It is dark, cold and we are stumbling up a rough mountain goat track at 5 am to try to get a memorable image of sunrise over Laos. Sometimes I wonder about the sanity of travel writers!
But let me start at the beginning. We are in far northern Thailand experiencing the attractions of Chiang Rai Province far from the crowds of Bangkok and Phuket. We spent the night in the border town of Mae Sai where the constant traffic between Thailand and Myanmar creates a booming economy. Thais come here to cross the border on shopping expeditions for cheap Myanmar and Chinese goods but there is limited appeal for foreigners.
The Golden Triangle
Fifty years ago, this was almost a no-go zone as it was controlled by various gangs who turned it into one of the world’s most prolific opium producing areas. Today it is cultivating tourists rather than opium. Its peaceful, untouched landscape has become a draw for visitors and as we passed through vibrant green rice fields and little villages with their golden temples, I understood its appeal.
As we headed southeast, we moved from the plains into rolling hill country and before long we reached the Hall of Opium.
I believe this is one of the best museums in Thailand outside Bangkok and almost certainly the most interesting place to visit in the Golden Triangle.
It exhibits the history of opium around the world, the production process, the devastating effects of opium smoking, and campaigns to eradicate and substitute the crop.
The Hall is something of an opium theme park, with the latest in multimedia exhibits and lots of information in a modern setting. I was impressed! It was built by the royal Doi Tung Foundation, who have been instrumental in changing the lives of the locals in a very positive way.
Where the rivers meet
The main triangle area is a few kilometres south on the Thai riverside near the point where three counties meet. You can look out and see across the Ruak River to Myanmar and across the Mekong River to Laos. This is only mildly interesting for most people, so a series of bizarre attractions have been erected by the riverside to add to the appeal.
There’s a giant golden Buddha on a ship, elephant statues which you can climb, elaborate shrines to the royal family, half a dozen signs announcing you are at the Golden Triangle, and river cruise touts, souvenir shops and various cafes. I must say I was under-whelmed and quickly realised this was a major tourist trap, so we moved on.
Chiang Saen and south
About ten kilometres downstream on the banks of the Mekong is an old Lanna capital, the small but charming Chiang Saen, which is dotted with temples, historic buildings and ruins. Wat Pa Sak was built by King Saen Phu in 1295 when three hundred teak trees were planted here. The temple’s chedi is beautiful in the Chiang Saen-style and the exteriors are elaborately decorated with designs.
Wat Phra That Chedi Luang was built by King Saen Phu, the 3rd ruler of the Lanna kingdom in the early 13th century. The bell-shaped, Lanna-style principal chedi, measuring 88 m in height, is the largest structure in Chiang Saen.
Phu Chi Fah
For the next few hours, we more or less followed the Mekong River downstream but this is not a river drive because you need to pass through some rugged mountains with plenty of winding, steep parts of the road. Little villages dot the hills and corn fields and other crops abound.
Finally, we reached our accommodation in Phu Chi Fah at the Phu Mok Dok Mai Resort which had bungalows with a small bedroom, a private bathroom, and a balcony.
The reason for visiting Phu Chi Fah is to watch the sun rise over the hills in Laos from the top of a mountain range in Thailand. If you are lucky, mists blanket the mountains below, revealing only the jungle-covered peaks in Laos. This is a magical sight.
After settling into the resort, we checked out the town. It was tiny and late afternoon most of the vendors had packed up their stalls so we decided to drive through the Phu Chi Fa Forest Park to the car park to watch the sunset. An hour later we drove down again and enjoyed dinner at the resort.
We were told by the locals that to watch the sunrise transform the skies from dark blue to a pinky-orange, we would need to get to the top of the Phu Chi Fa Forest Park trail way before the actual sunrise.
So, there we were climbing the 760-metre rough dirt path in the dark. We were certainly not the only ones. Flickering lights from mobile phones and torches dotted the hillside.
It was cold at the top with a stiff breeze making it uncomfortable so we were pleased when the first signs of dawn appeared. Slowly the view opened up, revealing forests, hills, valleys, farmland and the mighty Mekong River. Above it all, golden rays turned the sky into a wonderful work of abstract art.
Phu Chi Fah is not only great at sunrise and sunset though; the daytime views are also pretty spectacular. To see the snaking valleys and the rows of endless pristine mountains in Laos makes many visitors stop and contemplate their lives. It could well be Thailand’s greatest view.
How to get there
When the travel situation returns to ‘normal’ there will be flights to Bangkok from many cities around the world. From Bangkok there are many daily flights to Chiang Rai which take about 1 hour 15 minutes.
Most visitors are permitted to stay in Thailand for up to 30 days if entering via an international airport under the Visa Exemption Rule.
Images: Phensri Rutledge
Len is the author of Experience Thailand 2020 available as an e‑book or paperback from https://www.amazon.com/Experience-Thailand-2020-Guides-Book-ebook/dp/B082WZZ19G/
A recent story from Getting on Travel
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
This travel story was posted by i2Mag in March 2020
There is something about waterfalls. They are naturally beautiful and their thundering roar and rainbow-causing mist means we simply can’t ignore them. Visit a natural waterfall and it’s easy to appreciate nature and feel a desire to protect it for future generations.
The Rhine Falls in Switzerland is claimed to be Europe’s largest waterfall, however, it’s definitely miniscule compared to Niagara or Victoria Falls. The falls is an impressive 150 m wide but only fall about 23 m. Because we had seen some photographs, my wife and I were not expecting anything great but we were wowed by the power and majesty of the rushing water and were amazed at how close we could get to the flow.
Rhine Falls offers the full range of facilities expected by visitors. Various restaurants and souvenir shops with endless trinkets are available on either side of the river. The railway bridge which crosses the river just upstream of the falls has pedestrian access so it is possible to make a roundtrip by using a boat, the bridge, and the connecting paths that link the two.
For most of the year the falls is illuminated after dusk and visiting then has an extra dimension. It is surprisingly different to the day experience.
We chose to approach from the south side and after parking we paid the fee to enter the grounds of Schloss Laufen which towers on a rocky spur high above the falls. We, like most visitors, strolled through the inner courtyard of the castle then descended on a paved path to the “Känzeli”, a viewing platform directly over the thundering water.
From here, and from the glass panoramic elevator, you get great views of this imposing natural spectacle. In summer, the best views of all are probably from daredevil boats which scurry about in the spray immediately below the falls. Several boat trips are available. You can simply cross the Rhine River to the other side, cruise on the river close to the waterfalls, or most spectacularly land on a small rocky outcrop right in the middle of the falls.
We walked down to river level in pouring rain but this didn’t lessen the thrill of being so close to the thundering water. The rain was joined by dense spray as we visited several viewing points before we decided we were wet enough.
After using the elevator to return to the top of the cliff we took a look around the castle and found out more about its 1000-year-old history at the “Historama” exhibition. This is included in the entrance fee. The castle was first mentioned in the year 858, so the ancient walls have seen much history.
For a completely different experience I suggest you then visit Stein am Rhein, a very picturesque town about 20km away to the east. This is an historic place with a well-preserved medieval centre situated in beautiful countryside along the lower end of Lake Constance, where the lake becomes the Rhine River again.
Stein am Rhein was just a small fishing village until 1007, when St. George’s Abbey was moved here. Now the town has a population of a little over 3000, and is a popular tourist destination.
It is a lively and very charming small town. Among the sights are the Monastery of St. Georgen a well-preserved Medieval monastery complex, the Lindwurm Museum depicting 19th century bourgeois and agricultural life, and the Hohenklingen Castle on a hill partially covered with vineyards, which was built high above the town in 1225.
It is here that we found the oldest church in the Canton. Burg Church dedicated to St. John the Baptist is surrounded by wall remnants of a Roman fortress which was built in the 3rd century.
Our favourite place though, is the Rathausplatz – the square of the City Hall – which is lined by old houses with magnificent painted façades. We stood and stared for ages as we took the vista in. It was one of the best urban scenes we had seen in Switzerland.
Then we explored the meandering alleys where there is prettiness everywhere. There are facades with delightful timber decoration, inviting al fresco cafés and restaurants, and unexpected scenes of everyday life. Finally we reached the river where there are many restaurants and cafés with outdoor seating and a lovely view.
In summer, passenger boats link Stein am Rhein with Schaffhausen near the Rhine Falls. This is a lovely relaxing trip with great views of life along the river.
IF YOU GO
The nearest major airport to the Rhine Falls is Zurich. From there, take a train to either the station called ‘Neuhausen Rheinfall’ or ‘Schloss Laufen am Rheinfall’ on the other side of the river. Both stations are located right next to the falls. It takes 45–60 minutes from Zurich.
Alternatively, rent a car and drive there. The roads are good and traffic away from peak periods is relatively light. Images: Phensri Rutledge
There are several cities and towns in this region, including Seward on the Gulf of Alaska Coast and Homer on Kachemak Bay. One of the most visited tourist areas in Alaska, this area is especially popular with anglers of all ages lured by its excellent salmon and halibut fishing, so visitor facilities are excellent and there are tour opportunities galore.
Alaska is often seen as a young person’s outdoor adventure area and it certainly is that, but I found it is also excellent for seniors, as hundreds of thousands of cruise passengers who visit each year can confirm.
Seeking sealife in Seward
Seward, a town of around 3000 permanent residences, is at the end of the Inside Passage cruise boat route from Seattle and Vancouver, and is about two hours by road south of Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city. The area is a photographer’s paradise with glaciers on land and porpoise, whales and sea lions in the water.
The long summer days are perfect for enjoying world-class fishing, tours of Kenai Fjords National Park, walks along the waterfront, learning about local history and culture, and enjoying the town’s restaurants, bakeries, shops and galleries.
Seward is home to some of Alaska’s finest year-round sport fishing. Anglers can fish for giant Pacific halibut, fight an acrobatic silver salmon or catch a trophy lingcod. Thirty fishing charters offer half-day or all-day excursions.
A highlight in Seward is a visit to the Alaska Sealife Center, which is designed as a research, rehabilitation and education facility. It has 15 aquariums and a huge netted space showcasing 150 different animals from the Gulf of Alaska, including birds, seals, sea lions, octopus and invertebrates. Allow several hours for a visit.
A sightseeing tour into the Kenai Fjords National Park offers the chance to see calving glaciers, humpback whales, orcas, otters, sea lions, eagles, puffins and other birds. One such trip includes lunch on exclusive Fox Island, where orcas come right up on the beach to rub against the rocky shore.
Seward’s Exit Glacier is one of the most accessible in Alaska. The wheelchair-accessible Glacier View Loop Trail meanders through a cottonwood forest before arriving at a panoramic viewpoint. The Glacier Overlook Trail is an additional 0.7‑miles full of jaw-dropping sights. Tours offer the chance to walk on the ice and those with a sense of adventure can try ice climbing.
Angling the Russian River
Forty-five miles north of Seward is where you find the gin-clear Russian River. This is one of the few streams in North America where sockeye salmon are easily caught on artificial flies. There are two contrasting zones: the infamous crowds of the ‘combat zone’ and the much quieter area near Russian River Falls, where you can see leaping salmon. The upper river is an area where you are more likely to see a bear than another angler.
In both areas, an angler fishing from the bank can catch trophy-size rainbow trout and Arctic char, but odds of catching good fish increase dramatically if you are able to float the river in a drift boat. Fortunately, experienced drift boat guides are available. All offer-full-day charters while a few also offer two-day trips.
Apart from fishing, this area of the Kenai Peninsula has one of the most extensive systems of maintained hiking trails in Alaska. You are likely to see eagles, mountain goats and Dall sheep. Brown and black bear, moose, wolf and caribou are also in the area.
Homer: The end of the road on the Kenai Peninsula
This charming, colorful town is literally at the end of the road if you have driven up from the Lower 48 states. The town is surrounded by an incredible panorama of mountains, white peaks, glaciers, and the famous Homer Spit, a four-mile-long strip of land that stretches into beautiful, deep blue Kachemak Bay.
The Spit is a hub of bustling activity during the summer. There are throngs of tourists, people camping on the beach, charter boats heading out to catch halibut, beachcombers, and birders amazed at how many bald eagles they can spot. King salmon can be caught here from mid-May to the end of June, while silver salmon run in August.
Some of the most colorful and attractive shops, restaurants and food stalls you can imagine line the spit road. Many are built on stilts over the water and are accessed by boardwalks. Scattered among them are bars, charter operators, art galleries, and grocery and liquor outlets. It may be a town planners’ nightmare, but the public loves it.
Back on dry land, there are plenty of lodging choices, more shops, some interesting museums, a botanic garden, a farmer’s market on Wednesday and Saturday, and waterfront walks. Festivals include Winter Carnival in February, the King Salmon Tournament in March, the Shorebird Festival in May, and the Writer’s Conference in June.
On the other side of the bay is Kachemak Bay State Wilderness Park, a 350,000-acre paradise of glaciers, mountains, protected coves for paddling, and an extensive trail system to explore on foot.
What’s appealing to the over-50 luxury traveler?
- The laid-back vibe throughout the Kenai Peninsula encourages visitors to take their time and enjoy all there is to see and do.
- If offers unique opportunities to see wildlife both on land and water. You are likely to see seals, sea otters, porpoises, whales and numerous species of sea birds while out on the water, and moose, black or brown bear, eagles, sandhill cranes, and perhaps rabbits, fox or porcupines on land.
- Bear viewing is popular because people can see these wild animals up close in their natural surroundings, in relative safety and comfort. Well-equipped lodges and experienced guides make this popular with all ages.
- This area gets very cold and has short days in winter, so it is not ideal for sightseeing at that time. Some shops, tour operators, and lodgings close but you will escape the crowds.
- May to September is the popular time for most visitors. Days are long and everything is open. Lodging and restaurant prices can be higher than in the Lower-48 because the season is relatively short, and some pre-booking of accommodation is recommended.
All photo credits (except lead photo): Phensri Rutledge