A great day out
Published/Last edited or updated: 11th June, 2019
Chiang Rai’s spectacular Doi Tung Range stretches from Mae Fah Luang in the south up to Mae Sai district in the north, with the Burmese border demarcating the mountains’ western slopes.
These rugged peaks rise to over 1,500 metres and as with Chiang Mai province’s Doi Ang Khang, it was until relatively recently a wild and inaccessible spot. These days it’s frequented by minibus convoys of tourists (being too steep and narrow for coaches) and day-trippers from Chiang Rai where 30 years ago you’d have seen opium mule trains, KMT soldiers, Khun Sa’s Shan United Army and Akha women harvesting the chest high pink and white poppy flowers.
The hill-tribe peoples are still there but the Shan fighters now continue their struggle over the border; Khun Sa’s long gone, (though you can visit his old base in Hin Taek) while the families of retired KMT soldiers now run tea tasting shops in Mae Salong.
Both regions have dealt with their bad boy images in similar ways and where Doi Ang Khang has its excellent Royal Agricultural Project, Doi Tung has the fabulous Royal Botanical Gardens created as an initiative to provide alternative income sources and work to papaver somniferum cultivation.
Mae Fah Luang Botanical Gardens are located on the summit of Doi Tung, on the old site of the particularly troublesome Akha village of Pa Kluay. The village was in earlier times a major opium production and transportation hub, though government agencies also point out that, wedged into a narrow gorge, the village was insalubrious and cramped, so relocation to a site some 500 metres distant with a sealed road and electricity, was judged the best solution. Akha and other local hill-tribes now find employment in the gardens and sell their wares at the numerous souvenir stalls. The superb gardens and adjacent Royal Palace were created in the early 1990s.
Apparently the Queen Mother herself took a particular interest in the area and as well as having the nearby country palace constructed, had the idea of creating some mountain-top gardens to allow local people to see at first-hand temperate climate plants. Today the extensive and impeccably maintained gardens incorporate tropical, temperate and even desert plants, (with their cactus house). Rock gardens, orchid house, night garden and a fern house can be found among, what for Thais, are exotic species such as roses, tulips and chrysanthemums.
There’s also a pleasant balance between the neatly laid out, manicured areas and some wilder, more jungly sections and it is a wonderful spot to wander with the formal European-style flowerbeds being popular among local visitors and the more tropical sections favourites with Western tourists.
We’d allow between one and two hours for the visit, depending obviously on your fondness for plants, but there is also a hill-tribe market next to the car-park and very good local coffee shops and eateries. The Queen Mother’s moderately interesting villa is open to the public as are an arboretum and coffee plantation. (The now opium-less Doi Tung is famous for the excellent, locally brewed, substitution crop, coffee.) The hill-tribe market contains a lot of the usual gaudy tat but does also have some tea tasting shops, if you haven’t been able to make it up to Mae Salong, and some herb, spice, fruit and vegetable vendors with several unusual mountain products on display.
If you have your own transport—although some tour programmes also include it—you can push on to Wat Doi Tung, a temple and stupa perched atop a summit affording stupendous views to the north and east. (On a clear day you ought to be able to see both Lao and Burma.) This is located around 20 kilometres north along a windy but scenic and well-maintained mountain road and you’ll pass the arboretum on the way. Entrance to the stupa is free but the access road is truly treacherous so you may be better to walk from the car-park. There are also several very good local eateries and coffee shops in the car-park here if Botanical Garden cafe prices were too steep for you.
Just getting up the mountain is almost worth the trip with some fantastic views back down into the valley and towards Mae Sai. If you’re travelling under your own steam look out for a well-signposted route on your left just short of Mae Sai on the main Chiang Rai Highway 1. Otherwise all Chiang Rai guesthouses or travel agents will be able to organise tours up there. Again if you’re travelling under your own steam there is a good road heading south towards Mae Salong. It involves a few poorly marked junctions but the ride is spectacular and it should eventually debouch onto Highway 1234, the Mae Chan to Mae Salong road.
There is another road leads north, hugging the border, directly into Mae Sai, but this is a very steep and extremely challenging route and we were warned off it several times. For Mae Sai go back to the main highway and hang a right. Great trip and you can make a day of it by stopping at the Black House (Baan Dam) on the way.
Address: Doi Tung, Mae Fah Luang District
T: (053) 767 0157;
Coordinates (for GPS): 99º48'40.26" E, 20º17'23.98" N
See position in Apple or Google Maps: Apple Maps | Google Maps
Admission: Gardens; adults 90 baht, students and children 45 baht Gardens, Royal Villa and Arboretum; combined ticket for 220 baht and 110 baht children
Based in Chiang Mai, Mark Ord has been travelling Southeast Asia for over two decades and first crossed paths with Travelfish on Ko Lipe in the early 1990s.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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