Chiang Rai, the Switzerland of Thailand
DECCAN CHRONICLE | Lekha Shankar
The beaches of Thailand are very well-known to Indian tourists, but not the mountains.
That’s why I decided to check out Chiang Rai, the northern-most province of the country, noted for its rivers, mountains, and two international borders (with Laos and Myanmar).
There’s much to see and do in Chiang Rai — temples, gardens, mountains, elephant-camps, tribal villages and art venues.
There are more than a dozen flights per day to Chiang Rai from Bangkok, Phuket and also many luxury tour buses, which makes connectivity to this northern town very easy.
On our first day, we focused on Chiang Rai’s famed temples, both traditional and modern.
Among the traditional ones, the best-known is Wat Phra Kaew, where the revered Emerald Buddha, now in Bangkok, was first discovered in 1434.
A large Jade Buddha has been placed in its place. There is also an excellent Buddha Museum with numerous Buddha images from around the country.
Chiang Rai’s best-known temple is the spectacular White Temple, built by artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat. It’s based on traditional Thai architecture, white in colour, and embellished with intricate mirrorwork on the ground and walls. There are also gold-coloured buildings, including a stunning "gold toilet" for the public. There are constant add-ons to the temple, to attract fresh crowds, and the newest is a building studded with Ganesha images.
The Blue Temple is the other famous temple in Chiang Rai, built by another individual artist, Putha Kabkaew. This one’s colour is a gorgeous sapphire blue. It has giant images of Yakshas, Nagas, tigers, a giant black Shiva statue at the entrance, a porcelain-white Buddha image inside. And outside the temple, they even sell blue ice creams!
Last but not the least, is the Black House Museum, created by the globally renowned Thai artist, Thawan Duchanee. The museum is made up of 40 different Thai teak houses, filled with paraphernalia like snake, crocodile skins, buffalo skulls- not very popular with animal lovers.
Then there is the Big Buddha temple. This is actually a gorgeous, giant image of the Chinese Guan Yin or goddess of mercy. The temple offers a commanding view of the whole town, and one can reach the top by stairway or elevator, which is well worth it.
Chiang Rai has a rich and varied arts scene, which is visible at the Art Bridge Gallery that hosts a year-round range of art shows. One was excited to know that that Chiang Rai will host its first biennale, next year, for which a huge art museum is being built.
According to its co-artistic director, Gridthiya Gaweewong, "With more than 300 local artists and 80 artists-studios, Chiang Rai richly deserves to have a biennale." She said she was checking out various Indian artists to join the art event.
Chiang Rai is noted for is its Karen and Akha tribes, and it was interesting to visit the Karen Ruammit Village and Elephant Camp. The elephants were some of the friendliest I’ve seen, and it was delightful to take an elephant ride among the mountains.
The Akha tribes have many coffee cafes on the Phahee Valley, which can be reached by going up the winding valleys of the Doi Chang Moob mountain with great views. The coffee shops also offer rooms to tourists who want to get away from the city and take a break among the mountains.
One of the best-known attractions in Chiang Rai is the view of the borders of the neighboring countries of Laos and Myanmar. This is at Chiang Saen, 60 km from the city, which we reach through lush rice plantations and fruit orchards.
This was also the area of the infamous Golden Triangle, once the centre of the opium trade in the region.
In fact, there are two opium museums, which offer excellent information on the subject.
It’s fascinating to see the Laos and Burma borders at such close quarters from Chiang Saen, including the casinos, which draw many tourists and from Thailand.
There are also duty-free shopping outlets at the two borders, the best-known being at Maesai.
There are also plenty of souvenir shops on the roads.
The mighty Mekong river, which is the most important river in the region flowing through six countries, is a major visual here.
We stopped for lunch at the exotic, new heritage resort Athita, The Hidden Court, noted for its grand, old-world décor but exquisite new-world fusion cuisine.
We discovered a wonderful coffee shop, on the banks of the Mekong River, the Chewittikong cafe, which is a balm to the eyes and soul.
One can’t leave Chiang Rai without visiting the gorgeous Mae Fah Luang Gardens, in the Doi Tung Mountains. This has often been called the ‘Switzerland of the East’ and is noted for its lush foliage and stunning flower-gardens. The gardens were first planted by the late Princess Mother, weaning the locals away from opium to flowers and fruits. Her teakwood Mai Fah Luang Villa, a Swiss-style chalet, has great views and rich foliage. Of course, this is the area of the famed Doi Tung coffee, too.
On our way back, we popped into the new, much-talked about Lalita garden café. It was surreal and spectacular, with its artificial water sprays but amazing fauna and flora.
Among the other attractions in Chiang Rai, we heard about the mega-Singha Park, with its fields and views, as also myriad activities for adults and kids.
There are also the famed Tham Luang Caves, where 13 young Thai boys had been trapped and captured the world’s attention. It had closed due to Covid but has re-opened again.
It was on our last evening that we found time to visit down-town Chiang Rai, with its unique Clock Tower (where Sound and Light shows are held, every evening), weekend Walking Street, lined with food stalls, and Jedyod Street with its bars and nightclubs.
The Chivit Thamma Da Coffee House, with its lush location on the Kok River, and extensive range of food and drink, is a must-visit spot, too. I enjoyed Chiang Rai’s best-known Khaosoey dish there.
We relished a nice meal at the city’s only Indian restaurant, Acha, which was packed to the brim with people. Most excited was our Guide Kaan, an Indophile, who’s been to India many times.
There are free tours of the city every day, by tram, from two meeting points, which could serve as an introduction to the city.
For transport, the local tuk tuk is good for short rides, and taxis /cars can be hired for longertrips. Since the roads and highways are excellent, it’s a pleasure to drive all around this northern haven of Thailand.
Chiang Rai has a wide range of accommodation, and we chose to stay at the well-known The Legend hotel facing the Kok river. They have a variety of rooms, ranging from 52 sq metres to 1,405 sq metres, and also pool villas.
Ours was a super-deluxe room, with a large living room, bedroom, balcony, separate bath and toilet. Their La Casa Italian restaurant is outstanding.
It was a pleasure to meet the new GM Eric Hallin, a doyen of the hotel industry, who has worked in the top hotels of the country, including the Indian-owned Rembrandt in Bangkok. He informed that he was delighted to get many Indian tourists from around the world and looked forward to welcoming more of them from India.
"We certainly want more Indian tourists to visit Chiang Rai, and enjoy the mountains as much as they enjoy beaches," said Wisit Buachoom, director of the local TAT Tourism office.
The last word came from Jaffee Yee, a well-known travel-writer and publisher who, after enjoying the urban landscapes of Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong and Bangkok, chose to settle down in this lush northern town of Thailand.
"Chiang Rai has the coolest weather, greenest mountains and richest culture among all the77 provinces of Thailand!" he raved.
He said it all.
For more info, check: www.tourismthailand.org/chiangrai