Most ride the local bus from the Chang Puak bus station departing at 7 and 9 am for the 3 1/2 hour bus journey to Thaton. It's much better to take your time and stay in Thaton for the evening.
The reason is 95% of the people riding the boats start in Thaton
Most of the boats from Chiang Rai go only as far as the touristy village of Rhummit just a 30 minute boat ride away for elephant riding. For this reason most boat drivers cannot go all the way to the villages and Thaton because they do not know the area farther up river with rapids. Only the boats from Thaton and up river villages can make the full journey. Local hill tribe people who live along the river also take this boat as it will stop for them if they wave it down. The boats from Thaton filled with tourists going to Chiang Rai won't stop but those who live along the river with boats and provide a ferry service to Chiang Rai do.
NOTICE: There are no longer river taxis. You have to hire a private long tail boat and find others to join you. This sould not be difficult as most who are on Thaton want to take the boat to Chiang Rai. Another thing you can do is to take the 1 day guided tour from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai that includes the boat ride and visitng hill tribe villages with local English speaking guide who knows the area well.
Another possibility is you can charter a boat and spend the evening on the river at the hot springs next to an Akha hill tribe village before going on to Thaton. This is a great way to enjoy the river for a group of two to four persons. This will rrquire a local English speaking guide as the boat drivers do not speak English.
Good food can be had just across the river from the hot springs at the Karen village of Rhummit where you can also arrange for riding elephants. Your guide and boat driver will take you there when you want to eat.
Video of long tail boat ride
from Thaton in Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai Thailand --View from Wat Thaton Temple
If you don't speak Thai it is best to arrange for a guide from one of the tour companies or your guest house in Chiang Rai. They can also provide things like blankets or sleeping bags and food if you would rather eat by campfire.
Sleeping is aboard the boat which has plenty of room and comfortable. The hot springs has toilets and showers along with a small store. The springs run into the river which is a good place to take a refreshing bath as the water is not too hot. The Akha hill tribe village next to the hot springs is very authentic with most dressed in their traditional costumes and all living in Bamboo houses. Not many tourists visit the village as most go to Rhummit to do elephant riding and trekking which leaves this area peaceful and mostly unspoiled.
In this video (left) we visit our hill tribe friends in Chiang Mai Province away from the normal tourist route including Akha, Lahu, Lisu and Karen. Akha girls give us flowers, we help an elderly Lahu woman husk rice, we visit a Karen coffee factory and enjoy a Lisu New Year celebration. The last bus from Thaton to Chiang Mai leaves at 2:25 in the afternoon. Don't be in a hurry to leave as Thaton has many things to see and do along with accommodations from 60 to 2000 baht. The Tourist Police in Thaton will help you with any information you may need. They are located along the river not far from the boat landing.
Hundreds of people each day during the busy season ride to boats from Thaton to Chiang Rai. They all leave about the same time in a large convoy one behind the other. For a better experience be different and see the river in the opposite direction. When you see the boats full of people passing just smile and wave from your uncrowded boat as they are sure to be envious.
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