I wasn’t sure when I began planning the Thai segment of our trip if we wanted to even travel to Chiang Rai. It seemed that half of the tours/attractions listed for Chiang Mai involved travel to Chiang Rai for different activities. Many of them involved visiting temples, others focused on travel to the Golden Triangle (border area of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar. Several of the trips included visiting the local hill tribes. I settled on the temples, figuring the added travel time north to the borders wasn’t worth it, and the hill tribe visit would be “staged” for tourists.
Our guide, Puma, (she’s also the driver) met us at 7:00am and we started north. She did the best job of establishing the tour specifics of any of our guides the last 5 weeks. It only took her a couple of minutes to tell us exactly where we were headed, what we would see, and how long each segment would take. It seems simple, but too many times, we would have appreciated more information, and less guesswork.
Chiang Mai has a population of 1.6 million, and Chiang Rai has 1.3 million. Out of town just a few miles, the road began to climb into the hills and mountains, and became two lanes, with an occasional passing lane added on short uphill segments. A long segment of the winding mountain roads was undergoing heavy improvement to straighten it out, requiring lots of dirt movement and bridges. If you could imagine a two-lane road between DFW & Austin, and the traffic struggles that would involve. Lots of trucks and tour buses made it even more grinding.
The halfway stop (90 minutes) was a hot springs area with a market and washrooms. I was able to dangle my feet for a few minutes in one section. The locals were boiling eggs in some of the other pools. In the flatland areas we passed they were growing rice, corn, and many other crops. 40 years ago, Northern Thailand was the center of the poppy/opium market. The King of Thailand, Rama the 9th, banned poppies as a crop, and began training the local farmers how to grow coffee. It’s now the biggest crop in Northern Thailand.
When we reached Chiang Rai shortly after 10am, our first stop was the “White Temple”. Twenty-two years ago a wealthy businessman began the process of renovating a small ancient temple into a tourist attraction. He wanted to bring tourism and jobs to the area. The sculptures and designs around the temple try to reflect on the horrors of hell, and people trying to get to heaven. Inside the temple were painted contemporary pictures of world events while it was being built, including a mural depicting the 9/11 twin towers destruction. There were two huge eyes painted on the walls, one with the reflection of George W Bush, and the other containing Bin Laden. This isn’t your average Buddhist temple. Since the project began, it has expanded and building is still continuing as the property grows.
Our next stop was the “Blue Temple”. It was designed and built by one of the team members who helped with the White Temple. It’s not as large as the White Temple……yet…… but it’s expanding as well.
To fill out the rainbow, our next visit was the Chinese “Red Temple”. The color motif red wasn’t obvious. It seemed to be more a nickname as a nod to “Red China”. A huge Buddha sat high on hill overlooking the area, and a beautiful temple as well on the property. These temples have been a wholly different experience from the temples we visited in Bangkok. They’re much more tourist centric. Of course with every temple, shoes are left at the door, and women’s pants must come below the knees. Shoulders cannot be bare.
We ate lunch in a large river resort hotel. There was a huge buffet with all types of foods, including western. It was empty as we arrived, but tour group after tour group kept walking in, and it was full before we left. There was a singer with a beautiful voice, but lacking a sense of pitch. Ouch. She had to be related to the owner.
We left Chiang Rai around 1:30 for the drive back to Chiang Mai. An hour out of town, we exited the main road for a short jaunt to the “Grand Palace”. It’s another attempt to turn an old temple into a new and shiny place for travelers to stop between the two cities. It had it’s own modern updates. One of the sculptures displayed a figure wearing Converse high top shoes. Another had a cell phone stuffed into his pants. This temple was geared for a younger, hip crowd. There were bells everywhere, and everyone seemed to be ringing them. It had something to do with respecting Buddha.
We arrived back at our hotel at 5:30, after a very slow trip through the mountains. We made it back in time to pick up the laundry we left yesterday, saving us a trip tomorrow morning to get it.
After freshening up, we went back out for another visit to the night market. It’s been fun renewing my bargaining skills. We made a longer tour tonight. The street on both sides is full of booths, two and three deep. There are some open pavilions with rows and rows of stuff to buy, and places to eat. In the morning, the pavilions become “fresh markets” with vegetables and fruits and locals purchasing groceries.
Chiang Mai has been everything I hoped it would be. It’s calmer than Bangkok, and much different than the southern beach areas of Phuket and Koh Samui we’ve visited previously. Which do we like the best? None are better than the other, just different in their own way, and unique destinations.