A True Jewel Of The North
By Daniel Johnston
Having spent some time up in the North of Thailand near the provinces of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, it has to be said, there are many undiscovered gems to appreciate among the foothills of the mountains. I say “undiscovered”, although the Thais know all-too-well about these places. They are almost like little secrets that they keep to themselves but as far as foreigners go,are seldom seen and rarely appreciated by the wider world.
Everyone knows of the major cities in the northernmost reaches of this mystical land such as Chaing Mai and Chiang Rai and although they are certainly must-see parts of the country for any budding traveller, they do retain the a-typical touristic elements of many cities across the country with large swathes of tour groups descending upon each attraction throughout the day. It is always a case of timing as to when to truly appreciate the beauty and mysticism of these places.
However, if what you are seeking is a retreat from the hustle and bustle of your daily routine and to soak up the more natural vibes of this peace-loving, warm natured Buddhist nation, and avoiding the paths trampled by the many is the medicine you require. Then the north boasts plenty such places to fulfil your desires.
As much as I would love to ramble on across the pages of this wonderful publication, rolling on about all the magical places I have had the fortune of escaping to in recent months, there is one gem of the north that I feel is little known and is a jewel in the crown of Thailand – Phayao.
It is surprising how few people know of this charming town situated directly between the more famous cities of the north, especially as it boasts one of the largest landlocked bodies of water in the country. Phayao Lake (Kwan Phayao), is, simply put – breathtaking! As you exit the small urban jungle towards the vast expanse of water nestled under the dominating mountainous skyline of Doi Luang National Park you are filled with feelings of wonder and awe at the mastery of nature.
The Lake seems to endlessly journey across the horizon, a challenge for any seasoned rambler to traverse its circumference – something I fully intend to do at some point – and lends itself to more peaceful variants of water-centric activities. Trips across the lake can be arranged but you won’t find a host of powerboats spinning up a frenzy across the silky smooth reflection of the blue skies above; more like small journeys across to the opposite side of the lake, the odd fishing experience and round trips across to the small Buddhist island retreat. The latter being a very spiritual experience.
The small island is only inhabited infrequently by monks throughout the year and trips over during daytime hours, are limited, so as not to disturb the energies of the meditative retreat.
Thus the island has a dreamy-like vibe that you feel upon placing your feet on this small outcrop of land.
The lake is not all that is on offer in this jewel of the north, however. Along with the usual helpings of coastal eateries and refreshment stations of both the healthy and pleasurable varieties, the coastline awards visitors with a playground for the younger generations at one end of the coastal road and a beautifully crafted statue of the King of the north at the other to appreciate.
Located between these two landmarks, almost central on the coastal road, is a boutique cafe and adjoining store gifting a more artistic approach to catering and souvenir shopping. Subsukum Coffee Shop, a family run business that welcomes all visitors with a warmth that only the Thais know how to give. From young sisters who have dedicated their creative skills to the service of tourists to the far corners of the world. I mention this place as they genuinely make the town that much more pleasurable with their kindness. Also the produce that they sell caters directly to my heart; with a host of alternatives to sugar, for instance, local produce such as teas and coffee from the northern regions and souvenirs of a more artistic nature..
As regards rooms, the average price per night is a little over 500 THB and with mornings waking to wishful vistas of the lake, it is difficult to understand why these places aren’t fully booked all year round? Moving away from the services though, Phayao sprawls far beyond the nestling of the lake’s coastline and among the urban jungle are a grand collection of Temples, enough to satisfy the needs of any cultural junkies.
Most noteworthy is the grandeur of Wat Si Chom Rueang which dominates the landscape just a little over the main highway through the town and the central temple of the region – as it is home to a Buddhist University for those following the path of monkhood – Wat Si Khom Kham. The latter being a vast temple complex host to numerous smaller Wats/places of worship, aesthetically pleasurable gardens along the lakeside and some artistic journeys all within the same walls of both the temple and the university. To fully appreciate all that Phayoa has to offer in reference to the places of worship takes more than a day as the central Wat in the region can consume a good half of your day alone. Also if you are like me, there are few off the beaten tracks that I personally would consider a must, such as Wat Yang Yong. This small shrine to Buddha is home to a miniature, well-attended garden with a couple of majestic trees sheltering the small plot of land. I especially love this place as it is more traditional in nature, with a simplicity that isn’t often seen anywhere nowadays.
To summarise, it is a great surprise to me personally that the northern town of Phayao isn’t inundated with the hordes of tourists that many places in and around its surrounds see. However,that only adds to its charm I guess – also the general cost of a visit, and in fact everything is so affordable.
Genuinely, if you are looking to escape from your life for a brief moment in time, find a place of tranquillity and refresh both the physical and spiritual energies whilst experiencing a part of Thailand untouched by the Western and Asiatic hordes, then Phayao is that place. But don’t take my word for it, take a trip up and make your own historical notes on a true jewel of the northern crown of this most magical of nations.