Celebrate this winter at Chiang Rai, in the far north of Thailand
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When the rain stops, it is the time for the cool breezes to sweep in and let us know winter has replaced the rainy season. For a Bangkokian like me, a cool winter breeze is rare and rather short-lived, which makes it even more desirable. So, I have decided to taste the Thai cold weather this winter by heading north to Chiang Rai.

After a two-hour flight, I arrive at the small yet cozy Chiang Rai domestic airport, a one-storey, Lanna-style building decorated with “Toong”, impressionable long pieces of cloth, true to Lanna culture. The cool weather welcomes and refreshes me, making me eager to start my journey.

On the way to the far north of Thailand, I passed Mae Fah Luang District where the most beautiful university in Thailand is located. It would be a mistake to miss the chilliness and the exquisite flowers of Doi Toong, so I pull my car over among lines of tour buses and cars from all over the country, having the same goal as me to admire the natural grandeur of winter flowers in Doi Toong palace. I started my trip at the Princess Mother’s Commemorative Hall, situated in the front of Doi Toong Palace. Inside is an exhibition highlighting a number of royal activities including medical care in remote areas and sustainable development in Doi Toong to become an area of natural preservation and a plantation for better living. The place has become a famous tourist attraction.

After my heartfelt gratitude towards all the royal activities of the King’s mother, it’s time to be carried away by numerous species of winter flowers that have been grown in the area called “Mae Fah Luang Garden”. The 25-rai garden was created in 1992 and with only just a peek; anyone must be stunned by rows and rows of multicolored flowers, arranged and planted carefully for the most prestigious display.

Though the heat in the late morning is quite strong, the weather and the breeze make it much better for visitors. Flowers and plants in this garden have been carefully grown to match the seasons. At the center of the garden lies the centerpiece sculpture called “Continuity”. Take a closer look and you will see statues of children, one on the back of another smiling up to the sky. The sculpture represents the hopes and dreams of children. I cannot begin to tell you the names of all the flowers here and it is not really my expertise, but the way each species of flowers are arranged to contrast the colors really amazed me, like a bee lured by the sharp beauty and the sweet aroma of flowers. My biggest impression has to be the exotic-looking and delicate orchids that come in many shapes and colors. Apart from flowers, there are also areas dedicated to aquatic plants, lotuses, palms, standing timbers, and climbers. Time flies fast in this garden and I did not want to miss the chance to get some pictures from a birds-eye view, so I climbed up the view tent with spiral bamboo stairs to take some pictures that will continue to stay with me for a very long time.

The last part of the site is the palace of the King’s mother, a two-storey wooden building that was simply and practically built on the shoulder of the hill and provided a sublime view of the valley. Many have said that the palace is a mixture between local Lanna and Swiss architectural styles, since the surroundings of the palace may lead anyone standing there to mistake the place to be in the Swiss Alps. Before leaving Doi Toong, I went to pay respects to the unmistakable Doi Toong Buddha’s relics. Then the wheels turn again to the next destination in the same district, Doi Mae Salong.

Doi Mae Salong, was in the past an area severely affected by the cultivation of opium, and armed troops were a common sight. The region is now developed to be a Chinese tea and three-leaf pine plantation. The hill tribe opium growers have since been given Thai nationality and have disarmed. Doi Mae Salong is now one of the major tea plantations in the country and attracts many tourists throughout the year.

What I see from afar on my way to Doi Mae Salong is Srinakharinsatit Maha Santikiri Buddha’s relics. The name is derived from the King’s mother and is the new name of the mountain, which means the mountain of peace. The Buddha relics sit atop of the mountain, and tea plantations can be seen all the way up and down the hill, just like stairs carpeted with green moss.
However, after a period driving alone, something along the road strikes me. Trees with lively pink flowers, like Japanese spring sakura, that blossom triumphantly line the road without any single green leaf to be seen. I am told later that they are a kind of local plants formally called “nang paya sue krong”, which bear much resemblance to the Japanese sakura, only they bloom in winter. I just wish there could be a festival that people can enjoy this flowering beauty as I have.

I drive on passed the Thai - Myanmar border in Mae Sai District to my destination at Sob Ruak’s Golden Triangle. The name Sob Ruak originated from where the Ruak River from the Thai - Myanmar border meets the Kong River from Thai - Laos border, and makes it a shared economic triangle of the three countries. Formerly the biggest opium plantation in the world, I can only see today a quiet scene of rivers and tourists, some of who are cruising along the Kong River or paying respects to Phra Chiangsaen See Paendin, a gigantic golden Buddha statue situated near the riverbank. Small kids wearing traditional hill tribe outfits take a stroll around for visitors to take photos with under the sign of the place. Photos that will one day prove they all have come here, or remind them the name of the place they have visited.

As I watch the sky burn bright orange and the sun set behind the Kong River at the Golden Triangle, the water that flows from here from country to country and makes me think of how just a river can separate the culture, the language, and the life of a group of people to be completely different. I hope they feel happy about the north wind the same way I do.

After a night at Kong riverbank, I return to my last destination of the trip. Since I have made up my mind to taste the core of the chill of a Thai winter, my last destination can be no other place but the hilltop. I remember climbing Poo Kradueng in Loei Province when I was young to witness the sea of fog, and now I wanted to experience Poo Cheefah in Chiang Rai for the first time. On my way, I take stops here and there at Chiang Rai’s beautiful temples, especially Ajarn Chalermchai’s Rong Koon temple, an all- white temple so glorious and exclusive it gleams brightly in the sunlight. This holy place was inspired by the love of nation, religion, and the monarchy of the creator, and he works everything down to even the smallest detail in the toilet!

I absorb the delicacy of the temple for a while then in the evening leave for my accommodation at the foot of Poo Cheefah. I wake up at four to save my spot for the sunrise view, only to find myself among a huge number of people who are more ambitious to see the sunrise than I am. Everybody dresses as if they are camping in the Himalayan Mountains; wool hats, scarves, and gloves. I search for the right place the stand and finally have myself a perfect little spot.

While I was waiting with my gear for the best sunrise photo, the temperature was below 10 degrees Celsius. I was so chilly I had to take frequent sips of my hot coffee. I looked around to see other people, as sleepy, cold, and exhausted as I was, with lights of hope to see something extraordinary once the sun appeared.

The sun rises at a little after five. Waves of fog, one after another, moved closer into the valley like a sea of mist surrounding small islands of hilltops here and there. Then the scarlet light of the first sun chimed in over the misty sea, depicting an image gorgeous beyond any description. I noticed people around me smiling, holding hands, taking pictures, or posing to have their pictures taken. The amount of happiness radiated from them and this indescribable beauty in front of me tell me my trip here is worth everything.