Eager to escape Thailand’s tropical climes, even if only for a short while, many Thais head to Europe in winter, happily donning their thick coats and woolly hats.
Those with a smaller budget or who don’t want to sit long hours on the plane can instead opt for Chiang Rai, the kingdom’s northernmost province and embrace cool weather along with Lanna culture and history. In fact, this year is the perfect time to visit as the provincial capital is celebrating its 750th anniversary.
Naming the city after himself, King Meng Rai founded Chiang Rai in 1262 and made it the first capital of the Lanna Kingdom before building Chiang Mai and making it the new capital city 34 years later.
Back then, the Lanna Kingdom, or the land of the million rice fields, covered what is now modern northern Thailand, with the exception of Phrae – which was under Sukhothai – and Phayao and Nan – which were under the Kingdom of Payao. However, King Ngam Meuang of Payao, King Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai and King Meng Rai had sworn an oath of eternal friendship so the northern kingdoms co-existed peacefully.
Dynastic struggles weakened the kingdom and Lanna became a Burmese tributary state in 1558, remaining that way until 1775, when King Taksin the Great of Thonburi reclaimed it for Siam. Chiang Rai was proclaimed a province during the reign of King Rama VI in 1910.
We pay homage to King Meng Rai at King Meng Rai Monument in the heart of the city before heading for a light lunch at Chivit Thamma Da Coffee House. Chivit Thamma Da means simple life but the white-painted coffeehouse has so much charm that it takes our breath away.
Sitting on the banks on the Kok River, the English-style café adds a European flair to the small town. The scents of rosemary, lavender and strawberries draw us out of the sunroom to the open air terrace where we enjoy a delicious meal of salad, pasta, cake and tea.
Our hunger satisfied, we move to Rai Boonrawd, 8,000-rai of tea plantations and orchards owned by the Singha Corporation. We ride in an open sided tour bus around the property, as the guide tells us how at first only barley was grown but that cultivation has now expanded to include vegetables, jujube fruit and strawberries.
“We also cultivate Oolong tea, mainly for export to Taiwan,” he says.
The scenic view of the setting sun over the tea plantation is mesmerising but the weather is getting chilly and our fingers are starting to get numb.
A night in Chiang Rai is not complete without a visit to the night market and a glimpse of the light and sound show, which is held from 7 to 9pm at the new clock tower.
The next day we visit Wat Phra Kaew, originally called Wat Pa Yeah or Wat Pa Yah, in honour of the dense yellow bamboo grove that surrounded it. The temple is where the Emerald Buddha was discovered in 1434. When lightening struck the temple’s original octagonal pagoda, it also cracked open the mud plaster covering the Buddha statue, revealing a shiny greenish stone underneath. When the plaster cover was removed, the monks discovered the jade Buddha image inside. The temple was called Wat Phra Kaew in honour of the Buddha statue. During the conflicts between kingdoms, the statue was moved to Lampang, Chiang Rai and Vientiane before finally being enshrined in Bangkok’s Wat Phra Kaew in the Royal Palace during the reign of King Rama I.
Our next stop is Doi Tung, about an hour’s drive from the city centre and we are greeted by the blaze of colour. All the flowers in the Mae Fah Luang garden, it seems, are in full bloom. The latest addition to this Royal project is the “Hall of Inspiration”, formerly known as the Princess Mother’s Commemorative Hall, which has been completed renovated. It covers the story of the Mahidol family, from His Royal Highness Prince Mahidol, Her Royal Highness Princess Srinagarindra the Princess Mother, Her Royal Highness Princess Galyani Vadhana, His Majesty King Ananda Mahidol and His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Each exhibition shows the character, philosophies and working principles of the Royal Family and their work in finding ways to improve the lives and livelihoods of the Thai people.
“The Princess Mother would like her children to be healthy and good. She let them play and create their own toys. Father also wants you to be healthy and good, my son,” says a Chinese tourist, busily translates part of the exhibition for his young son. Seeing the boy smile up at his dad, I realise that inspiration has no boundaries and really is contagious.
The writer Chusri Ngamprasert travelled as a guest of Nok Air and Le Meridien Chiang Rai