Mae Salong and the Doi Tung Royal Villa

A recent story from Getting on Travel

Imagine a Chinatown without big neon signs, horrendous traffic and huge crowds? That’s Mae Salong.This small-scale Chinatown in northern Thailand attracts savvy Thais as well as in-the-know international visitors. Beautiful year round and refreshingly cool in winter, this remote hillside village in Chiang Rai province appeals not only for its location, but also for its fascinating history.


Editors’ note: Although the COVID-19 pandemic has suddenly changed the face of travel, we hope our stories stoke your memories of past trips and kindle ideas for future adventures. 


Mae Salong: A bit of history

After the communists took control of China in 1949, soldiers from the anti-communist Koumintang’s 93rd Division fleeing Yunnan, in southwestern China, began making their way to Mae Salong, first living in the rugged mountains of northern Burma and Laos for many years. Eventually, thousands of these Nationalist troops found their way to the Thai side of the border.

When they lost financial support from the Taiwan government, many of these former soldiers resorted to illegal activities to survive, including the opium drug trade. In 1969, the survivors were officially allowed to settle in Thailand. They returned this favour by fighting alongside the Thai army during the rampant communist insurgency in the 1970s and early 1980s.

It was not until 1978, however, that they were granted Thai residency. Many were also granted Thai citizenship. Their community on Doi Mae Salong was given the name Santi Khiri, which means “mountain of peace.” But, they still had a battle to change their lives for the better.

An indigenous hilltribe lady

Both the Thai government and organizations in Taiwan offered support, and the new arrivals began cultivating tea and temperate fruit crops rather than poppies. Their success is shown by the fact that tea and tourism are the economic mainstays of today’s residents. Living conditions and education improved over time, and the younger generation became fluent in Thai as well as Chinese. But, even today you don’t hear much Thai in the market.

What to see in Mae Salong

Martyr’s Memorial Hall in Mae Solong

Apart from the lovely mountains and the appealing tea plantations, several sights and activities entertain visitors:

  • The early morning buzzing of the local market with Chinese and hill-tribe people that ends before noon. Here, you can enjoy a classic breakfast of hot soya bean milk and Chinese doughnut sticks or just have some noodles.
  • Drive or hike up to the elaborate Tomb of General Tuan Shi-wen, memorializing the commander of the 93rd Division who led his troops here. From here, enjoy excellent views of the village.
  • The Martyr’s Memorial Hall, commemorating the fallen soldiers of the 93rd Division, displays detail the battles and the obstacles that the soldiers faced—as well as the successful settlement of survivors in Mae Salong.
  • Sinakarintra Stit Mahasantikhiri Pagoda, located on one of the area’s highest points, is another excellent vantage point when the weather cooperates.

Visiting Doi Tung Royal Villa

Mae Solong: Doi Tung Royal Villa

The Doi Tung Royal Villa, built in 1988, has elements of both northern Lanna-style (with its concrete and teak wood structure, lined internally with recycled pin) and Swiss chalet architecture. The former residence of HRH Princess Sninagarindra (the Princess Mother, who was the grandmother to the present Thai king), the villa doubled as the base for her work with the Doi Tung Development Project, which she founded. Many visitors are intrigued by the wood inlay of the Princess Mother’s favourite constellations in the positions they were on the day she was born.

Those who visit also gain an understanding of the progress that has been made. When Princess Sninagarindra arrived here in the 1980s, drug cartels, human trafficking, AIDS, addiction and destitution were common Desperate parents would sell daughters in order to feed their addiction and survive. This was part of the infamous Golden Triangle, once the biggest supplier of the world’s opium.

And there were other problems, too. None of the six ethnic groups residing here had Thai citizenship. They lived in abject poverty, without basic infrastructure or government support. Armed groups occupied parts of the area, so the locals were in constant danger.

The Princess Mother believed the problem was poverty and lack of opportunity for the villagers, so she set out to change the area, socially, economically, and environmentally. She wanted people and nature to coexist in harmony. She aimed to provide opportunities for all, so that lives would improve significantly. To help achieve this, she moved to the area.

Both the villa and surrounding gardens are open to visitors. While here, don’t miss the Mae Fah Luang Gardens, a botanical park on the slopes below the royal villa.


What’s appealing to the over-50 traveler?

  • The opportunity to see hill-tribe people without having to trek
  • The chance to better understand the history of the area and the Chinese culture at Doi Salong, as well as the real improvements that have taken place in people’s lives

Take note

  • Getting to Mae Salong by public transport is not easy. No buses tackle the steep, winding road, so the most convenient method is to rent a car or book a tour on a mini-van that departs from Chiang Rai, the nearest city. This will also make it possible to move on to the Doi Tung Royal Villa.
  • The road to Mae Salong is steep and winding: Those prone to motion sickness should consider prophylactic measures.
  • An organised minibus trip from Chiang Rai is enjoyable, but the same trip from Chiang Mai is especially long and tiring
  • Guided treks are the best way to small villages and hill tribe settlements.
  • Allow several hours to visit both the Doi Tung Royal Village and the gardens; no photographs are allowed inside the villa.

IF YOU GO


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Chiang Rai in Travel and Talk

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Asia: Thailand

by Len Rutledge

Two years ago, the world held its breath. When the media spotlight shone on the dramatic rescue of 12 young soccer players and their coach from the Tham Luang Cave, Chiang Mai, Thailand was put on the world map.

Overnight, the entire world became aware of Chiang Rai. Previously, if anyone thought of it at all, it was often confused with the larger Chiang Mai, 180 km to the south, but not anymore. Now Thailand’s most northerly city is firmly on the tourism route.

And so, it should be. Our recent visit showed that Chiang Rai City has an abundance of tourism attractions, headlined by three amazing architectural marvels. These can be summarised as the black, white and blue. The surrounding province contains some of Thailand’s most dramatic mountain scenery so a week in this area is not really enough.

The Black

The Baandam Museum (Black House) will astound you. Renowned Thai artist Thawan Duchanee spent more than fifty years building this somewhat controversial museum of folk art. It isn’t just one structure but a collection of around 40 buildings of varying shapes and sizes dotted around a peaceful garden. Each one is different and most are worth visiting.

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Thawan was an incredibly talented recluse who lived in one of the houses on the site until his death in 2014. Now the whole complex has been taken over by the government. Black, gold and red were the three signature colours of the master painter. These striking contrasts permeate the collection of houses, sculptures, animal skins, bones and relics.

Located about 12 km north of Chiang Rai City, you will need at least 1 hour to look around. This is a very popular spot, so if you want to beat the crowds its best to go either early morning or an hour before the museum closes. Try the mini-pineapples while you are there and you will agree that they are the sweetest in the world.

The White

Wat Rong Khun or the White Temple was designed by national artist and native of Chiang Rai, Chalermchai Kositpipat. The entire complex is an enthralling fusion of religious sanctuary, museum and art gallery. It has evolved into the top attraction for first-time visitors to Chiang Rai and the complex is packed in the mornings with tourists who commute from Chiang Mai for the day.

It’s not really just a temple, despite the monks; it’s more of a wildly expensive and expansive art exhibition. Visitors are surprised to find curiously irreverent imagery on the exterior — as well as Hello Kitty, Michael Jackson and Spiderman on the inside. Some find this imagery kitschy and its sacrilege to others.

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The emergence of the Predator from the ground is interesting and many hands reaching up as you traverse through the lifecycle of life, death and rebirth is a strange experience. But none of this should distract from what is probably the most artistic of Thailand’s temples.

Work on the temple will probably never really be finished, with present projects scheduled through 2070 but this on-going work does not distract a visitor. There is an art gallery, shop and café amongst the other structures in the compound.

The best time to visit is near dawn or dusk to miss the tour groups. The temple is 12 km south of Chiang Rai City. Foreigners are charged Baht 100 (about £3) to enter.

The Blue

Wat Rong Suea Ten, commonly known as the ‘Blue Temple’, opened in 2016. An artist who studied under white temple artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat, completed the exterior and interior designs.

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What’s instantly attractive about the Blue Temple is just how vibrant the colours are. The deep blue building decorated with golden detail is simply stunning to look at. Unlike the White Temple, you’re allowed to take photos inside the Blue Temple. You won’t find any pop-culture references inside this one as the interior has a more classic design. At the centre of the room sits a white Buddha lit up with bright blue lights.

The temple has quickly caught the imagination of visitors who flock to its courtyard to take photos and worship. Entrance is free. A popular activity is to buy and eat the blue ice cream available from a vendor on-site.

The tall

Wat Huay Pla Kung which is a new entry on Chiang Rai’s growing list of unusual temples combines gold and white. There is a giant white statue of the Bodhisattva Guan (Goddess of Mercy) within which you ride to the top in an elevator, a white temple decorated with Lanna-Chinese art, and a 9-storied gold pagoda.

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The monk here has supposed healing powers and the mainly Thai Chinese who come to the temple to be healed have donated large amounts of money to build the Chinese statue. It is a giant landmark which dominates the local area.

Getting to Chiang Rai

There are many daily flights from Bangkok on several airlines which take about an hour and 15 minutes. If coming from Chiang Mai, the road trip takes about three and a half hours. The city has a wide variety of accommodation suitable for all tastes and budgets.

Images by Phensri Rutledge

Len Rutledge is the author of Experience Thailand 2020 available as an e-book or paperback from amazon.com

https://www.LenRutledge.com

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCX5HUmGP1lR2aoscn3O8P2Q

 

Myanmar is rapidly growing in popularity

Myanmar is seeing quite a dramatic increase in visitor numbers for very good reasons. The country was effectively closed to most visitors for many years but now it is open for business and the infrastructure is being rapidly improved.

The new edition of Experience Myanmar (Burma) is right up to date on accommodation, restaurants, transport, places to visit, and experiences to enjoy. Every visitor to Myanmar needs an up-to-date guidebook to help them get the most from the experience. We think Experience Myanmar (Burma) 2017 is the best available. It is available as an ebook or paperback from amazon.com.

Myanmar Book Cover 2017-Best

Experience Northern Italy 2016

The next book in the Experience Guide series to be completely updated for 2016 is Experience Northern Italy 2016. It is available as a hard copy or e-book at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B01BA6E526?ref-=pe_2427780-160035660.

This covers the most popular visitor centres of Florence, Venice, Milan, Pisa, Turin, Verona, Tuscany, Trieste and much more. Go to the amazon site for a sneek pre-view.Book cover-best

Experience Myanmar (Burma) 2016

Myanmar is rapidly opening up to tourists and business people but there is still a lack of reliable information on the country. Experience Myarmar (Burma) 2016 helps fill this gap and it is now available as an e-book or in hard copy from http://www.amazon.com/dp/B01A2X781S. For an outlay of less than $5 you can potentially save hundreds by using the information in this book,so check it out. We provide a free read for you so that you can confirm if it is suitable for you.Myanmar 2016

Experience Singapore just published

The seventh book in the Experience guide series has just been published. Experience Singapore highlights the visitor attractions so that those planning a visit can quickly and efficiently plan on what they want to see and do. It locates and details the best places to see and the top experiences to enjoy, and recommends accommodation, shopping and eating options.

It captures the personality and the underlying cultural and historical significance of the city. It invites you to come and explore the wonderful temples, mosques and churches, the few remaining unspoiled natural areas, the historic colonial section, the fantastic shopping opportunities and the exhilaration of the various ethnic zones. Meet a great variety of people, buy the latest gadgets, fashion, and fascinating handicrafts, eat tantalizing cuisine, and enjoy charming hospitality.

Experience Singapore is available as an ebook at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00NBJD2XY

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