Well, the best laid plans of mice and men …love Steinbeck … went astray when we arrived at the bus station in Chiang Mai determined to catch the next available bus to Chiang Rai. No buses for 4 hours. You’re kidding! However, in the blink of an eye, a young girl behind another counter waved frantically at us, ‘I have transport for you. Private car, very good. Go to Chiang Rai now. Good price.’ So off we went, in a car belonging to her 49th cousin twice removed who had driven from Chiang Rai earlier in the day and was seeking a return fare. Everyone was a winner!
Chiang Rai, two and half hours north of Chiang Mai, is simply wonderful. Smaller and grittier, a little more ramshackle than its southern cousin, it’s full of surprises. Temples abound and there are some particularly stunning ones. Also, it’s extremely easy to get around on foot, the cafe/bar scene is buoyant and the street food is really good.
The gold town clock takes centre stage. At night on the hour, the clock lights up in a myriad of different colours.
I had booked a guesthouse with a small but lovely garden – right next door to the hospital – handy if we stumbled after a big night out! Seriously, the location was excellent; in walking distance to so much. The family owners spoke limited English, but they were exceptionally kind, making sure I was plied with never ending cups of tea and biscuits when I sat in the garden.
Top of our list of must sees were the White Temple, Blue Temple and Black House. These temples, of course, were at either end of the Chiang Rai distance spectrum and in a tuk tuk, numb bums ruled.
White Temple or Wat Rong Khun takes your breath away. Opened to the public in 1997, the Buddhist temple is privately owned by Chalermchai Kositpipat who designed and constructed this pure white, mirrored glass spectacle. To date, he’s spent close to 40 million Baht in a mighty effort to replace the original badly damaged Wat and realise his dreams. The complex is not finished and won’t be until 2070. Loathe to accept large donations since he reasons this may encourage him to be influenced (seriously, this humble man should have been a politician), it goes without saying that he has a long road ahead of him.
Walking over the bridge into the temple is the rather confronting sight of many desperate hands held upright as though begging. This is a strong reminder of the ease at which we fall into the trap of temptation. Once you cross the bridge of temptation, you enter the gate of Heaven.
The gold building ( which houses the rest rooms) is also part of the temple complex and its deliberately selected colour reflects material riches. Here, we are prompted to lead lives that are not centred around greed.
There are other reminders of evil in the form of grotesque figures like this one below. Its dark colour in stark contrast to the white of the temple, symbolises the eternal conflict between good and evil.
The terminator guards the temple.
The Blue Temple has only recently been opened to the public. It’s blue, really blue (and the obligatory gold of course) with a startling white Buddha inside the temple to break up the blue.
Black House is a museum with a difference. Privately owned by Thawan Duchanee, a Chiang Rai artist, the complex has over 40 buildings which exhibit mostly animal parts. There’s huge buffalo horns and antlers fashioned into chairs as well as numerous animal skulls. Startlingly, a gigantic crocodile skin complete with skull adorns a table. To be honest, I couldn’t quite get the message. On the one hand, it’s black and a little bit intimidating, yet juxtaposed to this, is the green, leafy setting with shards of sunlight pushing through, creating a warm, inviting atmosphere.
Further afield is the Karen Long Neck tribe village. These hill tribes originate in Burma, but political unrest has seen many seek safe refuge just over the border in northern Thailand. We were told they can never gain Thai citizenship and in an effort to survive financially, they have opened their villages to the public, selling their handicrafts. The women are admirable. They wear heavy two and half kilo brass neck rings which crush their shoulders and rib cage, giving the appearance of a long neck. Rings are added each year. In addition, some women wear these heavy rings on their legs. Word is that in a generation or two, the practice will have ceased.
Other hill tribes also ply their colourful wares.
Boys being boys …
These pics are of my wanderings around Chiang Rai
Street food is good: pork and herb sausages – so tasty if you can ignore the look!
Our three days here flew by in a flash. My next blog will come to you from Krabi – our last stop for this trip.