Category Archives: Chiang Rai

Mae Fah Luang Gardens on Doi Tung

Nestled in the hills of Doi Tung in Chiang Rai Province, is a little slice of Switzerland. It can be found at Doi Tung Royal Villa which was the home of the late HRH Princess Mother whenever she visited Chiang Rai. The King’s mother lived in Switzerland while her children were completing their education. It was said to be a very happy period in her life. When she came to build a home on Doi Tung, she insisted on it being built in a style that combined the things that she liked about mountain homes in both Europe and Northern Thailand.

The Royal Villa was opened officially in November 1988. Today both the grounds and the villa are open to the public. You can join guided tours but make sure that you are not wearing shorts and that your shoulders are covered. You can borrow clothes at the front gate. You are allowed to take pictures in the garden, where there are some spectacular views, but you are not allowed to do so inside the villa. HRH private quarters have been left exactly as it was when she was last here.

HRH The Princess Mother used the villa as a base whenever she came to oversee the work on the Doi Tung Development Project. In the past, hill tribes in this area grew rice and opium here. They used slash and burn cultivation techniques and also cut down the forests. Sixteen years later, following the advice of HRH, poppy has been eradicated and replaced by coffee and macadamia nuts. Reforestation has also been very successful which has greatly improved the environment.

The first place we visited on our arrival on Doi Tung was the Hall of Inspiration. This tells the story of the Mahidol family. The fascinating exhibition covers three generations. On the slopes near here are the Mae Fah Luang Gardens which are very popular with Thai tourists. Numerous flowers and plants grow around the gardens. There is also a Rock Garden, Water Garden, Palm Garden and an Ornamental Plant Garden covering an area of 4 hectares. On another part of the mountain there is also Mae Fah Luang Arboretum which you can visit.

Like other Royal Projects, the price of admission for foreign tourists and Thai people is the same. The Royal Villa is 70 Baht, Mae Fah Luang Garden is 80 Baht, Hall of Inspiration is 50 Baht and the Mae Fah Luang Arboretum is 50 Baht. A combined ticket for the first three places is 160 Baht. For all four places it is 190 Baht. While you are there, it is also worth visiting the nearby Wat Phra That Doi Tung Temple. This is an important Lanna style temple dating back to 911 A.D. It is believed to contain a collarbone of the Buddha.

The White Temple in Chiang Rai

One of the most beautiful temples in Thailand, done in a modern contemporary style, is undoubtedly Wat Rong Khun. This temple, which is in Chiang Rai in Northern Thailand, is more well-known among foreigners as The White Temple. I recently went back for my second visit and was surprised to see that work was still continuing.

The temple is located in Ban Rong Khun, about 13 kilometres south-west of Chiang Rai city along Phahonyothin Road. It is the brainchild of Thai artist Chaloemchai Khositphiphat who started building it back in 1998.In an interview, he said that “maybe in 60 to 90 years after my death will the projected be completed”.

Chaloemchai Khositphiphat, in his lifetime has become a great Contemporary Thai artist that is admired by many people. He has not only revitalized an interest in the ancient Thai murals found in temples, but he has at the same time produce his only unique style. Most obvious is the choice of white for the temple while others are golden. He said that he believes that gold is only suitable for people who lust for evil deeds.

The attention to detail in the temple is remarkable and you do need to spend some time here studying the beautiful artwork. To reach the temple you have to cross a bridge over a pit of hell. Down below there are sculptures of people who are presumably trying to escape from hell. Inside the temple is a beautiful coloured mural of the Buddha. If you take a close look at the devil you will see small portraits of Bin Laden and George Bush in the Devil’s eyes. Also on the murals I spotted the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and also the creature from Alien.

One of the new buildings since my last visit is this Golden Toilet which is probably the most beautiful rest room in Thailand. Surprisingly it is also free, the same as for entry to the White Temple. Though obviously donations are welcome as up-keep of all the buildings is never-ending. You can buy reproductions of Chaloemchai’s impressive artwork in the souvenir shop. The White Temple is open daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Map showing location of Wat Rong Khun (The White Temple):

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Mae Sai Border Town

Thailand’s Northern-most district is Mae Sai in Chiang Rai Province. It is about 60 kilometers north of the provincial capital and has easy access along the main highway. The most notable landmark is this tall building which houses the Thai immigration. It is easy to find as there is basically only one road in Mae Sai. On the other side of the building is a bridge that crosses the river that acts as a natural border between Thailand and Myanmar. These people are in a kind of no-mans-land. They have already passed through Burmese Immigration and are on their way into Thailand.

I have been to Mae Sai a couple of times and each time it has been as a day trip from Chiang Rai which is only 90 minutes away on the main highway. If you don’t have your own transport you can easily come here by one of the frequent buses. There isn’t a lot to do in Mae Sai other than shopping. There are a number of market stalls both down the main road and also on the side streets. I think the prices on the smaller roads are probably better. However, they all seem to be selling the same things such as tea, dried fruit, handicraft, jewellery and electronic goods.

It is possible for you to cross the bridge into the Burmese border town of Tachileik. However, the border is sometimes temporarily closed if there is trouble along the volatile border. If you want to cross and already have a Thai visa, then make sure that you get a re-entry permit. This costs 1,000 baht which is why I didn’t cross on my recent trip. On the Burmese side you have to pay 500 Baht or $10. They will keep your passport while you explore the town. If you don’t have a Thai visa when you come back they will stamp 15 days in your passport for free.

It is possible to use Mae Sai as a base while you explore this region. There are number of reasonably priced hotels here. From Mae Sai there is easy access to the mountains of Doi Tung and the Mae Fah Luang Gardens, the Golden Triangle along the Maeklong River and also the historical ruins of Chiang Saen. From your hotel you can arrange one day tours if you don’t have your own transport. It is also possible to go on boat tours along the Maeklong. Despite border troubles at times, Mae Sai town itself is safe for tourists. A few days after I was here, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck less than 100 kms north of the town damaging some old buildings and killing one woman. Fortunately this doesn’t happen often.

Map showing location of Mae Sai in Chiang Rai Province:

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Doi Mae Salong in Chiang Rai

There is a remote community in the mountains of Northern Thailand that is home to hilltribe villages, tea plantations and the so-called “lost army” of the Republic of China Army’s 93rd Division. It is called Santikhiri (Hill of Peace) though most people still refer to this town by its old name of Mae Salong. It is a popular destination for both Thai and foreign tourists who come to enjoy the cool mountain air, relax in one of the many tea shops and also to learn about the rich and varied culture of the groups that live here.

Doi Mae Salong 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. This is the tomb of General Tuan Shi-wen who was the most important person of the Chinese settlement. The KMT originally moved to Burma’s Shan State but they were eventually pushed towards Thailand. In 1961 Tuan led 4,000 of his troops to Mae Salong.

Today there aren’t too many people left of the original army though their descendents remain. We felt lucky to be able to meet up with General Lue Ye-tien, who was Tuan’s right-hand man. He is a very active 94 year old who still remembers the march to Thailand and the subsequent battles. The troubles for the KMT weren’t over once they reached Thailand. The Thai authorities agreed for them to stay if they in return helped fight the communist insurgents.

They fought many battles in the region with the bloodiest campaign being launched in December 1970 and lasting five years. Over 1,000 people lost their lives in this conflict. The final battle was in Phetchaburi Province in 1981. Finally, in 1982 these soldiers were able to retire and return to a normal life in Mae Salong. In gratitude to their help in putting down the Communists, the Thai government gave them all citizenship. The Chinese Martyr’s Memorial Museum has many pictures and a lot of information about the Chinese community here and the battles that the KMT fought.

On one of the hills overlooking Mae Salong is this beautiful pagoda called Srinakarin Sathit Maha Santakhiri. It was completed in 1996 and dedicated to H.M. The King’s late Mother who had such an important influence over the lives of the hilltribes in this area. The pagoda is built in Lanna style and is about 30 meters high. There are four Buddha images, one on each side facing the four points of the compass. You can come up here by car or walk the 700 steps from Wat Santakhiri. There are some wonderful views from the pagoda. It is apparently a great place to view the sunrise.

I first visited Mae Salong about five years ago when I drove along the scenic mountain roads from Chiang Mai. This time I came from Chiang Rai which is more convenient. As it is a good road many people just come for the day though it is worth staying overnight if not longer. I am told that even in the height of summer, during April, the mountains remain cool at night and that there are only 3-4 days when both day and night are hot. Mae Salong is popular for Thai people who come in December just so that they can experience freezing weather. Although we had good views on this trip in March, when I last came in April 2006 we couldn’t see much due to a combination of mist and smog from burning crops.

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. I have never drunk so many different varieties of tea in my life. I ended up buying several packets of tea as well as some beautifully designed tea mugs that had strainers and a lid. I also bought some of the dried fruit. During our trip we also visited a tea factory which I will tell you about later.

Map showing location of Doi Mae Salong in Chiang Rai Province, Northern Thailand.

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The Original Wat Phra Kaew

Wat phra kaew

If you ask anyone about the temple Wat Phra Kaew (otherwise known in English as The Temple of the Emerald Buddha), they will surely tell you that they have been there. Wat Phra Kaew is definately on the Top 5 sites to visit in Bangkok along with the Grand Palace. However, not so many people know about another Wat Phra Kaew which is regarded as the original. You can find this Lanna style temple in the relatively sleepy town of Chiang Rai in Northern Thailand. I was there recently and I want to tell you about the beautiful Emerald Buddha image and the temple where it was found. Over the years the Buddha image has travelled far but the story started here in Chiang Rai.

Wat Phra Kaew

The Emerald Buddha (it is actually made of jade) was believed to have been hidden in the chedi of Wat Pa Yia (Bamboo Forest Temple) by King Mahabhrom in 1392 A.D. In the year 1434 A.D., a lightning bolt hit the chedi revealing the image. The people called this Buddha image Phra Kaew Morakot and the temple name was consequently changed to Wat Phra Kaew. The Emerald Buddha stayed in pride of place here for 45 years before being taken to Chiang Mai. However, the elephant refused to go all the way and the image was enshrined in a temple in Lampang for 32 years. Then in 1468, it finally moved to Chiang Mai where it stayed for 85 years at Wat Chedi Luang. In 1553, it was captured and taken to Laos where it remained for 225 years.  The Thais, under King Taksin, retrieved the sacred image and brought it to the capital in Thonburi and then finally to its present location in Bangkok in 1778. A replica of the Emerald Buddha was made and can now be seen in Chiang Rai.

Wat Phra Kaew