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North of Chiang Rai

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The northernmost tip of Thailand, stretching from the Kok River and Chiang Rai to the border, is split in two by Highway 1, Thailand’s main north–south road. In the western half, rows of wild, shark’s-tooth mountains jut into Burma, while to the east, low-lying rivers flow through Thailand’s richest rice-farming land to the Mekong River, which forms the border with Laos here.

At a push, any one of the places described in this section could be visited in a day from Chiang Rai, while hardly anyone visits Mae Sai on the Burmese border except on a visa-run day-trip. If you can devote two or three days, however, you’d be better off moving camp to Mae Salong, a mountain-top Chinese enclave, or Chiang Saen, whose atmospheric ruins by the banks of the Mekong contrast sharply with the ugly commercialism of nearby Sop Ruak. Given more time and patience, you could also stop over at the palace, temple and arboretum of Doi Tung to look down over Thailand, Laos and Burma, and continue beyond Chiang Saen to Chiang Khong on the banks of the Mekong, which is now a popular crossing point to Laos.

For hopping around the main towns here by public transport, the setup is straightforward enough: frequent buses to Mae Sai run due north up Highway 1; to Chiang Saen, they start off on the same road before forking right onto Highway 1016; for most other places, you have to make one change off these routes onto a songthaew.

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