It only takes about an hour to reach Chiang Dao by car from Chiang Mai but on arrival, it is as though you have travelled back in time.
Travelling north from Chiang Mai on route107 through Mae Rim and Mae Tang, the road after forty kilometres of rolling countryside will start to ascend the mountain. The road is both wide and well surfaced so it is an easy crossing of this relatively small mountain. Do watch out for elephants at about the halfway mark. From the road's summit you descend down and make a final straight run into Chiang Dao, a total of sixty-three kilometres from Chiang Mai.
The town of Chiang Dao is fairly typical with a market (well frequented by colourful hilltribe people), shops and eateries. The main reason to be here is not to see the shops but to visit the Chiang Dao Cave, ("tham" in Thai).
Clearly signposted towards the end of the town off to the left is the road that takes you the final seven kilometres to the cave entrance. As you travel along this narrow road, you will see the imposing 2275-metre high Doi Chiang Dao mountain range straight in front of you. The car park is situated on the left and there are several restaurants and stalls ready to revitalise you if need be.
The cave complex is supposed to extend more than twelve kilometres into the mountain but there are five main areas inside where visits can be safely made. Just outside the main entrance is a crystal clear pool containing a lot of very large fish that are extremely well fed due to the ever-present fish food vendor and children eager to oblige. The water comes directly from the mountain.
Pay the ten baht admittance fee and ascend the steps to the cave itself. The air feels decidedly cool after the heat of the day but rest assured, you will soon be sticky as the air inside the cave thins out noticeably.
You immediately descend to a large cavern where there is a Buddha image and a lot of guides with gas lamps offering to guide you through the cave complex and point out all the interesting features. They charge a fixed 100 baht for their services as the sign clearly states. The price is the same for all size groups so it makes good sense to join up with others if possible.
There is some electric lighting to the main Buddha images but as the sign states strongly, do not go wandering off into the un-illuminated caverns alone. A torch is no use at all and it is very easy to become lost plus there are several unmarked drops. You have been warned!
Gai (chicken). Kai (egg). Hua Chang (elephant head); ngoo (snake), grong thai roop (picture frame). These will all be words that become very familiar as you duck through small openings and then clamber into large caverns. These are names for the natural formations that the guides will point out to you. Some really do look incredibly as the guide is describing them, others need a little more imagination.
Probably the most beautiful images are the formations of crystals from thousands of years of water dripping through the rocks to make solid sparkling waterfalls. Nature is truly spectacular on occasions and this is certainly such an occasion.
The tour follows a rough oval and will have you crawling through small gaps deep in the mountain and following along man made pavements. You go up steps, down steps and the entire time marvel at the spectacle around you. There is no hurry you can go at any pace you please to take it all on board.
After several caverns you come out onto the main paved route. The guide may not mention the river and head off back to the entrance but it is worth seeing so just ask. (Pai doo mae nam, dai mai?), or saying "river" a couple of times will have you heading off in the right direction which is to the left.
How far you can go before you reach water depends on the season. You know you are close when the floor becomes sandy. Check out the water level marks on the cave walls to see exactly the difference the rainy season makes.
From here you are approximately fifteen minutes walk back to the main entrance.
Some tips for an enjoyable visit:
Use the guides. Take a drink with you. Be prepared to crawl a little. If you are claustrophobic do not go. Stand close to large formations, as flash on a small camera is not too strong. Use the handrails. Be careful, as the floor can be slippery. Never remove anything from the cave. Watch your head. Keep children close to you at all times.
Along the way to Chiang Dao there is an elephant training camp which offers rides and rafting if you want to extend your visit in this beautiful area. Nature at its best.