Phra Barom That Chedi in Mae Salong, Chiang Rai
After spending about a week in Chiang Mai, I decided to drive over to Chiang Rai. I had never been there before and so I was quite eager to do a comparison. A lot of people “do” Chiang Rai as a one day trip from Chiang Mai. What they usually only see is Chiang Saen, Mae Sai and the Golden Triangle. A visit to a hilltribe village is also thrown in for good measure. But, that isn’t the real Chiang Rai. They are missing so much. I am not knocking these tourists as I did this very same tour the first month I was in Thailand all those years ago. To really appreciate Chiang Rai as a province you need to rent yourself a car and go to places these tours don’t go. I was only there for four days but would love to go back to explore more. What you can do is fly into Chiang Rai if you like and then rent a car there in order to explore the province. Or, you can do what I did and travel through the mountains from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai.
We left Chiang Mai early in the morning and headed north towards Mae Rim on Highway 107. A short while later we reached Mae Tang. This is the turn-off for Pai and Mae Hong Son. We did this 600 km loop a few years back when we went to see the Long Necked hilltribe. Instead of turning off we kept on going north, stopping briefly at Chiang Dao to visit an Elephant Training Camp. They have shows there that start at 9.05 a.m. and 10.05 a.m. It is really worthwhile. You can either drive here yourself or take a tour. The advantage of a tour is that they take you to other places like a hilltribe village and an orchid farm. Sometimes it is difficult to find these places when you are travelling by your own transport. After watching the show we continued north through Chai Prakan, Fang, Mae Ai and stopping briefly at Thaton.
On my map, Thaton seems quite insignificant, but I was curious why we had passed so many “Chiang Mai – Thaton” buses. The town itself isn’t very big but it is dominated by the Mae Kok River. So, it is quite possible that in the past this was a major trading route before the roads became paved. In fact, I did remember reading in the Lonely Planet that you can catch a boat from here to Chiang Rai. We went down to the jetty to get further information. The public boat leaves every day at 12.30 p.m. and costs only 300 baht for the four hour journey. If you arrive too late you can always stay in one of the guesthouses that seem to be springing up all around this small town. An alternative to the public boat is to rent your own boat for 1,900 baht (share the cost with up to 6 people). Though of course, as the journey is so long, you would want to leave as early as you can. I would like to do this trip myself one day (a bit difficult when you have to come back to pick up your car) but I think it is best not to go at the end of the dry season as the water looked pretty low.
Tea Plantations on Mae Salong, Chiang Rai
This isn’t the most direct route to Chiang Rai. You can, of course, take Highway 118 north-east of the city all the way to Chiang Rai. This way shouldn’t take too long. However, we were keen to go a longer route through the mountains of Mae Salong. This whole area was settled by the Kuomintang (KMT) after they fled mainland China during the aftermath of the revolution there in 1949. Their influence can be seen even today with many shop signs in Chinese and the shopkeepers talking to each other in Chinese. Mae Salong was off-limits for many years partly because it was the stronghold for the opium warlords and also due to fighting between government forces and communist insurgents. These days it has become a popular destination for Thai tourists on day trips from Chiang Rai. Due to the crop substitution program, the locals now grow tea, coffee and various fruits.
The road into the town is extremely steep. Dotted on the hillside on both sides we could just make out the tea plantations through the mist. The weather here was much cooler compared to Chiang Mai. Though due to a combination of crop burning and low cloud we didn’t get as good of a view as we hoped. In fact it was disappointing for us as our expectations were high. Obviously this wasn’t a good time of year to visit. There isn’t really too much to do in town apart from visiting the tea plantations and shops lining the road through town. However, we did make the effort to go and see Phra Barom That Chedi which is located on a nearby hill. This was built to honour the Princess Mother Somdej Phra Srinakharindra who had such an important influence over the lives of the hilltribes in this area. Apparently this vantage point gives you excellent views though we couldn’t see anything!
Back in town we stopped at one of the many shops that were selling tea leaves and dried fruit. We couldn’t come all this way without buying some souvenirs for people back home. The shopkeeper was quite keen for us to taste everything, not only the different teas but also the fruit. She also demonstrated a statue of a little boy. She poured water on it and it started to pee! That was only 10 baht so we bought a few as gifts. Then she demonstrated a tall tea cup that changed colour as you poured hot water into it! It started with some Chinese characters with a dark background to a colouful picture of a Chinese temple. We asked her what the Chinese characters said (best to check these things first) but she admitted she didn’t know. This was strange as she was talking to her husband in Chinese earlier. Anyway, we bought a couple as gifts for people as they were only 70 baht each.
Our original plan was to stay here the night and then move on the next day to another mountain range called Doi Tung. However, due to the bad weather, we decided to drive onto Chiang Rai city and then use that as a base to explore the province. I will tell you more about our side-trips later.