Natural Attractions

Natural Attractions

Not only is Chiang Rai province Thailand's most northern province, it is also one of the most rural and so offers a number of natural attractions to enthrall its visitors. Perhaps the most well known attraction is the area referred to as the Golden Triangle, where the three neighbouring countries of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar all meet along the Mekong River. Other notable places that visitors should not miss are Doi Luang National Park and the 'Little Switzerland' of Thailand known as Doi Mae Salong and more recently as 'Santikhiri'. All of these places are easily accessible and each year shows an increase in the number of visitors, both local and from further afield, wishing to explore this interesting northern province.

Doi Luang National Park

Doi Luang National Park was established in April 1990 and covers an area of approximately 1,172 sq km. It is situated within the districts of Phan and Waing Pa Pao in Chiang Rai province, as well as covering parts of the northern provinces of Lampang and Phayao. The park is easily reached via the Chiang Rai to Phayao highway at km 58 on the way to Ban Ku Kaeng.

One of the park's main attractions is the beautiful cascading Nam Tok Pu Kaeng Waterfall - which is also the largest waterfall in Chiang Rai province. Other waterfalls within the park are the Nam Tok Wang Kaeo and Nam Tok Champa Thong. There are also a various caves scattered throughout the park, such as Nang Phaya Pang Ding Cave.

Much of the park is still covered in dense, mixed forest and is home to over eighty-nine confirmed species of bird as well as twelve different types of mammal, including wild pig, slow loris and barking deer.

Doi Mae Salong
The village of Mae Salong, or 'Santikhiri' as it is sometimes known, is situated on Doi Mae Salong Mountain about 45 km north of the district of Mae Chan in Chiang Rai province.
At an elevation of 1,800 m, it is situated on the highest peak and commands some breathtaking and far-reaching panoramic views. When the mist comes, the views change dramatically, especially at sunrise or sunset. The air is crisp, cool and refreshing all year round and the winter months of November through February and can be really quite cold.
Often referred to as 'Little Switzerland' for its unique and enchanting mountainous scenery, Doi Mae Salong is unlike any other area anywhere within the country. The area is special not only for its beautiful alpine-like landscape and climate, but moreover for it's short, but fascinating history and political development, as well as it's distinctive and mixed populace.

The origins of Mae Salong village go back to shortly after the Chinese revolution in 1949, when renegade KMT (Chinese nationalist) troops fled to neighbouring Myanmar - and were later forced to flee into Thailand, where the Thai government allowed them to stay. The area where the KMT finally took refuge was so remote and inaccessible it is thought the Thai government granted them refugee status, with the understanding that they would assist in policing the area against Communist infiltration. As a result, most of the villagers today are ethnic Chinese and direct descendents of the KMT.
Unfortunately, despite the Thai governments attempts to integrate the Yunnanese KMT and their families into the Thai nation, the inhabitants of Mae Salong preferred for many years to engage in the illegal opium trade, along side the infamous warlord Khun Sa and SUA (Shan State Army).

Only in the late 1980's, after Khun Sa was finally routed by the Thai military - and in effect pushed over the border into Myanmar, was the government able to make any headway in taming the region - part of which involved crop substitution plans and giving the area a brand new name. Santikhiri means 'hill of peace' and was introduced by the Thai government in an effort to try and separate the area from its former image as an established opium zone.
Other measures were the paving of a new 36 km winding mountain road that leads to the village from Basang near Mae Chan -which was previously only accessible by packhorse.
Most of the inhabitants of Mae Salong still speak Yunnanese, except for the local hill tribes who are mainly Akha and speak their own dialect. Consequently a new Thai-elementary school has also been established, with evening classes in Thai language.
The crop substitution programs intending to encourage the cultivation of tea, coffee, corn and fruit trees seem to be successful - as can be seen from the surrounding fields of corn and tea and the appearance of such new produce in all the local town markets. New fruit preserves and tea factories have recently been set-up. Fruit wines and liquors are also being produced. Rather ironically, illicit corn whiskey is now being distilled as an all too obvious alternative to the opium poppy -but what makes the whiskey so distinctive are the pickled centipedes that are found in some of the bottles. Another local speciality is Chinese herbs, which are particularly popular amongst the Thai and Chinese tourists.

Golden Triangle

The infamous area generally described as the Golden Triangle has no definite borders - as different information sources have differing views and opinions on where these actually are. Nevertheless, what is abundantly clear and nowadays commonly accepted is where the 'center' of this once notorious and undoubtedly much hyped area actually is; Sop Ruak, about 9 km north of the small historical town of Chiang Saen in Chiang Rai province.
Sop Ruak covers just a few hectares and is actually the name of the small river that merges into the mighty Mekong River, at the point where the three neighbouring countries of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos all converge. The 'real' Golden Triangle is believed to cover a much larger and wider area, probably tens of thousands of square kilometers, reaching far into Myanmar and Laos.
Whatever the true area size, the Golden Triangle encompasses the whole region traditionally producing opium as its main cash crop - and obviously, opium is not just grown within a few hectares of the meeting point of the three countries' natural borders. It is just too prominent, visited by too many tourists for any opium poppies to be found there these days, leastways not in any viable quantities. Even so, travel agents, hoteliers, tour operators and the like, have done much to cash-in on the familiar Golden Triangle name. In fact, this much-frequented official center has over recent years become the most well known of all attractions in Chiang Rai province - in spite of the fact that there really is very little to actually see here. A possible exception being the fine, near panoramic, views that can be seen from the hilltop where Wat Phra That Phukhao stands and peers across the Mekong looking into Laos and Myanmar.

To many travelers just the name 'Golden Triangle' conjures up images of excitement, illicit adventure and romantic danger all thrown into one. The reality is that Sop Ruak offers very little, if any, of the above. Rather than endless fields of poppies, what thrill seeking adventurers will find has fast become yet another tourist trap -full of souvenir stalls, mediocre restaurants and bus loads of package-tourists.

Obviously the Golden Triangle has been cleverly marketed as a tourist destination during the last few years, but with utter disregard for any ambiguities. On the one hand, the Thai government regards drugs and anything, or anyone, associated with them as illegal and immoral and regularly conducts poppy eradication campaigns. On the other hand, the promotion of the Golden Triangle as a tourist destination relies heavily on the reputation of the Golden Triangle as an opium-growing region. While Thai law enforcement agencies claim the opium problem has basically been eradicated on Thai territory, tourism promoters still subtly suggest that indeed, the 'Thai' Golden Triangle is the world's main source of opium.

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