While the bustling city of Chiang Mai is popular with visitors for its fancy restaurants, exclusive hotels and exciting entertainment venues that open well into the wee hours of the morning, there's a place just one and a half hours away from the northern capital that's virtually asleep by eight in the evening. On a recent visit to the district of Chiang Dao, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary as a district this year, I discover the reason for this is simple – life begins very early in Chiang Dao, also known as the valley of stars. The local market opens at 3am and closes by Sam. And since most locals are involved in agriculture, the market is usually bustling with vendors and buyers – including people from nearby ethnic hill tribes trading local produce.The agricultural industry flourished here 14 years ago. Driven by her desire to improve the lives of locals by equipping them with agricultural skills and arable land, Her Majesty Queen Sirikit of Thailand spearheaded the Muang Ngai agricultural project (Kaset Muang Ngai project) in the eponymous village.
HM the Queen of Thailand selflessly gave up a swathe of privately owned land (about 126 acres, or 51 hectares) to set up pilot farm projects. As a result of this initiative, today Chiang Dao is the
source of a host of chemical-free agricultural produce including Lingzhi mushrooms, tomatoes, cabbage, grapes and dragon fruit.To Her Majesty's delight, it continues to provide tens of thousands of farmers each year with a htalthy income. Before HM the Queen of Thailand arrived Here , farmers only knew how to grow garlic and rice," explains Amnat Decha, head of the Muang Ngai agricultural project. "Competition from China was strong and the local farmers had no way of keeping up. With training programmes on integrated and organic farming, alongside His Majesty the King of Thailand's sufficiency economy philosophy, the variety of agricultural crops now grown here has bettered the lives of these people enormously."
Any visitor will be spellbound by the picturesque landscape of Muang Ngai – there's material for poetry everywhere – the misty mountain tops, the silhouettes of robust rubber trees, and the fields of rare highland flowers dotted along rolling hills.
A visit to Chiang Dao is never complete without a stopover at King Naresuan's stupa. Follow the signs as you leave the Muang Ngai project and in just a few moments you reach a magnificent large octogonal square, where a commemorative chedi sits. King Naresuan is considered one of Siam's greatest monarchs and is revered for having led many expeditions against the invading Burmese troops. As a tribute to the King's courage, and to mark his brief stop in the area before leading his troops to Burma to invade Angwa in 1604, locals constructed the beautiful stupa.
Clockwise from left An orchld nursery in Muang Ngai: farmers harvest organic linzhi mushroom farms in Muang Ngai, and, Doi Luang is a prime destination for trekking
THAI operates daily flightsto Chiang %1-ai For more intormatIonvisit wwwthaiairways.comAnother reason to visiting Chiang Dao is the Doi Luang mountain, which is located within a wildlife preservation area. At 2,225m, it is Thailand's third-highest peak, and home to abundant wildlife such as tigers, bears and serows, as well as to the splendid Chiang Dao caves. Those looking for a spot of adventure can explore any one of the five caves – Tham Phra Nawn and Tham Seua Dao are illuminated by electric lights. But if you want to wander around the caves of Tham Maa, Tham Kaew and Tham Naam then it's best to request the help of one of the local guides who can lead you through the dark passages with lanterns. No matter how you decide to do it, this is definitely a trip that will leave you breathless.
Alternatively, hike to the top of the viewpoint of Doi Luang for spectacular views of Doi Sam Phi Nong, the Chiang Dao mountain ranges and a partial view of Thailand's highest peak, the impressive Doi Inthanon.
Her Majesty the Queen of Thailand recognised the potential of Chiang Dao when she endeavoured to set up the Muang Ngai project more than a decade ago. Its ethereal beauty and genteel people made it the perfect place for visitors looking for a peaceful retreat.With Her Majesty's annual visits, Chiang Dao and its people can look forward to a prosperous future. And with HM the Queen of Thailand's unfailing dedication to the area, Chiang Dao is not only becoming an increasingly shining light on the destination map, but also a place fully worthy of its moniker – the valley of stars.