Located on a plain beneath the outermost edge of the Himalayan range is Chiang Rai, capital of the province of the same name and until recently one of Thailand’s best kept secrets.
Without the slick presentation of big sister Chiang Mai, 180 Kl. to the south, Chiang Rai is a pleasing town with much less traffic, wide, clean streets and few skyscrapers. Here in the heart of the slow-paced province, the market-place and temple are the hub of the community, as they have been for centuries.
This is the part of Thailand that to date has attracted few long term visitors yet it is arguably Thailand’s most undervalued region. A province of mountains and rivers, you’ll find yourself everywhere either on a river or in the hills or mountains that form one continuous rippling green chain across the northern border with Laos and Myanmar. It offers the most accessible base from which to venture into these countries and it is within easy reach of the Golden Triangle, that magnificent and tranquil setting where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet on the Mekong river, and where the S.E. Asian drug trade was spawned in the poppy fields of the area.
The essence of Chiang Rai is its untouched environment and breathtaking scenery, understated and soft hued, like a Chinese brush painting. Towering mountains and craggy limestone peaks loom out of the soft, opalescent, morning mists, elephants haul teak on river banks, and families drift up and down the rivers on their bamboo rafts which are transport, house and working stations.
Most western visitors come here to visit the hill tribes, among which the Lisu, Akha, Karen and Yao who live in settlements of thatched huts in the mountains, are the best known. Home to thirteen different hill tribes who migrated from various parts of South China and North and Central Burma, there is a wealth of ethnic cultures in this small area.
It is a vexing question as to whether the visitor to the hill tribes is an agent of destruction or preservation. Exposure to outside influences has certainly altered the lives of the hill-tribes and many now expect payment for being photographed, an action that is viewed by some as a step towards the destruction of their culture. An alternative view is that the money earned gives the hill tribes an enhanced view of their culture and the interest shown in this aspect of their life helps to preserve this.
The province wants to show off its many delights and is seriously out to attract visitors. Most of its attractions are cultural and natural, so they are looking for a more ecologically aware kind of tourist, one who will appreciate the natural beauty of the area and its shy but friendly people. Indeed, the people are one of the greatest assets of the area with a gentle innocence and a uniquely northern curiosity about the visitor.
From Chiang Rai one can take a boat ride up the river to the village of Rammit, home to the Karen tribe. Because of the dense jungle that stretches for miles the elephant is the only animal capable of working here, and the Karen have become excellent elephant trainers and handlers. The journey takes about 40 minutes and a good time to arrive is midday when the elephants have finished morning work and turn the river into their playground and bathtub.
In these hills also, you’ll find Doi Mae Salong, where the descendants of the soldiers of the 93rd Division of the Kuomintang now live, combatants who made the long journey from China after the civil war. It is a long winding road with wooden one-story shop houses on either side selling food, sweets (bite carefully into the most appealing looking, some are positively foul) and Chinese medicines. Snakes bottled in Brandy, spiders in oil, scorpions in wine are all popular buys with the locals but most of the Chinese descendants tend tea and coffee plantations, orchards and vegetable. gardens.
With little effort, you can imagine you’ve wandered back into an older age. Layer upon layer of mountain ridges drift in and out among the clouds from your vantage point in the village which is set on a slight incline in the mountain side. Rich green farmland runs down into narrow valleys and mountain people laden with heavy loads can be seen trekking up and down the paths. There is little noise apart from the sighing of the wind in the bamboos and the soft boom from the bronze bell in the temple.
In recent memory, the opium poppy was the only cash crop grown in the high mountains at over 1000 metres where the temperature was very suitable for its cultivation but strenuous efforts by the Thai government and various NGOs have weaned the hill tribes from their reliance on this and nowadays crops like soya and sago have taken their place. This alteration to a way of life unchanged for centuries has placed pressures on the different cultures and is causing change. Apart from the poppy, there are no more forests to which they can move, no more trees to chop down and burn, and no patches of plants and herbs for medicine and food.
M0st accept a settled existence and tourism is playing an increasingly important role in ensuring this for their eventual survival. Inevitably, tribes will diminish or vanish, but they have adapted before and can adapt again. Anything that can raise them from the grinding poverty of their daily lives can be construed as destructive only by the most perverse of eco-tourists.
There are many small hotels and inexpensive guesthouses in the hills, especially in the border area of Mae Sai, but don’t expect western food. Horses and mules can be rented for distant journeys and local people serve as guides. The hill tribes ignore borders, cheerfully crossing and re-crossing the border between Thailand and Myanmar and, some say, occasionally venturing back home to China.
So when thinking of the cool mountains of Thailand, think Chiang Rai rather than Chiang Mai, a town which is, in most people’s minds, merely a northern version of Bangkok.