In a country where flags can be seen flying wherever you look it is appropriate to find a mountain, in the very north of Chiangrai province, that is named after one. Anyone who has driven from Chiangrai to Mae Sai cannot have failed to have noticed the impressive mountains that rise steeply from the valley floor to their left forming a natural barrier between Thailand and neighbouring Myanmar. Along this razor-like ridge we find Doi Tung (pronounced "Doi Dtoong"), which at 1322m is not the highest mountain in the area, that honour goes to Doi Chaang Moob, but it is worth a visit for the drive alone and to see the gardens of Mae Fah Luang and the temple of Wat Pra Thart Doi Tung at its summit which the people of Chiangrai province, and others from further afield, regard as the most sacred of all their shrines.
Doi Tung can be approached along a well maintained road off of Highway 110, about 30km north of Chiangrai city and near the village of Ban Huay Khrai. Alternatively, for the more adventurous, leave Mae Sai on Highway 110, and after about 5km you will find a small side road to your right posted in the direction of the Akha village of Baan Phamee. The road is little more than a single track climbing very steeply through a series of hairpin bends so make sure your vehicle is up to the job. This area was once troubled by the conflict between the hilltribes and the Kuomintang over the control of the opium trade but this is all in the past now. The main ethnic groupings that can be found on Doi Tung include Akha (Ekaw), Lahu (Mussur), Lhisu (Lisaw) and Yao (Mien), with the Akha and Lahu being the most predominant. The road continues to climb passing several Akha and Lahu villages that can be visited. Unfortunately, you will be very lucky to find more than a couple of older ladies still wearing the traditional costume of their people, with the modern norm seeming to be Levi jeans and Manchester United football shirts!! The road passes a turn off to Doi Chaang Moob which alledgedly offers views on a clear day as far as the mountain of Loi Pangnao in China.
The Princess Mother, the mother of King Bhumibol Adulyadaj, made Doi Tung her out of town home due to its pleasant climate and beauty. She died in 1995 and now her home, Pra Tamnak Doi Tung, or the Doi Tung Royal Villa, and beautiful gardens may be visited. She became known Mae Fha Luang, the great mother of mankind, and this is the name given to the gardens today. Due to the temperate climate here flowers not usually found in Thailand flourish in a collection of ornamental gardens including a rock garden, a fountain, a palm garden, an ornamental plant section and a handicraft centre that make a lovely spot for a visit. The Princess Mother's Project, that was launched to help ease the tensions associated with the opium trade, has had great success here and has also contributed to changing the farming methods away from the slash-and-burn traditions of the hilltribes to more acceptable cash crops such as coffee.
Continue to follow the well posted signs and you will know that you are approaching Wat Pra Thart Doi Tung when, amongst the trees to your left, you will spot a varied collection of statues and carvings in a dark, damp, sheltered glade. This strange mixture of offerings have been left by previous visitors to the wat in order to earn merit and have accumulated to what are now vast numbers over the passing years. A few minutes before you reach the temple a naga guarded stairway appears in front of you. If you are feeling fit you can leave your vehicle here and walk the remaining distance; its not far. The stairway leads to a pathway lined on both sides by an assortment of bells. When you reach the bells you will see a donation box and a mallet so, if you wish, you can sound the bells as you pass to earn merit. Alternatively you can drive straight into the temple's courtyard.
There is much work underway here at the moment and who is to say what things will look like in a years time so now may be a good time to visit. Once at the wat the viharn itself is not particularly impressive and it is other features that make this a place of pilgrammage. The twin Lanna style chedis, currently almost hidden behind scaffolding, were erected in year 911 to house relics of the Lord Buddha, the left collarbone to be precise. Upon their completion King Achutaraj of Yonok /Ngern Yaang decreed that a flag should be flown from the summit as a sign. This flag was said to have been 2km in length and gave the mountain and the temple the name we know them by today; ‘Tung' being northern Thai for flag. Near to the chedis is a small walled enclosure that surrounds a rocky hole in the ground which is where the flagpole is said to have stood. It is also possible to earn merit here by tossing a coin or two into the bellybutton of the ‘happy' Chinese style Buddha although on the day I visited he was draped in a saffron robe obscuring the target from view. The temple was previously renovated by the famous Chiangmai monk, Khru Ba Sriwichai, at the turn of the 20th century.
If ‘its just another wat' springs to mind then at least enjoy the wonderful views towards Laos and Myanmar that may be had from walking around the temple courtyard and peering between the screen of trees.
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