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CHIANG MAI

Love in a cold climate

Chiang Mai is the hot place to be in the winter, as the cherry trees burst into bloom



Often referred to as the "Rose of the North", Chiang Mai is indeed famous for its beautiful roses, which burst into blossom as the cool season arrives around November and continue to offer their fragrant blooms until around February. Less advertised but equally as beautiful are the many other flowers the former Lanna capital is proud to share with its visitors.

Brave the ribbon of high and often vertiginous roads to the mountains where the hilltribes live on small strawberry, flower and coffee farms and enjoy the pure beauty of the cherry blossom.

At this time of year, Chiang Mai's hilly roads are a breathtaking pageantry of loveliness, as the Wild Himalayan Cherry is bursting into the bloom. You'll have to head up there now though if you want to witness the splendour - like a flash in the pan, the blooms last only briefly after they peak.

The Wild Himalayan Cherry was introduced more than 10 years to Thailand's North. Spreading out from Doi Phu Kha in Nan to Doi Suthep and Doi Inthanon ranges in Chiang Mai province, the cherry trees were planted on high terrain to improve the land that had been badly damaged following deforestation. Ten years later, and Thais are benefiting from their beauty. Over the last three years, the cherry trees have drawn crowds of flower-lovers, romantic weekenders and small-time photographer to Chiang Mai to admire their puffy pink blooms.

Getting there is simple. Take a budget flight to Chiang Mai over the weekend, and drive from the airport into the high ranges.

The first stop is Khun Wang Royal Agricultural Research Centre about 90 kilometres from downtown Chiang Mai. Tucked away beyond the high range of Doi Inthanon, the research centre studies cold-climate and high-altitude crops including Arabica coffee, macadamia nuts, peaches and flowers before passing on the knowledge to the hilltribe farmers.

Here, where coffee plants and peach trees spread out as far as the eye can see, cherry trees line both sides of the path, snaking their way through the research centre. The leafless trees explode in pink-and-white blossoms, reminding even hardened souls of their first romantic moment. Their aged, bent and gnarly trunks and branches make a dramatic contrast with the young, fragile blossoms, one that can only be appreciated by walking beneath the floral canopy.

Yes, walking. Some tourists disgrace themselves by driving cars through the canopy and only see the scenery beyond the windshield. Give flower-lovers a break. This is a nature, not a drive-in burger. You don't have to write a Haiku on Japanese's haute art of cherry blossom gazing but, at least, have the courtesy to give a tranquil place some respect.

Another place in full bloom is Khun Chang Khian, a hill-tribe village on Doi Suthep.

Within an hour's drive from downtown Chiang Mai, you'll be strolling beneath the feathery canopy of pink and white cherry blossoms. Those of you planning a romantic session on Valentine's Day next week be forewarned: lots of other people will be sharing the view, no matter when you go, so just be prepared to enjoy both the flora and the fauna.

Khun Wang Royal Agricultural Research Centre and Khun Chang Khian village are about 100 kilometres apart. Be sure to detour, as you drive between the two, through other royal agricultural research centres and hilltribe villages and admire the terraces of strawberry and colourful flowers. The scenery is spectacular and it's well worth lingering.



IF YOU GO

The cherry blossom season peaks from now until mid February before fading out in early March. For the best dose of tranquil beauty and cherry blossom, rent a car at Chiang Mai airport (www.ChiangMaiAirportOnline.com) and drive into the mountains. The royal agricultural research centres can accommodate the visitors in decent cottages, but you have to wait for a long time for a reservation. Pitching a tent is the best alternative.


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