Chiang Rai, Northern Thailand
Flowers and Festivals
November and December are great months to visit Northern Thailand.
As autumn slides into winter, temperatures drop. Cosy woolly pullovers are needed in the crisp mornings and evenings, and for many with open fireplaces in their houses it is the time to start chopping firewood and setting the fires blazing.
Santa Claus – beware of visiting Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai Provinces during this time!
This is the time when days are crisp and sunny, the air is sparkling clean like a newly-popped bottle of Veuve Clicquot, and when the many flower farms and parks are at their best. If you travel to the Central Thailand province of Lop Buri during this time you will see hundreds of thousands of hectares of sunflowers tossing their heads in the autumn winds and turning their faces to the southerly suns.
It is a time when rice is being harvested and new plantings planned, when corn crops are ripening and new pineapples starting to sprout, it is a time when outdoor festivals are held and when people start celebrating the end of another hot and humid and smoky year.
I Love You
Some years ago I spent a week on a naturist and WWOOFER (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) farm in Hawaii. Its rather cutesy name was Isle of You (www.isleofyounaturally.com) and apart from destroying the sump of my hire car on their steep driveway, I had a great time there working on the farm and soaking up some sun.
Much nearer home, at Mae Rim just north of Chiang Mai, is a place called I Love Flower Farm.
At this time of the year masses of white and mauve cutter flowers are in full bloom on the eight-rai (1.25 hectares) farm. I am not really sure what “cutter flowers” are and cannot find any authoritative dictionary meaning – but they are tall clusters of daisy-like blossoms that attract bees and selfies.
As I stumbled through the densely packed rows of blossoms and the clouds of pollen and the buzzurbation of bees I felt rather like Dorothy struggling to stay awake as she walked through fields of poppies. Not so for the armies of eager selfie-snappers in their sun hats and with their parasols.
Enterprising farmers grow these blossoms for sale to the markets – but are also astute enough to realise that people are willing to pay a dollar or so to visit the farm, take a few photos, move on to the next farm and to do it all again. Neighbours plough up their front yards to create ad-hoc car parks (“One dollar please!”) and friends set up food and drink stalls (“One dollar please!”). There are also local guides (“One dollar please!”) who will lead visitors from one garden of earthly delights to the next.
If I sound cynical I apologise – it is a lovely experience and it all makes great sense in a rural economy. I paid my dollar or two – and I knew that if I paid a few dollars more I would get to see Clint Eastwood.
Heading up the road from Mae Rim – motoring past dusty clumps of travelling orange-clad monks and through almost fifty kilometres of dusty muddy rough major road works made enjoyable only by the lush yellow flowers of flowering trees scattered through the roadside forests – you will pass rice fields and forests and eventually arrive at Singha Park.
I had heard that a place called Singha Park near Chiang Rai had wonderful displays of flowers at this time of the year. It apparently also had something called the Farm Festival happening at the same time as my planned visit.
- Sometimes I research things thoroughly before setting sail … sometimes not.
I rather thought that the Singha Park and the Farm Fest would be a hectare or two of pretty gardens, with, perhaps, a few rustic bamboo stalls offering a potato or two and some bunches of coriander and carrots.
- Not so
According to one website I subsequently visited, the Singha Park, formerly the Boon Rawd Farm and owned by the family that makes a local beer, covers “billions of square metres” and is home to huge lakes, vast Oolong tea plantations, a petting zoo, rubber tree forests, coffee plantations, rows of plum trees, accommodation and restaurants, ornamental and “wild” gardens … and a couple of zip lines.
The Farm Festival is a HUGE event that ran from 27 November to 01 December. Sorry – you’ve missed it for this year but it’s an annual event so start planning now to go next year. There was not a dusty potato in sight – but there was a Food Fair street, an Artists’ Street, beautiful formal and informal floral displays and a HUGE sound stage with HUGE amplifiers and HUGE loudspeakers and some top-name local performers belting it out to the massed crowds who attended the event.
At sunset hot air balloons take to the skies, the folk on the zip lines whooze off to whatever strange destination awaits them at the end of the cable, and people queue up for Neesie’s fresh barbecued pork spare ribs.
- And people keep taking selfies amid the flowers
Mae Fah Luang
An hour or so north of Chiang Rai, up a wondrously twisting mountain road to the top of Doi Tung and its former royal palace, is the superb temperate Mae Fah Luang garden.
Modestly clad and polite and well-scrubbed visitors can pay to pop in to see the former home of HRH Princess Srinagarinda, the late King’s mother, but the unwashed in shorts and T-shirts and flip flops can visit the magnificent gardens that sprawl down the hill on the opposite side of the road from Her Majesty’s palace.
The gardens are on about four hectares of land that was originally the Akha village of Pa Kluay, an important stop on the old opium route from the North into Thailand. There is now a small lake with the compulsory swan or two, a treetop walkway, several snack bars … and scores of beautiful garden beds crammed with colour. Orchid houses full of different species are accessed through tunnels dripping with Spanish Lace / Old Man’s Beards, and the clearly marked pathways lead visitors through something that is quite wonderful.
I spotted geraniums, Lisianthuses (or is that Lisianthi?), huge dahlias, bromeliads, New Guinea impatiens, a few more awkwards including masses of Lady’s Slipper orchids looking malevolently like carnivorous plants, and many many more bursts and splashes of colour.
- Oh yes – there were also plenty of people taking selfies amid the flowers
Nearby was a street of food stalls that were part of a Family Festival in the area, and the Doi Tung Local Market – a series of stalls selling locally produced coffee, clothing, food and gifts made by the members of the various Hill Tribe people from Thailand’s far north.
The White Temple as you’ve never seen it before
Just south from Chiang Rai is the world-famous Wat Rong Khun – or White Temple.
This is a huge and sprawling Buddhist complex that is the dream and creation of Thailand’s National Visual Artist Chalermchai Kositpipat. It has a series of halls that portray scenes from Buddhism and from the more contemporary world including some of the superheroes that may have come from the pages of Marvel Comics. While the interiors of many buildings are quite colourful, virtually the entire exterior of the compound is sparkling Colgate white.
By day it is a world of fantasy, a world of marvel, and a world of discovery. It is indeed a site that equals in its own way such places as the Taj Mahal and St Peter’s London.
- By night it is a different story
This year, for the first time, Wat Rong Khun is the canvas upon which a brilliant son et lumière presentation is projected – and visitors have just three weeks left to see it as it ends on 22 December 2019.
Many years ago I saw a great son et lumière presentation in the Temple of Karnak at Luxor, and in Warsaw I saw a production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute where all the scenery was projected onto the courtyard walls of King Jan lll Sobieski’s palace. Technology has moved on – and the effects in the Wat Rong Khun light festival surpassed anything I have seen.
- Disneyland and Las Vegas – eat your hearts out!
Lasers, LEDs, smoke, live performances by dancers, fire-eaters and singers, moving images projected onto walls of dancing coloured fountains, spectacular firefly and fireworks effects, bursts of flames, emotive music – and people taking selfies – make the visit to the White Temple by night quite an exciting new experience.
I am at home again, now, after a superb early Christmas lunch hosted by a very good friend at the Why Not Italian restaurant (whynotchiangmai.com), just a few steps from my home, where we sampled eight or nine Italian and French wines and chomped our way through pastas and pizzas and cheeses and hams and panettones.
At this time of year, Santa Claus may have to be careful climbing down chimneys in Northern Thailand but if he climbs down the chimney at Why Not he will almost certainly find friends and flowers and festivals and fine wines.
Text and photographs © Christopher Hall November 2019
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If a man ascended into heaven and gazed upon the whole workings of the universe and the beauty of the stars, the marvellous sight would give him no joy if he had to keep it to himself. And yet, if only there had been someone to describe the spectacle to, it would have filled him with delight
- Attributed to Marcus Tullius Cicero – On Friendship