The tiny market town and administrative centre of Phrao lies in a wide and fertile bowl-shaped valley surrounded on all sides by the mountains of Sri Lanna National Park. To the east over the ranges is Chiang Rai’s Wiang Pa Pao district, to the north lies Fang, west is Chiang Dao and south there’s not much between Phrao and Chiang Mai itself, other than around 85 kilometres of hills and forest. Yet despite a central placing in the province, the tiny town sees very few foreign visitors.
Phrao isn’t blessed with many tourist sites as such, but it has wonderful scenic views in spades. The valley has paddy on the flatlands to the west and orchards on the eastern side’s more undulating terrain; the whole area is dotted with cute little farming villages. The picturesque hills are still largely forested and inhabited, mainly by the Lisu ethnic group. The rugged summit of Doi Chiang Dao provides a dramatic backdrop to the farmland.
The town has a bustling little market, an elegant wat and plenty of friendly inhabitants. There are also a few eateries and a fine place to lodge in town, while if you want to get close to nature the nearby Doi Farang Resort is a great spot to while away a couple of days.
At first glance, Phrao doesn't offer much choice for dining, but head out of the centre a bit and some good restaurants are to be found. A few fried chicken, som tam and noodle stalls set up near the market, some of which stay open into the evening, while a curry and noodle shop at the end of the main street opposite Kasikorn bank serves up good, cheap portions from 07:00 until around 20:30. At the opposite end of the street, on the corner of the main highway, is a more unusual, Thai-style, pizzeria. The pizzas don’t look too bad and start at only 79 baht, but Italian style they are not, with a thicker, doughy crust and sweetened tomato sauce. They also offer juices and smoothies. Get here before 21:30 when they shut up.
Another restaurant offering a Western as well as Thai selection is the large, modern looking, Eung Phrao, just a kilometre out of town on the highway heading east. With a large airy upstairs seating area they offer four pages of seafood – odd considering the location – as well as steaks, pasta and classic Thai dishes. Steaks of various provenance range from 120 to 190 baht, pasta dishes 50 to 60 and all your usual Thai favourites are priced from 60 to 90 baht. While the European dishes are cooked by Thais for a Thai audience their fish and chips at 69 baht wasn’t too bad at all. Open daily 09:00 to 20:00.
For a later evening feed and cold beer there’s a lay-by around a kilometre west of town on the highway, which houses a string of half a dozen or so Thai-style pubs. That means all your sing-a-long Thai rock and country standards will blare from the stereo and some fiery cuisine is served up to encourage drinking. Food is generally excellent and reasonably priced but, as we said, heavy on the chillies. We didn’t find any English menus but the one we tried did have photos and prices. There’s also karaoke on offer, without mini-skirted waitresses – a common fixture of similar pubs elsewhere. Open from 17:00-ish until 00:30, this is a fine spot for a late nosh, a few cold ones and a chance to join in the choruses of Loso’s greatest hits.
If you’re heading north to Fang or Tha Ton, or even as a side trip on your way up to Chiang Rai, then Phrao’s worth a detour.
Somewhere between a large village and small town, Phrao is laid out in a compact rectangular shape split in two by its main commercial street. Route 1150 forms the northern border and the small Mae Saluan River the south. The best guesthouses are located on the highway a short distance to the east of town while a string of bars and restaurants are an equal distance to the west. The central commercial street is home to the town’s market plus banks and 24-hour convenience stores while the police station, hospital and weekly market are found on the west side of the rectangle.
The post office, should you need it, is located just to the southwest of the town centre (left at the hospital), while the main temple, Wat Kang Wiang, is opposite the end of ‘main street’ on the highway. The road heading north, down the side of the temple, leads to the small bus station.
By Mark Ord