We can’t help but get excited when we find a destination with a special spark about it - those cultural connections that are so important to travel. Fang and Doi Pu Muen village, high in the northern hills of Chiang Mai, offer just that - the chance for an eco-focussed exploration of local Lahu traditions and culture. From the moment you arrive in Fang and check in at the Phumanee Lahu Home Hotel, you’re immersed in the life story of a traditional Lahu community.
Affectionately known as the ‘Rose of the North’, Chiang Mai town is pretty special. Temple-topped, misty mountains on the horizon, a relaxed café culture within ancient city walls, and a choice of charming hotels to suit every type of traveller. The capital of the north is a perfect place to start your Thailand adventure before heading out into the hills to Fang and Doi Phu Muen.
Until relatively recently, Doi Phu Muen’s main crop was opium. Thailand’s beloved King Rama IX set up the King’s Royal Project initiative which encouraged the villagers to make the move to tea production. The King himself planted the first Assam tea tree in the village which is still flourishing today.
Whether you want to relax by an open air pool overlooking the Ping River, or explore the numerous markets dotted around the Old Town, the ancient city of Chiang Mai is the perfect place to spend some free time.
If you’re in the mood for historical exploration, cycling is a great option that allows you to traverse the backstreets and discover hidden ancient temples in residential suburbs, away from the more tourist-heavy hotspots. In the evening, head to one of Chiang Mai’s night markets to pick up some artisan handicrafts, making sure you try some street food magic from one of the vendor carts. From rich bowls of khao soi noodle soup to sour-and-smoky laap, northern Thai food is an exciting cuisine that’s definitely worth experiencing in situ.
After a bumpy ride up the mountainside, a village comes in to view with the Phumanee Lahu Home Hotel at its centre. Owned and run by a Lahu family, this characterful hotel proudly displays its heritage through design details and a dedicated exhibition space. The family history is fascinating - one of the family’s ancestors, Phu Muen (after whom the village is named) led the migration of his Lahu tribe across the border from Myanmar to Thailand more than a century ago. The accommodation is simple, but that’s not why you visit. It’s all about learning the stories of Doi Phu Muen’s traditional community.
Roll up your sleeves and try your hand at picking tea leaves, a precise task that takes some finesse, and basket weaving, which is much harder than it seems, before being welcomed into one of the family’s stilted houses to enjoy a home-cooked lunch. Once your eyes have adjusted to the lower light, take a seat on rattan mats as a traditional meal is prepared. Sense the smoke and incredible smells gently rising from the roasting food, then tuck into an array of delicious dishes.
Chiang Rai - the ‘Gateway to the Golden Triangle’, and the northernmost city in Thailand - has a small provincial town feel. The vibrant night market, although a fraction of the size of Chiang Mai’s, is jam packed with traditional handicrafts and delicious street food.
A visit to the Doi Tung Development Project is a must. In an area that relied heavily on the production of Opium up until the late 1980’s, the Doi Tung Development Project has been a lifeline to local communities, providing them with opportunities to earn their livelihoods from growing coffee and macadamia nuts.
Chiang Rai is also home to the exquisite White Temple, the work of Chiang Rai-born visual artist and painter Chalermchai Kositpipat. Reminiscent of a Grimm’s fairy tale castle, comparisons have been made to Gaudi’s work and there is something unexpected at every turn. Sunglasses are essential as the glare from the bright white walls adorned with millions of tiny mirrors is intense.
Top off your experience of the region with a stay at Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp to learn more about Thailand’s beloved pachyderms - a wonderful way to interact with these giants in a respectful and conservation-led way.
Two hours South East of Chiang Rai, towards the Laos border, is the unassuming countryside town of Chiang Kham. Away from the incessant rush of a modern city, it has a timeless, artsy feel. Steeped in history, the streets are sprinkled with a handful of temples and giant, ancient trees. The quiet roads are perfect for a gentle cycle, with paddy fields and rolling hills greeting you in the background.
Few tourists make it this far down the chain away from northern Thailand’s most well-known spots, and there’s a refreshing honesty to the place. No hint of anything over-polished or photo-ready, just the daily lives of those who make a home in this remote region, including many wanderers from neighbouring countries. The fact that it doesn’t have the usual visitor-centric wow factor makes it even more compelling. It’s a world away from Bangkok, and 100% true to itself.
We suggest that you compliment your 2 night stay at the Phumanee Lahu Home Hotel perfectly with 3 nights in Chiang Mai, 2 in Chiang Rai, 1 night at Elephant Steps near Chiang Rai and 2 nights based in Chiang Kham to explore the region by foot and on bike. This trip would typically cost £2,190US$2,490 per person (not including international flights).
How yours looks is up to you, our tailor-made specialists work with you to create your perfect journey.
Whilst the SA team don’t always agree on the merits of a destination or their current favourite experiences, there’s no disagreement when it comes to discussing repeat visits to Thailand. We all agree that ‘you’ve never done Thailand’. This all-rounder journey is a great way to discover it for the first time or become reacquainted with an old friend.