Rai Mae Fah Luang
Visitors to Chiang Rai may notice a proliferation of the name ‘Mae Fah Luang’ when they travel about the province. This is in reference to the King’s Mother. The name means literally ‘Royal Mother from the Sky’.
There is, of course, a reason for this. The Queen Mother was very active in the Chiang Rai area when she was alive, travelling about by helicopter, distributing gifts and help for the numerous hill tribes of the area. The slopes of Doi Tung bear witness to this, as well as the summit, where her summer palace and royal gardens act as one of the top tourist draws of the north.
One of the less-travelled areas in Chiang Rai which also bears her name is Rai Mae Fah Luang, a stretch of parkland just west of the main city.
My wife and I travelled there recently to check out the environs and were drawn in by its beauty, and its eclectic mix of building, garden, and woodland. We spent over an hour strolling the grounds, finding a number of peaceful shaded areas in which to relax and contemplate the bright afternoon.
Rai Mae Fah Luang was first established in 1977, and was originally intended as the Chiang Rai office for the Mae Fah Luang Foundation, as well as living quarters for the Remote Area Student Program, which brought hill tribe children into the city to study. In time, Rai Mae Fah Luang became a venue for cultural events and a centre for cultural preservation. The Foundation has been expanding the facilities for exhibition, developing a botanical park, and installing a new performing arts centre.
During our walk, we saw many Lanna-topped tiled rooflines, but opted out of the extra fee for an inside look. There is a most interesting collection of artwork, including snake-like sculptures in the midst of one strand of trees, brickwork, and of course, a statue of HRH the Princess Mother herself.
Rai Mae Fah Luang is a botanist's dream world, and a seemingly small army of workers drift about pruning, cleaning, and cutting. There is a large pond in the centre of the park, and at one end, a windswept collection of trees that reminded me of a giant's Bonsai garden.
In all, the colour, the peacefulness, and the landscaping efforts of Rai Mae Fah Luang make it worth an afternoon’s travel for those who love natural beauty and quieter forms of entertainment.
Ten Reasons to live in Chiang Rai
I sometimes fall into reverie (usually as I hop on my mountain bike and head into the dirt roads, forests, and hills behind of my house) at what a wonderful place Chiang Rai is to live. I’ve lived in Nakhon Si Thammarat in the deep south, and Mae Hong Son in the far north, and now, after a year here, I feel every bit at home in the Lanna Kingdom. In this spirit, and with due apologies to David Letterman, I offer the following ten reasons why Chiang Rai is one of the top places to live in Thailand.
1. Clean Air and Good Weather – you know that awful overpowering odour you wake up to as you pull into Bangkok early in the morning on the train? There's none of that up here. We don’t even have the traffic fumes of the Chiang Mai moat loop. Oxygen, oxygen, oxygen. And the freshness of the temperature - in December, it actually gets too cold to drive a motorcycle around anytime before 11 a.m.
2. Best Border Province – Where else can you look at both Laos and Myanmar? Answer: Only Chiang Rai. I love border areas, and Chiang Rai is as border as you can get. There’s a weird energy to a border area, an edginess, a mix of language and hodgepodge of culture. The far northern town of Mae Sai is the epitome of all that – a grimy yet consistently interesting marketplace-cum-visa run epicentre, cum Shan-Burmese-Thai free-for-all.
3. Best Mountain Village – Mae Salong is the biggest Chinese-Thai village of them all, and it can be a pain to get to, but the winding ride through the mountains is worth it. It’s the little piece of Yunnan on top of Chiang Rai. When I can, I go up for long periods at a time (usually during the off-season), walk the winding roads of town, find a place to drink tea, and watch the clouds roll by. The view from the temple overlooking the town is unbelievable.
4. The Slow Pace of Development – When the Thai economy crashed in 1997, it took a long time to pick up the pieces. In Chiang Rai, you can still see the pieces all around (usually in the form of undeveloped building lots and condo units). Chiang Rai is developing now, but it's taking its sweet time to do it. It will be years before it even approaches Chiang Mai.
5. Cultural Mix – While Northern Thai still dominates as a culture and language, there’s enough of a cultural mix about the province (see the border province comments above). Akha and Hmong vegetable sellers in the downtown market, Shan noodle stands, Chinese boat crews in Chiang Saen, missionaries on bicycles, and Burmese “tanaka” powdered women in the Mae Sai market stalls all add up to one of the best cultural mixes in Thailand.
6. Hidden Artists – Chiang Rai’s charms have attracted a number of artistic types, who all remain relatively hidden in the forests – potters, painters, sculptors, and others. There is an emerging “arts” scene in town, not to mention an art gallery, coffee pubs, and sporadic cultural affairs. Plus, Tongchai McIntyre supposedly has a house up here. Up in the far north, artists have a place to stretch out their arms and find their space.
7. Mekong River – I’ve always loved the Mekong River and the towns that have sprouted up along it. The town of Chiang Khong is one of my favourites, with its long concrete river walk and numerous riverside cafes. From Chiang Khong, you can hop a boat to the other side and head into Laos, or you can just sit and relax and stare at the river. Loy Krathong is especially beautiful along the river, better I think than the Chao Phraya or Sukhothai.
8. Hall of Opium – This museum is easily among the top three in Thailand, the others being in Kanchanaburi (Hellfire Pass) and Ayutthaya (Ayutthaya Historical Study Centre). By the time it gets fully operational, it will probably be THE best. It is a fully interactional display of the darker edges of history, culture, art, and society. Of special note: the entrance tunnel whose walls are lined with Dickensian opium-ravaged figures.
9. Accessibility – There is an airport that can fly you to either Bangkok or Chiang Mai and the VIP buses can take you to Chiang Mai in only three hours time. When you have to get to somewhere, the outside world is reachable. It’s not like living in the much more secluded Mae Hong Son, where plane flights are cancelled because of smoke or heavy rain and bus rides stretch into never-ending.
10. It’s New – There’s an unpolished feel to Chiang Rai, a sense that there’s still much to discover up here, and that interesting things are going to happen. From Chiang Rai, you can head into Nan or Phayao, along any of the other relatively less-travelled roads of the far north. With a car, the whole province opens up to you.