This article (Chiang Rai) was part of a twelve-page travel feature originally published in WE Smile Magazine with original photography. Photos were in collaboration with Pam Thien.
Chiang Rai is Thailand’s northernmost province. Aside from the small airport and quaint capital city, the rest of Chiang Rai province remains seemingly unexplored. Lush rainforests, muddy rivers and picturesque hilltops easily rekindle the romance of 19th and early 20th century travellers.
Most people who come to Chiang Rai are travellers. All tourists are welcomed, but catering to weekenders and the casual sightseers are key fortes of hub-cities like Chiang Mai and Bangkok.
Chiang Rai is a true destination and a place of discovery. Whether one is here to learn about the land or find inner peace, a healthy dose of natural solitude and respectful locals make this northern province ideal for seasoned travellers. The area promotes ‘active tourism’—visitors usually seek out experiences rather than arrive and wait for things to come to them. It’s a gentle reminder of how travel used to be, and generally should be, as worldwide tourism matures.
The Golden Triangle
As veteran explorers, we begin our journey at the heart. The Golden Triangle earned legendary status in both fact and fiction for its mysterious charm, underlying danger and unscrupulous riches. For centuries, perhaps even more, this area was the centre of trade and commerce. The Triangle transported gems from Myanmar, gilded silk from Laos, rare buddha relics from Thailand and opium from just about everywhere. It is ‘Golden’ for this very reason, commerce here has made many wealthy and at the cost of just as many lives.
Today, tension still riddles the area. The Chinese have acquired land along the Laotian border to dock merchant ships and pave the way for better trade along the Mekong. On the Thai side, stricter border control are enforced; and once opened, private piers along the river have been consolidated to a single government-controlled checkpoint. For residents, this is the norm, and with ASEAN set to begin in December 2015, optimism is high.
We start in Chiang Saen, at the viewpoint and the original wooden “Golden Triangle” sign. This is ‘Sop Ruak’ where the Mekong meets the Ruak river, and four nations (Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and China) are visible. Overlooking the rise is Wat Prathat Phu Khao, one of the oldest Buddhist temples in the area.
If you want to take a boat from the pier, you’ll need to provide passport and visa information at border control. It’s worth it for the ride up to where the two rivers form a ‘v’, even if you don’t care to dock in Laos or Myanmar.
Historic Chiang Saen
After visiting the Golden Triangle, we recommend walking around Chiang Saen if you’re a cultural buff. The former port city is full of temples and historic sites. Find a good guide or just walk around to soak in the ruins, the old walls and moat. Check out the Synsombun Market to see what the locals have for trade. Except for modernity and packaging, core goods have changed little in centuries.
On Sundays, the road in front of the Synsombun Market is also a Sunday Market from early mornings until evening. It’s not as large as the ones in Chiang Rai or Chiang Mai, but it’s a true border market with food and produce from all the nations that make up the Golden Triangle.
Master of Crafts
Local crafts abound in Chiang Rai, and the north in general. Silverwork, textiles, paper and clay are just a few examples. New styles develop regularly, spearheaded by the Princess Mother’s Royal Project (Mae Fah Luang Foundation) and its Sustainable Alternative Livelihood Development initiative. Visit the Cottage Industries Centre where hundreds of skilled workers from various ethnic minorities produce handicraft for the Doi Tung Lifestyle brand. The local Hill Tribes consisting of the Yao, Karen, Akha and Lahu also produce hand crafted products unique to their heritage and traditions.
Around Chiang Rai
Doi Mae Salong houses a Chinese community and a now famous tea plantation. The area is sometimes referred to as “Little Switzerland”. It’s easy to see why, especially during the transitional rainy-to-winter seasons where fog masks much of the hillside. The High Mountain Oolong grown in the area are of great quality, and are cultivated by Mandarin-speaking descendants of Chinese migrants who settled here after the Chinese Civil War.
Doi Tung houses the Doi Tung Royal Villa and the Mae Fah Luang Garden. The Royal Villa was the residence of Her late Royal Highness Princess Srinakarindra, the Princess Mother. It was built in the Lanna-Swiss architectural styles and humbly made from discarded teak. Construction began on December 26, 1987. Next to the villa is the 10-acre Mae Fah Luang Garden, Thailand’s most visually enticing landscaped garden. The Royal Villa is open every day from 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and the garden from 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
Beyond Chiang Rai
Thailand’s northernmost point is in the town of Mae Sai. It borders the Union of Myanmar and was a famous trading post for rubies coming in from Mogok and Mong Hsu. Stop by Wat Prathat Doi Wao (or the Scorpion Temple) for a hilltop sweeping view of the northern border.
Cross the bridge and pass through Thai and Burmese immigration into the town of Takilek (literally translated to Port Iron-Dust) to experience Burmese culture. The first thing you may notice, if you drive a vehicle, is that you have to switch driving lanes. Chinese roadtrippers know well, as hundreds crossed the Mae Sai border bound for Chiang Mai for a period after the release of Xu Zheng’s 2012 film “Lost in Thailand”.
Popular destinations in Takilek include the local food market, a ‘Chinese Market’, and “Shwedagon Pagoda”, a smaller, less known replica of the one in Yangon. You have to take off your shoes to go up (if necessary, pay a small ‘fee’ for a plastic bag to carry your footwear around) while you make offerings to your astrological animal.
WE Smile Magazine, Inflight Magazine of Thai Smile Airlines
October 01, 2015