As is usual at this time of year, hundreds of thousands of people are packing _ with some already hitting the road _ for holidays in the mountains of the North. The cool weather and captivating scenery of the highlands are among the main motivations. But those alone may not be enough to make such a journey really special.
Above photos by Annop Kanchanapanich
To make sure you get the picture: Imagine yourself standing on top of a mountain. As the chilly wind repeatedly kisses your cheeks, you keep your hands warm in your jacket pockets. The panoramic view is dreamlike, the surrounding vegetation so green it seems to refresh your very soul.
Now try again. Imagine yourself in the exact same scenario, except this time add stands of cherry trees. Their leafless branches bear masses of pinkish flowers and everywhere you look you are greeted by the sight of more of these gorgeous blossoms.
Appreciate the difference?
As you may already know, the species of flowering cherry tree most commonly found in the Kingdom is known in Thai as nang phya suakhrong (Prunus cerasoides aka the wild Himalayan cherry). There are quite a few places in the North and the upper Northeast where this deciduous tree grows in abundance, each site typically attracting throngs of admiring visitors from late December into the first few weeks of January.
But of the many cherry-blossom-viewing spots I've been to, none is quite like the one at Khun Mae Ya. At this location, which straddles the border between Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son provinces, you'll see the trees growing not just along the roadside but all over the terrain. And when they come into bloom, there is such a profusion of blossoms that the slopes of Khun Mae Ya are barely visible, hence the nickname given this place: Doi Si Chomphu, meaning Pink Hill.
Since this site is in a watershed management area rather than part of a national park, where officials would be expected to cater to vacationers' needs, don't expect many facilities for visitors. There is no standard tourist accommodation here, for instance. However, for most nature lovers, what is available more than suffices. The camping areas are well levelled, with shade provided both by the cherry trees and several pine groves. Nearby there's a rudimentary grocery shop which offers a limited choice of snacks as well as things like instant noodles and coffee. Basic bathing and toilet facilities are to be found just a short walk away towards the edge of the forest.
According to staff from the watershed management unit, this year the cherry trees at Khun Mae Ya are expected to start flowering about Dec 20, and the optimum viewing period should be between the New Year and mid-January, by which time the trees will have shed most of their blooms. So that means you still have a few more weeks to plan your trip if you were thinking of paying a visit to Khun Mae Ya for the next crop of cherry blossoms. I recommend that you go during the week rather than on weekends when the traffic on roads leading there can be heavy and the site itself can get crowded.
Hopefully, there won't be any unseasonable downpours during your visit, since a raindrop bombardment can cause a lot of damage to the delicate flowers, leaving them in far-from-photogenic shape. That's what happened to me two years ago. But luckily I always have a Plan B. I was about halfway there when I heard news on the radio about heavy rain in that part of Chiang Mai, so I immediately changed my plans and headed for another destination instead, a waterfall, where the aesthetics would actually be improved by a little extra rainwater.
Well, it's time to start getting ready for the holiday season. As you go through the tedious but necessary chore of packing, try to visualise the day, not too far from now, when you'll be shielding your loved one from the cool mountain breezes while the trees of Pink Hill look on, eyeing your warm embrace with envy.
These photos were taken last year about a week before the peak of the cherry-blossomviewing period. If you want to see whether Pink Hill lives up to its name this season, you’ll have to go and check it out for yourself. Above photos by Annop Kanchanapanich
Nothing beats waking up in the morning and being able to feast your eyes right away on the glories of Mother Nature. And sleeping in a tent provides that ready access, that immediacy. The campsite at Khun Mae Ya is about 200m from the parking lot. Not very far but the walk is all uphill. So make sure you only bring up essential items, stuff you’re sure you’ll need to use. And, unless you don’t mind running up and down the hill again and again, it’s a good idea to double-check you haven’t forgotten anything important before leaving your vehicle. The watershed management unit has a few bungalows for the use of official guests only. But on a number of occasions I’ve seen younger members of these official parties pitching tents on the public camp ground. Above photo by Annop Kanchanapanich
Next to the campsite, there’s a little snack shop with tables. It’s on the top of a hill and offers a nice view of the surrounding mountainous terrain. Given the romantic setting, lovers may very well enjoy the best cup of coffee they’ve ever had here, despite the fact that it comes from one of those 3-in-1 sachets. Of course, there are also several cute signs you can use as background for your photos. The great news is that you can post those pics right away on your favourite social media site because there’s a pretty decent mobile signal at the watershed management unit. For those who prefer to cook their own food, or who need a heat source while chatting outside their tent under the starry sky, charcoal stoves are available for rent.
On the way from Mae Malai, where Highway 1095 begins, there are a number of worthwhile stops including the Pon Duad geyser and the famously scenic lookout point of Huai Nam Dang National Park. For those who don’t think spending the night at the Khun Mae Ya campsite is a good idea, well-equipped accommodation options are available at both the geyser and the lookout point. But you’ll need to book a room online pretty far in advance; here’s the address: www.dnp.go.th/parkreserve/reservation.asp?lg=1. Further up the highway, about 30km from the Mae Ya checkpoint, you’ll find lots of resorts and guesthouses in the tourist town of Pai.
PICK OF THEBUNCH
Apart from Khun Mae Ya, there are quite a number of other locations where cherry blossoms can be viewed. The following is a list of the more famous ones:
- Khun Chang Khian, Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai
- Khun Wang and Mae Jon Luang, Doi Inthanon, Chiang Mai
- Doi Ang Khang, Chiang Mai
- Doi Mae Salong, Chiang Rai
- Khun Sathan, Na Noi, Nan
- Phu Thap Boek, Phetchabun
- Phu Lom Lo, Dan Sai, Loei
About the author
- Writer: Pongpet Mekloy
Position: Travel Editor