Author Archives: Betti C.

Quest for the golden chedi

Eight years ago, on my first visit, I saw an aerial photo of a golden chedi on a hilltop near a river, surrounded by lush fields and more mountains. I immediately knew I wanted to go there but I had no idea where to look, or what the name of the temple was. I am a very simple person: I am captivated by images and atmosphere, a building or scenery can amaze me if I feel a connection to it, but I switch off if I find a place lacking character even if it has centuries of history and fame.

(As it turned out, my chedi had both.)

But then, I forgot about the golden chedi for years. I had so many things on my mind. I usually follow roads, not maps, and enjoy the surprises I find – including many golden chedis on hilltops. Sometimes I wondered where the golden chedi I remembered from the photo could be, sometimes I even looked for it, but I did not start a desperate search. That would have been too easy, it wasn’t the point. I enjoyed that it was out there somewhere and I may find it one day.

Eventually, I found the temple by chance, the way I remembered it from the photo. Or, at least I think this is the one….

Wat Phrathat Doi Noi is about 43 kms from Chiang Mai. It is one of the oldest temples in northern Thailand, its construction attributed to Queen Chamathewi (658 A.D). There are only a few houses nearby, not a village – it was very quiet and deserted on both of my visits. I had expected more visitors for such a distinguished temple.

There are a couple of hundred steps leading up to the chedi, flanked by a Naga staircase very similar to Doi Suthep temple, but even longer. But thankfully there is also a road leading up to the top. The stairs were colonised by temple dogs, which I try to avoid if I can, so I was especially happy not to have to climb stairs. When I came down, there were some novice monks chatting right next to the Naga, who let me take their picture (after hiding their cans of coca-cola) and then helped me chase the dogs away from my motorcycle.

(This picture was taken on Makha Bucha day, in February.)

In the rainy season, the air is usually clear and fresh around Chiang Mai – from the chedi, you can see mountains all around, in Lampang to the east, Doi Inthanon itself to the west. It felt like I could take off and fly away, with so much open space and strong winds. I didn’t realise how much I had been missing the winds, there is hardly ever any in the city.

(Doi Inthanon behind the mist)

In the hot season, everything is shrouded in smoke and it is not a pretty sight, maybe even more miserable than from ground level to see all the pollution. It is amazing how much extra space and air just a little elevation gives you – perspective over mountains and the river and the valleys. It is in fact just a doi noi – a small hill that makes a lot of difference.

Sometimes that’s all we need in life too in order to have a better overview.

Wat Phrathat Doi Noi is on the highway to Chomthong (west of the Ping river – one of my useful-looking maps marks it on the other bank!) It is about 1.5 kms off the highway itself, but because of the trees lining the road, you cannot really see it. This highway must be the most boring route I know of in the area and I really don’t like taking it if there is another option. You can also get to the temple by following the Ping river from Chiang Mai – but you need to be able to read Thai to find out what to do when the road leaves the riverside (or carry a GPS). There is now a brand new bridge about 1.5 km north from the temple across the Ping river, which takes you to Lamphun province. It is under construction on Google Earth so the maps don’t show it yet.

(Gateway to the clouds of smoke – in February)

The “quest” for the golden chedi lasted a few years. Yes, I gasped when I eventually saw the chedi on the hill. It was a delight to look down on the valleys and take it all in. But the road there was just as important as the destination. Now, it is one surprise less waiting for me out there.

Thai Elephant Conservation Centre in Lampang

The rainy season has been rather dry so far up here in Chiang Mai, ideal for daytrips – if you don’t mind baking in the sun shining right above your head at this time of the year. For a change, I decided to hop on a bus today and go on one of the easiest “do it yourself” outings around.

The Thai Elephant Conservation Centre is located in Lampang province, but it is actually less than 70 kms away from Chiang Mai. This prestigious elephant centre works under royal patronage, and is also the home of HM the King’s white elephants (the stables are not open to the public). The elephant hospital treats sick elephants from all over the country free of charge, and also works on important projects such as artificial fertilisation of captive elephants.

At the same time, the elephant centre is also a working elephant school where visitors may take an elephant ride, watch a show, and get close up with these gentle animals. For enthusiasts, special mahout training courses are available as well.

Novice mahouts take care of their elephants all day under the supervision of Thai mahout staff, including walking the elephants to their nighttime sleeping area, cleaning up their mess, and bathing them.

The elephant centre (Thais refer to it as “Sun Chang Lampang”) is actually very near the border of Lamphun and Lampang provinces, right on the main highway connecting the north to central Thailand, so, virtually every southbound bus leaving from Arcade bus station passes by the entrance, and it is a very easy, painless, 67-baht adventure to get there. Sadly, if you search online, it does not take long to find reports describing how tourists were scammed out of 1500 baht by taxis claiming it is very far and difficult to get to.

Living in Chiang Mai, it is so easy to forget that Northern Thailand is hill country – the elephant centre is also surrounded by lush jungle, and rolling hills in every direction. Elephants living here spend the most of their day free in the jungle, not chained up in the stables. It is clear from the very first minute you have contact with them that they are happy, calm and gentle, they enjoy interacting with people and are not distressed. This is actually supported by the many positive reviews written by trainee mahouts who spend days living in the camp.

traffic jam

In contrast to Mae Sa elephant camp, the elephant centre has a very relaxed atmosphere, and a slow pace. At the time of my visit, there were only about 80-100 other visitors, mostly Thai families, but also some small tour groups of foreigners who arrived in vans. There is time for everything and anything, there is no rush. The mahouts, both farang and Thai, answer all questions, wait until everyone takes their photos, every kid pats and feeds the animals, has a turn admiring the elephants very close up. The staff enjoy playing tricks on visitors: splashing them (us!) gently with water, snatching away bananas, poking people with curious trunks. I never once saw them soliciting the 20-baht banknote that was due for these special moments of attention at Mae Sa. I saw absolutely no tips changing hands (trunks).

Elephants love sugarcane

The elephant show is performed three times a day: 10:00, 11:00 and 13:30. It is a cheerful, slow pace event with the participation of about 15 elephants, and, surprisingly, mostly farang mahouts who are taking the course. It looks very much like the elephants can perform the entire show on their own, without any guiding. When I went to Bangkok last year, I enjoyed the colourful, professionally choreographed and sophisticated hi-so show at Samphran Elephant Ground; in contrast, the Lampang elephant centre has a laid-back “rural” show. There is live commentary in both Thai and English. The elephants greet the audience, the mahouts get on and off in different positions. They demonstrate dragging and stacking logs, play the xylophone and bells, walk in lines.

There are several very talented artists, and the paintings provide a major source of income for the centre. Now I wish I had asked how they train the elephants to paint. Obviously, their trunks are very dexterous and capable of fine movements, and elephants are very intelligent, but it took me by surprise when I saw one of them painting Thai letters! I have absolutely no idea how an elephant can learn that.

Nu rak mae – I love you mummy. Mother’s day is coming up on August 12.

Last year, I got an amazing red and green non-figurative painting for Christmas, resembling a jungle of Christmas flowers in full bloom, and I was delighted to meet the artist this time.

The show lasts almost one hour. The first and the last show is preceded by elephant bathing in a small lake nearby: both animals and mahouts seemed to be having a great time. I wish I could have jumped in as well – but even standing on the sidelines, we got a fair bit of muddy water from the playful elephants and their naughty mahouts.

Taking aim

Elephant riding is available from 8:00 to 15:30. Surprisingly, the short route is partly on a concrete road by a lake, in the direct sun (umbrellas and hats are provided). If someone would like a longer ride, they may be entering the jungle nearby, but I didn’t see that. It was also unexpected that the prices of the elephant rides were not clearly indicated – more exactly, I saw no signs whatsoever. There was a large group of people sorting out their details, I heard 100, 200 baht mentioned in Thai, but I couldn’t ask in the crowd, and later when I went back, it was already locked up. So, I cannot tell you more about the elephant rides.

UPDATE: The website of the elephant centre offers the following information: “If you would like to enjoy elephant riding, you will have to pay additional fee at the camp which is 400 Baht/elephant for half hour ride and 800 Baht for one hour ride. Short riding about fiveteen minutes is 100 Baht / person.”

Elephants eat 200 kg of food and drink 150 litres of water every day. (It takes me nearly two months to drink that much water!) All this input means significant amounts of output. Elephant dung is used to produce organic fertiliser. As it is mostly made up of undigested fibre, it is also ideal for making rough paper, which is crafted into notepads, postcards and envelopes. There is a small factory where visitors may observe the paper-making process, but I found it closed. I find this a fascinating and resourceful idea and I hope to check it out next time. You can check out the elephant dung paper website here – they explain the process with pictures.

The elephant centre’s newest baby is just a couple of months old. She stays alongside her mother in a pen, of course, but you can get up close and feed her with bananas. She makes a mess trying to grab the fruit with her trunk and put it in her mouth. She still needs to practise her fine motor skills – and an apron would be useful, too. Her fuzzy messy hair is prickly and she enjoys being touched. Just like a human baby. There is another very young elephant whose mother has died. Another female is scheduled to give birth any minute now.

You can easily spend 4 hours looking around, taking everything in, going for a ride, choosing souvenirs (the proceeds help the elephants too). There is an excellent restaurant as well near the show ground, and several snack shops.

A few practicalities: the centre is actually a 15-minute walk from the entrance. A tram ride is included in the ticket, which is 80 baht for adults, 40 baht for children, no double pricing. There are more shops and restaurants outside the entrance as well. You need to catch a bus from Chiang Mai at 11:00 the latest to be able to get there in time to take it all in, and not miss the elephant bathing and show. There is enough time to go on an elephant ride after the last show. In order to catch a bus back to Chiang Mai, you need to run across the busy 6-lane highway and flag down any bus passing by. Not ideal, but certainly beats relying on taxis.

This little boy was literally screaming and laughing with delight seeing the elephants.

All in all, I think the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre is good value for money. It is easy to get to by private or public transport, and is suitable and enjoyable for all members of the family. There are add-ons to the ticket price, such as food for the elephants (20 baht for a bunch of banana, the regular price at the market), nicely framed pictures taken by professionals of children feeding the elephants (99 baht), paintings (500-1000 baht). Food is reasonably priced. I really liked it that there was no pushing and trying to convince people to purchase things by yelling at them. In fact, one banana seller was fast asleep, another was totally absorbed in a muay thai bout on tv.

If you would like more information, the mahout program has a professionally managed photo blog at, including videos of the animals as well. The various activities of the elephant centre are introduced at the bilingual official website.

This little trip can be easily followed by a visit to Lamphun’s famous temples on the way back to Chiang Mai, which is also simple to negotiate relying on public transport (most buses drop in to Lamphun bus station, which is just 5 minutes walk away from the city centre).

I have marked the elephant centre on our Chiang Mai and Northern Thailand map. If you can recommend us other sights around Chiang Mai, and send along a photo as well, your name will go into a hat and you may be the lucky winner of an elephant dung notepad. Don’t miss it.

Longan harvest around Lamphun

I have never been a fan of longan, or lamyai, as it is called in Thai, but it is difficult to avoid the plant and the fruit altogether if you are in Chiang Mai these days. Market stalls are laden with bunches of the fruit, and the heavy, sweet, sticky smell clings to your nose.

One of my favourite roads is the narrow and winding riverside route from Chiang Mai to the south – lush, colourful, peaceful. If you look at the satellite map of the area on our Chiang Mai map, you can clearly make out millions of lamyai trees in neat rows. They bloom in February, and the fruits ripen in July and August. Lamyai is one of the most important cash crops of the region; 70% of the fruit is exported fresh, dried or canned.

The plantations surround picturesque little villages made up of a few wooden houses, there are no barbed wires, fences, mad dogs or men with guns protecting the crops. The trees are all groaning under the weight of the fruits, bending to the ground. Most of them are supported by thick wooden sticks. Extended families sit in the shade, there is no rush to get all the fruit picked today – men up in the trees, women sorting and packing fruit into sacks, children chasing dogs. It would be hard to go unnoticed. Less than an hour’s drive from Chiang Mai, it feels very remote. People smile, wave and shout hello, they try to show me the way to the main road, thinking I am lost. I am invited to take a bunch of fruit here and there, the sweet juice sticks on my hands. I wish I was more outgoing, or had friends around here, I would love to join in the fruit-picking, it reminds me of a century long gone, a time of coming together and sharing.

Once the fruits are picked, they are delivered to weighing and sorting stations that pop up everywhere – temple yards, markets, back yards. The prices seem to be the same at every one of them. It is worth stopping and contemplating them just for a second, comparing them to the prices you pay for your fruits in the supermarket – this is where they all come from. Noisy, ancient-looking contraptions sort the fruits into different baskets according to size.
Of course, the people are all laughing at me. If they had cameras, they would be taking pictures of this weird farang for sure.

Some good news: This year, the usual lamyai festival is scheduled to take place on August 6 in the Lamphun Sport Centre – in the world’s lamyai capital. I have never been, but I presume it is the usual OTOP fair, fruit contest, beauty contest, music and funfair. If you are around, it is a good time to take a dirt road instead of the main road, see it all happening in the plantations, buy the fruit, have some fun in the meantime.

Ramblings at Mae Sa waterfalls

A motorcycle trip to the Mae Sa waterfalls was the first daytrip we shared with my Thai boyfriend exactly eight years ago. I have been reluctant to return ever since.

Now that I eventually did, I am looking for familiar landmarks – a rock, a pool of water, a twisted branch, something that may remember me and my footprint, but everything seems new, unfamiliar, as if I have never been here.

I am sitting by a thundering waterfall, enjoying that it is louder than my rambling thoughts that never leave me alone. I am wondering if fish hear the water at all – or maybe for them, this roaring sound is silence itself – the only reality they know.

I take photos – hundreds of them. On the little screen, the falling water is motionless for a split second, giving the funny little illusion that I can escape impermanence. I press the button again and again in a vain attempt to stop the water from falling, to freeze it in mid-air, playing with the thought that it may even un-fall if I try hard. The water laughs at me and thunders on, and I laugh at the water, in the end.

The little stream flows, falls, thunders, sings, meanders on and on, for decades, centuries, millennia. The photos – imperfect, fragile memories of the moment, remain. I wish I could hold on to more. Just enough to fill my cup with.

Then I put my camera down and plunge into the water. Unexpectedly, time stops while everything is moving and I swim against the current. This is as close as I ever get to permanence.

I find out later that one of my kids from school was watching me from the bridge. “You are so funny”, she says. I wish I could remember….

If you would like to be down-to-earth…. Mae Sa waterfalls are not the picture perfect azure waters that you see all over Thailand. The falls are not especially tall or spectacular, the pools could be deeper or slower. It is simply a wonderful little piece of nature, ideal for relaxing in the shade for a few hours on a lazy weekend, or as a quick stop on the Samoeng loop. The walking trail is 1 km long along the stream, steep at times but quite nice and easy, manageable even without shoes as any Thai teenager will show you. There are well-placed viewpoints on the edge of the stream and at the top – waterfall number 10.

Mae Sa waterfalls are about 20 kms from Chiang Mai, 5 kms along the Mae Rim-Samoeng road. Tickets are 50 baht for foreigners, that is much better than the 200 baht they used to charge years ago. There is no parking outside, so you need to fork out a further 20 baht for your motorcycle or 50 baht for your car. Parking lot 3 is the closest to the waterfalls; however, if you would like to fully explore both banks, leave your vehicle at parking lot 1. There are shops selling souvenirs and food. The lower levels are popular with Thai families at the weekends. Shallow and deeper pools are suitable for swimming, just keep an open eye for the bilingual noticeboards telling you where not to swim.

I have posted more photos at the Chiang Mai Forum. This location is also marked on our Chiang Mai and Northern Thailand map.

Bhubing Palace: garden in the clouds

When my mother comes to visit Chiang Mai, she always asks me to take her to the Rose Garden first. She insists that she knows this enchanted place from a previous life and gets annoyed when I point out that Bhubing Palace (Phuphing Palace) wasn’t constructed until 1961.

Bhubing Palace is the winter residence of the royal family, which has also been used to welcome royal guests or heads of state from other countries. When none of the members of the royal family are in residence, the gardens are open for the public – the buildings remain closed at all times.

Situated at 1400 metres of altitude, the palace enjoys cool climate and lots of moisture all year round. Even when the entire mountain dries up in the worst of the March heat, the palace gardens are in full bloom, with the help of a reservoir that traps and conserves some of the abundant rainfall in the rainy season.

In each season, on every visit, the gardens surprise the visitors with different sparkling colours, new outbursts of grace and beauty.

In the rainy season, you can literally find yourself in the middle of a cloud rolling in and cooling off the air within seconds. This is also a splendid time for hundreds of orchids to shine in all colours of the rainbow.

Around Christmas, the Christmas flowers take over the scenery. In Europe, most often they only survive in pots, here on the upper slopes of Doi Suthep, they grow into huge trees and are a colourful and cheerful substitute for Christmas trees as we originally know them. (I am also trying to grow my own.) You may see them all along the upper reaches of the winding road leading up to the palace as well.

In the hot season, Bhubing Palace is nearest to the city if you are looking for a bit of shade and momentary relief from the stifling heat.

It is difficult to get the time right for the rose garden. For a start, they need special care at this climate. And, of course, their bloom is timed for the royal visits, when visitors are not allowed. We were fortunate enough to see the roses in bloom in November 2003, but at that time, I did not own a camera. On other occasions, it was not nearly that spectacular compared to that first magic, but still amazing for a tropical country.

The official website of Bhubing palace has wonderful photos of the rose garden.

Besides the most spectacular highlights, there are hidden treasures such as this tree, which is claimed to be the tallest bamboo in the country.

Bhubing Palace is 4 kms beyond Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep temple. Taxis collect people moving between the two sights. It is also easily accessible by motorcycle (100cc can carry two people up to both places) or by car. The garden is open every day from 8:30 to 4:30 (there is a lunch break for ticket sales). Tickets are 50 baht for foreigners, 20/10 for Thais. Respectful clothes are required: covering knees and shoulders. Loose trousers and shirts can be rented for a small fee. For elderly visitors or wheelchair users, golf carts are available for 300 baht per car, which can access most of the grounds. Outside the palace, small shops sell souvenirs and food, including hilltribe handicrafts, locally produced coffee, and in the cold season, fresh strawberries.

You can find more photos of the gardens at the Chiang Mai Forum. I have also marked the location for this attraction and other places in our Interactive Map of Northern Thailand.