If you are a traveller on a budget or looking for a short yet fulfilling break, Chiang Rai should definitely be on your list.
Just a 3 1/2hour flight from Singapore, it is an ideal spot for a stress-relieving holiday quickie to relax and recharge.
During my four-day trip to the Thai province, our itinerary covered all the must-see spots, from the breathtaking Blue Temple to the humble villages of the indigenous Akha and Long Neck Karen hill tribes.
Chiang Rai tucks its borders close to Laos and Myanmar, and the city boasts a vibrant culture and is not short of historical and cultural attractions.
Wat Rong Khun, better known as the White Temple, was our first stop.
Upon entering the main chapel, there is no turning back. Filled with Buddhist imagery, visitors must walk across a bridge surrounded by a pool of terrifying hand sculptures that represent suffering in hell. This pathway symbolises the walk to heaven, with demons being on guard.
Wat Rong Seur Ten, or the Blue Temple, was next.
Rong Seur Ten means House of the Dancing Tiger in Thai.
Once inside, look up to see the interior decor adorned with brilliant, intricate paintings.
The entire hall is painted in hues of striking cobalt blue and a huge statue of a white Buddha sits in the middle.
The next morning, I visited the Choui Fong tea plantation.
The panoramic view of lush greenery makes it a popular backdrop for every Instagrammer.
After exploring the tea plantation, I found a quaint little cafe within the vicinity to relax and enjoy a hot cup of tea. It serves cold beverages such as iced tea and frappes too, on top of desserts, appetisers and mains. Prices range from 50 baht (S$2) for a cup of tea to 350 baht for a hearty plate of salmon steak. If you are missing family, there is also a souvenir shop nearby.
I was pleasantly surprised by Chiang Rai's extensive offering of sophisticated cafes serving Thai-Western fusion dishes.
Lunch was at The Wanderer, where I had Thai-style stewed beef with rice and an onsen egg, and the flavours complemented one another so well.
Later, I made my way to Singha Park and got up close and personal with well-cared-for animals such as ponies, zebras, giraffes and cows.
This is a great place to escape the hustle and bustle of city life, and you may also ride bicycles to explore secret treasures like a sunflower garden and strawberry farm.
Wat Huay Pla Kang temple was the sightseeing attraction to catch the sunset.
I climbed up nine storeys and was greeted with a closer view of the Goddess of Mercy, Guan Yin.
The following morning started as early as 3am, with a two-hour drive to the 1,442m-high Phu Chi Fa mountain to enjoy the picturesque sunrise.
It is popular among hikers and nature lovers for its sea of clouds and amazing views, and it overlooks the Laos border too.
Temperatures dip to as low as 16 deg C in the morning, so a sweater or scarf is recommended.
There is also a small local eatery at Phu Chi Fa to keep the hunger pangs at bay while you make your journey back to the city.
I then visited the Union of Hill Tribe Villages to witness the simple village life of rural dwellers from five hill tribes - the Akha, Yao, Lahu, Kayaw and Long Neck Karen - to learn more about their unique traditions and customs.
For instance, the tribeswomen of Long Neck Karen start wearing their brass neck rings - which can get as heavy as 2.5kg - from the tender age of three to four, a form of beauty in their culture.
Before calling it a night, I checked out the Golden Clock Tower, one of Chiang Rai's most well-known sites. Open 24 hours, there is a music and light show at 7pm, 8pm and 9pm nightly.
A trip to Thailand is not complete without a visit to the night markets.
At Chiang Rai Night Bazaar, there are vendors selling clothes, jewellery, footwear and food.
In particular, I came across a stall that offered an array of fried insects and bugs. Each plate was priced at only 20 baht. Unfortunately, I lacked the courage to give it a try.
When I cheekily asked the vendor how it would taste, he replied with a laugh: "Salty."
AirAsia currently operates three weekly flights from Singapore to Chiang Rai, the low-cost airline's seventh and newest hub in Thailand. AirAsia also offers direct flights to Chiang Rai from Kuala Lumpur, Macau and Phuket.
Source: The New Paper © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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