As a change of pace, we decided to spend a couple of days in Chiang Rai. We visited there four or five years ago and wanted to return, even though we had already seen the major attractions in the area. The bus ride to Chiang Rai from Chiang Mai is between 3 and 4 hours, depending on traffic. Though there is an airport in Chiang Rai, it seemed silly to fly for such a short distance. There are different levels of comfort available for the bus; we chose VIP, which is the nicest. The bus has three seats across rather than four, so there is quite a bit of room. A small snack and a bottle of water are provided and there is a bathroom in the back, though you would only want to use it in an emergency…Though we were on the first trip of the day, the toilet was backed up and had not been cleaned out for quite a while.
The route goes through a mountain pass or two. The first part of the trip is quite windy, then the road straightens out for a bit before turning windy again. If you have motion sickness, I recommend taking meclizine or something comparable beforehand! We arrived in Chiang Rai around noon and walked to our hotel. First on the agenda was a massage and walking around town. Afterwards, we were both so tired we took a long afternoon nap. Retired life is great! We had dinner at the hotel. Though they had a very complete menu that included western food, only Thai food was actually available. And it was quite spicy!
Our tour van picked us up around 8:30 the following morning. We had a full day’s agenda ahead: White Temple, Blue Temple, Black House, Long-Neck Karen Tribe, Tea Plantation, Mae Sai (border town with Myanmar), and the Golden Triangle (including a stop at the Opium Museum). A very full day indeed! Our tour guide was Guy; the driver was Boy. And yes, Guy was a girl! Thai’s use nicknames rather than their given names. We shared the van with a couple from northern California and a family that was spending ten months traveling the world. We lucked out in that everyone was friendly; it made for a very pleasant day.
The White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) is located south of Chiang Rai. It is a spectacular temple that has been completely redone by a Thai artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat, though it is not yet complete. Since it is privately owned, the entry fees collected go towards completion of the temple. There is a donation limit of 10,000 Thai Baht (around $300 US). I did notice one building that had been constructed, but not “bedazzled” just yet! To enter the Wat (temple), you must pass through the artist’s vision of hell before getting to heaven. As is true of any Buddhist temple, shoes must be removed before entering.
Photos inside the temple are not allowed. The back wall is painted to resemble a demon. If you look closely, you can see that the eyes contain images of two men. The right eye is Osama bin Laden; the right is George Bush. Interesting symbolism! The left-hand wall has paintings that represent the circle of life. On the right, three people are portrayed: the first is painted dark, the next is half dark/half-light, and the final is light to represent the progress towards enlightenment. All point towards the Buddha.
There is a beautiful golden building on the grounds. Every other building is glistening white except for this one. What else could be golden but the throne room, aka happy room, aka toilets? I was not able to get a picture because my phone decided to act up.
Next on the agenda was the blue temple, Wat Rong Seur Ten. This is also a reconstructed temple that was designed by a student of Kositpipat (who designed the White Temple) between 2005 and 2015, though there are still some parts that are being built. The tigers on the side of the building are representative of the fact that tigers used to roam in this area.
The last stop near Chiang Rai was the Baandam Museum (baan means house, dam means black). This place was quite unique compared to the temples we had just visited. The artist, Thawan Duchanee, started collecting animal skins, bones, and other unique items from around the world. The Black House is not a single building; it consists of 40 buildings spread around a large garden area. It started as a hut to contain his collection of “stuff”, then grew to a house, and eventually spread into a complex. He was already an acclaimed painter and replicas of his paintings dot the walls of the main building. Each painting has a QR code that can be scanned to get further information about it. What really draws a person’s attention, however, is the sculptures and other objects d’arte. Let’s just say that he has a strong fascination for the phallic! It is quite the counterpoint to the White Temple.
We were now heading north towards the border with Myanmar. Our next stop was at a long-necked Karen village. The Karen tribe originates in Myanmar but has relocated to Thailand. They are not allowed to work and so exist by selling admission to their “village” which is actually a series of stands filled with objects that they well. You may wonder why they wear the coils on their necks. Legend has it that a tribal leader started the practice to protect the women from being attacked by tigers. Girls start accumulating rings at age 5. New rings get added every couple of years. The rings are quite heavy but there is a maximum weight of 5.5 kilograms (12 pounds) allowed, so at a certain age, no new rings get added. They switched metals about 20 years ago and started using a lighter one. The rings can be removed but if they are, the woman must leave the tribe. It does not kill the woman to remove her rings, but she does have very weak neck muscles. The wearing of rings is not allowed in schools, so the girls in the tribe are not educated. They must marry within their tribe. The elongated look is partially due to the women’s shoulders being pushed down by the weight of the rings.
Each booth sold essentially the same things. Several women were weaving. The first booth or two were Akha women rather than Karen.
I had mixed feelings after the visit. It’s very unfortunate that the only way these tribes can subsist is by selling tickets for tourists to gawk at them. But, if they did not have that option, they would starve.
Our last stop before lunch was at a tea plantation. Given the number of tour vans and tourists milling about, it seemed to be a common stop on the tour circuit! We were given three teas to taste; none were to our liking, so we did not purchase any. It seems that most tours seem to include one dedicated shopping stop.
Finally, it was time to eat! We had been on the road/touring for 6 hours and we were pretty hungry! The restaurant seemed to cater to tour groups. They provided a small buffet of Thai food (rice, a couple of stir-fried dishes and a couple of soups) as well as some french fries. It helped stave off starvation and gave us energy for the rest of the tour.
The last time we visited Chiang Rai, we were able to cross the border into Myanmar. It is one of our fondest travel memories and so I was curious to see what things were like now with the border closed. There used to be a 5 km zone where the people that lived in Tachilek, on the Myanmar side, could cross into Mae Sai, on the Thailand side, to purchase items without having a visa. Mae Sai was a bustling town filled with people buying all types of items and bringing them back to Burma (Myanmar). Now, it seemed to only have tourists. Though the markets were still open, there were very few customers. It looked like a ghost town compared to what it was in the past.
Our final stop of the day was the Golden Triangle, the place where Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos meet. Its claim to fame is the opium trade, and there is a museum to visit to learn all about it. We had visited the same museum on our previous trip, so opted to sit outside and wait for the rest of the group.
The ride back to Chiang Rai was about 1.5 hours. I spent it chatting with the mom of the family that was taking a sabbatical year to tour the world. What a fabulous experience for those kids! She was home-schooling them to keep them up on their studies, but the experiences they are having will educate them in ways no classroom can. The time flew by, and we were back at our hotel, exhausted from our day.
We took the bus back to Chiang Mai the following morning. Tentatively, we plan on taking the train to Bangkok in March. I will update my blog then.