The charms of Chiang Rai

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Visits to temples, shamans and hill tribes, combined with nature trails and long tail boat rides
make this trip special

For a solo traveller, arriving in a city as compact and welcoming as Chiang Rai in northern Thailand provides the comforting reassurance of being able to relax and enjoy the journey that lies ahead. At the airport I was met by my driver wielding a large sign that read ‘Mr Petra and party’, ready to bear me for the short drive to The Legend, a beautiful resort with rooms scattered in a tropical garden setting.  I was ushered into the open air dining room with views of the sunset over the Kok River. My vegetable curry was delicious. Northern Thai cuisine is distinctive and full of flavour, based more on rich curries than the lighter, Chinese-influenced food of central Thailand.
While I have visited Thailand many times, I wanted to return to Chiang Rai, the smaller quieter sister city to Chiang Mai, with rugged peaks, limestone cliffs, lush mountainous forests, hill-tribes and the mighty Mekong River, all nearby.
Located 785 kilometres north of Bangkok, Chiang Rai lies near the Golden Triangle, where Burma, Laos and Thailand converge. Founded by King Mengrai in 1262, it was the capital of Mengrai’s Lanna Kingdom for only 34 years before being superseded by Chiang Mai and was subsequently conquered by Burma, remaining under Burmese rule for several hundred years.
Later I walked to the renowned night market that sells handicraft items made by hill tribes. A block-long, it is arranged around a stage where traditional Thai music and dance is performed.
After a restful sleep in my four poster bed, I set off early the next morning, heading for the fresh produce market. With well maintained footpaths and helpful street signage, Chiang Rai is ideal for exploring on foot. After recharging at a cafe selling locally grown organic coffee, I visited many of the temples to be found at every turn that can be enjoyed in quiet solitude.
Buddhist temples like Wat Doi Chom Thong on the outskirts of town possess a humble elegance, decorated with simple hard-carved wood sculptures and painstakingly assembled mosaics. Perhaps one of the most beautiful temples in Thailand is Wat Phra Kaew, the city’s most revered, set in a beautiful garden that dates from the 13th century with several fine bronze Buddha statues.
I was then met by my driver Air, for the 90-minute journey north to Lanjia Lodge at Kiew Kuan village, past coffee and tea plantations, rice fields and mountainous forests along a narrow road.
“But where are the other guests?” I inquired on arrival. “Today only you! After lunch would you care for a guided tour to nearby villages to visit the Sharman?” was the response. And so it was that I was told by the Sharman or spiritual healer, that my life would be a long one, with the caveat that the reading can change every fifteen days.
Until then, I had not visited a traditional Hmong Village, where neat timber homes are built upon the earth, the men wear black jackets and baggy indigo trousers, the women are adorned with embroidered jackets, their long black hair tied back.  Thailand’s second largest ethnic minority, the Hmong originally came from southern China. I was then shown how to make batik based on traditional decorative patterns.
The neighbouring village is Lahu, who originally came from Tibet, their homes high up on the hillside. Some women seated together were amused by my hiking shoes, and several curious children trudged along behind us.
The next morning I woke to the triumphant crowing of a rooster before enjoying a pot of freshly brewed organic Arabica coffee, toast, fruit and a banana muffin. With my guides Sawneng, a Hmong from the village and Ton, I visited an organic tea plantation. The Oolong green tea was refreshing.  We then hiked uphill to a waterfall listening to the forest full of birdsong. On reaching the waterfall, we were surrounded by a high canopy of trees.
After lunch, much of it from the lodge’s own vegetable garden, I asked what activities I could do for the afternoon. When rest was suggested, I asked if I could go on a long tail boat ride!
The most memorable part of this journey was slicing through the water towards Chiang Khong, near the shoreline of Laos. Chiang Khong is a pleasant settlement with internet cafes, shops and guesthouses along the main street. It is from here that travellers enter Laos to catch a slow boat to Luang Prabang.
On my last night at the lodge, I enjoyed a relaxing traditional Thai massage, another highlight of my stay, and reflected on how special my visit here had been. The next morning as I left, I drove past a village stall selling hill tribe clothing. At that moment, the young girl who had taught me how to make batik recognised me and waved goodbye, her parting smile genuine.
There is magic in the tropical sunset when shades of pink, gold and purple fill the sky. It was while at Lanjia Lodge, while seated on comfy cushions in the open lounge, that I was transfixed by the brilliance of changing colours as the sun receded behind the Mekong River below, and I realised that I was in an altogether special place.
Chiang Rai
Getting there Thai Airways International flies to Bangkok with helpful ground staff waiting to whisk you to the gate for your short connecting flight to Chiang Rai making the journey effortless.
Getting around Taxis are inexpensive. The Green Bus line is recommended. Or hire a car and driver, email: luangsay_maekhong@hotmail.com  The Chiang Rai Visitors Information Centre has maps and helpful staff.
Where to stay The Legend Chiang Rai Boutique River Resort and Spa is a short walk from the city centre. Rooms are beautifully appointed, with a lovely garden setting by the Kok river. Tel: 66 0 53 910 400 Email: info@thelegend-chiangrai.com website: www.thelegend-chiangrai.com There are many budget options catering for backpackers with rooms for around $5 per night. Lanjia Lodge is a great example of sustainable low impact tourism by minimising waste and energy consumption and supporting projects including tree planting. Forming partnerships with surrounding villages has provided employment and training opportunities, and encouraging guests to learn about the culture of the hill tribes aids their preservation. Meals and a range of activities including guided village visits and a massage are included in the tariff. Email: info@asian-oasis.com www.asian-oasis.com

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