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Mercury falling, spirits rising

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The Colours of Doi Tung Festival is one of Chiang Rai province’s best-known annual events. Every weekend and public holiday in December and January, a fair featuring the sale of food and goods by hilltribe people and other ethnic groups living in Doi Tung and nearby mountains is held near the Mae Fah Luang Garden, a famous attraction that is part of Mae Fah Luang Foundation’s Doi Tung Development Project. The idea is to draw more visitors to Doi Tung and enable the villagers to benefit from the high season.

Taking place every weekend and public holiday in December and January, The Colours of Doi Tung Festival highlights the numerous kinds of flowers that bloom in the cold season and the charms of the people of different ethnic groups who live on Doi Tung and nearby mountains. This is a much-awaited period for the locals whose quality of life has been improved by the Doi Tung Development Project. Your visit can make them even happier.

Despite the fall in tourist numbers to the northern province this year due to new cases of Covid-19 infections — from those who illegally crossed the border from Myanmar into Thailand via the adjacent Mae Sai district — the festival is taking place as planned.

“Amid the widespread financial challenges caused by Covid-19, the Mae Fah Luang Foundation realises that there is an even more pressing need to host the event this year for the benefit of the Doi Tung communities,” said ML Dispanadda Diskul, the chief executive officer of the Mae Fah Luang Foundation (MFLF) last Friday during the opening ceremony of the annual festival, which is now the seventh. “Apart from lifting up people’s spirits, this festival of happiness also helps create income for Doi Tung villagers.”

During my visit on the first day of the fair, the tourist turnout wasn’t bad. At some snack shops, people had to queue up for their turn to buy. Many of the visitors were from Chiang Rai, judging from the number plates on cars in the parking areas. The festival will continue until the last weekend of January. In the upcoming weeks, if the situation does not escalate and tourists from Bangkok and other provinces are convinced that Chiang Rai is as safe to visit as any other part of the country, I’m sure the queues at those booths will be longer.

Almost 30 years ago, I visited Doi Tung as a young journalist. The development project there, initiated by HRH Princess Srinagarindra, was in its early stage and much of the mountains were denuded. I must admit I couldn’t picture how the reforestation project the army officer who led me and other visiting reporters around was talking about would succeed. But look at Doi Tung today. Most of the mountains are covered with forests. With the dedication and hard work of everybody involved, a miracle happened.

With the colourful beauty of Doi Tung today, bringing tourists back will be a lot easier, I believe.

Doi Tung is about 48km north of Chiang Rai’s Mae Fah Luang airport from where you can rent a car or hire a taxi. If you choose the first option, make sure you have no problem driving up and down the mountain. There is no entry fee to the fair but if you wish to visit the Mae Fah Luang Garden, the Hall of Inspiration, Doi Tung Royal Villa which was a residence and office of Princess Srinagarindra, or the Mae Fah Luang Arboretum which is located on Doi Chang Mup not so far away, the ticket is 90 baht per person for each place, and 220 baht for four. Students, the elderly, monks and people with disabilities are entitled to a 50% discount. These attractions are open every day.

If you wish to stay overnight at Doi Tung, the development project has comfortable accommodation called Doi Tung Lodge. Its restaurant serves decent food, including beef hung-lae curry which I have never seen anywhere else as the northern dish is normally made with pork.

The Mae Fah Luang Art & Cultural Park is open daily, except on Mondays, from 8.30am to 7pm. Entry fees come in four prices, ranging from 50 to 200 baht.

For inquiries, visit Doi Tung Club page on Facebook.

The late HRH Princess Srinagarindra who initiated the Doi Tung Development Project was born a commoner. She was married to HRH Prince Mahidol Adulyadej, a son of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V). Their three children include HRH Princess Galyani Vadhana, King Ananda Mahidol and King Bhumibol Adulyadej. With Prince Mahidol passing away in 1929 when their youngest son was less than two years old and the political change that resulted from the Siamese revolution almost three years later, life was not easy for the single mother who took care of the young members of the Mahidol royal family. Yet not only did Princess Srinagarindra manage to raise her sons so well that they became two beloved monarchs, but she herself also played a great role in improving the health and livelihood of people in remote areas. The project on Doi Tung was just one of the many carried out by her Mae Fah Luang Foundation. At the Hall of Inspiration, which is situated next to the Mae Fah Luang Garden, visitors can learn more about Princess Srinagarindra and the Mahidol family. There are many old photographs and other items on show. The one that touched me most was a handwritten letter by Prince Mahidol to his mother Queen Sri Savarindira dated Feb 24, 1918. In the letter, the prince, who was studying at Harvard Medical School, mentioned that he came to the US not for fun “but only for the benefits of the Thai people”. Time has proven that he really meant it. Prince Mahidol is regarded as the country’s “Father of Modern Medicine”. By the way, this sculpture depicting Princess Srinagarindra is at Mae Fah Luang Art & Cultural Park which is in the town of Chiang Rai, about 58km south of Doi Tung.

From a lookout platform, one can have a good view of Doi Tung’s Mae Fah Luang Garden. It’s hard to believe that this beautiful area was once teeming with drug and gun traffickers.

It’s wise to visit the festival with an empty stomach since there are tons of goodies for you to try, from ethnic food to Thai and international snacks made from farm produce grown by locals. The Krua Tam Nak restaurant run by Doi Tung Development Project also has some tasty items on the menu. My favourites were the signature Doi Tung fried rice, the vanilla ice cream served with fresh avocado and the macadamia souffle. Also available at the fair are pot plants, flower seeds and a wide variety of hand-crafted souvenirs.

Doi Tung has a creative learning space called Faidee for youths from different communities in and around the mountains to do various activities, from playing music and dancing to cooking and craftwork. The Colours of Doi Tung fair is a good chance for young folks to show off their talents. Some perform music and shows to entertain fair-goers while others offer a tour guide service or sell food, beverages and souvenirs they made.

Tai Yai children performed a traditional dance at the recent opening of this year’s Doi Tung Festival. The show featured dancers dressed as To and Kingkara birds, both of which are Tai Yai mythical creatures. Doi Tung is also home to five other ethnic groups, namely Akha, Lahu, Tai Lue, Lua and Chinese people from Yunnan.

Apart from food and flowers, visitors to Doi Tung can also enjoy activities, ranging from doing a tree-top walk to joining art and crafts workshops, riding a hill-tribe wooden buggy downhill or just chilling out with a cup of coffee while watching the sunset.

Mae Fah Luang Arboretum on Doi Chang Mup sits on the same mountain range as Mae Fah Luang Garden of Doi Tung but is 8.6km further north. Here, you’ll find myriad trees and plants grown in a more natural fashion. If you love rhododendrons, this place is a must-visit. So many varieties can be found here. The arboretum is pretty large but trained local children can guide you around and answer your questions, free of charge.

To protect staff members, villagers and visitors from Covid-19, stringent safety measures are in place for this year’s festival. Everybody entering the venues must wear a face mask, undergo a body temperature check, clean their hands and check-in via the Thai Chana mobile app. Frequently touched spots are cleaned often. For example, the seats of the free songthaews which run between the parking space and the fair area are sanitised after every trip. In the evening, workers spray zones that have high traffic with disinfectants. Ultraviolet radiation is also used to get rid of viruses and bacteria in toilets and other closed areas during the night.

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