We see a future for Phayao that will hold highbrow art galleries, fashionable espresso joints, and an upscale shopping mall or two — but for now it remains just perfect, probably one of the most relaxing vacation spots in the country.
by Dave Stamboulis.
Northern Thailand is well established on the tourist track now, with Chiang Mai flooded by tourists checking in to the latest boutique resorts, sipping gourmet coffee, and enjoying the cool weather. Chiang Rai sees visitors heading to check out the ethnic hill tribes, and even sleepy Nan, home to outstanding national parks, has become a recent darling of the Bangkok back-to-nature crowd. And then there is sleepy Phayao.
Phayao, the name of both the province and its capital city, sitssandwiched between Nan and Chiang Rai, with a good three-hour drive keeping it safe from most of the Chiang Mai day trippers. But while it has plenty of its own national parks, hill tribes, and outdoor getaways,even sleepy Phayao city–possibly Thailand’s most attractive town–sees very few tourists and remains one of northern Thailand’s best-kept secrets.
Phayao City is fronted by the enormous Kwan Phayao Lake, and serves as a focal point for almost everything in town. The lake is manmade, created during the 1940s when the Thai Fisheries Department made a dam in the area, and at over 20sqkm, it more resembles an ocean, with only the large mountains far across the other side creating any kind of visible border. The lake is especially impressive at sunset, as it faces west and gets a beautiful display of colors each evening as the sun goes down over the ridge above it.
The lake is often filled with picturesque fishermen in small boats, and visitors come en masse to be rowed out in wooden rowboats to Wat Tilokaram, a small stupa that is the site of a now-submerged temple underwater. The main lakefront drag has a pedestrian-only promenade along its length, making it Thailand’s most pleasant car-free zone, and in the late afternoon, the lakeside is packed with locals who come to do aerobics, enjoy cheap massages from the ladies who set up chairs to lie on along the grass, or dine looking out at the picturesque water.
There are rows of inexpensive Isaan restaurants dishing out grilled chicken and som tam papaya salad, grilled fish, and piquant bowls of tom yum, perfect for the chilly nights here if one shows up between November and February. My companion and I shelled out under THB 400 for a gourmet feast that included beer, something that we would have been charged double for at any other waterfront location in the country.
During the cool season (December-January), the city hosts a flower festival that is almost as impressive as Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai’s highly touted ones, albeit with far less crowds. The waterfront is also home to most of the inexpensive and atmospheric guesthouses, which are yet another reason to linger in this lovely place. The Huanpak Jumjai Phayao (Jumjai Homestay, Tel. 054 482 659, www.facebook.com/Huanpak-Jumjai-Phayao-160461487445198/) has fine teak-floored rooms with balconies looking out at the lake for around THB 700, at least half of what they’d go for elsewhere up north.
A few blocks inland, it’s highly worthwhile heading over past the Cultural Exhibition Hall (which has a small collection of artifacts dating throughout the city’s history) to Wat Sri Khom Kham, a temple that gets a lot of Thai visitors who come to see the immense Buddha statue as well as make merit. However, the real bizarre attraction is out back, where there is a rather macabre sculpture garden, with giant statues displaying the results of not adhering to the proper path: sinners are shown boiling in a cauldron, wild dogs gnaw adulterers on, among the plenty other really “out there” depictions. The artwork is really crazy, reminiscent of the eerie Sala Kaew Ku sculpture garden up in Nong Khai, but again, with half the tourists.
Even better than the sights in Phayao though are its inhabitants. People smile when they see a foreign face; there are no touts or hustlers. Tuk tuk drivers give local prices, and the car-free promenade almost feels like another country. We’d planned on only staying a night during our last sojourn through the north, but the seductive charms of the sleepy city proved too embracing, and we ended up staying four, finally tearing ourselves away from our verandah chairs and normal sunset lakeside walks, followed by long slow happy hours and even longer dinners.
I am sure the future for Phayao will hold highbrow art galleries, fashionable espresso joints, and surely an upscale shopping mall or two. But for now it remains just perfect, and for me, the most relaxing vacation spot in the country.