Road Trip Chronicle – Chiang Rai, Nan & Phrae Provinces

The open road was calling so we steered our wheels north to explore some new territory and to enjoy some Thailand experiences.

Luck would have it that a friend of ours won a nights stay at a lovely resort in the highlands outside of Chiang Rai, but was not able to use it, so gifted it to us.  This surprise provided the exact opportunity to spend a few days travelling to places we hadn’t been.

Having been to Chiang Rai a few times it was an excuse to check out some unexplored locations (for us) and then take a different way back home to visit to Nan and Phrae Provinces. It was a 3 day journey covering some 860 km.  The roads were all good, sealed, some 4 lane, some 2 lane and some very windy and steep – some construction encountered but an overall fun driving escape .

The dog was deposited at his favourite kennel, the weather was forecast to be perfect with cooler temps, the rain season considered over and with adventure in our minds we headed off.  The plan for the first day was to have lunch in Chiang Rai at a place we had heard about & been recommended to visit on the river.  After some initial hills to navigate as you leave Chiang Mai it is pretty straight and flat fun of about 200 km from Chiang Mai or an easy 3 hour drive with minimal traffic. You see distant hills and lots of rice fields – this time of year the rice is ripening and ready for harvest soon.

Realiance on our vehicle GPS and our friend, google maps, we easily found our way to this lovely restaurant in called Chivit Thamma Da Cafe and Bistro. According to their website they are a small family run Café and Bistro located right on the banks of the beautiful Kok River in Chiang Rai, northern Thailand. They serve natural, fresh and home-made Food, Bakery, Coffees and Drinks in a slow environment close to nature, with plenty of flowing water, flowers, birds and fresh air. They believe that life should be slow, simple and beautiful. They have created lovely garden space amongst old houses as a setting that realises their vision.

At Chivit Thamma Da you are encouraged to take your time and stay as long as you like. Chivit Thamma Da was founded by Nattamon Holmberg in 2009. Nattamon is a cake and coffee lover and has studied bakery and coffee growing/making at the best institutes in Thailand. She gave up a fast life in big cities to slow down and live closer to nature in her native northern Thailand.

There were a few resident dogs enjoying the guests as well. If you are ever in Chiang Rai and want to relax and enjoy food and beverages check this place out. After lunch with full stomachs we headed north out of Chiang Rai on the road to Mae Sae and turned off to when the signs told us the way to Doi Mae Salong.  With the rain season just finishing the countryside was green and lush and provided magnificent visa’s to enjoy.

The fairly flat land of pineapple plantations gave way to the highlands with hills, and stepper hills, that were heavy with tea plantations.  The road snaked its way higher and higher and seemed narrower and narrower.  We stopped part way up at a lookout point. It was getting later in the afternoon and the sun was slowly sinking.

Eventually arriving into the village of Mae Salong on a Doi (mountain) of the same name I was to learn this place has a fascinating history.  It is situated 895 km from Bangkok and is in the highlands only 6 km from the Mynnmar (Burma) border..

The area has an alpine like landscape and climate, and is known for its hill tribe villages, tea plantations, and cherry blossoms (in season). It was only about 20 degrees on this day. Cash crops, especially tea, have now replaced the growing of opium poppies so abundant in years past, and the area today is a tourist attraction known as “Little Switzerland”.

The views are very nice over the hills and countryside as you navigate up and over large hills and narrow windy roads. We stopped for afternoon coffee at a little Chinese shop on the main road near the markets in Mae Salong.  They had their own brand and did their own roasting. 

I learned something new – the village is now call Santikhiri and its early history centred on the Golden Triangle’s opium trade, in which its distinctive population – the “lost army” of the Republic of China Army’s 93rd Division – became involved. At the conclusion of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, some remnants of the anti-communist Kuomintang (KMT) forces refused to surrender. The troops fought their way out of Yunnan in south-western China, and its soldiers lived in Burma’s (now Myanmar) jungles. Some of the remaining troops later sought asylum in Mae Salong. In exchange for their asylum, they fought for Thailand until 1982, helping to counter the communist insurgency on the Thai frontier. In reward, the Thai government granted citizenship to most of the KMT soldiers and their families.

The trip back down the windy but scenic road didn’t seem as bad as going up.  After a long day of tripping about the north of Thailand it was wonderful to arrive at Katiliya Mountain Resort and Spa, an all-suite resort, in a stunning natural setting.

Thanks to a gift voucher we made our home for the night surrounded by verdant forests and nestled within the mist-shrouded hills. It is quietly secluded between the city of Chiang Rai, Mae Sai and Doi Mae Salong.

After some settling in we enjoyed dinner and chats to other guests. A most luxurious bed in the country setting provided a great nights rest. The next morning we lingered longer and consumed a beautiful buffet breakfast with views over looking the valleys and hills. It was a real treat and this place is great for a special getaway. Nice to be enjoying life and its little treasures – thanks for sharing the voucher Jenny.

After a relaxed big breakfast buffet we headed south away from the pineapple plantations towards fields of rice and then onto windy roads with very nice outlooks over ranges of hills (or mountains in Thailand). Seems we managed to take the “scenic” route thanks to our vehicle GPS (means longer, slower and snake-like route through many high hills and low valleys). If you’ve been on the road to Pai, Thailand with its many curves then I am sure you can relate to the many bends on this road.

 

Getting a little hungry, we stopped for some lunch by the Mae Laos river to relax after winding through hilly roads. It was some 230 km, and many hours of motoring involving a few picture stops, coffee breaks and taking in the scenery of the passing countryside and small road side villages along the way Rice fields began to emerge after lunch and people were busy in the fields.

Late in the afternoon we arrived in Nan city, Thailand.  We experienced a very lovely sunset over the surrounding hills and rice fields around Nan. It was a magic day, with blue skies, pleasant temperatures and magnificent views – what more could one want out of life?

Nan is a laid back capital city of the Province of the same name and on the banks of the Nan river. For centuries it was a separate, autonomous kingdom with few relationships with the outside world. Today the Province has about 440,000 residence with Nan city population of about 21,300 people. Traffic is light and meanders peacefully about town. We quickly embarked on a tour of a famous 14th century temple (Wat Phra That Chae Haeng) founded in 1355 with its gilded chedi. Then it was up to the city view-point, at Wat Phra That Khao Noi built-in 1487, to get an aerial view of Nan. A 9 M Buddha statue now looks over the town.

Having arrived late afternoon and after a few site visits we checked into our overnight accommodation, which we just happened upon in a quiet rural setting. It was an older resort but clean and inexpensive.  As darkness arrived we headed into town to dine at a delicious, simple street eatery, Pum 3 Restaurant – with their signature fruit infused Massaman curry – yummy food, big portions and reasonably priced.

The next morning after a nice breakfast and chat with one of the staff, who spoke great English, it was off to tour some more sights. We decided to explore the Nan National Museum. The museum building style is a combination of European and native arts of Nan and is in the original palace of the last two feudal lords of Nan. The building was originally constructed in 1903 by the penultimate lord of Nan to replace his former wooden residence. After the death of the last lord of Nan, his heirs donated this palace to the government in 1931 in order to be used as the provincial hall. It has artifacts and antiques from the area.

We then meandered across the street to Wat Phra That Chang Kham with the temple dating back to the early 15th century. Ace paid his respects to buddha and I wondered the grounds to get a few pictures. 

 

It was now time to steer the “wheels” south to Phrae Province and the city of Phrae only about 120 km and 2 hours away – for lunch and more sights. Phrae is in the valley of the Yom River and dates back to the Haripunchai kingdom of the Mon people (629 – 1292). It became part of the Lannathai kingdom in 1443, when a King (Tilokaraj) was on an expedition to capture Nan.

The Province has some 450,000 people but Phrae town has just over 16,000 residence.  It is a small place about the size of the city I grew up in back in Canada. After some lunch we visited Wongburi House. It was built-in 1897 by the then governor of Phrae, for his daughter and son-in-law. It is one of the most beautiful old houses in Phrae. It is a large two-storey teakwood mansion built-in fine Thai-European style architecture and painted in pink colour.

Then we wondered to visit Khum Chao Luang in Muang Phrae. It was a building that was the residence of the governor built-in 1893 and is a mixture of Thai and European architecture with a total of 72 doors and windows and houses a museum. Its basement was used as custody for detaining the slave who committed severe offences. Apparently haunted!

It was then onto some important temples, all with unique styles, history and different significance according to Ace. Wat Chom Sawan, a Burmese architectural style temple. Wat Phrathat Chohae is one of the country’s most important temples featuring northern-style Buddhist architecture. The temple is most revered and considered a ‘must visit’ destination among Buddhists, who make the journey to pay respect to the relics of the Lord Buddha, which are housed in the temple’s chedi (stupa).

At the last temple stop of the day we sampled some typical Thai homemade ice cream with sticky rice from a roadside vendor, bought some longan fruit honey and then headed our ride toward the 198 km journey back to Chiang Mai. This was another easy run with only a few hills to navigate before passing through Lamphun and Lampung before arriving home.  

Another enjoyable and informative road trip around the North of Thailand.  Our next exploration will be in mid November to Mae Hong Son, in the far upper mountainous northwest corner of Thailand.

2 Replies to “Road Trip Chronicle – Chiang Rai, Nan & Phrae Provinces”

  1. hi ron,what a fantastic review of your most wonderful trip up north. i have been there many times.so nice for you to share with all on your website.congratulations,phil nelligan

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