After initially doubting her decision to holiday in Chiang Rai, Sukanya Ramanujan returns convinced she made the right choice
From royal villas to hill tribe settlements, tea plantations to temples, waterfalls streaming down hills to languorous rivers flowing through the city, Chiang Rai really has it all. However the impression I get as the aircraft touches down on the runway at Mae Fahlung airport is quite under whelming and I wonder if I may have made a mistake in visiting a city that is often considered to be much better than its more popular neighbour Chiang Mai. At the airport I meet my guide, Wooth, and we head directly to the Mae Kok River and embark on an hour long journey aboard a long tail boat. Despite the loud boat engine, I manage to enjoy myself — the weather is cool without being chilly and the river is flanked on either side by land in resplendent shades of green. It quite reminds me of Kerala and I ask if there are elephants in the wild. As if on cue we stop near a village inhabited by the Karen tribe. Ruammit village has a famous elephant camp and we set off on a two hour trek atop an elephant to meet the Lahu hill tribe. I am excited as I have never been on an elephant back for more than 10 minutes, but 20 seconds after we set off I am wondering for the second time if I may have made a mistake. I am being thrown around in the seat and between managing my camera (protecting the lens from smashing against the protective railing) and hanging on to my bag, I want to just stop and walk. However it does not last long. As soon as we hit the hillside the elephant slows down and the journey is not so bumpy anymore. What none of us (including the mahout himself) realise is that we have landed up with a temperamental 30-year-old elephant who has no intention of going up the hill. All he seems to want is to munch on some of the bamboo leaves and admire the scenery (for that is very beautiful). The mahout tries the usual leg kick command to make the elephant move forward but the elephant instantly makes his displeasure known by violently flapping his ears, slapping the mahout's legs. We finally reach Lahu village and I soak up the views from the top of the hill. The locals seem unconcerned by tourists visiting, and their farm animals running all over the place seem to pay even less attention. Wooth explains to me that there are many hill tribes in the area, the six major ones are the Yao, Lahu, Akha, Hmong, Lisu and Karen. There is also a hill tribe museum and education centre in Chiang Rai city.
An hour’s trek downhill from the village brings us to the Huay Mae Sai waterfall. The pool at the bottom of the waterfall is shallow and the adventurous tourists choose to swim there. As for me, my long flights and lack of sleep are beginning to tell on me and I'm just about waiting to get to my room and retire for the day. We end the day with a meal that comprises a local delicacy made from sticky rice and coconut milk cooked in hollow bamboo trunks. I don't think I've ever tasted anything more delicious but then I have been hungry for a while now.
The second day begins with us taking to the mountains again. This time to visit the tea plantations in Doe Mae Salong, a small Chinese village on the hills. We stop at one of the local shops and are treated to a tea tasting session. I am no connoisseur of tea but at the end even I step out with a bag filled with different varieties, including the prize-winning Oolong 12 which is native to Taiwan and has been cultivated by people who have migrated here. We also stop at a local market where the Akha hill tribe women are selling everything right from local produce to trinkets. I get cornered by a wizened old lady who insists I buy a few bracelets from her. When I do so, she is elated and gives me a big hug.
No visit to Chiang Rai can ever be complete without a visit to the Royal Villa and the gardens at Doi Tung. The magnificent landscaped gardens are filled with varieties of flowers and plants. One can easily spend hours there admiring the vistas. The Royal Villa close-by used to be the residence of the King’s mother. It is a lovely structure tucked away in the mountains and adapted in design from a Swiss chalet. One of the highlights of the villa is the ceiling of the living room. The King’s mother apparently loved astronomy and instead of using chandeliers to decorate the room, the entire ceiling is covered with lights representing planets and stars in constellation, in the same position that they were at the moment of her birth.
My last stop at Chiang Rai is the Wat Rong Khun, popularly known as the White Temple. From a distance the entire temple looks like a carved filigree structure in silver. On closer inspection I see numerous mirrors fixed on to the facade of the temple that adds a white glimmer to it. It is a fairly modern structure having been built only 16 years ago. The imagery it creates of heaven and hell with ferocious wardens and gateways is quite impressive but Wooth doesn’t think much of it. “It's all cement,” he says. Just before heading back to the airport Wooth takes me to a vegetarian restaurant and I'm treated to an impressive array of dishes from Lanna cuisine. It is spicy and I love it. To top it off I'm served chilled coconut water as dessert. A wonderful meal to complete a wonderful trip. Contented by the meal and memories, I head to the airport for my flight back home.