Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Chiang Rai Days

What to do without visiting a wat

Chiang Rai is a fairly unprepossessing town in northeast Thailand. Most tourists who visit are there for a day or two while passing through to Laos, and may visit some of the historic wats, take a trip or two out of town to somewhere like the White Temple, and visit the Night Bazaar in the evening. Few people spend a week or more. This is a shame because Chiang Rai is a very friendly town and a pretty good place to explore normal northern Thai life away from the main sights and activities. If you do want to spend more time here are some ideas for things to do, places to see, from longtail boat trips and walking market shopping expeditions to coffee and classical music. This complements my reviews of Chiang Rai wats and the Night Bazaar.

There is a TAT Tourist Office in town. It has free maps and some useful info on places to go too. There is also a quarterly free English-language Chiang Rai magazine with some ideas for places to visit in and outside town as well as useful maps.

Take a Longtail boat
With the dusky Mae Kok river running through Chiang Rai, it is a good point to take a trip or tour on a longtail boat to see the forested hills sweep by. They can be chartered from the pier near to the bridge past the Bamboo Wat. Prices depend on distance and bargaining charm. You can go upstream to Ban Ruamit Elephant camp, My Dream at Khaew Waaw Dam village and Tha Ton or downstream as far as Chiang Mai.

Sniff the flowers
Host of Purple Orchids
Orchids in 2009

Chiang Rai hosts a colourful flower show every January on the enthusiastically named Chiang Rai beach. Its worth going for the extensive displays of orchids alone. You can catch one of the many longtails ferrying passengers between the pier and the beach for about 20B a person one way.

Tell the time
Counting Out 2008
Clock tower counting down to new year 2009

The artist who designed the White Temple also donated a new clocktower to Chiang Rai. He felt the old one was a bit shoddy and that Chiang Rai needed a new tourist sight. It is a gold tower in his flamboyant neo-Thai style. Not only does it tell the time but it also displays its own mini light-show on the hour at 6pm, 7pm and 8pm. It is near to the local produce market, to where the old clock has been relocated, at the junction of thanons Suksathit, Phahonyothin, Jet Yot and Banphrakan.

Drink tea, do coffee

Panja Bakeshop

Chiang Rai has lots of great little, independent café-cum-bakeries dotted throughout town. Each serves Chinese and black teas, coffee and home-baked cakes. There are plenty to choose from by strolling around town. Here are three of my favourites. Panja Bakeshop is a very friendly Thai-Chinese café on Th Suksathit between the produce market and the clocktower. It is great for small Chinese-style savoury or sweet pastries. You can also say hello to Elvis the fish. BaanChivitMai is a Swedish-run place near to the old bus station in the centre of town. It has delicious cakes and a vast range of 5B cookies as well as internet. All profits go to local charity work. Doi Chaang is the café of one of the local premium coffee estates. An air-con ground floor room and a first floor balcony surround two side of an atrium full of plants cascading around a naturalistic fountain. It is just north of the Night Bazaar on Th Ratanaket.

Listen to classical music
Chiang Rai Youth Orchestra 1
Orchestral manoeuvres in Doi Chaang

Doi Chaang hosts free chamber concerts by the Chiang Rai Youth Orchestra. They are currently weekly on Sunday afternoons. The atrium fills with young violinists, cellists and a worker of the double bass playing a range of light classical classics. The orchestra leader is a very dedicated music teacher.

Read a book
There are two secondhand bookshops in town where you can buy and part-exchange paperbacks. Gare Garon is near the bus station, while the cheaper Orn’s Bookshop is just past Wat Jet Yot. Orn’s is the eponymous shop of a very friendly German ex-pat.

Walk to the shops

Walking Market food market

Every Saturday night Th Thanalai is closed to traffic and converted into the Walking Market, a very long market boasting plenty of stalls selling local handicrafts, clothes and food. One adjoining square is given-over to a large food market with stalls selling a range of meals and snacks. Music and dance performances are scattered along its length. The market competes well with the Chiang Rai Sunday Walking Market for atmosphere and range of stalls, while surpassing its more famous twin on food. It begins about 4pm and gets pretty crowded by 8pm, before closing about 10pm. It is a great place to browse and buy gifts, eat some great food and join in with Thais doing one of their favourite leisure activities – shopping combined with eating.

Do lunch

Rimkok pool

Most of the upmarket resorts in and around town put on sumptuous and extensive buffet lunches. You can enjoy a vast range of Thai and Western meals, salads, fruit and desserts for about 150 baht a person. The Rimkok, just outside of town on the otherwise of the river, has a particularly good one for 140 baht. It is served in the restaurant near the pool. If you’re vegetarian simply ask them to cook you some veggie meals when you buy your ticket and they’ll being them to your table shortly after you sit down. We were served four different veggie Thai dishes. The Rimkok also has the only pool open to non-guests. You can enjoy the long, curving pool with outdoor jacuzzi for the day at 80 baht a person. Go five times and your sixth visit is free.

Discover where old spirit houses go to die
Abandoned Spirit Houses
Spirit Houses under the Big Tree

There is a beautifully big tree near the public library. Turn left off the main road at the tourist office and go down the quieter road, take a right turn, left and another right on the same road and you'll see the spreading canopy of the tree span the road. People deposit old spirit houses under this auspicious tree.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Walks from My Dream

Khaew Waaw Dam

If you stay at My Dream guesthouse you can do 1 and 2 day treks with Nan. These combine off-road driving and walking in the nearby mountains visiting neighbouring Lahu, Akha and Karen villages.

Rice paddies

You don’t need to go on a trek if you wish to explore the beautiful forest area around the guesthouse. There are at least four directions you can walk independently along easy-to-follow dirt roads and mountain paths. The routes can take you through the stunning countryside of tropical rainforest, bamboo and rice paddies, either along the Mae Kok river or up into the mountains. You can easily make up your own half or full day treks if you take your own water and food. I’ve outlined four routes below. If you get up with the sun you may be rewarded with an atmospheric misty morning that characterises images of rural East Asia. In Khaew Waw Dam you can also discover hand-made traditional weaving. Or travel towards Chiang Rai and go for an elephant ride.

Rice 'hay'

You can also spend time in Khaew Waw Dam village itself. There are two shops selling snacks and drinks; one also stocking fruit and veg, the other making som tams. Many households weave traditional Karen textiles during the dry season. A Thai woman from Isan called Atitaya and her French husband Thom live right next door to the guesthouse with their family. She also weaves, collecting plants from the surrounding to dye her cotton with natural colours before spinning and weaving the threads. She does this all by hand on a home-made bamboo spinning wheel and loom to produce amazing scarves and bedspreads. She speaks good English and is happy to talk about how she makes her textiles and show her work. Do call round to see if she is there if you stay at My Dream.

Ati weaving

A few kilometres down the road back to Chiang Rai is Ban Ruamit Elephant Camp. I don’t know about you but I’m always in two minds about elephant camps and rides. On one hand it seems like an abuse of these wonderful giants, yet on the other the money camps bring in from rides can help to look after the highly endangered Asian elephant. It really depends on the camp as to whether this is abuse or care. Ban Ruamit seems like a good camp. The elephants do have to spend all day in a small riverside area, but by the early evening they are free to wander the nearby jungle until the following morning. The income the camp generates probably does mean that these elephants are being conserved rather than sent down to Bangkok to follow a mahout around the streets. Rides cost 200B or 400B for a half or full hour which includes a trip around the village and down part of the river. You can also buy bananas, sweetcorn and sugar cane to feed the elephants at 20B a bag. There’s the usual tourist tat souvenir stalls and a couple of cafes.

Close encounters of the trunk kind

Walking Route 1 – Hot Spring Refresher
Turn right out of My Dream, join the dirt road back to Chiang Rai passing the shop. After about 250m and just before the road takes a short incline you’ll see a gap in the trees on your right. Take this to the hanging bridge and cross the river. Turn left on the other side and follow the dirt road beside the river. This road is used by pick-ups and motorbikes so you’ll encounter some traffic. The route gives you great views of the river as you walk through bamboo stands, bananas and forest. You’ll pass a Lahu village on your right soon after the bridge. Another 2km brings you to an Akha village, which still has a village swing. A further 2km brings you to the national park where there are natural hot springs you can look at, though these ones are too hot for a dip, toilets and a refreshment stall selling snacks and drinks, as well as instant noodles and eggs they’ll boil for you.

Natural hot springs in national park

About 1km further on brings you to the hot springs you can get into. About 30B buys you entry, 10B use of a towel and 50B a private changing room rather than the small communal one. These are a tourist destination so they have been built up. You have a concrete wall around the spring itself, a small hot pool you can boil eggs in (you buy the eggs from any of the cafes and shops at 20B for five in a basket and after 30 minutes you should have soft-boiled eggs), and a what is effectively an open-air swimming pool at about 37+ oC you can get into. The far end has the hottest water. If you don’t want to walk back you can either hitch a lift on a passing pick-up or pay about 200-300B to get someone to drive you back to the bridge. Just ask for the bridge, Khaew Waw Dam or My Dream.

Boiling eggs

Route 2 – Village Stroll
This time turn right once over the bridge and follow the same dirt road upriver. It passes similar landscape to the hot springs route. After a couple of kilometres you’ll come to another Lahu village. The forest looks impressive and is still part of the national park. You can walk for as long as you like along this road taking in the same sort of views.

Local buffalo

Route 3 – River Jungle
Turn left out of My Dream and walk up to the dirt road next to the other shop with som tams. Turn left here and walk upriver along the road. You’ll be away from the river for the first kilometre or so. You’ll pass an army general’s forest landscape garden and come to rice paddies with buffalos dotted with bamboo drying platforms and shelters. When you reach the fork in the road take the left one. You’ll quickly be surrounded with thick bamboo and forest. This soon drops back down to the river and gives a great forest experience. There are tribal villages further along the road (which also means some traffic).

Route 4 – Mountain Rice Climb

Misty mountain hop

This is my favourite of the four. Take the right hand path at the fork of route 3. You’ll notice that the path becomes partly grassed-over which is because hardly any vehicles use this route except for the occasional person on a motorbike getting to their rice paddies. This is the most tranquil route with the best views. You’ll soon begin to climb steadily. The land rises to your left through forest and bamboo. On your right you overlook the valley of a mountain stream. The valley is quite wide and flat to begin with then narrows. Nearly all of the flat land is terraced into rice paddies dotted with the bamboo shelters, drying stands and occasional houses of the people who work the paddies. You’ll see cleared areas amongst the stalks of harvested rice surrounded by mounds of rive hay. These are threshing floors used to separate the rice from the stalks. There are also buffalo, pigs and geese. After about 2 or 3km you come to a point where you really must turn around for a spectacular view down the valley. It’s even better on a misty morning.

Mountain view

The path winds upwards through more and more picturesque forest and bamboo-clad slopes, the air becoming fresher and fresher, the paddies gradually narrowing, the stream burbling away next to you. Beyond the viewpoint you feel like you’re on a high mountain route. You can basically keep on walking along this path until you need to turn around. You’ll eventually come to some tribal villages if you keep going and should be able to visit one or two and make it back to My Dream before dark depending on your walking speed.

High bridge

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

My Dream Guesthouse

My Dream

Many years ago a Karen man from Chiang Mai province worked in a guesthouse in Chiang Rai. He lived with his wife in the small Karen village Khaew Waaw Dam a few kilometres out of town on the Mae Kok River. For the last ten years his dream has been a reality for tourists staying in his village. After a week at My Dream Guesthouse it is firmly in my top five guesthouses in Thailand.

Riverside bungalows

Anan and his wife Polly have worked hard to create a small place to stay that is more than just a collection of wooden bungalows by a river. For a start the bungalows are arranged around an immaculate forest garden, alive with birdsong and colourful dashes of passing butterflies. Each of his 13 teak and bamboo rooms is tastefully and simply decorated, each with a large bed encased within a mosquito net that hints at the opulence of a four-poster. He was determined to create the garden, despite others in the village questioning why he spent time on something that didn't earn money, so that visitors would get the most pleasure from their stay in rural northern Thailand. His ethos that shines through in lovingly tended flowering bushes and lawn brightens everything that is provided at the guesthouse and reflects his effusive, sunny disposition. He welcomes new guests with a smile and laughing conversation when he is not on a mountain leading one of the treks he offers to guests. You can do one, two or three day treks around tribal villages in the surrounding mountains.

Delicious large portions of Thai food are served in the riverside restaurant. If, like us, you have a baby evening meals are brought on a tray to your balcony. A fire is lit on the small private beach each evening from where you can sit and gaze at the milky way or find your way around by the light of the full moon. The view from the beach is of the surging river flowing by and the forest-and-bamboo-clad hills beyond. The beach and garden are perfect for hanging out with a family or just taking it easy after a trek.

My Dream beach

During our week staying at My Dream we met Didi, a French cycling tour leader, who was returning to My Dream for his fourth year in a row with 14 cyclists on a two-week mountain biking tour. He values the personal service that Anan provides. A rep from a Swiss tour company offering tours for two to three people stayed the night to check out the guesthouse for their next brochure. Some of the guests come with pre-arranged tours to use My Dream as a base before heading higher into the mountains for trekking. Many companies employ Anan to lead the treks for them. We also met a young Austrian who was passing through on his way from Tha Thon to Chiang Mai, partly travelling along the river itself. If you don't fancy a long trek but prefer to move beyond the garden there are plenty of easy activities to leave the guesthouse for, from visits to elephant camps and hot springs to hikes into the mountains, more of which in my Khaew Waaw Dam blog entry which I'll post soon.

Anan with his daugher Dia

Everything at the guesthouse has been thought about to make your stay memorable, to remember My Dream and to remember Anan who dreamt of having a forest guesthouse by the river. Live his dream and make it part of one of your own.

Garden view to the river

Getting there and costs
You can reach My Dream by land or water. It is on the long-tailed boat taxi service connecting Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Tha Ton. A one-way trip between My Dream and Chiang Rai costs about 120 baht per person and takes 1 1/2 hours down river to the town. Expect a little longer upstream. Polly's father runs the only taxi in Khaew Waaw Dam. He goes into Chiang Rai about 6.30am every day except Sunday. He will pick you up from your guesthouse in Chiang Rai on his return trip sometime between 11am and 1pm if you ring and arrange with Anan a day in advance. Depending on occupancy this will either cost the regular fare or be courtesy of My Dream. The journey takes about half an hour. You can also hitch pretty easily from the village down towards Chiang Rai so it is possible to make the return trip for free.

Garden-facing rooms and bungalows currently cost 300 baht per night, riverside bungalows 500 baht. Most meals cost between 40 and 50B. Meals on rice are 50B or 40B if you're vegetarian. There are two small shops in the village selling snacks, drinks and some fruit and veg. One pounds up a wicked som tam (papaya salad) for 15B.