Ethnic diversity and nature's wild beauty converge in Chiang Rai province, where the borders of Laos and Myanmar blur
Beneath me, a sheet of mist stretches across two countries. It cloaks a densely forested valley which straddles the Thailand-Laos border. I cannot tell where one nation ends and the other begins when I am high atop Phu Chi Fa peak in Thailand's Chiang Rai province.
The reality is that in this mountainous region of South-east Asia, many things in life flow across national borders, whether culture or cuisine, religion or people.
I am at the Golden Triangle, a loosely defined zone where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet. There are no fences or immigration checkpoints along much of the border lands. Instead, it is Mother Nature that helps divide the nations with rivers and mountain ranges.
Some things that move across the borders are welcomed and occasionally even assimilated on the other side, like the Lao language, which is spoken by millions of people in north-eastern Thailand. Others are rejected, barely tolerated or left in a state of limbo.
This last description applies to the thousands of stateless people who live in this region of Thailand. For centuries, Chiang Rai has witnessed a constant flow of immigrants and refugees back and forth across its porous borders with Myanmar and Laos.
Many Burmese and Laotian people are attracted by the greater wealth of Thailand, but, once settled there, find they have limited rights in either their adopted or original countries.
The plight of these stateless people has been thrust into focus by the extraordinary story of survival of the Wild Boars soccer team, who were rescued from a Chiang Rai cave this month.
The team coach and at least two of the 12 boys are stateless and live in Mae Sai, a small Thai town on the border with Myanmar. They represent one of the harsh realities of this wild region of Asia.
To look at it in a more positive light, they are also emblematic of the extraordinary ethnic diversity that makes Chiang Rai so special.
Not only does the province border Laos and Myanmar, earning it large populations of Burmese and Laotian people, but towns such as Mae Sai are also only slightly more than 100km from the southernmost reaches of China's Yunnan province. Yunnan has the highest number of ethnic groups - 56 - of any province in China, and many hill tribes of the Golden Triangle have ties to it.
The Hmong, Lisu and Akha hill tribes originated in Yunnan, but now have a strong presence in Chiang Rai. They are unmistakable, thanks to their elaborate and colourful traditional garb, particularly the women, with their cotton clothes embroidered with intricate designs and decorated with beads, chains and feathers.
This ethnic diversity is one of the things which first attracted me to Thailand, which has been my on-and-off home for the past five years.
On one visit to northern Thailand, I ventured west from Chiang Rai to an Akha village in the district of Mae Suai. There, in a rugged mountainous environment, the Akha people maintain traditions and lifestyles which have scarcely changed in centuries.
I could not understand the Tibetan-Burmese language they spoke, but accepted offers to go into their bamboo-and-thatch huts to drink tea.
I have since visited villages associated with most of the hill tribes of northern Thailand. The welcome that respectful tourists receive from these communities is wonderfully warm.
Thailand is, of course, renowned for its impressive hospitality. This is especially evident in its quieter towns, cities and provinces. While some Bangkok residents appear a bit jaded by tourism - their city is, after all, among the top three most visited metropolises on the planet - there is no such malaise in Chiang Rai, which is a popular getaway among Bangkok people.
Surrounding the city are a number of other great attractions, including tea plantations such as Choke Chamroen, which visitors can tour to get an insight into the local tea industry. There is also Singha Park (www.singhapark. com), a sprawling amusement park which hosts an annual hot air balloon festival. Several gorgeous waterfalls, such as Pu Kaeng waterfall in Doi Luang National Park, lie slightly more than an hour south of the city.
The province is dotted with small towns which have well-managed hotels, restaurants and cafes that cater to foreign tourists with genuine friendliness. These towns mostly serve as gateways to the province's mountains, which offer some of the best trekking and caving in Thailand.
Tourists should not be put off by the haunting story of the Wild Boars team as there are many spectacular caves in northern Thailand which can be explored safely. Delving into the caves of Soppong, in Mae Hong Son province, was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life.
Tham Luang cave, where the boys were lost, has long attracted tourists and will surely become a much bigger attraction now. Travellers who do not wish to venture too deep inside a cave can instead visit the shallow Fish Cave Temple, home to Wat Tham Pla Buddhist shrine, on the outskirts of Chiang Rai city.
There is also plenty to recommend in the city itself. Chiang Rai is one of the most laid-back cities I have visited anywhere in the world.
While its fellow northern city, Chiang Mai, is somewhat blighted by pushy touts and hordes of tourists, Chiang Rai feels innocent and sleepy by comparison. Even in its downtown area, no one appears to be in a rush. This makes for an inviting, relaxed atmosphere in which to eat at a street food stall or a local restaurant.
My favourite Thai food originates from northern Thailand. The curry noodle dish Khao Soi is hard to find in my home town of Bangkok, but in Chiang Rai, I never have to look far to locate this creamy, coconut milk-based treat. I love to pair it with Sai Ua, a spicy grilled pork sausage which is wildly popular there.
When I want a fix of Western food, I can find a plethora of options as well, from Swedish bakeries to French bistros to Italian pizza parlours.
A traveller can base an entire Chiang Rai trip around food - such is the quality of its dining scene. Instead, I use these meals as fuel to help me scour the city's stunning temples. Chiang Rai is home to two of Thailand's most distinctive temples, Wat Rong Khun on its southern outskirts and Wat Rong Sear Tean in the city centre.
Also known as the White Temple, Wat Rong Khun is a sparkling Buddhist structure which has become an icon of the city and its top tourist draw. Whereas the majority of Thailand's most famous temples are ancient, this stark white complex was built just 21 years ago.
This single-colour theme continues at the Blue Temple, Wat Rong Sear Tean, which is drenched in dozens of shades of blue.
Chiang Rai province, meanwhile, is as green a place as you will find in Asia. Fortunately, humans have yet to leave a major mark on this untamed corner of Thailand.
As the Wild Boars emerged from the cave after more than two weeks trapped in darkness, they reentered an extraordinary environment which demands to be appreciated in the sunlight. The natural splendour of Chiang Rai is overwhelming.
• The writer is an Australian journalist and photographer who splits his time between Ireland and Thailand.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.