Yes. The Thai authorities have finally discovered me and a quick run to the Thai/Myanmar border was necessary yesterday.

Border crossings are quite a regular event here for many foreigners and a big business for the Thai economy. You will see signs advertising “Visa Runs” in all the major tourist centres.  Most foreigners living here longer term come in on a 90 day visa. It’s actually a 30 day visa that can be renewed a maximum of two times. Before the 90 days expiration date the visa holder has to leave the country, even if only for a few hours and return to obtain another 90 day stay in Thailand.

About an hour’s drive North of Chiang Rai is the town of Mae Sai, which doesn’t have a lot going for it other than it is a major exit point to Myanmar and also has the Immigration Office for Chiang Rai. Hop across the border, have a wander through the markets of Myanmar, get a coffee and then re-enter Thailand, paying money to both sides, and you’re good to go until next time.

Thai/Myanmar border crossing from the Mae Sai side.

A rather uninspired photo of the Thai/Myanmar border crossing from the Mae Sai side. The big blue building right at the end of the street is the border crossing point.

I am very lucky to be in Thailand on the best visa a foreigner can get. Called a retirement or “O” (Other) 12 month visa it is available for elderly folk like myself, well over 50 anyway, who either have an income of at least 65,000 TBH a month (A$2,200) or a bank account with at least 800,000 ($27,000) deposited. All I have to do is advise Thai Immigration of my current address every 90 days. This can be done by mail so no visa runs required thank goodness. I think that would wear a bit thin if you were here long term. Expensive too.

My run to the border was for a less vital reason than being thrown out of the country. I need to buy a car and this requires a visit to Immigration. Yes, I realise that statement doesn’t make a lot of sense. Part of the challenge of living in a new country, and especially an Asian one, is discovering all the bureaucratic obstacles to conducting what one would normally regard as a straight-forward transaction.  Either you go with the flow or it will drive you crazy(ier).

The back streets of Mae Sai, the Venice of Northern Thailand!

The back streets of Mae Sai, the Venice of Northern Thailand!

The fact is that to transfer the ownership of a vehicle, car or motorbike, or even to obtain a Thai driver’s licence you have to get a Certificate of Residency. This is obtained from Immigration after providing them with multiple copies of passport pages, lease documents and paying them (legitimate) money. Cleverly the Certificate is only valid for one month and is kept by the authority you’re dealing with. So to buy a car and get a driver’s licence you need two Certificates! Doing our bit for the Thai economy and it helps fill in those empty days after you retire.

A trip in Thailand is always interesting for a newbie like me and I like to include visits to new places so I thought I would share with you our day North of Chiang Rai.

The business part of the trip, getting the Certificate of Residency, went pretty smoothly. From our house on the Southside of Chiang Rai it took about 1 1/2 hours to get to Mae Sai on the border and the most Northerly point of Thailand. The internet was very stubborn in giving me the exact location of the Immigration office. Google maps has it helpfully located in the middle of a area full of rice fields, which seemed unlikely.

Not one of your best efforts Google.

Not one of your better efforts Google.

We ended up parking close to the border crossing and walked to the blue immigration building shown in the picture of Mae Sai above. It ended up that this office is only for processing departing/incoming people not for other paperwork. Gaun came to the rescue as is so often the case by getting directions from a passing Immigration Officer. Life here would be a lot more difficult without her local knowledge and language skills.

If you do need to visit Mae Sai/Chiang Rai immigration and rely on Google then their office is actually almost immediately to the left of this landmark on the main road into town:

Immigration - turn left after this bridge.

Immigration – turn left after this bridge.

The Immigration Office for Chiang Rai at Mae Sai.

The Immigration Office for Chiang Rai at Mae Sai.

I have to say the officers were extremely efficient and pleasant to deal with. Fifteen minutes and 200 TBH (500 TBH I believe in Chiang Mai) and I had my Certificate and was ready to move to the fun part of the day.

I had read about a place called Doi Tung and its attached gardens, rated number 3 on Trip Advisor for things to see in Chiang Rai. As it was North of the city and the turn-off was on the way back home we decided to have a look. Wikipedia describes Doi Tung as follows:

The Doi Tung royal villa, former residence of the Late Princess mother (mother of the present king) Somdej Phra Srinagarindra is also located high up on the hill.

Thanks to Princess Mother’s interest and encouragement the hills were reforested. She was also instrumental in fighting against the opium trade, as a result the local hill tribes stopped growing poppies and began to grow other crops.

The royal Villa was originally built as a summer residence for the Late Princess Mother and now houses a museum and displaying her work to improve the life quality of local tribal people.

The Mae Fah Luang Gardens are a botanical park located on the slopes below the royal villa. Flowers and plants grow among rock formations.

Driving out of Mae Sai I had to stop to take this photo. Although we are now getting many sunny days as we move out of the rainy season the smoke haze from burning crops has started. I doubt that we will ever get those crystal clear Australian summer days here. Still makes for a good photo.

The mountains heading up to Doi Tung.

The mountains heading up to Doi Tung.

The workers are from Myanmar and are planting a tobacco crop by hand. If you see the size of that ploughed area they will be at it for a while.

Doi Tung is in those mountains so we turned right and took a lovely winding road climbing steeply into the highlands. On the way there were many of these roadside nurseries growing wonderfully coloured flowers:

Loading up the truck with plants.

Loading up the truck with plants.

Wanted to buy the entire crop of these.

Wanted to buy the entire crop of these.

A bit further up the hill we came across a lookout and stopped.

Overlooking the Chiang Rai plain.

Overlooking the Chiang Rai plain.

I took the photo below because it reminded me of Italian villages on the Italian Amalfi Coast except without the beauty, history, colour and sea! These houses climbed up the hill at the back of the parking area.

Thailand's Amalfi Coast.

Thailand’s Amalfi Coast.

I have written before that when travelling in Thailand many areas specialise in particular products or produce sold at the roadside stalls. For example the trip from Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai covers lemons, bamboo, brooms, cane products and plastic flowers each category grouped together. Here on the hills of Doi Tung it is what the Thais loosely label as wine!

The next Grange could be here.

The next Grange could be here.

These are fruit wines – not just grapes but apple, plumbs, a lychee sort of fruit etc. The lady on the stall ensured I taste tested all the varieties, which had Gaun worried about my ongoing driving capacity. We ended up buying a couple of bottles. Chilled as an after dinner drink they will be a talking point if nothing else!

P.S. I have since tasted them by the glass and the “if nothing else” is the most appropriate description. I will get rid of them on guests visiting me.

A bit further up the road a turn to the left had us at the entrance to the Doi Tung complex.

The central point to the Princess Mother residence and the gardens.

The central point to the Royal residence and the gardens.

Entry will cost you a maximum of 220 TBH a person, Thai and foreigner charged equally here. There are four separate “exhibits”, the Doi Tung Royal Residence, the Mae Fah Luang gardens, the Hall of Inspiration and one other whose name escapes me and we didn’t have time to visit. You pay for the number of entrances you want. Our three cost 190 TBH (A$6.00) each.

We started at the garden because both Gaun and I have a love of flowers. The gardens cover 10 acres and are located on land that was originally used by the Akha, an indigenous hill tribe, and their village of Pa Kluay. This village used to be an important route for opium caravans and those involved in heroin-related weapon trafficking until it was resettled by the Doi Tung Development Project of the Mae Fah Luang Foundation.

A serious creeper. Gaun wearing her emergency long covering as we were going to be entering the Royal villa later.

A serious vine. Gaun wearing her emergency long wrap-round as we were going to be visiting the Royal villa later and the dress code there is as strict as entering a temple especially for women.

The garden cascades downhill from the Royal villa and is beautifully maintained.

The centrepiece of the garden.

The centrepiece of the garden. You can see the Royal villa top centre overlooking the garden and the mountains beyond. The statue “Continuity” is on the middle right – description and photos below.

The mountains of Myanmar in the background.

The mountains of Myanmar in the background.

The following words in italics have been provided by http://www.thelegend-chiangrai.com

In the middle of this garden stands “Continuity,” a sculpture by the late Misiem Yipintsoi. The Princess Mother gave this name to the sculpture to draw attention to the fact that continuity ensures the success of any endeavour. 

Sculpture

The Continuity Sculpture.

The flowers in Mae Fah Luang Garden are grown and nurtured by local villagers. The landscape designer, Pravit Boonmee, has been untiringly devoting his talents and experience for the 17 years since the beginning of the development of this garden. He is still faced with the constant challenge of how to keep the garden in full bloom all year round.

Among his unique creations are the special colour schemes for the different days of birth of the royal family such as red for the Princess Mother who was born on a Sunday, and yellow for His Majesty the King who was born on a Monday.

The Garden brings substantial income to the area, directly as job opportunities for the locals, and indirectly as a tourist destination that on some days welcomes more than 10,000 visitors.

Speaking of 10,000 visitors we are enjoying the benefits of being here in low season and later in the day. I would guess there might have been 50 visitor in the whole place.

Floriade in the mountains of Thailand.

Floriade in the mountains of Thailand.

Open spaces mixed with lush shady areas.

Open spaces mixed with lush shady areas.

A water stop.

A water stop.

A flower display built from local bamboo.

A flower display built from local bamboo.

Leaving the garden we headed to the Royal villa. Gaun’s attire was not deemed appropriate so she was given a vast denim wrap-round skirt from a large stock on hand for visitors.

Fashion denim

Fashion denim.

I had read the reviews before we went so had prepared by wearing long trousers. A short sleeve shirt is fine but a T shirt might not pass even for a bloke!

The long driveway leading up to the villa.

The long driveway leading up to the villa.

The Doi Tung Royal Villa was the first residence of Her Royal Highness Princess Srinakarindra,the Princess Mother, and built under her supervision.Her Royal Highness the Princess Mother and her daughter, Princess Galyani Vadhana, gave the architects a concept of simplicity and multi-functionality for the Royal Villa. Construction Started on December 26, 1987.

The Royal Villa incorporates architectural elements from Switzerland, where Her Royal Highness lived for many years, and from northern Lanna culture. Her Royal Highness used the Royal Villa as a base to oversee work in the Doi Tung Development Project.

The Royal villa consists of four connected buildings:

(1) the personal residence of Her Royal Highness the Princess Mother;

(2) a large reception hall;

(3) the personal residence of then phuying (dame) Tasna Valaya Sorasongkrarn, granddaughter of H.R.H. the Princess Mother; and

(4) the personal residence of H.R.H.Princess Galyani Vadhana, daughter of H.R.H. the Princess Mother (words provided by http://www.tourismchiangrai.com)

The approach to the villa.

The approach to the villa.

Photographs are not allowed in the villa and I couldn’t even find any from a quick search on the net. Visitors are given audio headphones which are matched stopping points within the villa, so it is organised to give you the best possible experience.

The villa itself is a mostly wooden structure built of tree trunks. Inside is totally wooden with “normal” sized rooms and beautiful views from large balconies overlooking the garden and the mountains.

One of the villa's balconies.

One of the villa’s balconies.

Very simple for a Royal residence and perhaps reflects the Princess Mother’s nature, which seems to be one of genuine enthusiasm and practical achievement in helping the local population.

Swiss mixed with Thai Lanna architecture.

Swiss mixed with Thai Lanna architecture.

The view over Northern Thailand from the edge of the front garden of the villa.

The view over Northern Thailand from the edge of the villa’s front garden.

All this walking required a rest stop and luckily there was an excellent little cafe available:

Doi Tung Cafe

Doi Tung Cafe. A properly prepared shot of coffee too.

Me with an iced coffee - don't tell the coffee purists.

Me with an iced coffee – don’t tell the coffee purists back home.

The final stop was an exhibition building called the Hall of Inspiration. It was 4.45 pm by now and the place closes at 5.00 so we only had time for a quick run through. The net comes to my rescue and tell me that:

The Mae Fah Luang Foundation under Royal Patronage has renovated the Princess Mother’s Commemorative Hall at Doi Tung.  With new content, it is now known as the “Hall of Inspiration” and covers the story of the Mahidol family, from His Royal Highness Prince Mahidol, Her Royal Highness Princess Srinagarindra the Princess Mother, Her Royal Highness Princess Galyani Vadhana, His Majesty King Ananda Mahidol and His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej. 

The new exhibition shows the character, philosophies and working principles of the family, and their diligence to find ways to improve the lives and livelihoods of the Thai people in all corners of the Kingdom through simple but effective works.

There has been some serious money put into this place and it is well worth a visit. I would have liked a lot more time to wander through the display rooms many with electronic media and very professionally done. Heaps to see and read. It is a tribute to the current Royal family – all good of course, but gives a very comprehensive background to the family’s history and some of the many projects they have supported or initiated in Thailand.

Very smart presentation.

Very smart presentation.

Whatever you think of royalty the current Thai king, his wife and some of his family have been extremely active in trying to better the condition of particularly the lower classes. There is a genuine affection and level of respect given to the royal family in Thailand.

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The light was fading as we left Doi Tung and I wanted to get to a particular Wat a bit further along the road to capture sundown on the two golden stupas they have. Gaun was not keen on the combination of fading light, temples and no other people. Spirits or “ghosts” as she calls them have real impact in Thai life, particularly in rural areas. The Wat itself is very small and under extensive renovation but will be lovely when finished. Worth a return visit.

Where you see an orange cloth wrapping anything in a Thai temple it means that it is an unfinished project. The “unwrapping” involves what Gaun calls a temple party, which involves lots of ceremonies, monks and of course, of far more importance to most Thais, a feast provided by the local community and dancing to follow.

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Our drive home coincided with sunset over the Thai/Myanmar border mountains. Combined with the slightly smoky conditions it ended up being a photographer’s delight. A beautiful end to a great day out.

The end of a day involving Thai bureaucracy, gardens, the Royal family and a Wat. Perfect

The end of a day involving Thai bureaucracy, gardens, the Royal family and a Wat. Perfect

Thanks for reading.