Travel writer Julie Miller revisits the north of Thailand, the infamous Golden Triangle, and finds a wonderful new boutique property; Rai Saeng Arun.
For most tourists visiting the north of Thailand, their journey starts and ends in the fascinating city of Chiang Mai. Venture a little further, however, and a whole new world opens up: one offering rich cultural experiences, beautiful scenery and an alluring, tranquil pace.
This is the infamous Golden Triangle, where Thailand meets Laos and Burma along the meandering Mekong River. It was here that I first fell in love with Thailand nearly 10 years ago, giving me my first introduction to the divine Asian elephant and its steamy, verdant natural habitat.
Until recently, however, accommodation options in this region has been limited to either five-star luxury resorts – such as the wonderful Anantara Golden Triangle and Four Seasons Tented Camp – or simple, Thai-style lodges that are not so appealing to Western visitors.
A new boutique property located 26 kilometres from the border town of Chiang Khong, however, has introduced a whole new clientele to the northern realms, providing comfortable riverside accommodation in a sustainable and thought-provoking environment.
Straddling both sides of a quiet road along the river, Rai Saeng Arun is the brainchild of Patipat Vichitsopon, a former clothing wholesaler from Bangkok who moved from the city 12 years ago in search of a quieter, more fulfilling lifestyle. After seeing a demand for mid-range accommodation and a growing appreciation of nature-based experiences, he decided to open his home to guests, building 14 bungalows on the hillside, amongst the rice paddies and along the banks of the river.
The three riverside teak villas are arguably the most popular, with uninterrupted views of the Mekong and the mesmerising frontage of Laos. The rooms are well-equipped with king-size beds, an outdoor bathroom (which may challenge those who are nervous of bugs and geckos!) and a veranda featuring a daybed, the perfect place to absorb the rush of the waters below. I had the thrill of observing a violent electric storm over the river from this coveted position, sheets of lightning illuminating the jungle and the first rains of the monsoon clearing away the seasonal smog – a truly magical experience.
The large hillside bungalows, however, are also hugely appealing, private and quiet with far-reaching valley views. Accessed via a boardwalk through the rice paddies, these may not be suitable for lazy or unfit guests – there are around 200 steps to the uppermost villas, though the vistas certainly make the hike worthwhile.
The main feature of the resort, however, is its terraced garden, a veritable greengrocery featuring manicured rows of vegetables, herbs, chillis and strawberries. This completely organic patch – tended by local villagers – supplies the resort’s popular restaurant with its produce, with any extra donated to local schools, temples and charities. Khun Patipat also packages his homegrown wild black rice and sells it to guests (which you may or may not manage to get through Australian customs, depending on your levels of charm!)
Needless to say, the food at Rai Saeng Arun is delicious – fresh, tasty and brimming with goodness. A friend who lives in the area tells me it’s a popular stop for locals travelling to Chiang Khong, with a reputation for the best food along the river.
If you are after a truly relaxing few days, this lovely, unpretentious and simple resort is ideal for re-charging the batteries, soaking up nature and enjoying the sights and sounds of the jungle. There’s very little to do but eat, drink, read a book and chill out – which is what a great holiday should be about!
Villas at Rai Saeng Arun cost from 2200 baht a night in low season, with the riverside villas costing 2700 baht a night. High season (Dec 1-Jan 16) rates are from 3600 baht, including breakfast.