The ‘Colours of Doi Tung Festival’ brings art, food and music to the mountains of Chiang Rai
It’s often referred to as the “highest walking street in the country” and today Doi Tung is probably also the coldest, with the strong breeze whipping across the mountain bringing a scent of winter to the “Colours of Doi Tung” festival.
Now in its fourth edition, the festival is held in the grounds of the Doi Tung royal villa, the former residence of Her Royal Highness the late Princess Srinagarindra, often simply called the Princess Mother, who took up residence here on November 23, 1988 and initiated the Doi Tung Development Project to reforest the land and help improve the lives of the local people.
The residence itself reflects the Princess Mother’s interest in astrology with the ceiling of the Royal Villa’s main hall boasting handcrafted wood inlays of her favourite constellations and the light bulbs arranged in such a way as to show the position of the constellations on October 21, 1900, the day the Princess Mother was born.
After a two-hour drive from Chiang Rai International Airport, we arrive at Doi Tung in the late afternoon, the day before the opening ceremony of the Colours of Doi Tung Festival.
The van drops us off outside the Hall of Inspiration, which is home to an exhibition on the lives, principles and works of the Mahidol family featuring Their Royal Highnesses the Prince Father, Princess Mother and Princess Galyani, and Their Majesties King Ananda Mahidol (Rama VIII) and King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX).
The story is told through a metaphor of a drop of water creating ever widening ripples, much like the lives and work of every member of the Mahidol family. Together and individually they started each project on a small scale and expanded in steady steps, with the results of their work spreading outward until they touched and improved innumerable lives throughout the country.
This exhibition consists of seven rooms: The Mahidol Family, The Family History through the Eyes of the Princess Mother, The Return of the Mahidol Family, The People’s Suffering, The Sustainable Model for Alleviation of the People’s Suffering, The Doi Tung Model for Alleviation of the People’s Suffering and The Room of Inspiration.
With the sun sinking below the horizon, we make our way to the Doi Tung restaurant, where we feast on traditional Northern dishes, ethnic specialities and fresh vegetables from the project's vegetable farm and local farms before retiring to our comfortable rooms at Doi Tung Lodge.
I wake up early and watch the sun rise through a sea of mist. The festival formally opens at 8am and this year it’s been given the theme “Follow and Carry” in a reference to the Princess Mother’s vision for the land.
The festival can be accessed by either of the two entrances made of the bamboo art installations and titled the Bond Pavilion and Connection.
They’re inspired by the six ethnic minorities – Akha, Lahu, Shan, Thai Lue, Lawa and Chinese – who live together and work together to restore the forest. Another sculpture is called “Everyday Objects” and draws on colours and design of the hilltribes’ textiles that are spread across the walking street.
The Kad Chon Pao zone is home to more than 80 stalls offering traditional food, drinks, handicrafts and agricultural products of the ethnic minorities living at Doi Tung. Well worth sampling are the khao nga thod (black sticky rice with sesame), khanom dao (soybean star cake with corn), mee lueang phad (fried yellow noodle), khao puk (pounded and grilled black sticky rice), khao kan jin (rice mixed with ground pork and blood wrapped in banana leaves then steamed), and sticky rice in bamboo. Get yourself a coffee to wash the food down and eat while admiring the beautiful Mae Fah Luang Garden.
The section of walking street leading from Kad Chon Pao to the Workshop zone is packed with tribal clothes, hats, bags and accessories as well as souvenirs – all of them too attractive to resist so perhaps it’s a good thing that the workshops offer visitors a chance to learn bag painting.
You can also stretch your creativity by making postcards out of saa (mulberry) paper, stitch notebooks and shape and paint a few ceramic pieces. I opt for the postcard class and decorate my creation with some dried flowers.
“Doi Tung is known for organising events focusing on food, agriculture, handcrafts and social development and the Doi Tung Lifestyle shops sell woven fabric, saa paper works and ceramics. So this year we thought it would be fun to invite visitors to have a go at making their own,” says Jackrayu Kongurai, product designer with the Doi Tung Development Project, who has turned the workshops into a business unit.
“The festival grows more popular every year and now when tourists come to Chiang Rai, they come up to Doi Tung,” he adds.
Having satisfied their creative juices, many of the visitors head straight to the Formula Doi area, where they emulate racing driver Lewis Hamilton and drive their three-wheel wooden carts at tortoise speed. Others take selfies with the stilt walkers.
I continue walking and quickly reach Kad Doi Tung with its colourful lineup of tribal clothes, snacks, tea, fruits and such agricultural products as fresh snow lotus, Inca peanut and black sesame.
Opposite is another food area, this one called khan tok in a reference to the northern word meaning wooden utensil.
It serves a range of traditional Northern foods including herbal fermented chicken in bamboo and nam phrik makuea som (tomato chilli sauce).
There’s entertainment nearby too and I watch fascinated as two green “birds” and a red creature that looks a little like a lion perform the traditional dance known as ram nok ram toh.
I end my visit with a stroll along with 300-metre Doi Tung Treetop Walk. Opened in 2016, it’s perched 30 metres above the property and offers a bird’s eye view of the forest, stream, and coffee plants as well as a distant glimpse of Doi Chang Moob, the border town that separates Thailand and Myanmar.
IF YOU GO
- The Colours of Doi Tung Festival takes place every weekend until January 28 from 8am to 6pm.
- Find out now at www.MaeFahLuang.org, www.DoiTung.org and Facebook.com/DoiTungClub.