Tourism Gateway in the ‘Golden Trinagle’ is a Rich Melting Pot of Cultures.
By Atthasith Khupratakul
Chiangrai, Thailand’s northernmost province, is bordered by Phayao, Lampang, and Chiang Mai (from the east clockwise) and the Shan State of Myanmar and Bokeo of Laos (in the north). The area, part of the so-called “Golden Triangle,” is regarded as a rich melting pot of cultures with majority of the population generally ethnic Thais, 12.5 percent hill tribes, and a minority Chinese, mainly descendants of the Kuomintang soldiers who settled in the region after the Chinese civil war. Populated since the 7th century, it was the center of the Lanna Thai Kingdom in the 13th century before the Burmese occupied it (until 1786). When the entire Lanna kingdom was incorporated into Siam and today’s modern-day Thailand, the region remained an autonomous region. Chiangrai was administered from Chiang Mai. It became a province in 1910. The “Golden Triangle” – where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar (Burma) converge — was once the hub of opium production, but today it has become a “food bowl of sorts,” with abundant food production by so many Royal Projects thriving in the area while slowly carving its niche as another major Thai tourism destination.
Tourism-wise, Chiangrai is a rich in both natural and manmade attractions as well as in priceless cultural heritage. Antiquities that are proud evidence of its past history and civilization are all over within easy reach of visitors, there are the various hilltribe people who still lead a fascinating way of life and unique culture, and there’s the temperate climate, which helps the province grow abundant produce, and makes for postcard pretty sceneries during the best months. The area is certainly great for exploring the sights around.
The people of Chiangrai are very proud of their roots and love to showcase the uniqueness of their culture. Chiangrai is also a tourism gateway into Myanmar and Laos and visitors will enjoy immensely the distinctively different food, music, arts, way of life, and even language here.
WHAT TO SEE
The Golden Triangle, where the Mekong meets the Ruak River and also where the borders of Laos, Burma and Thailand meet, boasts the remains of many ancient places and structures created by its former settlers, and therefore easily a major reason to make a visit.
Besides it, some of the most recommended sights to see are: Chiang Saen, the former ancient Lanna capital before King Mengrai replaced it with Chiangrai in 1262, is an interesting place to visit with its traces of old double city walls and other antiquities in and outside town such as can be seen in the Chiang Saen National Museum, Wat Phra That Chedi Luang and Wat Pa Sak.
Doi Tung, the revered mountain, which is home to Doi Tung Palace, and the Mae Fa Luang Flower Garden, The Wat Phra That Doi Tung Holy Relic, an old religious site, sits on top of the mountain about 2,000m above sea level.
Doi Mae Salong, a community where remnants of the 93rd Division of the Republic of China Army settled at the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, is today renowned for tea and its small-town ambience on the high hills.
Wat Phra Kaeo once housed Thailand’s most revered Buddha image, the Emerald Buddha now enshrined in its Bangkok namesake. The 130km-long Kok River, which flows through the town of Chiang Rai, is great for travel by long-tailed boats and cruises and for visit to hilltribe villages in the area.
A relatively new landmark but fast becoming a tourism icon is Wat Rong Khun, designed and built by Thai national artist Chalermchai Kositpipat.
Wat Rong Khun is unique with its white ordination hall decorated with silver glittering pieces of mirrors and large mural paintings of the Lord Buddha in different gestures. Oh, and you may want to visit Mae Fah Luang Art and Cultural Park (Rai Mae Fah Luang), located at Pa Ngiw Village about 5km from the city center.
Founded by the late Princess Mother, who bought a 140-rai plot to set up a center for developing the youths from rural areas under the supervision of the Mae Fah Luang Foundation, it is a park-cum-museum that preserves Lanna cultural objects. These are just some.
WHAT TO DO
Leisure activities are a-plenty. The Santiburi Chiangrai, one of the best golf courses in the country, is a mere 15 minutes away from the city.
Waterford, an attractive course, is about 45 minutes north of the city. Even the old airport has a nine-hole course. Long-tail boat ride on Kok River is a fun way to experience the scenery and see the hill tribe villages. Daily trips are available from Thaton, near the Burmese border. For elephant riding, go to Baan Ruamit, which is about 30 minutes from Chiangrai by car and one-hour by long-tail boat. Because Chiangrai has an extensive network of trails used mainly by hill tribe villagers in the mountain areas of Mae Suai, Mae Salong, Doi Chaang, and the banks along the Mae Kok River, there are many great opportunities for unforgettable trekking. Rock climbing enthusiasts will be glad to know that limestone karst hills are located mostly in the north and western parts of the province.
Chiangrai has incredible mountain biking because of the extensive network of paved roads with little traffic and dirt roads in the mountains. There are a number of interesting caves to visit including: 1km up Mae Kok river, west of Chiangrai town, the so-called “Crouching Lion Hill.’” he eastern cave is actually a three-chambered cave, each with a natural skylight at its apex, the largest chamber is as big as a giant sequoia tree. Trekkers can use it to walk through the entire hill.
The Boomerang Adventure Park is the place to go for adventure activities such as zip lines and Asia’s largest swing. There is not much nightlife, although the provincial center has some live music pubs, beer bars, and discos. As well, traditional music and performances can be enjoyed at the Night Bazaar.
If you’re after high-end luxury hotels, try some of the best such as Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle (053-910-200) and Anantara Golden Triangle Resort and Spa (053-784-684).
Equally luxurious are Le Meridien Chiangrai Resort (053-603-33), and Dusit Island Resort (053-607-999); and depending on your taste, what area you are in, or how much you are willing to pay – hotels such as The Imperial Golden Triangle Resort Chiangrai (053-787-001), The Imperial River House Resort Chiangrai (053-750-830), The Palm Garden Hotel Chiangrai (053-742-252), Amarin Resort Chiangrai (053-748-785/8), Chiang Saen River Hill Hotel Chiangrai (081-444-4103), Chiangkhong Teak Garden Hotel, De River Boutique Resort Chiangrai, Doi Hom Fha Resort Chiangrai, Doi Tung Lodge Chiangrai, Golden Triangle Inn Hotel Chiangrai, Greater Mekong Lodge Chiangrai, and many, many more.
EAT & DRINK
Some of the best luxury hotels in Chiang Mai also usually provide some of the best dining experiences. But if you want to venture out and experience more there is no dearth of good restaurants to enjoy a meal. If you’re looking for a large selection of Thai dishes the Phu Lae Restaurant on Thanon Thanalai, which serves both northern Thai and southern Thai dishes, is highly recommended.
Baan Chivit Mai on Prasobsuk Road (053-712-357) makes for great stop for an espresso and freshly baked cookies. It also has a small but tasty Thai and Western food selection.
Cabbages & Condoms, a familiar Bangkok name, has a branch on Thanalai Road serving delectable Northern and Central Thai dishes. Another restaurant high in the list of Chiangrai visitors is Chiang Rai Nam Ngeow on Singhaklai Road (053-745-221).
Don’t miss their signature dish, rice noodles in spicy northern-style pork broth (khanom jeen nam ngeow), and the dessert, steamed rice-skin dumplings (khao kriep pak mo).
Other highly rated restaurants: Da Vinci opposite the Night Bazaar on Phaholyothin Road (053-752-535), Lee Ocha (Chinese cuisine) on Banpaprakan Road, immediately west of Clock Tower; Rod Yiem Beef Noodle Soup, billed as ‘the only noodle shop in Chiang Rai that serves top quality beef’ also on Banpaprakan Road; Sabun Nga Kantoke on the 2nd Floor of Sabun Nga Hotel, San Kong Noi Road, which combines cultural performances and a culinary experience; Salung Kham (053-717-192), which has a menu of authentic northern Thai dishes from the owner’s grandmother’s secret recipes; and The Old Dutch on Phahnyothin Road (053-714-282) , famous for its cozy vibe and traditional European dishes as well as regional specialties. You can discover others on your own during your visit.
BEST TIME TO VISIT
Cool season begins late Oct and ends in Feb (Dec and Jan are coldest months). March-May is hot season but a visit in March is great because the weather is in transition from cool to hot, and refreshing.
By Rail – There is no railway system in Chiangrai and the nearest train station is in Chiang Mai. From there you can either take a bus, plane or rent a car.
By Bus – There are two bus stations in Chiangrai: the old bus station and new bus station. There is a songthaew (officially a “minibus”) connecting the two bus terminals. Cost is Bt10 per person and takes 15 minutes.
By Car – Chiangrai is about 820km north of Bangkok and is easily accessible from Bangkok via Highway 1 and 32; from Chiang Mai it’s via Highway 118.
By Plane – The Mae Fah Luang-Chiangrai International Airport is located on Phaholyotin Road 8km from the center of Chiangrai. AirAsia, Orient Thai, and Thai Airways serve the airport from and to Bangkok. There are also daily flights to/from Macau operated by Orient Thai now.