For the majority of foreign visitors north Thailand consists of the mountains, forests, hill-tribes and ancient temples of Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son provinces, with the more adventurous stretching to include perhaps Nan and Lampang. Well if you check a map you’ll see little Phayao is stuck smack bang in the middle of the lot! This scenic province has plenty of mountains, hill-tribes and national parks of its own with the added bonus of an attractive, lake-side provincial capital too.
Phayao is bordered by Nan, Phrae and Lampang to the south and west, a short strip of Laos to the east and Chiang Rai to the north and indeed was part of the latter province until 1977. Terrain consists of a series of forested mountain ranges running north-south, separated by fertile valleys of agricultural land. The small provincial capital lacks an airport but does have excellent road connections to Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai and other neighbouring cities. Furthermore, according to local immigration officials we talked to, there are plans to open the Huak land border crossing with Laos sometime in the future which would then provide the shortest overland route between Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang.
For much of its history Phayao was an independent kingdom, albeit surrounded by more powerful neighbours, and so with fluctuating fortunes. (You can see the Phayao royal family jewels in Chiang Rai’s Oub Kham Museum.) It was even abandoned for a time, after the Burmese conquest of Lanna, before being officially integrated into Siam at the end of the 19th century. Perhaps its abandonment and years of struggle are the reason not much of old Phayao remains today but the town nonetheless is scenic and laid back with friendly inhabitants. Most of the new, large municipal and provincial buildings have been constructed a little way out of town meaning the town centre retains a low-rise, low key character with plenty of great lakeside cafes and restaurants and, at weekends in particular, has a real holiday town atmosphere.
For now though, while popular with Thai tourists, very few foreign visitors make it up this way and the local infrastructure is tailored mainly towards domestic tastes. There are just enough sights in town; wats, parks, markets and a good museum, to keep you busy for a day though we could happily spend a lot of time sitting on the waterfront with a morning hot coffee or sunset cold beer, or even hiring a boat for a row around the lake. Apart from the lake itself there are some interesting sites outside of town as well; – hill-top temples, waterfalls, handicraft villages - and with an excellent accommodation selection, and no lack of eating and drinking spots, it’s well worth spending some time in this fun town.
Furthermore with its central location the town is easily accessed from neighbouring provinces, (it’s only 137 kilometres from Chiang Mai), and also makes for a good spot to break up any overland journeys between surrounding destinations. Phayao is one of the kingdom’s smaller provinces, with one of its lowest population densities and the province as whole has less than half a million and the town a mere 20,000 inhabitants.
The small urban area is bordered to the east by route 1 and to the west by Kwan Phayao, (Phayao Lake). As we said the large government buildings lie to the north of the centre and the downtown district is small, compact, easy to navigate and mostly negotiable on foot.
The main commercial street is Don Sanam and it’s here that you’ll find most of the larger banks, the police station and post office while the main municipal market fills a block between Don Sanam and Rob Wiang Road, which is the setting for the large, night market. The main hospital is north of the centre near city hall and the bus station is off Rob Wiang.
Don Sanam curves round to reach the lake shore at the scenic town park, where it becomes Chai Kwan Road running along the waterfront with a promenade on one side and cafe, bar and restaurant terraces on the other. This is as close to the Cote D’Azur as it gets in north Thailand and looking out over the lake, with hazy, blue mountains in the background and traditional wooden fishing boats in the fore, there’s also something of a mini-Inle Lake look to it too.
The so named Knowledge Park, and monument to former ruler and local hero King Ngam Muang, plus a second large park at the southern end of Chai Kwai which plays host to the town’s weekend market are the bookends to nearly a kilometre of eating and drinking choices. We did say Phayao was fun!
By Mark Ord