Chiang Rai – eccentric northern highlights

Chiang Rai is a more relaxed, provincial version of its sister town Chiang Mai. Yet the city has a much more eccentric character. It offers very unique, slightly crazy sights and we meet a not less loony bunch of people. Chiang Rai has enough infrastructure available to make any backpacker happy.

Buses and minibuses to Chiang Rai frequently leave from Chiang Mai (~5h) or Phayao (~2h).

Arriving in Chiang Rai

We settle down in a garden bungalow of the “Shaman Guest House” behind the Wat Jet-Yod. A leather handicraft studio goods and a small open air complete the place’s hippie flair.

Everybody here seems a bit stoned. Our neighbors are nice, crazy guys. One is a funny old Italian writer with a strong affection for Cajun music. He sings with a throaty voice while playing his small blues guitar and buzzes solos on a kazoo. The other, a German in his thirties, performs hyperventilation and tries to sort out for himself what is reality and what imagination. He expresses that by dancing while asking questions to everyone who passes too close by. The sun has been shining very hot during the whole day.

We dine in the tattoo shop at the corner of Wat Jet-Yod. Sounds weird? Well, as a second source of income the shop owner serves Pad Thai. Only Pad Thai! Some bars spread along the street from here towards the clock tower. Short-skirted Thai women ask friendly if you want to come in for a drink. We hear live music from many corners. Thai rastafaris play pool at one bar. The odor of beer and curry is in the air. We meet up with a nice Mexican-Canadian couple that went with us in Pai and spend the rest of the night drinking in the Cat Bar. The guitarist plays Hendrix and Clapton style guitar solos.

What to do in Chiang Rai?

The Chiang Rai clock tower, designed by the artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, clearly stands out of the crowd. The golden structure tower is in the center of a roundabout and looks like straight from Alice’s wonderland. We already get a foretaste to what we have to expect in the White Temple, one of the main attractions just out of Chiang Rai created by the same artist. The clock tower’s golden ornaments sparkle in the glistening sun. When the sun has set, the glitter is not over. At every full hour of the evening (our information is 7pm to 10pm) a lightshow with music starts on the clock tower. Many people stop in the streets around to watch it. The tower changes colors while a woman sings a sweet Thai melody. The lotus flower inside the clock tower opens her petals and an angel rises from it. He dances around for a while and disappears again in the closing flower. 10 minutes later the LEDs cease to blink and life continues as normal.

Right next to the clock tower is the Cat Cafe. You can have a coffee there and play with cats that have clothes on and wear contacts. Many people seem to like that… I guess craziness comes in different flavors!

We eat out at an excellent restaurant that specializes in regional food. “Barrab” serves authentic northern Thai dishes. I decide for a tender, slow cooked pork curry. It tastes a bit like mom’s “Schweinebraten”) with curry in it. This delicious meal replaces my craving for western food with an absolute love for Thai kitchen.

Around Chiang Rai – Crazy sights wherever you look!

Several travel agents in the city offer day trips that have an interesting program: For about 1000 Baht you get to see the White Temple, the Black House, the Golden Triangle Park, a small opium museum (not the good one) and the Monkey Temple with a Fish Cave. If you are short on time and don’t mind to be rushed a bit, that’s a valid option!

As we have enough time and like to explore the city’s surroundings on our own, we decide to stretch the sightseeing to two days. We walk into a scooter garage that is stuffed with birds in cages. The shop owner takes pride in his birds and explains to us each bird’s special abilities. A 4m long showcase in the garage displays hundreds of trophies he won with these little champions.

travel tipp infoThai people catch and train birds for contests in singing and flying. They meet up at weekends and the games take the whole day. Of course there is a lot of gambling and drinking involved!

We get onto the rented scooter and on the way towards a top highlight of our whole Thailand trip:

Wat Rong Khun – The White Temple

After a windy 30 minute scooter ride along the broad highway 1, we arrive at Wat Rong Khun, better known as the White Temple. Our timing is just perfect: Between noon and 1 pm the temple is closed for visitors. Thus we get the chance to take a couple of tourist-free pictures from the outside.

The White Temple is being designed by the artist Chalermchai Kositpipat from Chiang Rai. Although it is still under construction it is already worth seeing and extremely popular with tourists and locals alike: Its completely white façade and roofs are tiled with thousands of silver mirror pieces. The temple sits in the center of a green garden with a pond full of koi carps. The clear midday sky adds in a stroke of blue into the plain white and green. A just as white and glittery bridge over the pond marks the entrance to the temple.

The area around the White Temple also deserves thorough exploration. As it is still lunch break we check out the museum of the painter. The gallery contains many colorful, psychedelic, religious paintings as well as modern style pictures showing a blend of nature, superheroes and celebrities. To give you a flavor of a funny and at the same time political display, Kositpipat painted a caricature of George Bush sitting on a nuclear rocket together with Osama Bin Laden.

At the left side entrance of the White Temple, we find something peculiar: On a bench next to the entrance sits a life size transformer and takes a sun bath. Some popular monster heads made of clay or plaster serve as flower pots. They hang down from the dry branches of a handful of trees. We discover celebrities like Gollum, Hellboy, Avatar Jake Sully, Freddy Krueger and many more.

This creepiness is also reflected in chrome skull topped fence posts that enclose the temple area. There is also a wishing well close by. We first think that we found another sight when we reach a large building with golden mirror tiles on it, but it turns out to be something as profane as the public toilets.

Finally, the gates open and we walk over the bridge into the temple. The bridge crosses a field of haunting, scary hands reaching up from hell. Skulls and monster faces look at us. Inside the temple, the artist’s assistants are working on finishing the mural paintings. They depict a colorful mix of pop culture, Buddhist religious figures and modern technology. Nukes and oil platforms threaten life on earth. The New York World Trade Center is burning. Keanu Reeves as Neo from Matrix, Transformers and Superman look at the destruction. All of those pictures grow out of a huge beast’s mouth. Facing these odd and cruel images, a Buddha statue sits in calm meditation. No, we are not making this up!

With slight retina damage from the bright sun reflections from the White Temple, we head back north to the next highlight.

Baan Dam – The Black House

About 6 km north of Chiang Rai, we arrive at the less frequented Baan Dam, the Black House. The name alone stands in contrast to the White Temple. When it comes to uniqueness, both the Black House and the White Temple rank very high.

The artist Thawan Duchanee created a group of buildings (here is the map for orientation) that in many ways resemble a temple complex. The big main house and some of the smaller houses in the garden area around feature ornamented multiple roof tiers, which in Thailand are usually reserved for temples, royal palaces and important public buildings. In contrast to the White Temple, most buildings here are made of black wood. They almost look like they are burnt. In addition to the wooden constructions, Duchanee erected a few futuristic concrete structures painted white, some of which resemble stupas with cathedral windows. A black concrete building conjures the image of a gigantic fish body.

The garden is full of archaic looking stone circles, high trees and temple banners. Living horses grass between the houses. Two pythons and an owl are held in cages. You can walk freely here and approach these animals.

Those living things are looking into a dark future: all the houses are stuffed with dead bones and animal skins. The artist constructed primitive, yet massive furniture out of huge buffalo horns and animal skins. He arranged masses of animal skulls in a neat row. Under a stilted house lies a full elephant skeleton. A long snake skin and several larger and smaller crocodile skins are being used as table runners. Hundreds of cuddly sheepskins cover a bed made of bones. Archaic chairs, also made from animal remains, are arranged around it.

The complex with its sheer mass of animal remainder collections makes me think. Is this a bitter comment on religion gone wrong and the nature-neglecting history of human life? Or is it just a celebration of plain barbarity? The Black House of Chiang Rai is a dark and fascinating sight at the same time.

The Hall of Opium and the Golden Triangle

As we plan to cross the border to Myanmar soon, we head over to the nearby border town Mae Sai. The city serves as a base to visit the Hall of Opium and explore the Golden Triangle region by scooter.

travel tipp info“The Golden Triangle” is a triangular area of land comprising parts of the countries Laos, Burma and Thailand. The term is as well used for the point where all three countries meet. The area of the Golden Triangle has a dark history of opium farming and drug trafficking. Thailand is renowned for pioneering the concept of opium replacement programs to get farmers away from this criminal source of income and has been very successful in reducing the number of hectares used for opium production. Its neighbors Myanmar and Laos are less successful, with Myanmar being the second largest opium producer after Afghanistan. For interesting statistics on this topic, checkout the United Nations World Drug Report 2015 (e.g. page 145).

A beautiful scooter ride through hilly areas along the Burmese border takes us to the Hall of Opium. We pay the relatively high entry fee to the museum of 200 Baht. It is absolutely worth it!

travel tipp infoCareful: There is the “Hall of Opium” and the “House of Opium”. While the latter is a simple room full of dusty exhibits around opium consumption, the “Hall of Opium” is a world class museum and maybe the most relevant one on this topic globally.

The tour starts with walk through a 140m long corridor that simulates an opium high. At the end of the tunnel our thorough education around that plant begins. We study its biology, how it is grown and how heroin is produced.
The next lesson is history. Opium strongly influenced colonial politics. The British Empire fought two opium wars with the Chinese Empire. Also due to the introduction of opium to Chinese people, the colonists were able to win over this huge realm. Before the communists took over, every 30th Chinese was an opium addict.
An exhibition on opium pipes, weights and how opium was consumed is the next station. We learn about the use of the drug as medicine and get informed about the international alliance on the struggle against drug addiction. The final showroom explains how your health is affected by drug consumption and how drug addiction is a serious illness.
A calm “thinking” room decorated with a few interesting quotes, in the end of the exhibition gives space to sink in everything we have seen in the last two hours.

We get back on our motorbike to go a bit further along the border. For lunch we stop at an eatery alongside the mighty Mekong River. The border triangle between Myanmar, Laos and Thailand is a touristic place. Besides a huge golden sitting Buddha and a metal triangle mapping the three bordering countries at a view point on the shore of the Mekong river, there is not much to see, and we leave soon.

Wat Tham Pla – The Monkey Temple

Our final stop for today is the Monkey temple. It is also best reached from Mae Sai, not Chiang Rai. We arrive pretty late. That means, all the visitors are gone, but also almost all of the light, too. The main temple sits very close to a huge limestone wall. Nice green gardens with some stupas and Buddhas surround the temple. There are some curiosities here, such as naïve looking papier-mâché statues of long-eared, slim, pink giants cooking a woman on a fire pot. Following a path to the right of the main temple, we climb a flight of stone stairs to reach the entrance of a cave shrine. We use our flashlight to explore the cave and find some pretty Buddha figurines. After walking a short distance into the mountain, the bottom of the cave is flooded with water and we decide to stop our exploration as we have no suitable footwear with us.

travel tipp infoTip: Go in the morning light. It illuminates the monastery. Don’t forget to bring a flashlight and, if possible, boots. The caves are dark and wet.

Left of the temple a herd of macaques delights the tourists. Huge koi carps swim around in a pond, and the monkeys take a bath.

You can buy some bananas to feed the monkeys. The staff equips you with a long bamboo stick, too. Why? Monkeys here are pretty naughty and aggressive, especially when it comes to food. They have claws and bite. You may need the stick to defend yourself. Also make sure there is no monkey sitting on a branch of a tree above you. He has the habit of pooing down and throwing things at visitors. Another cave waits for exploring on this side of the temple.

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