The drive from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai on Route 118 takes about 2 1/2 hours if you don’t stop but to drive it this way is to miss lots of interesting sights along the way. I’ve driven this road six times in the eight weeks we’ve been living in Chiang Rai so it has become pretty familiar. The first drive was the initial move to Chiang Rai. three trips for dental appointments, once to find a house to rent and once to buy a car.
In this blog I want to share with you some of the places we’ve visited along 118, which helps break up the drive and has expanded our experience of Northern Thailand.
Firstly a word about the driving the road itself. The main roads in Thailand, in my limited experience, are pretty good. Lots of overtaking lanes, some dual carriageway and well maintained surfaces. You will find that even single lane roads are actually a lane and a half wide. There is usually a wide paved edge as you can see in the photo above. This is used by motorbikes, slower cars and provides a useful extension to the road when you meet a large four wheel drive overtaking on your side of the road, which does happen from time to time. I have seen many examples of Thais who are “dead” keen to meet their Buddha early.
Be warned if a car/truck flashes their headlights it’s not a sign of courtesy to you, it means they are coming through whatever the situation so just get out of the way.
The other point of interest in the photo above is the U-turn exit you can see on the right. Many of the larger roads are separated by a central medium strip which means you often can’t turn into a street on the right at the point where it joins the road. What you will have to do is continue to drive on until you come to a U-turn point where you then go back the way you’ve just come and then turn left when you reach your exit street.
You will note the same double line markings etc as in Australia. Here these are used only to add a little colour to the road not to reflect any specific limiting action that needs to be taken by drivers. I think it is more a way of keeping some local council people employed painting them than any other purpose.
I actually love driving here. Although it is probably more dangerous than Australia you are always connected to what’s going on around you, being prepared to take avoiding action, never looking out for speed cameras (they don’t exist) or police cars and setting a pace that matches the road, the traffic and your mood for speed.
Thais drivers are a weird mix of either being incredibly inconsiderate or accepting whatever is happening on the road without compliant. You will almost NEVER hear a horn being used here whatever stupidity is happening on the road. I saw a car parked in the inner lane of an extremely busy Udon Thani city street causing complete chaos while a woman loaded it up with platters of food. All the cars merged into the outside lane and no road rage in sight.
Enough about roads let’s look at the things you can stop off and do on Highway 118.
Heading out of Chiang Mai right on the edge of the city you will see signs to Doi Saket pointing to the right. The Wat on this hill is worth a visit.
If you are feeling energetic, as with most hilltop Wats (just out of interest to be classified as a Wat the temple must have a minimum of three resident monks) you can park in the village at the bottom of the hill and walk up the staircase to the Wat. We drove up only because we had limited time of course!
A way of extracting money from mainly tourists I suspect. Buy a basket of small birds, which you then release thereby gaining Buddhist merit points. A variation of this theme can be found at local markets where you can sometimes buy live birds or fish, which you release back into the wild to balance the fact you’ve just stocked up on meat for the next BBQ!
There were a couple of monks on duty when we visited so we got the full ceremony, which always helps to give a sense of connection to the temple being visited. If you do come across monks when in a temple you will mostly find them very approachable. They will always be interested in where you come from if nothing else due to language limitations. The Thais use them for extended consultations where they can. I wish I knew Thai so I could eavesdrop on what’s being discussed.
There are many options to making a donation at a Thai Buddhist temple. This one was invented by Lord Buddha himself:
Soon after leaving Doi Saket the road heads into the hills to the North of Chiang Mai, which is the prettiest part of the trip.
The next highlight of the trip is great for those of you who have the urge to bring home some plastic flowers from tropical Thailand. For some reason there is a collection of stalls selling a mixture of real and not so real flowers on the right hand side of the road as you head into the hills. There’s no village in sight just these stalls.
Driving on with the smell of hot plastic flowers filling the car you will notice that parts of the road follow a mountain stream on the right and there are several places where you can stop for a break either in park type settings or to get something to eat. We tried this place for breakfast once after an early start from Chiang Rai. A lovely position but the 200 THB (A$7.00) cost per person with only one fried egg still has Gaun upset!
Once through the range of hills you will come onto the plain that sits between the hills to the North of Chiang Mai and those to the South of Chiang Rai. This is the most boring and least attractive part of the trip driving-wise as a lot of it is ugly ribbon type development on either side of the road. However there are still a few attractions to break the boredom.
I had set myself a challenge to visit a Doi I could see in the distance high on a hill to the left of the road but had no idea of how to get there. Thai road signs aren’t very helpful in this situation as I guess it never occurs to them that non-locals would want to find something like this. Our first attempt did get us to a Wat but not the one we wanted.
Set in the lush vegetation this temple was a peaceful haven from the very open country and busy road it adjoins.
Leaving the unknown Wat and rejoining the 118 you will have the opportunity to add to your collection of brooms by doing a u-turn and visiting one of the many specialist stalls on the right hand side of the dual carriageway at this point.
Shorty after, now heading North again, if you turn left into a tiny soi immediately after the red traffic cones and following your nose past paddy fields and through small villages you will eventually end up here – the missing Doi:
This impressive structure is under construction and no doubt providing much Buddhist merit for all those who have donated money to making it happen. Well worth a visit if you can find it as apart from being a nice Wat it also offers magnificent views over the local countryside.
Coming down from the clouds and back onto 118 you are now about halfway between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai and you deserve a cup of coffee. I have discovered three places I would recommend. The first two are opposite each other. On the right you have White Cup:
Here you’ll get a reasonable coffee and one of the few places I have seen a “flat white” on the menu reflecting its Aussie owner I guess. You will also get an accompanying refresher of tea, which is something I don’t see that often. Cost 40 THB (A$1.30)
Directly opposite the White cup is an alternative cafe.
The coffee not quite as good and no tea provided but a better view from the terrace at the back:
The third coffee option is a bit further down the road on the left:
Back on your way refreshed from the break the next thing on your list of things to do in Thailand is to boil an egg and luckily I can help you out there. On the left you can’t miss a weird complex of part temple part tourist park based around the following natural phenomenon:
To the right of the hot springs is this almost Indian looking temple.
Leaving the plains you will then be climbing into the hills of Chiang Rai where we turn off onto the 1121 (but you knew that already), which runs past our village before ending up in Chiang Rai city. Home in time for dinner.
I hope you have enjoyed this read and that one day you have the chance to make this trip.