Warning: This is an informational post aimed at helping our fellow CIEE / OEG friends that might want to travel to a place that we have already visited. I'll be including how we got to our destination, what we did there / how we did it and any advice that I would have liked to have before going.
How we got there - We took a bus from Tha Wang Pha to Chiang Mai. The bus leaves at 9:25 pm every night from Tha Wang Pha and gets in to Chiang Mai around 3:30 am. It cost 341 baht or approximately $11.37. Getting to Chiang Mai is pretty easy from wherever you are because it is a top destination in Thailand and has a bus station, train station and an airport. We rode on a bus with both VIP and 1st class seats. We chose the cheaper 1st class seats, but handpicked the front row right behind the VIP section which added a little more room than the rest of 1st class. Just ask the ticket booth to show you the computer screen and you can pick out what seat you want.
Where we stayed - We stayed at Paocome Guesthouse and would recommend it to anyone going to Chiang Mai. It is located just outside of the eastern part of the moat near the top. If your tuktuk from the bus station doesn't know of it, Wat Chompu and Eagle House Guesthouse are in the same area. Some information on the guesthouse can be found HERE. It was 300 baht/night for two people in a double, fan room. We were able to check in at 6:30 am after waiting in their lobby for two hours and weren't charged for early check-in. The rooms are basic, clean and you have your own private bathroom with shower heater. The guesthouse also has WiFi. We stayed for two nights (three sleeps (-:) and checked out to go to Doi Int and then came back the following day and stayed for another night. They held on to all of our stuff that we didn't need for Doi Int and locked it in a room. When we returned, they had the key in the door to the same room waiting for us. They were very friendly and made sure to tell us to be safe and wear our helmets going up the mountain.
Rent a motorbike - Maybe Chiang Mai isn't the best place to learn to ride a motorbike, but if you are comfortable on one, rent one here! WEAR THE HELMET AND LATCH THE NECK STRAP! It doesn't do you any good to wear the helmet and not latch the neck strap as the helmet will be well off your head if you need it. If safety isn't a concern, the police can also fine you for not wearing a helmet. You shouldn't pay any more than 150 baht for a manual and 200 baht for an automatic. If you are rolling two deep on a motorbike (like we do), it's definitely cheaper than taking songtaews, tuktuks and taxis everywhere and you have complete freedom to go where ever you want all the time. We rent a manual because that's what we have in Tha Wang Pha and it's cheaper. Also, if you are going up mountains, a manual is better so you can have it in 1st or 2nd gear working your way up. They also have larger wheels which are better for the tight turns on the mountains.
Doi Suthep - This is a very easy ride with the exception of one very tight turn near the top where we were cut off by a song taew and were forced into the curb a little. No harm, no foul though. The park headquarters at the bottom is relatively useless except to take a picture at. There is a nice viewpoint of the city halfway up, but it was cloudy when we were heading up. I would suggest going early in the morning if you can to beat the clouds and the crowds. At the viewpoint, there are some hill tribe women selling bracelets for 10 baht and they will try and steal each others sales and look like they really need the money. There are also hill tribe women at Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep selling the same bracelets for 5 baht. Again, they will try and steal each others sales and look like they really need the money. If you are with a group, try and buy from different people to spread the sales. Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep doesn't even try and hide that they charge more for foreigners as there is a sign that says so. Foreigners have to pay 30 baht to get in and Thais don't have to pay at all. I know it's only 30 baht, but we were able to use our work permits to get in for free. The sign is at the top of 300+ steps right before you enter the temple. Have a look around inside the temple if you are dressed appropriately and check out the viewpoint of the city.
Chiang Mai Zoo - The zoo is located just outside of the Doi Suthep - Pui National Park so it is easy to do Doi Suthep in the morning followed by the zoo after lunch. (We ate at Amazing Sandwich for lunch and it was aroi mak mak!) It is a must to bring your work permit to the zoo because you can get multiple discounts. The zoo tries to hide dual pricing for foreigners and Thais by using Thai numerals, which I was told are very rarely used throughout Thailand. The initial entrance fee for foreigners is 100 baht/person and we paid 70 baht/person with our work permits. It also costs 10 baht to park your motorbike. We recommend the panda exhibit, which is 100 baht/person for foreigners, but we paid 50 baht/person with our work permit. We fed an elephant for 10 baht. Why not? And other than that, we just walked around to the different animals. We liked the white tiger, the lions and the hippos the most. One thing we noticed about the animals that differs from zoos in the States is that most of the animals were actually up and about rather than just lying down/hiding like they do back home. I'm not sure why this is, but it made for an overall better zoo experience. There's also an aquarium, shuttle and skytram that are extra, but we didn't do any. I'm going to venture a guess that you can use your work permits to get those costs cut in half as well.
Doi Inthanon - This is also known as Doi Int and is the highest mountain in Thailand. It isn't as adventurous as it sounds because you drive all the way to the top. We followed the moat around from the northeast corner south then west until we saw a sign for 108, which you take almost to Chom Thong. I'd suggest filling up the motorbike after you get on 108 and filling it up again when you see the Doi Inthanon sign to turn on road 1009. There's a gas station on the left. This will be good to take you up to the top and probably back down again, but there is a small gas pump near the park headquarters too that we used to fill up just to be safe. Don't wait until you are on empty to try and look for gas in a remote area of Thailand even though you can usually find gas in whiskey bottles anywhere you go. It should take about an hour to get to the base and 45 ish minutes to get to the top, but it took us a lot longer. If you read Skye's post, HERE, about our unfortunate luck with the motorbike, you'll know why and that it was important for us to find the mechanics. You shouldn't need them (it's not a difficult drive) unless your motorbike is rocking a rear tire from the 70s / just too old. There's a mechanic right before you start ascending about 1 km before the park headquarters. There's another mechanic about 1 km before that on the other side as well. We had to use both. And had to get lucky with a random guy on a motorbike helping us. If you feel stranded on the side of the mountain with motorbike issues (like we were), there are a lot of pickup trucks and one of them will stop and help you back down the mountain if you need.
The first place to see is Mae Klang waterfall just before the park entrance. They wouldn't accept our work permits without a Thai driver's license and were going to charge us 200 baht/person so we kindly turned away. We then went to the park entrance hopeful that our work permits would work. They did. We were charged 40 baht/person and 20 baht/motorbike. We then used that ticket to visit Mae Klang Waterfall the next day for free! Hold on to the ticket as you will need it for another checkpoint before the summit. We drove to the park headquarters where they have bungalows and tents for rent. The bungalows were full so we were undecided if we were going to stay the night, but the front desk held on to our stuff so we could continue to the summit unimpeded. We did put on a few extra warm clothes because it's cold up there! Not Thai cold, but American cold! You'll need a few layers and I even wore a winter hat. We went through a checkpoint (have your tickets and work permits ready) to get to the summit and then to the chedis dedicated to the King and Queen. After our series of unfortunate events, it was pretty late in the day and very cloudy so the views were less than impressive. Staying overnight and then heading up first thing in the morning might be a better decision.
We returned to the park headquarters and decided to rent a tent. It was 225 baht/tent, 30 baht/sleeping bag, 20 baht/sleeping pad, and 10 baht/pillow. I'd recommend getting two pillows for yourself or stuffing clothes in the one because they are thin. The tents are pretty spacious, you could probably fit 4 people in and you might want to for the warmth. They are already set up for you at the campground, which is a short drive away, but you'll need to carry the sleeping bags/pads/pillows on your motorbike. There is also a nice little restaurant and convenience store at the park headquarters.
It's very cold at that altitude so Skye and I bundled up for the night and it seemed like everyone else in the campground didn't sleep that night, but as Skye says, "It's a lot easier to fall asleep to loud Thais because you don't know what they're saying." Siriphum waterfall is located very close to the campground and you can see it right as you pull out of the campground. Go back towards the main road and turn right by the gas pumps before the main road. The view is a lot better from far away than it is up close.
On our way down the mountain, we went to Sirithan and Wachirathan waterfalls. Both are clearly marked and very easy to get to from the main road. We accidentally stopped early for Wachirathan at an unmarked parking lot and found our way to the top of the waterfall. The view wasn't too great (and apparently there have been deaths up there from people trying to get too close to the edge for a picture) so we went back to the main road and found the better viewpoint at the bottom of the waterfall.
We then went back to Mae Klang waterfall with our 40 baht tickets from the day before and proudly presented them to get in to the waterfall for free. If you remember, they tried to charge us 200 baht a head the day before. Boom.
Our experience was drastically altered by the four flat tires and we had planned on seeing a lot more than we actually did. Spending the better part of five hours fixing flat tires took it's toll on us. There's a cave near the entrance and some more waterfalls, viewpoints, a karen hill tribe village and hot springs on a turn off after the checkpoint that we wanted to visit as well. Oh well, it was still quite an experience dealing with the flat tires, seeing some awesome waterfalls, finding and camping in cold weather in Thailand and getting to the highest point of land in the entire country.
I got most of my information before we left from THIS WEBSITE!
Tiger Kingdom - Recommended! Recommended! Recommended! There is a lot of talk about them drugging / tranquilizing the big cuddly cats, but we didn't get that feeling. Yes, there were quite a few laying around. However, there were also a number that were quite active. At one point, we were sure we were going to video the next "When Animals Attack" because one of the tigers was very active, crouching everywhere it went, pacing, staring at the human snacks, running to the other side and back, crouching some more, pacing. That's not meant to scare anyone. We felt completely safe the entire time. Another tiger even showed how it feels about the electric fence by just walking into and over it. You could hear the shock. There is an outer, regular fence and then some small, one wire electric fences to keep the tigers away from corners and the trees so again, still safe.
To get there, get on the northern section of the moat and take 107 north toward Mae Rim. You'll see signs from there, but you turn left on 1096 and then your first right to Tiger Kingdom. It's only about five minutes from 107.
Go early! It opens at 9 am and get there at 9 am if you can. We got there around 9:30 and were very thankful we did. By 11 am, the place was packed so we were able to enjoy a rather intimate experience with the tigers with very few other people in the cage.
We chose to see the big cats for 420 baht not because it's the cheapest option (even though it is,) but because we thought that would be the best experience. We were glad that we did. The smallest tigers had way too many people shuffled in and out of the enclosure and you could tell the tigers were irritated by it. Their website is HERE. The prices are slightly different than what are listed on their website, but we can't remember exactly what they were. They range from 420 baht - 620 baht and since the difference isn't even $7 from the big cats to the smallest, don't let price be the deciding factor.
We forgot to try and use our work permits here, but it seemed like it wouldn't have made a difference. It's worth a try though. We didn't expect the work permits to work at the zoo and they did so give it a shot.
Okay, hope this helps you plan your trip to Chiang Mai. Feel free to ask me any questions on here or message me on Facebook.