Over The Hills - And Not So Far Away !
For visitors taking an independent tour, a definite MUST is to tour around the north of northern Thailand. The following suggestions are particularly suitable for those who have taken a car or motorcycle rental and want to spend three or four days exploring the mountains and beautiful scenery to the north and west of Chiang Rai.
The first option of touring from Chiang Rai is to the Thai/Myanmar (Burma) border town of Mae Sai. It is about 40 minutes drive north, on an excellent road, through the district of Mae Chan (Jaan). Sharply crested mountains are to the left and, as you pass through Mae Chan, see if you can spot the "Sleeping Lady" mountain (the profile of a lady reclining on he back). Mae Sai is the northern most point of Thailand and the main street is lined with vendors selling all sorts of produce -- from brass hammers, to dried mushrooms and figs and bargain electronic goods. Most of the goods are brought from China through Burma. If you wish to cross the border into Burma (one day visit only), make sure the frontier is open by checking with Immigration authorities in Chiang Rai or Chiangmai prior to going to Mae Sai.
Another good choice for a drive is to Doi Tung (Dtoong) -- again north of Chiang Rai with a well-signed Doi Tung turnoff on your left. Of all the Thai Royal Family, the late Princess Mother (the mother of H.M. King Bhumibol) has a special place in the hearts of all northern people. During her generous life, she did a lot of good for the area and it is at Doi Tung where the Princess Mother decided to live during her latter years. The Royal Villa and Gardens are open to the public. The Villa is reminiscent of a Swiss Chalet and enjoys magnificent views over the surrounding mountaintops. The Mae Fah Luang Gardens are a landscaped delight which abound with high altitude, Temperate Zone plants and flowers. Streams meander here and there and fountains play in the formal garden area. The Princess Mother blessed this area with her foresight so it is a wonderful, cool place to visit as well as being a gardener's and photographer's paradise.
A third tour choice is to Doi Mae Salong (north of Chiang Rai again well sign posted to the left) and the village which was established by the remnants of the Chinese Nationalists (the KMT). After fleeing Mao Tse Tung's forces, they settled on Doi Mae Salong where they now enjoy their own unique life-style. The road to Mae Salong is switch-backed and through rugged scenery. As you near the village, plantations of Oolong Tea fall away from the road-topped ridge. Teashops are aplenty in the village main street and there are several modest hotels and guesthouses. A temple and accommodation resort complex dominates the height overlooking the village. If you decide to overnight in Mae Salong, then it is worthwhile continuing the journey, next day, to Thatorn. The road surface is good and the drive spectacular along picturesque mountain ridges.
Thatorn is a small township on the River (Mae Nam) Kok and had several restful guesthouses right on the river. It is also noted for trekking opportunities and River Rafting, from the small waterfront area, back to Chiang Rai. This is excitingly different for those who have arrived in Thatorn by public bus and want to return to Chiang Rai by an alternate means, however, car drivers may wish to continue to Fang and the road south to Doi Angkhang and the Chiang Dao Caves.
A side trip to H.M. King Bhumibol's Royal Project Gardens, at Doi Angkhang, is recommended (turn right at the well signed marker south of Fang). Thirty years ago, the high slopes of Doi Angkhang were covered by opium poppies -- until His Majesty decided this was not good either for the Hilltribe cultivators or his Thai subjects. It is a steep, tight drive to Doi Angkhang (excellent road) which now hosts the most amazing profusion of temperate-zone flowers, plants and fruits. Formal gardens are beautifully terraced over the landscape and the commercial market gardens produce such fruit as peaches, plums and kiwi. There is a most enjoyable Thai style restaurant and, should you wish to enjoy the invigorating mountain air for a day or two, a hill-resort which is managed by the Amari Hotel Group.
Finally, before returning to Chiangmai, proceed through the village of Chiang Dao with the towering bulk of the mountain to your right. There are a series of limestone caves within Chiang Dao mountain (watch for the signpost to the right) where one may hire a guide (with pressure lamp) to lead the way. There is also a temple and a multitude of free-swimming fish which enjoy the cool waters of the river emerging from the mountain. Visitors need not go into the caves if they don't wish but they are always welcome to feed the fish!
Return to Chiangmai after a truly interesting tour which suggests overnight stops at Chiang Rai, Mae Salong, and Thatorn. You will have seen some of north Thailand's most spectacular scenery -- so drive carefully and do enjoy!
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