We left Doi Mae Salong in the late afternoon and continued driving through the mountains passing more tea plantations along the way. As the sun was setting and dusk was upon us, we finally made it to the relative safety of Highway 1. Although we were only halfway to Chiang Rai City, the multi-laned highway meant we could cover the remaining distance in little over half an hour. We then used this city as a base over the next few days to explore the province further. Our first destination the following day was north to the mountain ranges of Doi Tung. According to legend, King Lawacahkalaj came down from heaven on a silver ladder. His purpose was to protect and uphold the Buddhist religion. A giant flag was flown from the peak of the mountain which marked the spot of where two chedis were later built in 911 A.D. The mountain upon which he appeared became known as “Mountain of the Holy Banner”. In northern dialect this is “doi tung”.
Probably the greatest influence in persuading the local people to turn from growing opium to other crops was the presence of the late Princess Mother (the king’s mother). She built a charming summer palace on the slopes of the mountain called Doi Tung Royal Villa. It is a cross-between traditional Lanna style and a Swiss chalet. The Princess Mother had fond memories of Switzerland where she lived for a time whilst her children were completing their education. The villa was officially opened in November 1988 though sadly the princess Mother didn’t have long to enjoy the beautiful surroundings. She died seven years later.
Today the villa has been turned into a kind of museum and has been left almost exactly as it was the year she passed away. It is open to the public between 6.30 a.m. and 5 p.m. and costs 70 baht for both Thai and foreigner alike. You can only enter the building in groups and at the door you are given plastic bags to carry your shoes in. I would have liked to have shown you some pictures but you are not allowed to take photographs inside. It is not really like what you would expect a summer palace to look like. The floors are made from teak wood but the wood paneling is made from recycled pinewood shipping crates. On the walls are photographs of the Princess Mother gardening and doing needlework. In some ways the villa is quite simply furnished. The guide only speaks Thai but she will give you a photocopy of an English translation.
From the terrace of the villa you can look down through the trees to the Mae Fa Luang Gardens. (I should point out at this stage that “Mae Fa Luang” is an affectionate nickname the nation had for the Princess Mother as it meant “mother of us all”.) The climate in the garden is quite different to the rest of the country and so it is possible to grow plants here from different ecosystems. The seasonal plants in the floral garden probably makes this the most beautiful garden in Thailand. I certainly haven’t seen anything like this for a long time. The entrance ticket to the gardens cost 80 baht which is very reasonable. We visited the Princess Mother Commemorative Hall first as this then leads down to the garden. The hall has some interesting exhibits about the life of the Princess Mother. Most of this is in Thai though it only costs 30 baht to enter. If you do decide to visit all three places in one go then you can buy a combined ticket for only 150 baht which makes the hall free.
From the gardens we drove a short distance away to visit Phra That Doi Tung. The chedi contains a bone of the Buddha. It is believed to be the first temple built in the Lanna Kingdom. If you don’t mind I will write more about this temple later as it is one of 12 temples that represents the Thai zodiac. From this temple we had the choice of driving back down to the main highway or continuing along the mountain range to Mae Sai. We weren’t sure how risky this road would be as it would mean driving along the border with Myanmar for about 15 kms. There have been border skirmishes before and sometimes shells from the Burmese side have landed in Thailand. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago that someone was killed in the market at Mae Sai.
At an army checkpoint we asked if it would be dangerous for us to go to Mae Sai this way. The soldier assured us that there hadn’t been any problems for a while now. He then wrote down the details from my Thai drivers license. He said that if we didn’t report to the checkpoint at the other end within an hour he would send out a search party. We then set off, a little nervous but thinking it would be alright. The road was literally on the border as at one point we passed a Burmese village alongside the road. If we wanted to shoot rabbits (polite term for relieving yourself) we would have to make up our mind whether to do so in Thailand or Burma.
(This story will be continued late. You can find the archives for these travel blogs at www.thaitravelblogs.com)