Living in Japan for seven years, one seasonal event that I always looked forward to was the brief, but spectacular blooming of the sakura, or cherry flowers. So naturally, I was excited to find out that Northern Thailand has its own variety of wild cherry that grows in the mountains and creates fabulous pink blossoms each winter.
The variety of sakura growing in Thailand is the Wild Himalayan cherry (Prunus cerasoides). Its name in Thai is นางพญาเสือโคร่ง naang phá-yaa sǔea-khrông, which means “Tiger Queen.”
There are several good places to go see the Tiger Queen flowers blooming, including Doi Chaang, Doi Wawee, and Doi Mae Salong mountains, which are all located in Chiang Rai province. But the best place to go see them as a day-trip from Chiang Mai is Khun Chang Khian, a tiny village way up on Doi Pui that you get to by driving up Doi Suthep mountain. The best time to view the sakura at Khun Chang Khian is in the middle of January, but as anyone who has lived in Japan knows, the timing of the cherry blossoms is difficult to predict and can change from year to year by several weeks.
Finding the way to Khun Chang Khian is not difficult. Simply start from Huay Kaew Road and drive up past Chiang Mai University, Chiang Mai Zoo, and Khruba Siwichai Monument, and keep following the road until you get to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep. Stop here to visit the temple if you wish, then keep following the road past the temple and further up the mountain. You’ll soon arrive at the Phuping Palace and Gardens, which you could also stop to look at if you like. Otherwise, just keep going straight on the narrow road running past the palace, and after a few kilometers you’ll come to a 3-way junction. If you head left, it leads you to a Hmong village, but if you go right, it takes you to Khun Chang Khian.
Once you turn right, you’ll have to be careful since it’s a very narrow road and there are a lot of curves. Use your horn to warn other drivers of your presence. You’ll soon see a nice viewpoint spot on your left, but to get to Khun Chang Khian you just keep following this road. In total, it might take you about an hour from the foot of the mountain to Khun Chang Khian if you drive by motorbike. And don’t forget a jacket, because it can get chilly up there.
We decided to go see the sakura blossoms on Saturday, January 11, which just so happened to be Children’s Day in Thailand. Traffic on Huay Kaew Road was very thick, but we were relieved to find that almost everyone was taking their kids to the zoo, and once past the zoo the traffic was light. As we drove up Doi Suthep, there were a few cherry trees blossoming along the side of the road, but also a good number that looked like they wouldn’t bloom for another week at least. I was worried that we may have come too early. However, when we finally arrived at Khun Chang Khian there were many trees in full bloom or near to it.
In addition to all the cherry trees, there is a coffee plantation up at Khun Chang Khian. We saw a Hmong woman picking coffee and some men busy with a machine that removed the fruit from around the coffee beans, which were then put out to dry under the sun in another area. Fresh hot coffee is also available in a cute open-air wooden building with a nice view of the cherry blossoms.
Make sure you continue on the little walking path to the left of the coffee shop that leads to some gardens. When you turn back around, you’ll have a nice view of bright pink cherry trees with green mountains in the background.
Sakura blossoms are famous for reminding us of impermanence. Their beautiful display lasts for a very short time. So go see them now while you can.
Update for 2017
I visited Khun Chang Khian on January 16, 2017. The cherry blossoms are late this year because of the unusual amount of rain we’ve had this winter. Some trees are already blooming, but the largest tress are not in bloom yet. I would estimate that a week from today would be better, with some of the larger trees blooming then. And you should still be able to see cherry blossoms until the end of the month.