Day 1 - Chiang Mai - Doi Mae Salong (L)
Meet your friendly local guide and small group upon pickup from your Chiang Mai hotel in the morning, and set off by air-conditioned minibus toward the charming town of Doi Mae Salong in northern Thailand.
En route, stop at Chiang Dao Elephant Centre, an animal rehabilitation center that provides shelter for elephants who were once poorly treated. Here, learn about the issues surrounding the inhumane use of elephants for work and entertainment. Discover the heartwarming work this shelter does as you watch these majestic animals enjoy a morning bath by their mahouts.
After lunch with your small group, head to Chiang Dao National Park for a guided exploration of the Chiang Dao Caves – a series of 100 interconnected limestone caverns that span seven miles (12 km) into Doi Chiang Dao mountain, five of which are open to the public.
Follow your guide up the steps toward the entrance before descending into the first two caves, which are lit with electric lights; your guide will lead the way by lantern as you walk - and crawl - into the last three. Admire the many Buddhist statues and shrines, as well as the crystal-like stalactites and stalagmites underground.
Afterward, drive to Doi Mae Salong, a remote village located in a northern Thai region famous for its Chinese tea traders. Relax with a cup of tea in a traditional Chinese teahouse as you take in the views of the nearby mountains. In the late afternoon, you’ll have free time to explore - stroll through the markets to find fresh produce and crafts made by local hill tribes, or simply settle in at another teahouse and sip more tea as you enjoy the vista.
Overnight: 4-star hotel in Doi Mae Salong
Day 2 - Doi Mae Salong - Chiang Rai (B, L)
After breakfast, your guide will take your small group to the region known as the Golden Triangle - where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet - on the way to your destination of Chiang Rai.
First, stop in Mae Sai near the Thailand-Myanmar border. You'll spend a bit of time in Thailand's northernmost town, a well-known trading post where you can explore the local market along the main street. Among the jade and other gems, search for Burmese lacquer ware and goods from nearby Laos. If time allows, you'll have the opportunity to cross the border into Myanmar to browse a similar market on the other side. (A temporary visa will cost 500thb. Please note that you will only receive a 15-day entry visa when crossing back into Thailand.)
Afterward, continue to the Golden Triangle and stand at the confluence of the Mekong and Ruak rivers while your guide points out the borders of each neighboring country. Then, delight over mouth-watering regional dishes as you enjoy lunch overlooking the mighty Mekong River and watch the scene unfold below.
Then, it's time to dig beneath the surface of the scenic beauty and bold landscapes to uncover facts about the area's checkered past. Visit the Hall of Opium, a modern museum with fascinating exhibits that detail the notorious history of this former opium-producing capital. Hear stories from your guide about the more recent cultivation of other crops by the hill tribes who used to grow the once-flourishing poppies.
In the afternoon, climb aboard a long-tail boat for a ride down the Khong River to the old city of Chiang Saen, the ancient capital of the Lanna Kingdom, now famous for the local rice whiskey sold from distilleries on the riverbanks. With no official border crossing between Thailand and Laos along this river, you may pull off to one side and have a chance to step foot into Laos!
When you reach Chiang Rai, a lovely city with a small-town ambiance, enjoy your evening at leisure – perhaps visiting downtown or the night market on your own.
Overnight: 4-star hotel in Chiang Rai
Day 3 - Chiang Rai - Chiang Mai (B, L)
Enjoy a delicious breakfast before driving to beautiful Wat Rong Khun (white temple) near Chiang Rai. Unlike most centuries-old Buddhist temples in Thailand, this temple's construction began in 1997 and isn't expected to be completed until 2070.
As you tour the complex with your guide and small group, admire the buildings painted pure white, as well as the interior murals of Superman, Batman and Neo from the movie The Matrix - all designed by Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat.
Next, head to the Mae Ka Chan hot springs, with a lunch stop along the way. Located at a rest stop between Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai, the three pools of these hot springs are a great place to ease sore muscles or relax. Enjoy a foot massage fish-spa style - while dozens of tiny fish nibble dead skin from your feet - or purchase quail eggs to cook in the boiling waters as you soak!
Afterward, your guide will return you to your hotel in Chiang Mai at approximately 5pm.