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Tucked away in the far-north of Thailand, Chiang Rai is emerging as the next destination to check out almost by accident.

You could say Chiang Rai enjoys obscurity. For the casual visitors it presents a baffling puzzle; just what do you do after you have seen its colour-coded temples?

But to others that’s the real charm; you chill-out enjoy doing next to nothing and thoroughly enjoy the experience.

Retirees discover its calm, the absence of traffic gridlock, its lower-cost of living and the chance to immerse in a genuine Thai lifestyle, while soaking up nature’s breathtaking landscapes.

But life in Chiang Rai might be about to shift up a gear after the media spotlight shone on the dramatic and miraculous rescue of 12 young soccer players and their coach, who were stranded in the province’s Tham Luang Cave for 18 days, late June to early July.

Overnight, the entire world became acutely aware of Chiang Rai. In the past, it was often confused with the more prosperous Chiang Mai, 180 km to the south, much to the chagrin of its residents. Not anymore.

The rescue that extracted the young soccer players and their coach from Tham Luang cave tipped the balance. There’s tons of awareness out there now that will ultimately change the face of Chiang Rai’s tourism for better or worse.

It’s an important 180 km that separates the two ‘Chiangs’. On one side of the mountains a bustling Chiang Mai struggles with the pressing need to build a second airport. On the other side, Chiang Rai has no such cares, except for an unfolding plan to build a motorway between the two provincial capitals. Once completed over the next five to eight years it could lop an hour off the three-hour bus or car journey.Today, the two-lane highway follows a meandering route over two mountain ranges interspersed by a wide fertile valley of rice fields and orchards.  Around 70% of all the foreign tourists visiting Chiang Rai will take this road to “do” Chiang Rai in a day of sightseeing. They will ramble around the province in tour buses and commuter vans seeing as many as eight attractions.

Just 12 km south of Chiang Rai the tour buses stop at the iconic Wat Rong Khun, popularly known as the “white temple” and possibly the most photographed religious artwork in the country.

Wat Rung Khun (White Temple)

The day-tour continues with a visit to the more recent addition known as the “Blue Temple”, or Wat Rong Seua Ten, that opened in 2016. Its blue and gold persona has quickly turned it into a tourist attraction just a few hundred metres from the town’s riverbank.

Wat Rong Seua Ten (Blue Temple)

Located just one narrow lane from the popular Chivit Thammada restaurant, the temple is a convenient stop on the tour route to Baan Dam  (black house) an art collection in a 100-rai park, 3 km off the main highway to Mae Chan.

Chivit Thamada

Baan Dam (Black House)

From ‘Baan Dam’ the ramble continues north to visit tea and coffee plantations before heading to Mae Sai’s shopping bazaar on the border with Tachilek town in Myanmar.

All this and more is accomplished from sunrise to sunset concluding with the explorers seated for dinner in their Chiang Mai hotel where they with some justification conclude; “Chiang Rai done and dusted.”

But the recent flood of publicity and the media spotlight on Chiang Rai is likely to encourage the notion that this far-north province is worth more than just a day’s Facebook check-in.

While 80% of all the visitors who stay overnight in the province are Thai holidaymakers, the next big chunk of overnight travel comes from China.

“We have seen a change over the last few years,” says the owner of Chivit Thammada restaurant, Joakim Holmberg. “Let’s say the Chinese are now a lifesaver.”

Yes, the majority still travel from Chiang Mai where most of China’s charter flights land, but there has been a shift to a younger set of travellers, who have more cash to spend. They book accommodation in Chiang Rai for one or two nights.

Holmberg runs the town’s high-end English country house-style restaurant on the north bank of the Mae Nam Kok river, right in the heart of town.  During the current rainy season, around 100 Chinese a week book lunch at the restaurant, usually during weekdays.

The set-lunch, heavy on popular Thai dishes, doesn’t come cheap, but it’s the venue that draws visitors.  They have a perfect postcard setting for a selfie to share on a social media channel.

These Chinese millennials mainly stay in mid-scale town hotels close to the night bazaar and clock tower.  At the weekends, Holmberg reckons as many as 20 Hong Kong Chinese visit the restaurant for lunch or dinner. They fly in on Hong Kong Express, a low-cost airline that serves Chiang Rai on Friday and Monday.

“The direct flight gives us business that we never had before and it’s literally a lifesaver in the low-season… They fly a low-cost airline, but they spend on a good meal and enjoy the ambience.”

It scotches the notion that Chinese tourists spend very little outside of the tour package pre-purchased in China.

And it gives Chiang Rai’s tourism industry a glimmer of hope that even though most of China’s airlines will continue to favour Chiang Mai, they are winging in a new genre of tourists ready to strike out and explore beyond the typical Chiang Rai day-trip.

Holmberg would like to see SilkAir fly a direct service from Singapore. He looks at Taiwan and says there is huge potential to tap up-market travellers, while he reckons a charter flight from Seoul, Korea, would work.

It still leaves us with the riddle that while Chiang Rai soaks up media attention in the wake of the cave rescue, visitors still have work hard to connect with genuine travel experiences.

Art tours

When 50 local artists spent nearly a week to paint a gigantic mural dedicated to the cave rescue we caught a glimpse of an active community that represents the essence of Chiang Rai life and Lanna culture.

Its legendary artist Chalermchai, creator of Wat Rong Khun and the town’s famed tower clock with it hourly musical chimes, will craft a memorial to the rescue epic at the entrance of Tham Luang Cave over the next few months.

Another national artist, the late Thawan Duchanee, created an impressive array of house exhibits that make up Baan Dam, now curated by his son.

But there are many other renowned artists resident in Chiang Rai, who are members of closely knit social communities. There is even an association, solely for female artists, that claims up to 100 members. But how do travellers with a genuine passion for art connect with them? An art lover’s travel experience would soar if they could meet resident artists in their studios.

The town’s Art Bridge Gallery where the mural “Heroes of Tham Luang was painted would make a great starting point, but beyond the handful of galleries in Chiang Rai town reaching out to the province’s artists is not an easy task.

That could change as locally registered Knowledge Media Group plans to launch specialised art tours with visits to studios and one-on-one meetings with artists.

Knowledge Media Group’s managing director, Jaffee Yee, is compiling a new category of art tours for an October launch. It will tap encounters with local experts in the art field.

“Chiang Rai is rich in art and culture and should be recognised as a City of Lanna Art… my art tours will connect art travellers with local artists in their studios creating a valuable exchange of ideas led by local art experts.”

Most of the studios are scattered around the province in small villages and communities requiring considerable research and “fixer” skills to connect the dots.

Best known for his travel books and magazines, Yee says he will test drive similar art tours for art lovers in neighbouring Myanmar ahead of the launch in Chiang Rai.

Cycle tours

Cyclists have similar demands to connect with local enthusiasts. They might be drawn to trail rides over difficult skill-stretching terrain, or the smooth tarmac scene of country lanes and leisurely stops at roadside coffee shops. But the trick is to tap local wisdom and connect with cycling communities to unlock the routes and logistics.

Chiang Rai abounds in cycle tour opportunities, either day rides from a single hotel-base, or multiple-day jaunts with overnight stops at different destinations.

Chiang Rai is home to various ‘cycle teams or clubs’ who communicate on Facebook or Line, but for visiting cyclists it could take days or weeks to make the connection.

Sportive or competitive events are organised most months with attendance fuelled by Facebook or Line posts. The challenge is tracking them in time to book flights, hotels, while negotiating registration that is usually limited to Thai language forms can be a challenge.

Once you have made contact races and sportive events offer great ride routes, well-organised competitions and an opportunity to measure performance with age-group peers.

If the you fancy the slower pace of leisurely rides around the city then the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s Chiang Rai office has a cycle specific map highlighting six routes following the Mae Kok river, or in surrounding districts that visit most of the city’s popular sightseeing spots on quiet lanes.

The most practical way to enjoy Chiang Rai’s cycling routes is to stay close to the river in downtown Chiang Rai. This give you the option to cycle on country lanes that hug the river up-stream to the hot springs where you cross a river bridge to the opposite bank and return via Ruammit Elephant Village to town. The 60km roundtrip over undulating hills is one of the most picturesque rides in the province.

Singha Park on the outskirts of town has its own cycle lane around part of the extensive parkland, tea plantation and orchards.  This is an ideal spot for cycling families who have young children. The best time to visit is the late afternoon.  A cycle hire depot near the park’s zipline (THB 300 for a 50 second flight) and Barn House pizza restaurant hires out bikes and tandems. Many of them are fitted out with kid chairs.  A fun family ride to the park’s mini zoo follows a dedicated cycle path that passes orchards with great views of the parkland. The cycle depot is open from 0800 to 1900. Bike are rented out at THB150 per hour.

There are no cycle tour specific tour companies based in Chiang Rai, where you could hire a bike and buy into a guided cycle tour of the province. That market is left to Bangkok-based cycle tour companies that offer tours across Thailand and to neighbouring countries.

But as Chiang Rai asserts itself as an art and lifestyle destination where a curated travel experience matters more than sightseeing, a specialist cycle hire and tour specialists could be just around the corner.

Soul searching

Beyond the cycle paths, the travel experience could touch on meditation, yoga classes or a serious introduction to Buddhist teachings. Chiang Rai Buddhist Meditation Group meets at Chiang Rai Buddhist College, a branch of Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University every Tuesday at 0930.
Email: [email protected]

Sessions are in English and serious Buddhists on holiday, or visitors interested in learning more about Buddhism are welcome. Led by Buddhist scholar and priest, Phra Kru Suthee, who is also the dean and professor of the town’s Buddhist college, the weekly sessions attract between seven to 20 people mostly long-stay expatriates.

Yoga classes are popular in Chiang Rai with sessions at various locations including Condotel in the centre of town (daily except Sunday 0830, 1730 and 1830 THB100 per session). There are active yoga clubs that welcome visitors in Ban Du, next to Chiang Rai Rajabhat University, just north of town and in Mae Sai a border town facing Myanmar.

Museflower Retreat and Spa, located on highway 1152 near the Nong Luang lake 12 km east of Chiang Rai town, opened in 2014 as an up-market resort offering inclusive healthy holidays. It majors on vegetarian meals, meditation, yoga and Tai Chi. The minimum nightly rate is around THB 2,160 for comfortable accommodation that gained an overall rating of 8.5 from Its signature features are a saltwater pool heated by solar power, a striking hexagonal meditation pavilion and an organic farm that supplies the kitchen.

Staple sightseeing diet

Wat Rong Khun
Designed by national artist and native of Chiang Rai, Chalermchai Kositpipat, construction on what is now the iconic White Temple started in 1997. The entire complex is an enthralling fusion of religious sanctuary, museum and art gallery.

The national artist has invested THB40 million of his own funds on the project including a restoration after the 2014 earthquake that damaged some buildings and toppled a chapel spire.

His vision is to turn the complex into a place of Buddhist learning and meditation. In the meantime it has evolved into the must-see attraction for first-time visitors to Chiang Rai the complex is packed with tourists who commute from Chiang Mai for the day. Best time to visit: Dawn or dusk to miss the tour groups. Entrance for foreigners is THB50. Located 12 km south of Chiang Rai town.

Baan Dam Museum
A complex of 40 black timber homes was built by national artist, the late Thawan Duchanee (1939 to 2014), over a period of 40 years. He was an incredibly talented recluse who lived in one of the houses on the 100-rai site, until his death in 2014. Baan Dam Museum (Black House) is the antithesis of the White Temple a tapestry reflecting the “darkness of man.” Black, gold and red were the three signature colours of the master painter. These striking contrasts permeate the collection of houses, sculptures, animal skins and bones and relics. Located in the village of Nang Lae 12 km north of Chiang Rai town entrance THB80.

Wat Rong Suea Ten
Commonly known as ‘Blue Temple’ it opened in 2016, although its origin dates back to 1996 when villagers embarked on a mission to raise funds to build a place of worship. The actual work commenced in 2005 and along the way an artist who studied under national artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat, of White Temple fame completed the exterior and interior designs.

Work continues following its official opening in January 2016, but it has quickly caught the imagination of visitors who flock to its courtyard to take photos and worship.  Although it is referred to as Blue Temple in Thai it retains its original name, “Dancing Tiger Temple”. Entrance is free and photographs of the chapel’s interior are allowed.

By Don Ross TTRweekly