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Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle

by:
Laurence Civil

Chiang Rai is the capital of Thailand's most northern province and home of the Golden Triangle where the Mekong and Ruak Rivers meet at the boundaries of three countries, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. For a long time there has been a suggestion to promote the area as an economic trade zone of the Golden Quadrangle with China's Yunan province being the fourth member of the equation. Eager to explore the region and see how it was developing I head north. The province is easily accessible with direct daily flights from Bangkok. Those with a fear of flying might take some comfort in the knowledge that Chiang Rai has the second longest runway in Thailand.

Northern Thailand is an ideal place for the inquisitive traveler to explore and what better way to do it than with a self drive car. The majority of roads and highways in the province are good with adequate road sign in English. I take advantage of Budget's World Class Drives, which provides maps and suggestions for touring the region. It is easy enough to pick up a hire car on arrival at Chiang Rai International Airport. On leaving the airport enroute for the Golden Triangle I made a wild guess, turned right and headed north. Within a few minutes I had confirmed that the right choice had been made when passing a sign in English for Mae Chan. From there on it was easy driving.

My base was Le Meridien Baan Boran. Located in the heart of the Mekong region perched atop a hill surrounded by over 45,000 mainly teak trees, the architecture embodies traditional Thai design with the local influences of Chiang Rai. Each room has a unique and breathtaking view of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos. On arrival each guest can partake in a bai see welcoming ceremony. Common in other parts of North Thailand and Laos, it involves tying a loop of sacred thread known as sai sin, around the wrist. All the while spectators are wished health, prosperity and an enjoyable stay at the hotel. A delightful start to my adventures.

For someone staying at the Golden Triangle and not wanting to hire a car, mountain bikes can be hired. Armed with a copy of Adventure's map, crammed full of details and costing just 30 baht, it is possible to explore the real countryside. There are planned cycle routes, which take the rider through forests and alongside paddy fields, tobacco plantations, fish farms and orchards; it is a peaceful and fun way to experience the local culture.

My first port of call was Doi Tung Royal Villa, the former mountain retreat of the late Princess Mother. It is reported that one day Her Royal Highness told her Private Secretary, Mom Rajawongse Disnadda Siskul that she would no longer ski once she had reached the age 80 and that she would no longer travel to Switzerland after age 90. He knew that he would have to find her somewhere suitable for her to stay. A site was found on Nang Non 9 (Sleeping Woman) mountain range in Mae Jan District of Chiang Rai. Located 1,000 meters above sea level, the mountains of Doi Tung filled the view in front with the lowlands of Chiang Rai valley forming the backdrop to create a picture similar to the landscape near to Her Royal Highness' residence in Lausanne Switzerland.

While having tea at the site with her daughter Her Royal Highness Princess Galyani Vadhana she agreed to that her "house at Doi Tung " there. A retirement of doing nothing did not suit the style of Her Royal Highness who had a life long devotion to work. When her Private Secretary asked what she would do she replied, "I will reforest Doi Tung ". And so the Mae Fah Luang Foundation was born It's objective to provide alternative, economically sustainable employment to Opium production for the local community.

The architect who was commissioned to build the villa originally felt that as it was to be a Royal residence the finest materials should in the construction. He suggested the finest pine should be imported from Norway to form the cladding for the interior of the residence Her Royal Highness was very conscious of cost in the construction of the home and rejected this suggestion. She pointed out that in the Port in Bangkok there were thousands of discarded pinewood packing cases, some of these could be collected cleaned up and used to line the walls of the Villa. Whilst walking around the villa a keen eye will notice the nail holes in the walls.

The Royal Villa consists of 4 connected buildings; the first the personal residence of Her Royal Highness the Princess Mother; the second a large reception hall; the third the personal residence of Thanphuying Tasna Valaya Sonrasongkram, granddaughter of HRH The Princess Mother and the fourth the personal residence of HRH Princess Galyani Vadhana, daughter of HRH The Princess Mother.

On the doorway of the Royal Entrance there is an English proverb, written in Thai that reads, " A house is built of brick and stone, a home is built of love alone -Home Sweet Home ".

The Princess Mother was a keen astronomer and the ceiling of the reception hall is decorated showing the position of the planets at the time of her birth on 21st October 1900. On wall are hand-embroidered framed silks from San Pa in Chiang Mai. And at opposite ends of the room hang two large oil paintings by Bannarak Nathbanlang of Phra That Doi Tung, one at dusk and the other in the at midnight. The paneling of a stairwell near the reception hall entrance has been engraved with the Thai alphabet and a primary school rhyme. The stair railing is decorated with Thai numerals. Nothing as vulgar as a " No Entry " sign is used, simply a jardinière with a potted plant in bloom placed in the doorway to indicate to visitors where they would not be welcome.

Standing on the Her Royal Highness's private terrace one can see each of the constellations carved into the balcony, highlighted in gold. From there it is possible to glimpse through the window to see her simply decorated bedroom, an insight into the life of the Princess Mother.

On the hillside below the Royal Villa is the Mae Fah Luang Garden , just under 2 hectares of decorative and flowing plants, mainly from Europe, laid out in the same designs as the woven patterns of Northern Thai Silk. At the centre of the garden stands a statue of children climbing entitled "Continuity", made by one of the country's leading sculptress' Misiem Yip-in-soi. It is a symbol of the efforts of the Princess Mother to improve the lives of the people of Thailand.

" With taste" is the keynote to Doi Tung Royal Villa, even the entry tickets have style, made of locally produced Sa Paper decorated with a pressed flower. It is more cost effective to use locally produced products, the paper is made by the foundation generating employment for the local community and flowering pressing had a favored pastime of the Princess Mother during her stay in Switzerland .

Just a few kilometers up the road from the Royal Villa is the Thai-Burmese border but exactly where it is remains a concept rather than a line on a map. It has never been drawn rather the details having been passed generation to generation by word of mouth. Many the hilltribe people are not sure whether they are Thai, Burmese or Chinese as their villages straddle the unmarked border.

Doi Tung Royal Villa
Mae Fah Luang District
Chiang Rai 57240 
Phone: (6653-767001,767015-7
Fax: 6653-767077
Email: tourism@doitung.org 

From here any traveler's next stop should be the mountain top Wat Phra That Doi Tung, the regions most sacred shrine. Its twin chedis and other temple buildings are the very picture of an Oriental fairy tale, made all the more alluring by the scenic view from it's 2000 meter peak.

The next stop was the boarder town of Mai Sai, which has little to commend it other than it is the northernmost point in Thailand. The Sai River marks the border with Myanmar and it is possible to cross over to visit the Burmese town of Takhilek. Here visitors will find riverside food stalls from which to observe the trading of jade, rubies, sandalwood, handicrafts, lobsters and herbal cosmetics. Foreigner can cross over the border on the presentation of their passport and a payment of US$ 5 to the Myanmar officials. There are no forms to fill in and passports are typically stamped in and out at the same time. The stamp entitles the visitor to a single day visit from 6am to 6pm, and permission to travel no further than 5kms into the Shan State from the bridge. For Thai citizens, the charge is just 15 baht for a temporary travel permit made from a photocopy of their ID card.

In Takhilek, prices are quoted in Thai Baht and the currency is readily accepted. A can of Singha beer costs 25 baht, a carton of Marlboro cigarettes is 300 baht, a half litre of Gilbey's Gin, clearly marked Singapore duty-not-paid is 180 baht and a bottle of Californian Wente Burgundy is 280 baht. Clearly there are many duty free advantages is crossing the bridge.

The sun rising across the Mekong River is truly spectacular so the following morning I was up at 5.30am to watch he dawn from the hotel. In late October, the early morning air has a chill and cobwebs are visible under the eaves. The mirror like reflective Mekong is as still as a millpond and there is a beautiful and chilled silence. This was soon broken by the irritating and loud mosquito like buzz of the first longtail boat heading up river. By 7am the early morning mist has risen above the river although the sun is still to appear above the mountain. Within an hour the sun has come over the mountain - no amber glow, it is burning at full strength to disperse the mist. The traffic on the river is in full swing and the magic of the dawn had vanished for another day. Now it was time for breakfast before heading to Chiang Kong to look at the possibility of crossing over the river into Laos at Huai Xai in Luang Prabang province. My route took me through Baan Sop Ruak, the meeting point of the two rivers and onto Chiang Saen eight kms south.

Entering the town I saw nine boats transporting their cargo of apples and pears from Jiahong in China's Yunan province. The dialect spoken in this part of China is similar to that spoken in Chiang Mai and the people from the two areas can easily understand each other. Traveling down stream their journey had taken just under two days. Each boat carries a cargo of approximately 5 tonnes, which would eventually end up in Bangkok, having completed the last stage of the journey by road. Unsurprisingly, some of the cargo goes no further than the local population thanks to a roadside market.

Appropriately enough along the road there is a sweet smell of apples in the air and that of a Thai customs official monitoring the unloading process. The boat would later return to China with a cargo of Red Bull and car tires. The value of the cargo of one boat returning to China would be equal to the value of the cargo of the nine apple boats coming to Thailand. This trade with China is clear evidence that the Golden Quadrangle is close to becoming a realistic trade zone.

It is best to enter Chiang Saen to explore the old walled city that was once the capital of King Saen Phu of the Lanna dynasty. It contains several temples, the best of which is Wat Pa Sak (the Teak Forrest Temple) built in 1295. Wat Chedi Luang (next to the town's present and excellent museum), which was built in 1331 and extended in 1515 and is famous for its 58 metre-high octagonal chedi. Wat Phra Thart Jom Kitti is situated on a small hill just outside the northwest corner of the city wall. Some 383 rough, laterite steps lead up to this interesting temple with a superb view over the Mekong River to Laos.

My adventures continued on the road that ran virtually parallel to Mae Khong River heading towards Chiang Khong. The town's history goes back to at least the eighth century. It also serves as the international boarder crossing point to Laotian provincial capital (Huai Xai) in Bo Keo province. To a foreigner a visa at this border will cost US$ 60 and can take up to three hours to process; there is a cheaper option of 1,800 baht but this can take four or fives days and this is little to do while waiting. For anyone thinking of crossing into Laos at this point, my recommendation would be to obtain a Laotian visa in Bangkok before traveling to the north.

Short ferry cruises on the Mae Khong River are available from Baan Soop Ruak to get a closer look at Myanmar and Laos.

Chiang Ray is now one of the gateways in Indochina and Tour Operator Asia Voyage have produced an interesting package to travel on their boat Pak-our to the former royal Laotian capital of Luang Prabang. Departing from Chiang Saen the boat crosses the river to the town of Houei Say to complete immigration formalities. The tour operators request that travelers supply copies of their passports in advance so that the majority of the formalities can be completed in advance. Pakou 34metres long and with a capacity of up to 36 passengers departs from Houei Say at 9am. The experience is best described as a soft adventure rather than a cruise. The seating is flexible normally rattan chairs are used however there are Lao triangular pillows available if passenger prefer to lounge around in traditional style. En route several stops are made to observe rural life along the Mekong and discover minorities. Unlike in Thailand one has the opportunity to visit villages along that have been each other. There is a refreshing mutual curiosity between the visitors and villager, two peoples encountering each other for the first time.

A picnic lunch is served onboard and Pakou arrives at Luang Say lodge 1km north of the village of Pakbeng before sunset. Lao cuisine such as laab minced spiced with chili and name a rice and pork sausage is served for dinner on the terrace over looking the Mekong River.

The lodge comprise of 16 pavilions (total 19 rooms or 38 beds) built in solid exotic wood with traditional Lao architectural design and decoration. It is a river adventure rather than a luxurious experience. Each guest room has private shower-toilet rooms with hot water, a fan and mosquito netting The next morning a full breakfast is served at hotel. For the early risers there is the option of a walk to Pakbeng market, where people from the surrounding minorities village come to trade their good. At 8.30am guests reboard Pak Ou for the second leg of their cruise, Again a pic nic lunch is served and short stop to discover a Hmong Village before continuing to Pak Ou village at the mouth of the Nam ou river A fascinating stop is made visit Tam Ting caves that are home of a 1000 Buddha. Prior to arrival in Luang Prabang a brief stop is made to observe traditional process to obtain local rice alcohol at the prehistoric settlement of Ban Xang Hai. Finally the That Chomsi atop Mount Phou Si comes into view. The adventure comes to an end as guests disembark at the steps of Wat Xieng Thong. Oh to be back having dinner on the balcony of the Villa Santi.

However I was bound inland rather than down stream and my journey continued through a spectacular countryside of terraced farmland crisscrossed by twisting steep and climbing roads. Doi Mae Salong village is a settlement high up on the middle of Chiang Rai's mountain range country. Sitting on the highest peak at an elevation of over 6,000 feet above sea level where the air is cool and refreshing all year round. The settlement commands a grand view of green mountain ridges stretching out to the far horizon in a breath-taking panorama; low clouds and drifting mist make sunrise and sunset unmissable.

The villagers are of ethnic Chinese, descendants of Kuomintang forces who fled from China to Burma in 1949 and were then expelled from the former British colony in the 60's. These former fugitives and then independent anti-communist forces of the Thai government soon settled down, turned to farming, the raising of livestock and their families. The Thai government built roads to incorporate them into the local community.

The tomb of former KMT leader General Duan is in the hills overlooking the village. Of the 50,000 troops who joined him at Doi Mae Salong, less than 100 are still alive today and some still remain on duty guarding his tomb.

Sitting atop Santikiri mountain is a beautiful chedi with a gilded roof. I climbed the steep path, having to stop several times to regain my breath, but what I found at the top made the climb worthwhile. The familiar logo of the late Princess Mother was incorporated into the design. Apparently it was hoped that one day it would house the relics of H.M. the King's mother but due to significant subsidence it is not considered safe and His Majesty will not authorize there transfer until significant soil engineering has been completed to shore up the site.

Chiang Rai's handful of old temples is worth more than just a cursory glance. What Phra Kaeo has a late Lanna-style chapel and a few distinguished bronze Buddha images. It is, however best known for its chedi where, it is said, Thailand's famous statue of the Emerald Buddha (now enshrined in Bangkok's Wat Phra Kaew) was first discovered in 1436. At the time it was disguised in a plaster covering and only later when it cracked, was the true material (actually green jasper and not emerald) revealed.

With a wealth of memories and experiences, I reluctantly drove back to Chiang Rai International Airport, returned the car and checked-in for my flight back to Bangkok. Chiang Rai is an ideal and easily accessible destination and perfect for those city dwellers wishing to escape the concrete monotony of overcrowded and polluted city life, even if it is only for a few days.

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Email:  Lawrence Civil

Laurence Civil is a Food, Travel & Lifestyle writer based in Bangkok Thailand. Born in Kent in south of England, he started his working life in the UK's airline industry in 1976. This allowed him to indulge his passion for travel. In the early eighties, returning from a trip to the newly opened China, he started to write about his travel experiences. (More about this writer.)

 

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