Chiang Rai City is 186 kilometres north of Chiang Mai and just a quick 3 hour bus ride. Compared to Chiang Mai, it has a more down-to-earth, working town feeling but is not short on historical and cultural attractions of its own. Founded in 1262 as the capital of the Mengrai Dynasty, the city retains a strong Lanna identity through its impressive collection of temples, art, language, cuisine and music. The city is gradually developing its tourist sector, with its own Night Bazaar, Saturday Walking Street and Clock tower light show.
We allowed ourselves only 3 days here but could have spent longer to see more in the mountains and border territories – Myanmar, Laos, Hill Tribes and trekking.
However, we did enjoy the city, its’ food, music and general ease of which to walk. We started with the free open bus tour which gave us a good idea of the city and the whereabouts of the points of interest. Being Thailand, the information said the tour left at 9.00am and again at 9.30am but when we turned up for the 9.00am, it wasn’t running – perhaps they had no driver just like the Chiang Mai Night Safari? TIT – That is Thailand.
The city itself has a large number of temples but the two that are a must visit are The White Temple and the Blue Temple.
The white Temple is the work of a local artist, has been under construction since 1997 and is anticipated to take a further 60 – 90 years to complete. (Another Gaudi Sagrada Familia in the making). While the temple is spectacular the art gallery with the original paintings of the artist shows how prolific an artist he is with all his original works on display.
The Blue temple has also been built recently. An artist who worked on the White Temple heard his village wanted to build a new temple so left his job at the White Temple and designed the Blue Temple. There is some art inside the Blue Temple that is an exact copy of the The White Temple and the original artist is fine with the copying. I think this is one of the most spectacular Buddhas we saw in a temple. This is also not finished but not so far away as the White Temple.
On our third day we decided to take a tour to the Golden Triangle area. Along the way we stopped at the Black House, a Tea Plantation and The Monkey Cave.
The Black House is another Artists collection of 40 Buildings with his art, sculptures, animal collection of skins and in general a very dark place to visit.
The Tea plantation was exactly as I imagined it from studying in my school days with Thai women picking the fresh top 3 leaves for processing. We learned about the Oolong tea and tasted the various types.
The Monkey Cave was amusing with the monkeys coming down to see the van load of tourists who turned up to feed them peanuts. However, you needed to have your wits about you to ensure you didn’t stand on them, annoy the grumpy males, were gentle enough to ensure the pregnant females received their fair share of peanuts, and make sure they didn’t jump on you. They were all over the buildings, swinging in the trees, running around the ground and generally everywhere. Quite an experience.
After that we headed to Mae Sai, the border town to Myanmar. This city is divided by the river Ruak which in some areas is shallow enough to walk across but is illegal. People cross the border from Myanmar to work but the border crossing closes at 6.00pm so I guess working late isn’t an option otherwise they won’t get home for the night. The interesting thing is that when you cross the border the language changes and the cars drive on the right hand side. Mae Sai also has a huge border market supplied mostly from China being only a few hundred kilometres up the MeeKong River which is still an important trading river. The Scorpion Temple gave us a good view over the border into Myanmar.
The next stop was the area called The Golden Triangle which was the intersection of the River Ruak and the Meekong River and where you could see Myanmar and Laos . The Meekong is 4350 kms long, starts in Tibet and runs through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia & Vietnam and is the 12th longest river in the world. The Golden Triangle used to be infamous as one of the largest producers of opium. Various Thai organizations led by the Royal Project and Doi Tung Development Project, have spent decades battling this trade. The story goes that the late King of Thailand walked around the hill tribes growing opium, and gave them coffee plants to grow to encourage them out of the opium industry. Today opium is grown in Northern Myanmar and Laos and The Golden Triangle is no longer the opium trading centre but the major tourist attraction in Northern Thailand. The Opium Museum includes all the various implements used in the planting, harvest, use and trade of the resin, including pipes, weights, scales, plus photos and maps all labelled in English.
A long but interesting day spent travelling with 4 Germans and 2 Portugese. The problem with these tours is that you are at the mercy of the driver/guide. He was excellent but he didn’t keep everybody on time so the Germans were always late and therefore our tour was very late home. You can imagine how annoying that was for 2 Virgos who were always at the van on time! We left Chiang Rai feeling tired but satisfied that we had seen as much as possible in our 3 days.