(eTN) – Chiang Rai has been inhabited since the 7th century, but it was not until 1262 that King Meng Rai established it as the first capital of the Lanna kingdom. The capital was later relocated to Chiang Mai, and since that time, Chiang Rai has lived in the shadow of its neighboring province, though for tourists this is a good thing.
Today, Chiang Rai is a traveler’s paradise, endowed with abundant natural attractions and antiquities. Attractions range from ruins of ancient settlements and Buddhist shrines to magnificent mountain scenery and hill tribe villages. For those interested in the natural side of Chiang Rai, jungle trekking is a magical experience; explore the mountains of the north along various hiking trails, many of which access the villages of diverse hill tribes groups, many of whom maintain their traditional lifestyles.
Chiang Rai town, which tends to be a little more laid back than its more popular neighbor, now competes with Chiang Mai as a tourist attraction and is fast becoming a popular escape for tourists wanting a different Thai experience.
Dragging myself away from the cosseted and luxurious environment of the St. Regis Hotel in Bangkok, as well as the urban jungle surrounding the hotel, I made my way up north to an area known as the Golden Triangle. This is where Burma and Laos meet Thailand and was infamous for being a center of opium production
Chiang Rai had stayed off the tourist radar for many years, its people enjoying very leisurely development and mostly traditional, rural lifestyles. Until this day, entire clans live together in bamboo houses, and each village has its own individual character.
Recently, tourism has boomed in Chiang Rai, where visitors have come to explore the pristine natural beauty of the countryside and immerse themselves in the indigenous culture, including those of a variety of different hill tribe communities, which have been coaxed off opium production through public and private sector initiatives and villagers develop their attractions without affecting their natural and cultural assets.
One of the most exciting and “evolving” works of art, for lack of a better description, is Wat Rong Khun, known as the White Temple. It is where Gaudi and Dali styles melt into something Thai.
This magnificent temple, about half an hour from Chiang Rai town, is a living work of art and construction began in 1997 and is ongoing. It is the culmination of the dream of renowned Thai artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat, who wants to take traditional Buddhist art into the contemporary world. A visit here is a must to all spending time in Chiang Rai.
Finding accommodation in Chiang Rai is not a problem. Starwood currently operates 16 hotels in Thailand, including 4 Sheraton hotels, 2 Westin hotels, 6 Le Meridien hotels, 1 Four Points by Sheraton hotel, 1 W hotel, and 2 Luxury Collection hotels. In the coming years, 8 new hotels will come online in Thailand and, by the end of 2011, Thailand will be the second market in Asia Pacific to have the representation of 8 of 9 Starwood hotel brands.
Starwood runs one of the most luxurious riverside resorts in the area, Le Meridien Chiang Rai Resort. The hotel fronts on to the Kok River which, along with 2 100-year-old raintrees, forms the perfect setting and antidote to the stress of any big city. With its 159 rooms spread out over a large area and different buildings, the overall feeling is one of tranquility. The hotel offers a variety of meeting facilities, as well as an excellent kitchen, 2 restaurants – Latest Recipe (International) and Favola (Italian) run under its French food and beverage manager, Renaud Mahe, are as good as any found in Bangkok if not in France, far better then the average resort fare. The young and dynamic general manager, Justin Malcolm, is exploring ways for the hotel to integrate itself into the community. A new highway will soon link Chiang Rai with China, and according to Malcolm, this link will bring in many new travelers from the region.