After a very windy, rough, but stunning bus ride through the mountainous north of the country, we arrived in Chiang Rai. With a population of just over 60,000, it is much smaller then its southern counterpart Chiang Mai. Founded in the early 1200s it is older than Chiang Mai and was the Lanna Kingdom capital before Chiang Mai took that honour some 50 years later.
The guesthouse we had chosen to stay with was run by a lovely family who were all smiles and happy to help wherever they could. It was located down a gravel road in a true Thai suburb a leisurely 20 minute walk from the centre of the town. After the stark professionalism of the Korean guesthouse in Chiang Mai, it was a much welcome change of scene. This was helped by the balcony making a perfect beer drinking spot!
On our first afternoon we did our typical wander around, although not too much as Sam’s stomach was still recovering from the roller coaster bus ride (during which a kid 2 rows back managed to vomit everywhere). On our walk we happened across a crudely drawn sign, on a piece of paper sellotaped to a road sign, which said “tourist information office in the orange van straight ahead” and had what looked like a 3 year olds drawing of an orange van. Sure enough, there was a orange combi van one block ahead. We still thought it must have been a joke when one of the side windows opened and a smartly dressed lady asked if she could help us. She gave us a map of the town and we left…somewhat taken aback. The fact that there was a train that was being used as library on the other side of the road just added to our smirks. But the 30 odd overweight women doing aerobics in front of the train set us off and we laughed our way back to the guesthouse. A pretty good start to a new place!
We had 3 days in Chiang Rai, and we spent the first and third day exploring the town and the temples that it had to offer. 2 of the most memorable temples were Wat Rong Khun (the White Temple), and Wat Phra Kaeo. The White Temple is a modern built Buddhist Wat that started to be built in 1997. A clue as to why it is so striking is in the name: instead of the usual gold/red/green colours of traditional Wats, this one is pure white which represents the Buddhas purity. Add to that a very impressive tormented hands monument that you cross over to get to the temple, and walls inside painted with modern symbols such as Keanu Reeves, Predator, Lord of the Rings, and other Hollywood symbols made it quite a sight!
What Phra Kaeo on the other hand was constructed in the 14th century. It is famous for housing the Emerald Buddha – one of the images which Thailand is well known for. The actual Emerald Buddha is now housed in Bangkok, but a replica resides within the temple and is quite stunning.
On the second day we attempted to go to Mae Salong, which was the centre of the Golden Triangle (area encompassing the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos) Opium growing trade. We got on an early local bus and after an hour got deposited on the highway in a small town. We were still about 8km from Mae Salong, and to go the rest of the way we had to take a shared taxi (ie ute with rails). BUT…the taxi would not leave until it had 8 passengers. So after nearly an hour of waiting for anyone to turn up (bearing in mind this was the middle of nowhere) we walked back down the highway to a little town we had passed called Mae Chan. After 45 minutes of walking and dodging scooters and snake carcasses we got there and spent the next few hours exploring the quaint little town which very obviously were not used to tourists! In fact, we didn’t see a single other foreigner there. Perfect.
Even compared to Sukhothai, Chiang Rai seemed small and very much a “town” after the cities that we were used to spending time in. Although it didn’t seem as old or have the same feeling of history that Chiang Mai did, it was a great place to travel to.
We left Chiang Rai with a bit of trepidation. We had a 2 hour bus trip ahead of us with our large backpacks. But unlike the intercity transport to date, this was in a non airconditioned local bus. We had experienced these to get to the White Temple and Mae Chan. The seats are tiny. Will cannot get his legs between the seats, so previous trips Sam has been wedged against the window while Will has used her and the rest of the seat as a backrest, resulting in him sticking out into the aisle. Fortunately however, the bus to Chiang Khong – which is a town that has the border crossing into Laos – was empty. We managed to get seats at the back with ample leg room, PLUS had Thai style aircon: there was no door in the doorway, so in front of us was a large hole in the side of the bus supplying lots of wind. Perfect!
We arrived in Chiang Khong and were overjoyed at our accommodation: a double bungalow with a private deck overlooking the Mekong river into Laos. In fact it’s such a nice place that I am going to stop writing, sit back, drink my beer, and enjoy the sun setting over the river. This is the life!!