We weren’t able to do much sightseeing for the first 1.5 days of the media trip in Thailand as time was mostly on the road or in the air, from Singapore to Koh Samui to Chiang Mai & finally to Chiang Rai. Hence I was happy that we would finally be exploring the real Chiang Rai, out of the city & to the countryside on our third day, to the Mae Fa Luang district (แม่ฟ้าหลวง). 🙂 Also spelt as Mae Fah Luang, it is a hilly district located in the northern part of the province popular with both local & foreign tourists. So of course that was a must-visit for us!
The Akha and Lahu hill tribes are the main residents in Mae Fa Luang who used to make a living through opium production. The district is very close to the infamous Golden Triangle, which used to be known for its mass production of opium. But thanks to the late Princess Mother, it has since been redeveloped & transformed into a fertile forest to grow a variety of crops such as coffee & macadamia, so that the locals can work on the land for sustainable livelihood.
For more information about the development project in Mae Fa Luang, do read my Trip101 article: Mae Fa Luang, Chiang Rai: Cool Sights All In A Day For A Good Cause.
The drive to our first destination of the day – Doi Tung in Mae Fa Luang from the city took slightly over an hour. As Doi Tung is a mountain over 1,300 m above sea level, the weather was cooler than in the city. There are 4 attractions to check out at Doi Tung, & we would be checking out the Mae Fa Luang Garden, Tree Top Walk & Royal Villa. Depending on individual preference, you can either pay 200 THB (~S$8.30) to visit all 4 attractions (including Hall of Inspiration which is free admission for all) or pay for individual admission of 90 THB (~S$3.75) each.
We made our way down the winding stairs to the beautiful temperate garden after our tour guide bought our tickets. Along the way, we could see plenty of tall green trees & vegetation planted by the side.
As we approached the Mae Fa Luang Garden, we became fascinated with the beautiful sight of the colourful flowers in the botanical garden. So I shall let the photos do the talking. 😉
At first, we were supposed to go for the thrilling Tree Top Walk first before admiring the beautiful garden. But everyone was too mesmerized by the picturesque sight ahead such that we didn’t follow the tour guide. So she gave up & decided to give us time to admire & smell the flowers. But I almost missed this awesome landscaped garden (photo below) with a great variety of pretty flowers!
Being the latest addition to the Doi Tung Development Project, Doi Tung Tree Top Walk was officially only launched in August 2016. Before embarking on the 295-metre long walk, we had to attend a safety briefing as well as wear a safety harness secured around the legs & hip. During the briefing, a professional instructor guided us how to hook the cable on the safety harness to the suspension bridges.
Soon, we were on our way to an exciting tree top hike through the dense forest of the Mae Fah Luang Garden at 30 m above ground! For those with a fear for heights, trust me, it’s not as fearful as you may think. See below for a collage of the fun we had. 🙂
We completed the walk after around 20 min. Doi Tung Royal Villa, a 5-min walk up the slopes of the mountain, was our next stop. It used to be the former residence of the late Princess Mother Srinagarindra, mother of 2 former Thai kings, who stayed in the villa so that she could work on the Doi Tung Development Project. The view atop the mountain outside the villa was so refreshingly picturesque! No wonder Princess Mother (aka Heavenly Royal Mother) chose this site as her residence, to relive her Switzerland days.
While the Lanna-Swiss style architecture does not boast elaborate decor, it evokes elegance & reflects the humble nature of the late Princess Mother. Even the interiors were simple, with just the bare necessities. Too bad photo-taking was not permitted in the villa. Furthermore, we also had to remove our footwear before entering the villa, put it into a plastic bag provided at the entrance & carry it along as we toured the residence. From the photos hung up in the villa, we could see that the Heavenly Royal Mother’s favourite colour was red, as she was always in red in the photos. The only more elaborate decor inside the villa was hand-crafted wood ornaments on the ceiling, which represented her favourite constellations.
After the villa tour, it was time for lunch, where we drove to the neighbouring Mae Chan district, to dine at Cabbages & Condoms (C&C) restaurant, run by an established non-government funded welfare organisation. The restaurant name may sound peculiar but it was created for a great cause. Established to promote family planning & HIV/AIDS prevention in Thailand, C&C was conceived because the founder hoped that condoms would be as easily available as cabbages, which could be found everywhere in the country, so as to reduce the overwhelming population growth back in the 1970s. There are also many more C&C branches sprawled across Thailand such as in Bangkok. Great cause to support I guess, but the quality of the food was just average (oops!). 😛 See my photos below of the restaurant as well as the food we ate. 😉
Thereafter, we returned to the car to continue on the road for about half an hour, before reaching a popular new attraction in Chiang Rai – Choui Fong Tea Plantation. As the province’s largest tea manufacturer, Choui Fong is famous for its high-quality tea. The tea estate spans over a 400-acre highland above 1,200 metres above sea level. There is a chic tea shop cum cafe at its highest level, for visitors to sample the various types of tea produced in the estate, as well as to chillax with aromatic tea & fine pastries, while taking in breathtaking views of the sprawling tea fields.
There were a lot of visitors at Choui Fong Tea Plantation, mostly locals, all “fighting” with one another to take the best shots for keepsake. I wished we could stay here longer, but we still had 1 more stop to proceed to before we returned to the city. It was another hour’s drive meandering through the hilly winding roads to a small tourist market at Doi Mae Salong, The long journey through expansive tea fields on both sides of the road was beautiful though. As we ascended further up into the mountain, I started seeing several shops & guest houses with Chinese wordings.
The reason behind all the Chinese shop names is because most of Doi Mae Salong dwellers are descendants of the anti-communist Kuomintang (KMT) forces who moved through Myanmar from Yunnan, China, & finally settled in the area after the Chinese Civil War ended in 1949. Thus, it is a charming little village with a unique blend of Thai-Chinese culture. Despite being a small tourist market, it was lined with stalls manned by the hill tribes, selling quirky handicraft souvenirs & local produce. The tribal people, especially the kids, were quite persistent in asking us to give them money, citing reasons such as no money to study etc, even following us all the way to our car. I didn’t feel too comfortable with all the pleas, especially because I was sitting near to the door. 😦 Fortunately, everyone ignored their pleas & shortly after, we left the tourist market.
Other than the slight discomfort felt due to the persistent pleas from the villagers, it was quite a pleasant visit at this rustic village. At least, this was where we enjoyed the coolest temperature for the entire trip haha. Not sure why it felt colder than earlier in the day when the mountain was actually not as high as Doi Tung. Perhaps because it wasn’t as crowded & we only visited in the late afternoon, when the sun was setting? 😛
It was a long day travelling through the hilly district in northern part of Chiang Rai. Nonetheless, it was still an enjoyable day out for heavenly scenery, refreshing air, as well as understand more about the unique Lanna culture. I would certainly recommend anyone who is planning a Chiang Rai trip to add the cool Mae Fa Luang to your itinerary!