We woke up in Chiang Mai on Star Wars Day (May 4th) and I realised I had accidentally booked one too many nights at the hostel we were staying at and that we had to go to Chiang Rai so as to not get done over by booking.coms strict no show policy. Our afternoon was spent winding up and down the turbulent North Thailand countryside. By early evening we had arrived at our destination, Chiang Rai. The hostel we were staying at was called Ann Hostel. It’s a modern, newly refurbished duplex that is down a quiet, country lane a 2 minute walk away from the main city street. After checking in and having a few beers our stomachs were roaring with hunger and we headed out for food. I might mention that my stomach on this day had been all over the place so as not to agitate my delicate interior we went out for some Western grub. After a 10 minute walk we stumbled across an outside seated burger joint run by a load of very friendly, Thai hippies. We were happy to eat there and ordered our food unaware of the shit storm that was about to hit us. Northern Thailand as most people know is extremely hot this time of year which causes frequent thunderstorms, and I’ve been witness to a few in my time here. However, I have never been sat outside directly under a lightning storm. Sure lots of people say that they’ve been in a storm casually watching it from a safe distance but I doubt many of them have actually had lightning strike within a short radius of where they’re sat. Feeling slightly unnerved having nothing but a flimsy umbrella given to us by the restaurant owner to protect us we chomped on our burgers anxiously waiting for the storm to pass. Except that it didn’t. Well, not for a long while anyway, it must have been a good 45 minute to an hour before the Lightning began to cease and the rain began to quieten.
Coming out of it unscathed like God had given us a second chance in life we went out to celebrate our good fortune.
Chiang Rai in low season I must say is not the most buzzing place we have ever been. We used trip advisor to find the best bar in the city and when we arrived we were the only ones there until about 10:30pm when one man turned up by himself. Woo party! Saying that though as we visited other bars it did pick up but only in bars which had old western men and ladies of night sitting inside.
The next morning I felt absolutely hanging, I genuinely did not drink that much but it hit my like a spade in the face. We unwillingly decided to make the most of our day and go on a walk around the city.
Chiang Rai doesn’t boast much of thriving city centre but we did see some cool pieces of architecture. The famous golden clock tower of Chiang Rai captivated Thanon Baanpa Pragarn road as did the great Mosque that was situated in a bustling Muslim area filled with textile markets and middle eastern eateries. Along the way we visited perhaps the most famous attraction in the city, Wat Pra Kaew (The temple of the Emerald Buddha). Originally it had been called Wat Pa Yeh but in 1434ad (I’m not sure if this is the Buddhist or Christian calendar they’re using here) lightning struck the main pagoda and revealed an Emerald Buddha that had previously been unknown to exist by the current monks who worshipped there, hence the name change. As you can imagine a lot of Temples start to look the same after a while just as churches do in England however this temple had an aura of uniqueness about it that was hard to ignore.
That night we ate at an amazing restaurant called ‘Barrab’ that was not only cheap but also demonstrated perfectly the boundaries of how spicy and delicious North Thai food is. My favourite was the Chiang Rai sausage that oozed flavours of lemongrass, galangal, kaffir leaves and turmeric, yum! By now we had discovered that visiting local night bazaars was the best way to spend an evening if you weren’t going out on the lash. Chiang Rai was no exception and we had a great night swanning around the calm alleyways of the bazaar with vendors selling everything from jewellery, Thai silk shirts, traditional instruments and hand made books. I bought three new shirts which was a couple of quid each and Georgia got a new nose ring put in which suits her nicely.
On our last full day in Chiang Rai we were going on an organised tour around Chiang Rai province as most of the famous attractions in the area are up to 60km away and too far and expensive to travel to and from by yourself. By 8am we had left our hotel with a French girl who was travelling alone throughout south east Asia after having spent 3 years working for Auckland council in New Zealand. Also on the bus were three Thai middle-aged women who had settled in the U.S but were returning to Thailand for a month holiday and then two Malay girls who were travelling Thailand for a short time. Our tourist guide was called ‘M’ which he named himself after the famous ‘M’ in James Bond. He was the typical tourist guide making worse and worse jokes as the day went on but he was a really cool guy to hang out with.
Firstly we went to the Singh tea plantation. Singh was Thailands first beer brewer and now a internationally recognised brand however the malt needed to make the beer the best possible quality it could be wasn’t living up to standards so Singh now import all of their malt from Australia and instead grow number 12 and 17 oolong tea as well as having a safari park on its 3500 acre grounds. I think I would of been more amazed at the plantation if I hadn’t already been to Fujian in China which is home of the tea plant, regardless it’s always interesting to know how the most commonly drunk beverage is harvested in different parts of the world.
Afterwards we drove a couple of kilometres to the world famous ‘White Temple’ designed by Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat. He invested 300 million baht (£6 million) into the construction of the White Temple.
He designed the temple to be white as he believes white symbolises the Buddha as more pure and unclouded from the mortal mediocrity that us humans possess. Inside the temple contemporary paintings are illustrated on the exit to the temple which is shaped like a fire breathing dragon with big, evil eyes with George Bush in the left eye and Osama Bin Laden in the right eye. As the wall gets closer to the central Buddha in the temple the imagery becomes less corrupt, beastly and totalitarian and more sacred, solemn and divine. A true masterpiece. His free art gallery reminded me of him being a Buddhist Pablo Amaringo who famously paints the visions he sees whilst under the influence of the South American psychedelic tea Ayahuasca.
Below the work of South East Asian Buddhist Chalermchai Kositpipat.
A short drive away from the centre of Chiang Rai is the black house designed by Thawan Duchanee. It is a combination of a home, museum and studio. His work which is slightly Chinese influenced looks like the love child of Tim Burton and Damien Hirst. Some of the exhibitions are ethically questionable which makes it even more exciting and intriguing. It was perfectly enjoyable to wander around the exciting mix of buildings and exhibits.
The next activity didn’t excite me in the slightest. We went to ‘Monkey Cave’ which was essentially an infestation of the most annoying and greedy monkeys I have seen. They’re not the cute monkeys you might see on an Internet meme they are just obnoxious tyrants that attack you if you hold anything that slightly resembles something edible. Not for me.
Next, we went to Mae Hong Sun where the Long Neck Village is. A dying tradition of people originally and only from Myanmar that choose to wear rings of brass around there neck. It is a common myth often spread by intolerable westerners that the reason why the girls of this region wear this neck brace is to protect them from tiger bites that were common in the time of its origination. In fact the correct reason behind the neck piece is ceremonial. Girls who were born on a Wednesday and in alignment with the full moon were seen as sacred and spiritual beings so they would somewhat impair their motor ability by wrapping brass coils around their neck which elevated their cherished head closer towards the heavens and the divine spirits.
Another popular misconception of this ancient practise is that the neck grows which is why the neck looks long. The correct explanation is that the shoulders practically break and the shoulders ‘drop’ creating the illusion of the neck looking long and thin.
The long neck people are originally and only from Myanmar which immigrated to Thailand to escape dictatorship but faced just as many problems in their new home as they were exempt from any social benefit or ‘help’. This means that the community relies solely on tourism and the sale of textiles and souvenirs made by the women in the village. Whereas in Myanmar they were making a comfortable selling opium.
The final excursion on our tour was visiting the Thailand/Myanmar border town of Chiang Saen. We climbed the Scorpion temple and reached a platform that we were able to stand on and admire the friendship bridges of the two countries. A short drive away from the temple was the Golden Triangle view point where Thailand, Myanmar and Laos are separated by the Mekong and Ruok River. It is called the golden triangle because during the days of rife opium trade in the area traders use to use gold instead of currently to buy and sell the product.
Alas our time in Chiang Rai has come to an end. It’s 14:43pm on the 8th May and in 4 hours we’ll be catching an overnight bus to Bangkok to stay for a night and then travel to Vietnam. What a month it has been in Thailand. How time flies.