CHIANGRAI TIMES – Valentine’s Day falls next Tuesday but if you can’t take the day off work, try escaping up to Chiang Rai with your sweetheart for a romantic weekend this month and making the most of the cool breezes before summer rolls round.
The Northern Province is at its very best this time of year with magnificent sunrises and sunsets and Himalayan cherry trees in full bloom. You can stay in town and spend the days visiting some of the area’s lesser known attractions.
About 30 minutes from downtown Chiang Rai is Boonrawd Farm, a new weekend hangout that’s become popular with local families and tourists. Owned by Singha Corporation, the 8,600-rai farm was established in 1983 to grow jujube fruits but today also cultivates other crops that thrive in the cold weather.
It’s also home to a magnificent garden full of with colourful flowers and bottle gourds, 50 rai of barley fields, a 600-rai tea plantation, a 30-rai Japanese rice field, strawberry and cherry tomato plantations and 2,600-rai of rubber trees.
There’s a restaurant perched on the hill serving succulent steaks and local dishes made from tealeaves.
Not too far away is Doi Chang, home to the Chiang Rai Highland Agricultural Research Centre and known throughout Thailand for quality Arabica coffee. Located in Mae Suai district about 1,700 metres above sea level, the coffee plantations, about 20,000 rai of them, stretch out over several villages.
The centre was set up in 1985 to educate local Hilltribes how to grow and turn these precious beans into premium coffee, as well as to cultivate macadamia nuts. It’s also home to the temple forest of Phra Buddha Uthayan, where visitors can pay respect to Buddha images and learn about the rural lifestyle. Lovers can renew their vows while watching the sun set over Doi Chang village below or cuddle up in a tent on Doi Kad Phi then greet the sun as it rises slowly over the mountains and hovers over a sea of mist.
Another spot for a romantic rendezvous is Ban Lorcha in Mae Chan district, home to 64 Akha families and which has been receiving visitors since 2001. Supported by the Population and Community Development Association, it offers a fascinating a 1.2-kilometre walking tour of the village, which is led by local guides who explain their culture, beliefs and lifestyle.
The tour includes 10 stops, among them a ghost gate adorned with wooden carved figures and a bamboo dancing show that typically celebrates the Akha New Year. The Akha house is a must-see, a simple windowless hut with a partition separating the sleeping quarters of the men and women and with a living room where the head of household boils the water for tea.
Those who want to feed their passion should stop at Doi Mae Salong, a charming resort that’s full of Chinese restaurants serving typically Yunnanese dishes and home to several boutique resorts too. It’s famous for its terraced oolong tea plantations and much of its produce is exported to China and Taiwan.
Many of the residents are descendants of the anti-communist Kuomintang (KMT) forces who were granted citizenship in return for policing the area against communist infiltration. Their history can be traced at The Chinese Martyr’s Memorial Museum.
No visit to Chiang Rai is complete with a stop at the Mae Fah Luang Arboretum at Doi Chang Moob, once one of Thailand’s biggest opium plantations in the old days. In 1992, the Princess Mother turned the 250-rai into a beautiful garden growing plants, vegetables and rare species of flowers such as rhododendron, camellia and azalea.
From there, it’s a breathtaking climb up to the viewpoint on Pha Tang but the stunning scenery of Mekong River and the landscape of Thailand and Laos are well worth the hike. You can carry on climbing to the peak to enjoy the sunset or flag down a local guide and beg a ride on horseback.
For a final breath of truly fresh air, climb up to the top of Phu Chi Fah to catch the sunrise and declare your love in the morning mist. Then head back to Chiang Rai and meditate for a while at Cherntawan Meditation Centre, a dharma centre that’s run by popular monk V. Vajiramedhi. It offers classes and courses for Thais and foreigners and also educates local farmers about organic agriculture.