Thompson said. “But it was the hardest thing I’ve done since the military.”

Lisa told us one Lisu village had solar electricity. “Our guide cooked us a hot meal on the trail using a ‘pot’ he made from a section of bamboo,” she said. “He even made chopsticks from the bamboo. We had delicious rice, noodles and green beans.”

The couple also sampled some “moonshine” corn whisky one night. “I must have had four shots,” said Thompson. “I didn’t get tipsy, but the guides did and the more they drank the more English they spoke.” We decided to sign up for that trek and ask for the same guides.

Two temples near the village are well worth leisurely visits. Wat Pag Peang is a classic cave shrine, attended to daily by a Korean monk who has settled at the wat during a pilgrimage. The grounds are immaculate, swept clean of the constantly falling leaves. The entrance to the cave is a narrow 100-foot slit in a limestone cliff.

Nearby, the magnificent Wat Tham Pha Plong, which we reached by climbing 500 steps, offers one of the best birdwatching sites in the area. A viewing station at a chedi allows birders to scan a vast expanse of ancient forest.

We made friends with one of the monks, who spoke excellent English, and scheduled a return trip to stay overnight at the wat and take part in meditation sessions with the monks.

Other village activities include massage therapy and meditation. In addition to four forest temples, there is a Hindu-style ashram called Matadee Ashram Rishi Mae Yogi, where meditation instruction is offered each morning and evening by Guru Nirantra (donations accepted). He wandered through Thailand and spent three years in meditation with his Indian guru before settling in Chiang Dao.

We’ll remember Chiang Dao village when we’re ready for another quiet retreat or an outdoor adventure – with great food one of the stars.

GETTING THERE:

First, get to Chiang Mai. Take any of the budget carriers from Don Muang, a bus from Mor Chit terminal or a train from Hua Lamphong.

The town of Chiang Dao is 75 kilometers north of Chiang Mai on Highway 107. Chiang Dao village is located 5.5 kilometers east of the town.

If you’d rather have someone else drive, get a bus at the Chang Puak station in Chiang Mai. Take it toward Tha Ton or Fang. Ask to be dropped off at Chiang Dao. From here you can get a yellow songthaew to the village or wherever you like.

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