Most people have seen gorgeous photos of the cherry tree blossoms in Japan and Washington D.C. Far fewer have heard about the flowering cherry trees in Thailand. I was among the ignorant, until a year of not being able to travel internationally due to COVID-19 forced me to explore more of my adopted home here in Thailand. Every December and January, when chilly temperatures blanket the northern mountains, the Wild Himalayan Cherry Trees of Thailand exuberantly burst into bloom. This year I joined a group of Thai friends for a trip to the top of Doi Inthanon, the highest mountain in the country, to see the spectacle for myself.
We left before dawn on a chilly morning in late January. COVID meant fewer people were being allowed into the National Park and we didn’t want to risk being denied entry. Our destination was the Khun Wang Royal Agricultural Research Station near the top of Doi Inthanon National Park, in Chiang Mai Province. I’m not a morning person, but the two-hour drive up Doi Inthanon mountain made me forgive my companions for insisting we leave so early. Wisps of morning fog drifted up and out of the lush green jungle as we ascended. The sun burst over the mountaintop, transforming millions of dewdrops into sparkling diamonds.
At the Research Station we queued to have our temperatures taken and sign in with the Thai Chana app that alerts people if they have been to an area where a COVID case has occurred. Once those formalities were complete, we were free to roam. We began at the formal gardens, where manicured flower beds were planted with everything from purple and white ornamental cabbages to flaming red Poinsettias. On the horizon, a few blooming Wild Himalayan Cherry trees peeked through the forest green to flaunt their pink headdresses.
We removed our masks long enough to have a group photo taken but didn’t dawdle long in the gardens, as each group is allowed only an hour-long visit. Down a steep hill and up another we found what we had come for: cherry flowers in hues ranging from the most delicate pink to peach to sizzling hot pink. In awe of the spectacle, we spent more than our allotted hour. We posed and snapped photos of one another beneath the natural cathedral of arched boughs, heavily laden with pink blossoms.
No one hurried us; I’m sure we could have stayed as long as we wanted. But my friends had a more stops planned and soon we were on the road again. After a leisurely lunch at the famous Royal Project Inthanon Restaurant, we followed a narrow, curvy road to Princess Sirindhorn Palace, high atop Doi Inthanon. Palace, in this case, is a bit of a misnomer. It’s actually a log cabin, but an extremely large and luxurious one. When the Princess is in residence, it is closed to the public. But when she is away, visitors are free to wander the gorgeous flower gardens and take photos at a panoramic viewpoint that provides sweeping views down the mountain.
My first trip to Thailand was nearly 19 years ago. Over the ensuing years, I visited many times, and eventually began spending winters here. I moved here permanently 3.5 years ago. Yet in all that time I had no idea that Thailand had its very own Wild Himalayan Cherry Blossom season. As horrible as COVID-19 has been, it has allowed me to see parts of Thailand that I might never had seen if I hadn’t been forced to examine my own backyard.