In hindsight, it was entirely apposite that a cult TV show teaching people how to paint pretty pictures was screening as we flew into Chiang Rai.
Bob Ross, the genial and hirsute host of The Joy of Painting, would have been right in his element in this verdant and mountainous land.
Chiang Rai is in Thailand’s north, close to the borders of both Laos and Myanmar. Often described as “sleepy” or “rural”, it offers one of the last bastions of ‘old’ Thailand, having thus far avoided the effects of mass tourism that have blighted other parts of this fascinating and charming country.
Indeed, the region may have continued in relative anonymity but for a recent event that thrust it into the world spotlight.
When 12 boys and their soccer coach became trapped in a cave system in the province in June, Chiang Rai became the centre of attention. The world came together to save the boys (more on them later) and Chiang Rai was very firmly put on the map.
It remains to be seen what the region does with its new found fame, but as I discovered on a recent visit, it already has plenty to recommend it.
Where craft is an art
Both the Thai royal family and the government are backing initiatives to keep traditional skills alive around the country. In Chiang Rai, where opium used to be a primary source of income, the locals are being encouraged to promote and develop healthier, more experiential alternatives.
Jinnaluck was a pioneer in this endeavour, set up 25 years ago to maintain traditional papermaking skills. Using fibres from the mulberry tree, they craft exquisite ‘green paper’ entirely made by hand, even setting up a craft centre four years ago to encourage visitors to have a go while learning these ancient techniques.
So successful has it become that a princess of the Thai royal family paid a visit recently. Her ceremonial chair still takes pride of place in the centre (along with the specially-constructed royal bathroom), while the cave rescue boys came here once they’d been discharged from hospital.
Sadly, while my travel companions enjoyed considerable success with their efforts, adding a variety of flowers, leaves and colourful decorations, my attempt was a soggy, gloopy mess. But at least my bid to fashion a handmade bag led to the birth of a new designer label: ‘Gluey Vuitton’.
Undaunted by my lack of success, I vowed to make a better fist of it at our next stop, the extravagantly named Ban Hat Ban Bae Thai Lue Textile Weaving Village in Chiang Sean.
The fabrics the ladies produce here are turned into gloriously coloured sarongs, shirts, tablecloths and napkins. Only natural colours and environmentally-friendly chemicals are used and all the end products can be purchased in the store above the workshop.
But we have come to try rather than to buy and soon we are all taking turns in front of wooden looms, wheels and assorted weaving machinery that our excellent guide informs us is more than 50 years old.
I’m instructed to spin a wheel, grab a thread of cotton and stretch it out while keeping an eye on the spinning ball of cotton in front of me. Asking a chap to do two things at once is a stretch – four an impossibility, so it’s not long before I’ve snapped the thread, reducing my instructor to fits of giggles. Somehow I don’t think a career in weaving is on the cards.
Okay, I won’t lie to you. All this handicraft didn’t make me want to rush out and crochet my own Ferrari. But with experiential being the new black in travel, it was a fascinating and absorbing way to learn about and meet the locals…and isn’t that what travel is supposed to be about?
Ancient arts of a different kind were on offer at Hong Home Phaya, a small restaurant and spa in Chiang Sean. After a delicious and authentic Thai meal served in a stack of tiffin boxes, our group was invited to sample some traditional massage therapies.
A gentle foot soak was followed by ‘Hammer Tapping’, where a lady used a small hammer and a wooden pick to tap away at the patient’s painful points. It all seemed relatively harmless, but was just a pre-cursor to what was to follow…
‘Yam Khang Tread Massage’ must have been invented by a disciple of the Marquis de Sade. It involves the therapist dipping his or her feet in specially formulated oils before standing on a hot plate, causing the foot to sizzle and often flame.
The masseur then places this hot foot on the patient, thereby curing any pains or problems said patient might be experiencing. I can’t say for sure if it did the trick…but it did put me off barbecue for quite a while!
A temple or two
Of course, it wouldn’t be Thailand without temples and Chiang Rai has both a White and a Blue, which draw crowds eager to see the majestic architecture and exquisite handiwork.
It’s a good idea to arrive at the White Temple early as it can get quite crowded and the early sunshine really sets off the thousands of pieces of glass set into the walls. The white colour signifies the purity of the Buddha while the glass symbolises his wisdom and teachings.
I loved the funky artwork hanging in the surrounding gardens (the heads of various movie characters) and the representation of hell beneath the entrance, while the building itself is astounding.
The Blue Temple was only completed in 2016 and indeed parts of the complex are still being finished. It’s far less crowded than the White Temple and much smaller, so feels more intimate and perhaps more spiritual that it’s bigger brother.
If you’re not a temple person, there’s also places like the Doi Tung Development Project, which has turned some of the region’s former opium fields into a kaleidoscopic carpet of flowers that both amazes and delights.
We also popped into the Chui Fong Tea Plantation, where they’ve been producing some of Thailand’s best tea for half a century.
But special mention must go to the Bandam Museum, or ‘Black House’, which is unlike any museum I’ve ever been to. Part anthropological collection, part theatre, part I-have-no-idea-whatsoever, it’s an interesting collection of bones, folk art and sculptures from the collection of Thawan Duchanee, Thailand’s national artist.
From crocodile skins to textiles, paintings to gold jewellery, it is an eclectic collection that has taken 79-year-old Duchanee an entire lifetime to put together from all over the world. It truly has to be seen to be believed.
How to get there: There are more than 70 direct flights from Bangkok to Chiang Rai daily. Flying time is 80 minutes.
What else to do: Visit the ancient city of Chiang Saen and enjoy a cycling tour. Take a drive around the mountains of Doi Tung, Doi Mae Salong.
Cruise the Mekong River and visit the ‘Golden Triangle’ where three borders meet (Thailand, Laos and Myanmar) but make sure to have a passport with you. There’s also the biggest bamboo woven Buddha in Thailand at Wat Hiranyawat.
Where to stay: The Legend Chiang Rai is the perfect place to stay, being close to the heart of the city yet set on the quiet banks of the Mae Kok River. It offers 78 studios and villas, an infinity-edge pool, Chiang Saen Spa, restaurants and fitness centre. I was lucky enough to score one of the best villas on the property, which came complete with its own plunge pool, kitchen, massive bedroom and bathroom. Highly recommended.
Who to contact: Some recommended local tour operators specialised in local experiences include:
Take Me Tour and Siam Rise Travel.
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