Chiang Kham, a remote corner of Thailand

Mark Levitin | Live the World

May 29, 2024

A veritable off-the-beaten-track destination, the hilly and forested region of Chiang Kham is closer to Laos than to any major city in Thailand. The town itself is cozy, with quite a bit of traditional wooden architecture North Thailand used to be famous for still intact. The surrounding hills provide enough gradient for a number of waterfalls, and in the cool season, make a perfect environment for cloud hunting. There are some Tai Lue tribal villages in the vicinity, too, although their culture is less visually striking that that of Akha and Hmong tribes north of Chiang Rai. But the main draw is perhaps that everything - the town, the villages, and the nature - is entirely untouched by tourism. No corruption here, just the natural steady development of a remote province in a prosperous Asian country. 

Chiang Kham town

© Istock/IamNottaa

Aside from strolling through the alleys and taking in the ambiance, the only real sights are temples and monasteries. Some of them include old, majestic teakwood halls once typical for all of North Thailand. The most notable of these is Wat Nantaram - the huge, intricately carved Burmese-style building beats even the famous ancient temples of Chiang Mai. Wat San Muang Ma is also worth a visit - it houses a semi-abandoned museum of Tai Lue culture. You may have to ask the monks (or anyone looking like he may be in charge) to open it for you. On the other side of Chiang Kham town, another similar museum has been made out of a traditional Tai Lue house. This one is supposed to be livelier, maybe even stage cultural shows occasionally, but in the near-total absence of tourism, i doubt this ever happens. If you have a motorbike, it's better to observe tribal culture in the villages - just take any country road into the hills, and see what's there.

Phu Sang waterfall

© Istock/huafires

Located inside a national park of the same name, Phu Sang waterfall would be rather uninspiring - a common limestone cascade composed of gradual, flowing steps rather than vertical drops - if not for one fact: it's hot. Well, warm - the hot spring water cools down a bit by the time it reaches the falls. Natural pools both upstream and downstream are good for swimming, and in the dry season, when the current is weak and the hot water isn't diluted with rain, the waterfall itself makes a nice warm shower. Thankfully, the racist two-tier pricing policy of Thai national parks hasn't yet arrived here; in fact, access is free for everyone. Other, ordinary waterfalls can be visited inside the park and elsewhere in Chiang Kham, in case you need some extra proof gravity really works.

Mountain viewpoints

© Istock/amstockphoto

North of Chiang Kham, tall hills rise out of rugged terrain on the Lao border. The highest summits attract a small number of hikers and landscape photographers, particularly between December and February, when clouds often fill the valleys below. The most popular peaks include Phu Chi Fa and Doi Pha Tang; Phu Chi Dao, right between them, is just as good. The views over the remote, green, almost unpopulated corner of Thailand, as well as of Laos across the border, are predictably good. For simple cloud hunting, your best bet is sunrise. For advanced version, drag a steady tripod with you, and shoot at night, when scattered hamlets highlight the clouds from below. Take warm clothes. A lot of warm clothes - it's colder up there than you would ever believe Thailand can be.


© Istock/PiyawatHirunwattanasuk

Chiang Kham has limited, but functional bus connections. It should be possible to get to Chiang Mai directly; otherwise, change in Chiang Rai. There are enough guesthouses in town, and basic homestays near the popular hilltops. Glamping is quickly becoming a national hype in Thailand, and a number of luxury camps already exist on the slopes of Phu Chi Fa, but at this price you could just as well buy a good tent, even if you haven't brought one with you. It may be difficult to get to the more remote mountain viewpoints and waterfalls without your own wheels. On a motorbike, you could then continue north along the Lao border, using a network of country roads (bad idea in rainy season). Without it, you'll have to commute via Chiang Rai. 

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