My experience at Chiang Rai, Thailand was in the papers this morning- you can read it online here
Or read the whole write-up here (the newspaper had some edits)
From royal villas to hill tribe settlements, from tea plantations to temples, from waterfalls streaming down hills to languorous rivers flowing through the city, Chiang Rai really has it all. However the impression I get as the aircraft touches down on the runway at Mae Fahlung airport is quite under whelming and I wonder if I may have made a mistake in visiting a city that is secretly considered to be much better than its more popular neighbour Chiang Mai. Of course I come from Chennai so I know better than to judge a city by its airport.
At the airport I meet my guide- Wooth of Lanna Treks and we head off directly to the Mae Kok river to go on an hour long journey on the river with a long tail boat. Despite the loud noise of the boat engine, I manage to enjoy myself- the weather is cool without being chilly and the river is flanked on either side by swathes of land in resplendent shades of green. It quite reminds me of Kerala and I ask if there are elephants in the wild. Almost as if on cue we stop near a village inhabited by the Karen tribe. Ruammit village also has a very famous elephant camp and we set off on a 2 hour elephant trek uphill to meet the Lahu hill tribe.
I am very excited as I have never been on an elephant back for more than 10 minutes but exactly 20 seconds after we set off I am wondering for the second time within 2 hours if I may have made a mistake. I am being thrown around in the seat and between managing my camera- protecting the lens from dashing against the protective railing and hanging on to my bag, I want to just stop and walk. However it does not last long and as soon as we hit the hillside the elephant slows down and the journey is not so bumpy anymore. What none of us (including the mahout himself) realised was that we had landed up with a very temperamental 30 year old elephant who had no intention of going up the hill. All he seemed to want to do was to munch on some of the bamboo leaves and admire the scenery (for that is very beautiful). The mahout tries the usual leg kick command to make the elephant move forward- but the elephant instantly makes its displeasure known by violently flapping his ears, slapping the mahout’s legs. I have tried riding a horse and it isn’t easy to kick the horse with your leg, but at least the horse doesn’t slap you back with its ears(though it might throw you off its back easier).
We finally reach the Lahu village and I soak up the views from the top of the hill. The Lahu hill people seem unconcerned by tourists visiting and their farm animals running all over the place seem to pay even less attention. Wooth explains to me that there are many hill tribes in the area with six major ones namely the Yao, Lahu, Akha, Hmong, Lisu and Karen. There is a hilltribe museum & education centre in Chiang Rai city but I don’t have enough time to visit it.
A one hour trek downhill from the village brings us to the Huay Mae Sai waterfall- once again it just feels good to be somewhere cool and just relax. The pool at the bottom of the waterfall is shallow and the more adventurous tourists also choose to swim there. As for me, my long flights and lack of sleep are beginning to tell on me and I’m just about craving to get to my room and retire for the day. We finish off the day stopping to eat a local delicacy made from sticky rice and coconut milk cooked in hollow bamboo trunks. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted anything more delicious but then I have been hungry for quite a while now.
The second day begins with us taking to the mountains again- this time to visit the tea plantations in Doe Mae Salong- a small Chinese village perched on the hills. We stop at one of the local shops and are treated to an exquisite tea tasting session. I am no connoisseur of teas but at the end even I step out with a bag filled with different varieties of tea including the prize winning Oolong 12 which is native to Taiwan and has been cultivated here by people who have migrated. We also stop at a local market where the Akha hill tribe women are selling everything from local produce to trinkets. I get cornered by a wizened old lady who insists I buy a few bracelets from her. When I do so, she is elated and gives me a big hug.
No visit to Chiang Rai can ever be complete without a visit to the Royal villa and the gardens at Doi Tung. The magnificent landscaped gardens are filled with a myriad varieties of flowers and plants. One can easily spend hours there admiring the vistas. The Royal villa close-by used to be the residence of the mother of the King. It is a lovely structure adapted in design from a Swiss chalet tucked away in the mountains. One of the highlights of the villa is the ceiling of the living room- the King’s mother apparently loved astronomy and instead of using chandeliers to decorate the room, the entire ceiling is covered with lights representing planets and stars in constellation, in the same position that they were at the moment of her birth.
My last stop at Chiang Rai is the Wat Rong Khun also popularly known as the White Temple. From a distance the entire temple looks like a carved filigree structure in silver. On closer inspection I see numerous mirrors stuck on to the facade of the temple adding an additional white glimmer to it. It is a fairly modern structure having been built only 16 years ago and the imagery of heaven and hell with ferocious wardens and gateways are quite impressive but Wooth doesn’t think much of it. “It’s all cement” he says.
Just before heading back to the airport Wooth takes me to a vegetarian restaurant in the area and I’m treated to an impressive array of dishes from Lanna cuisine. It is quite spicy and I love it. To top it off I’m served fresh chilled coconut water as dessert . A wonderful meal to complete a wonderful trip. All content from the meal and memories I head to the airport for my flight back home.