Thailand part 3: Chiang Rai, the exotic North
I understand why so many travellers spend their time in Chiang Mai. It is a cozy city, full of culture and ideal for foodies, surrounded by beautiful nature. We left Chiang Mai just a little earlier then we wanted. We were there for only 10 days and in hindsight we probably would have liked a couple more. We were finally getting the hang of this city’s in and outs and we already had to leave. Though we did manage to do everything on our bucketlist, maybe next time we’ll stay for a month!
So our next stop was Chiang Rai. A city about 180km more North and less big/touristy/visited than Chiang Mai. We opted for a bus for our move since it was the cheapest and most eco friendly way of travelling. Initially we thought a busride of 180km would take about 2 hours maybe? Boy, were we wrong, our total ride took a little over 4 hours and definitely wasn’t the best one we’ve had. The seats were quite uncomfortable, and the drive was quite bumpy. Forget sleeping. It was nearly impossible to bend yourself in a way that wouldn’t result in incredible neck- and/or back pain. After 4 hours of a torture-like experience we finally arrived at the bus stop in Chiang Rai. Our home for the next 2 weeks was only a 10 minute walk away so we picked up our bags and hurried towards our Airbnb. We were, once again, happily surprised with another spacious room and bathroom, and even more happy with a shared kitchen on the third floor, where we had drinking water, a huge fridge and means to do dishes and laundry. Airbnbs in Thailand sure know how to pamper their guests!
Since it was still early, we decided to go for a stroll and maybe visit the ‘fat free bicycle shop’ where we wanted to get some info on renting a bike for maybe a week. We had plenty of places we wanted to visit and although everything was fairly close we would still lose a lot of time if we were going to do everything on foot. Whilst we were walking towards the shop, we came upon… a walking street full of foodstands! Aah, I love it when a plan comes together, even if there is no plan. We visited the bike shop and got the info we needed (50 baht/day for a city bike and 250/day for a mountainbike). Unfortunately the bike shop and many other places in Chiang Rai would be closed in anticipation of the New Years eve celebration until the 2nd of januari. So we’d had to take that into consideration when making our planning. On our way back to our Airbnb we, of course, went through the market. There was plenty of food and drinks to try so we bought some here, some there. Some to take home, some to try immediately. It is mindblowing how so much delicious food can be found on the food market. I reckon this is my favourite aspect of Thailand. In a nearby park there was a live band was playing and people were dancing, we enjoyed a delicious meal of freshly made pad thai (for the huge price of 40 baht!). The vibe all around was great. We could’ve stayed until the end, but went home earlier because some really dark clouds were heading our way. Checking the weather forecast for that evening only promised rain and thunderstorms. We barely made it home when the floodgates opened. I guess it can get ugly in paradise as well.
Today was the 31st of december and for the first time ever, we were going to celebrate it in another country!! Normally we organise a big get-together with a bunch of friends and enjoy an evening of food, dessert, drinks and most importantly good conversation! This time it was just the two of us in the city of Chiang Rai. Haythim had already researched a little bit beforehand to know where to go for celebrations. We left our Airbnb around 6 in the afternoon and decided to first stroll through the nearby night market. We wandered around the various souvenir stalls, but quickly ended up at the food court where there were lots of delicious food to try, and live music to enjoy! The music was so loud though, we quickly had to fetch my earplugs from our Airbnb, (I didn’t want to end up with tinnitus).
Afterwards we followed the main street and went towards the famous clocktower. Apparently this was the place to be in Chiang Rai. The way to the central point was lined with little food stands, beer garden-like constructions and so on. For our first drink we stopped at a little street that had live music, plenty of tables and Chang beer. We only stayed for 1 drink though due to the abusive system they were using there. The moment you sat down you had to choose between buying 12 cans of 50cl beers or a giant pitcher of 3 liters... They were quite pushy about ordering more and weren’t happy with us just ordering one beer, so we decided to move on to the next spot. We arrived at the clock tower around 10 and since we had plenty of time left we strolled around the area some more. There was even more food here, a stage with live music, drinks,… So we bought some beers, went one last time to the restroom at the local pizza hut ( since it was nearly impossible to find a public bathroom. I really wonder how the Thai people do it...) and settled ourselves down in a spot with a view on the clock tower. When it was nearing 12 o’clock, people started getting anxious, began standing up and then suddenly we heard a thing like a countdown (we weren’t sure at first because well we don’t speak the language). Fireworks started up everywhere and music began playing. Happy New year!!!! After the countdown we figured people would maybe stick around, have fun, drink a beer,… But none of that. Only right after the countdown into the new year, people started packing up and going home. Several beer gardens were already cleaning up! That’s certainly different from Belgium where parties keep going until 4-5… or morning even. So we bought some beers, snacks from the remaining food stands and went home where we stayed up chatting till 3 in the morning. Only then we called it a night and slept like babies.
Finally, the holiday craze was cooling down and stores and shops were opening again. We went back to the bike shop we visited the first day and rented 2 city bikes for 50 baht per day per bike. But since we were renting for a week we got a discount. 600 baht for 2 bikes for a week? I’d call that a good deal! We went to pick up some food (khao soi) and headed home where we made up a planning in which we would make good use of the bikes. We had a ton of stuff planned!
But before we could start visiting anything, we had to reload our thai simcard (about 200 baht), which gave us 1 month of unlimited 10mbs internet in the whole of Thailand. Coming from Belgium I felt extremely offended that we have to pay a ridiculous price for our internet in our homecountry. We went to a convenience store but they didn’t sell that kind of sim card. Apparently they only sold them in some kind of shopping mall such as the Big C. Since we had bikes to use, it wasn’t that far. The road towards the Big C was insane though. We felt like two idiots that got stuck on a highway with a bike. A lot of roads in Chiang Rai don’t have bicycle lanes and are structured to look like a highway (with multiple lanes for cars). Hundreds of cars and mopeds were driving around us and we were, literally, the only 2 people on a bicycle. Add to that, that in Thailand you don’t need a drivers license… . You get the picture, me and Haythim had a lot of moments of inward and outward cursing. Needless to say it was frightening as well. Since a lot of the bigger roads have only one pedestrian bridge every once in a kilometre or so. And with no crosswalks it became super difficult to get to the other side of the 5-lane road in a safe manner. We figured carrying our bikes over the pedestrian bridges would be a nuisance but better that than to risk our lives so up the stairs we went! Once on the other side of the road we easily continued our way homewards. And were we happy to be home! After that, unplanned and crazy, adventure we called it a day!
With everything in order, the next day we hoped to visit the White Temple. But alas, sometimes fate decides that we (at random) have and awful night of little sleep due to no reason at all (’sigh’). We decided to postpone our visit to the White Temple to another day. So we tucked ourselves back in bed, and snoozed for another couple of hours! When we woke up rested and full of energy again, we set out for some temples in the city centre. We had heard about a quite important one, called Wat Klang Wiang. This temple is said to lay in the exact middle of the city. That is the reason why it contains the city pillar. The temple is very ornate and beautifully decorated. Most of the buildings were build during the 20th century since a large part got damaged due to weather etc. The origin of the temple can be traced back another 500 years or so. The temple has several buildings (3-4) all decorated with red paint and gold with the typical glass inlay in almost every part. The naga are graciously designed and again full of detail. The inside had a large sitting/ praying area, where we noticed some people sleeping (on the job?) and a beautiful Buddha statue. This one, for once, had an urna (symbolised as a small dot between the eyebrows, characteristic of Buddha, similar to a third eye). It occurred to us that this probably was the first one we had seen since we came to Thailand.
Afterwards we visited Wat Phra Singh. “What? Wasn’t this temple in Chiang Mai?”, I hear you think. Yes, yes, still true. While Chiang Mai has the big version, Chiang Rai had its little brother, and it carries the same name. What Phra Singh is one of the oldest temples in Chiang Rai and still has original parts that go as far back as the 14th century. The temple is once again decorated in the style we’ve come to expect. A red base layer with lots of gold on top and mirror inlay. But the real beauty of this temple lay on the inside. They have a stunning Buddha statue with lots of bodhisattva and other surrounding statues. While we were there we could see that they were restoring one of the adjacent buildings. We took some time to watch the restoration. It’s always so fascinating! The temple grounds were surrounded by a high wall, thanks to which the whole place felt like a getaway from the hustle and bustle of the daily activities of mankind. No mopeds or cars going through here! In here one could find peace. All the trees and flowers around it only added to the oasis-kind of feeling one gets here.
At long last the next day, we were able to put our bikes to good use. We set out real early towards the Blue Temple (Wat Rond Suea Ten), which took us half an hour to get there. Along (as explained before), not so peaceful roads out of Chiang Mai. We arrived quite quickly and parked our bikes on the side of the road. Just a couple of tourists stood posing at the entrance of the temple, but all in all, it seemed peaceful. The entrance did make for a strange look. On each side stood a huge blue with green detailed guardian, out of which at the bottom water flowed out of various faces. The colours looked very vibrant, and shiny in some areas. Like the parade cars in a carnival fair. But nevertheless still beautiful. We entered the temple grounds, where at the centre stood a fountain, at the right a few shops/bar/restaurant and at the left a big Buddha statue. Everything in a same blue-green style. Of course we couldn’t contain our excitement and headed straight for the temple with the very strange looking Naga guarding its entrance. Finished only in 2016, this young building with all its blue, gold and green makes for a magical look. Almost like a themepark. Inside, amidst the blue walls/ceiling/interior sits a big sparkly white Buddha. No pictures could show you all the details that are there to behold. It is simply a must see.
Not to ease ourselves back into our chairs, we hopped onto our bicycles the next day again for another excursion. This time towards an even more artsy temple, called ‘the Black house’ (Baan Dam). We were in for a bike-ride of an hour, so we kept a steady pace and had a stop at half our route for a drink and a sneak peek at another huge temple that housed a big glaring Buddha. I wondered how this temple didn’t end up in any of the Chiang Mai brochures or blogs on the internet because it definitely overflowed in beauty and wasn’t difficult to find. Maybe the choice in splendid temples was so abundant, that only the odd ones stood out...
After our relaxing ride, we arrived in a more rural area where we parked our bikes next to the souvenirshop? Yeah, this place had its own souvenirshop... We bought our entrance tickets, and with one eye on a looming huge pitchblack building we entered the premises. We walked around the first ‘temple’ cautiously as we didn’t know what to expect and what we were allowed to enter or touch even. As we entered we immediately noticed the very strange furniture and decorations made of animal remains everywhere. Besides those were some very fine woodcarvings, that depicted strange sceneries as well. From mythical creatures, huge seashells, skulls, skins, to fallus and fertility symbols, this artist had some peculiar tastes. The other smaller buildings had a same style interior and exterior. Some where accessible and some weren’t. The architecture of the black buildings showed a mix of multiple asian styles, though still felt alien. Here and there hung a painting by the artist, which was actually beautiful and very expressive. We found it sorry that there were only a couple to be seen. The whole place left us feeling a bit unsure about what we’d been through. I wouldn’t call this a must see, yet, it’s not something that is not worth seeing. I guess this one really depends on you own interests/expectations/...
Maybe not our favourite, but I still felt glad we visited the black ‘temple’ house. At first I was a bit apprehensive about all the animal remains but after reading that these remains were donated or second hand and that the animals weren’t slaughtered for the purpose of embellishing this artist’ temple, I felt more at ease. He purchased them as how he found them on the market. You could tell some were quite old and worn already. And besides that I was happy to get some exercise by bicycling two hours that day!
As we had been in Thailand for a while now, we had been on the lookout to find a genuine ethical elephant reserve. Which up to that point had proven rather difficult. We had seen a lot of advertisement about ethical visits etc. but they would still offer playing and/or bathing with elephants, or rides… So it seemed that ‘ethical’ was the new cool word of the year... First of all elephants are highly intelligent, social animals, that love to play (rough). They do not bathe with humans... If there are humans in the same area as them, they would have to be very careful as not to accidentally hurt them, which is a skill trained under leadership of humans... Secondly, a lot of the so called sanctuaries offer no or too little clean drinkable water and not enough free living space for ‘their’ elephants. The elephants are often not free to choose where to go but have to follow a for the tourists entertaining itinerary. At the end of the day, they often get chained up again...
We finally did find a sanctuary that was serious about the word ‘sanctuary’. The Elephant Valley Thailand. A place where abused elephants were rehabilitated in phases to eventually be let free into the wild again. They had a small herd of elephants and a giant area for them to roam in. We signed up for a full volunteer day to maybe get a glimpse of how their facility work. First we got instructions and explanations, after which we visited and just looked at the elephants from afar, without interacting with them unless they came closer and sought contact themselves. We would follow them into the jungle and just learn about their behaviour. We saw their personal caretaker giving them a shower, when they scrub old mud of their skin and checked for possible cuts (from roaming in the jungle). In the afternoon we visited a new area of jungle where the next phase elephants were hanging out. These are the elephants that have learned not to seek contact with humans anymore and are fully self dependent. Seeing them roam around freely and peacefully in the valley is a sight I will never forget. I wish it could be like this for all elephants. After our hike, we went to cut down banana trees, load em up to take home, after which we cut them up, peel them and feed them to the (first phase) elephants. They absolutely love those pieces of banana trees. For them it’s a delicacy, like chocolate for us.
The White Temple is simply a must-see in Chiang Rai. Everybody can agree to that. Made by (and containing lots of artwork of) the world-famous artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, this pearly white temple sure makes a statement for everyone. As it obviously draws a lot of visitors, once again we got up really early, jumped on our bikes and drove for an hour through the rustic country side of Chiang Rai until we came upon a small town again. We hurriedly parked our bikes, bought our entrance tickets and in we went! To say that the whole temple complex was bright is an understatement of course. I felt like a vampire exposed to sunlight, as I searched in a frenzy for my sunglasses. There is much to see at the White Temple, from spots where you could receive a blessing, a wishing well, places to hang up wishes and much more. We first went for the most obvious building in the bunch, being the White Temple itself. The entrance was marked by a bridge going over a pond of hands reaching upwards or trying to grab things to pull down, surrounded by a fence of demonic faces molten together. We were already told by other travellers we met to certainly be openminded while visiting this temple, because there would be surprises hidden away amongst all the artwork. And soon enough we saw Wolverine’s fist raised up among all the other hands. We squirmed ourselves through the wall of people trying to take a selfie, walked up the bridge and entered the temple. Inside waited walls full of sceneries painted in a rainbow of colours, a Buddha and guards keeping a close eye to possible ill-behaving people. As we took a closer look to the paintings on the walls, we suddenly started to spot several non-Thai elements. From a Sailor moon to the figures from South Park, to even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles! It seemed that the artist was a fanboy who couldn’t help but implement the things he loves in some of his artwork. Sadly we don’t have any pictures of the inside since we weren’t allowed to take pictures.
We continued throughout the temple and explored the rest of the premises. There was one building that stood out from the rest, as it was entirely painted gold and resting in the middle of a pond, with a long bridge leading up to it. The inside displayed and documented the stages and variety of Chalermchai Kositpipat’s work, going from pocket altars and -Buddha’s, to paintings, sculptures and eventually the White Temple. It was amazing to see such a skilled man’s artistic outlets. This man simply didn’t know how to stop, and hasn’t, as he is still active today as well. We paid a short visit to the nearby wishing well and hung up a prayer on the prayer tree before finally saying goodbye to this wonderful example of artistry.
Yet as soon as we were outside of the temple premises we spotted an art exhibition of other work by Chalermchai Kositpipat. It mainly contained paintings and sculptures, most of them Buddhist inspired and some exceptions containing heavy political messages. Unfortunately I can’t share any pictures as photography of his art was, once again, prohibited. I can say that it was absolutely worth it though and it’s free. Do make sure to check out the one painting in the back with George W. Bush and Osama Bin Laden, it’s a laugh! Entirely satisfied with our day, we enjoyed a peaceful ride back home and arrived just in time before the hottest hours of the day kicked in.
For our last day in Chiang Rai which, in hindsight was probably one of the most memorable ones, we hired a taxi to go visit things all day long. Hiring a taxi for a whole day, funnily enough, way up North in Thailand makes for one of the cheapest and easiest options. We had found a real gentlemen of a taxidriver who also thought to get the most out of our day for us, and helped us to plan to visit as much as we still wanted to scratch of our bucketlist. While you would think communication could be a problem he had an easy solution. He talked in easy short sentences to google translate and showed us the translation. It worked like a charm.
First on the list: Wat Huay Pla Kang. A temple complex consisting of several buildings (of which another white temple and a 9 story pagoda) but mostly known for its 23 story high Buddha statue, that you’re also able to enter and climb all the way to the tippity top. Which of course we did as soon as we went up the mountain. The Buddha sits there, white and sparkling in the morning light, with a huge white staircase leading up to it. The sides of the stairs are encompassed nu massive white dragons winding down with claws at the ready and mouths wide open. We climbed the stairs and went straight for the elevator that took us all the way up inside the Buddha’s head. There we were able to get some beautiful views from the urna on his forehead (mark of enlightenment between the eyebrows), after which we could even walk up some staircase leading to the top room inside Buddha’s ushnisha (schrijfwijze opzoeken) (heightened part on the crown of his head). We paid a short visit to the nearby temple and pagoda, this first who showed beautiful murals depicting scenes from the life of Siddharta, who eventually became enlightened and therefore Buddha.
After our short fun at the Wat Huay Pla Kang we drove on towards the most famous tea plantage in the North of Thailand. Not too much later, we arrived at the Choui Fong tea plantage, where we first held a small break at the cafeteria overlooking the many green tea fields. We enjoyed the delicious green tea pastries, a green tea latte and a fruit shake sitting on the terras while looking at the beautiful view. Afterwards we took a stroll through the fields, though that’s about all you can do at the plantage. For us that’s plenty, but I can imagine for some it may be a bit boring. Let’s just say that if you’re not a tea lover, you might not enjoy this one as much as us. We headed back to the taxi after our little down-time and made for what we thought was going to be our last visit for that day. The fish cave (Tan Pla) and monkey temple.
Only half an hour drive more, in a very rural area, we arrived at the flank of a mountain. It was a walled temple complex, that we entered with much anticipation. We already noticed that there were almost no tourists in sight, and while that didn’t raise any suspicions on Haythim’s behalf, I cautiously had a look around. After snooping around a bit, paying a visit to the centre temple and the strange moving statues depicting scenes from hell, we noticed on the right a staircase leading up into the mountain. At the base of the staircase, a group of monkeys, sitting around, with a Thai keeper that sold food to tourists interested in feeding the primates. I admit that I’m not too fond of monkeys as I have heard too much stories about their cheeky behaviour, stealing cameras from tourists or even attacking if provoked. I tried as much as I could not to draw attention, while Haythim casually strolled through towards the staircase. As I noticed the monkeys already picking fights amongst themselves, I couldn’t wait to get to the top of the stairs and enter the cave as quick as possible. There, a new challenge presented itself, as the cave was pitchblack, with unexpected turns and bends. We ventured carefully, and saw a couple of beautiful old Buddha statues on our way through. Right before another Buddha statue the cave suddenly took a turn and descended into a narrow opening I stopped altogether and ushered Haythim back. 8 gleaming eyes were watching from the base of the statue as we stood there. And although I know there probably was no evil intent from the creature, I still have a phobia for big black spiders that makes me freeze on the spot while every molecule in my body screams for a hasty retreat. I must have sounded very panicky because Haythim almost fell rushing back and was a bit pissed that I called him for ‘just’ a spider. Seeing the sheer size of it, he quickly understood my anxiety so we left the cave and decided to go see the rest of the premises [sorry I don't have pictures of the critter!]. Just at the bottom of the staircase, we were already intimidated by a first monkey right there and then. The young male tried to display his dominance towards us, as it was just told off by his bigger older relative. Just by the sight of their large teeth, I was ready to make a run for it, but as this usually makes things worse, we stood our ground. We regretted not having read upon monkeys behaviour beforehand so as to know how to deal with these kinds of situations… Luckily we got out safely at that moment.
We noticed a very old stupa nearby, in a very rough style, as if it was prepared for the rough jungle-climate. But the real reason why we came to this place was a peculiar staircase that led right into the mountainflank. The very steep staircase, was characterised by two enormous Naga (serving as rails) that squirmed all the way down the mountain from the top. To see such long Naga was not alone impressive, but the amount of heads on their bodies too made for an awesome sight. It looked quite peaceful, as we made our climb up into the jungle. Up top, the staircase ended in an open spot, with an entrance to a giant cave at the end. I noticed some monkey families in the trees above us, and kept a steady pace towards the cave. Luckily this cave was more open, and had a couple of lights inside, if only candlelight. But enough to mind our step. Inside the cave was an opening in the top, through which the rain fell down and made a small garden at the bottom. We bought some incense and candles from the person at the entrance, and placed our offerings with the Buddha statues deep within the cave. If only this cave would receive more funding and more care, if would totally find its way into the Chiang Rai brochures. The mysticism that lied over this templecomplex, and the variety of sights to see make Tan Pla an absolute must to visit! But I get why maybe tourists would stay away, as we were hassled quite a bit by monkeys as we tried to make our way to the exit of the premises. A group of young males tried each in turn to show which one of them was the coolest by making a move at us. At one point one jumped up on Haythim and one tried to yank my walking stick away from me. By just remaining calm and standing our ground we got out safe, but reading up on it afterwards I noticed we did make a couple of mistakes.
So just three pointers for you here whenever you would ever be confronted with some rascal monkeys.
1. If you know an area to have monkeys, make yourself look as uninteresting as you possibly can: don’t go wearing sparkly, colourful jewellery or clothes, of have too much pockets on you (or bags for that matter).
2. don’t make eye-contact, as this is seen as provocative. And for that matter, laugh/yawn/talk loudly/scream which would show your teeth is an absolutely no-go.
3. When provoked, don’t run. As with most mammals, this makes them want to chase you down. Stand your ground, but look away, then slowly move backwards. Don’t yell at them, you’ll just provoke them even more. It helps to just carry a stick with you as they’ll know you have something to defend yourself with.
Even though we were already quite tired after that visit, we still had some time left in our day. So our cabdriver suggested to visit the Luang cave not too far from there. Not too long back, a team of young soccer players ‘the Wild Boars’, ages ranging from 11 to 25 years old, became stuck over 5 kilometres deep into the Luang cave. As it was at the peak of the monsoon season, the team got stuck as the cave started to fill up rapidly with water. As their attempt to get out failed, they only saw one option to head deeper into the cave. This led them to become even more stuck as more places started to fill up with water. Rescue people from over the whole world came together to get them out and a massive rescue operation was put up. Two rescue divers lost their lives during the multiple attempts to reach the children. The whole thing was publicised widely in every country and I remember everyone checking for news updates every 5 minutes. Upon arrival, we immediately noticed the enormous gaping entrance of the cave, and a steep descend no 30 metres further. Unfortunately they want to make the cave more accessible to visits and sealed it off for now to do maintenance and preparations. So not much to see for the time being I’m afraid.
After this last excursion we were so exhausted and happy to be home again, because we still had to make our preparations for our last destination in Thailand: Krabi. We had been visiting and still working so much that we decided to take a complete rest for two weeks at the beautiful beaches of Krabi. Phuket is not quite our style since we just not quite party people, so we decided to stay on the other side of the shore, where no doubt there would be other relaxing fun activities to do!
Hold on to your beaches Krabi, we’re coming over!
Avocado/ coconut smoothie( with ice): This was absolutely divine!!!! Just a ripe avocado and 100 ml of coconut juice and put it in the blender with ice. A lot of people mix a bit of honey to add some sweetness to it. The taste is mindblowing refreshing!
Grilled squid: Fresh off the barbeque, and with a bit of lemon juice to pour over it, it is like heaven! You can easily find these on the food markets on sticks, which makes them so easy to eat as well!
Durian (jack fruit): You love it or you hate it. This weird looking fruit the size of a big football with spikes contains light-yellow bitesize pieces of fleshy fruit with a soft pit at the centre. I always compare it to a very buttery sweet avocado. And since I love avocados I absolutely adore durian. Two pieces fill up quite enough so I never buy more, and I always buy them really ripe. There is a smell to it though, that lingers and can really get on people their nerves! A lot of airbnbs or hotels don’t allow the fruit inside. Depending on who, the smell has been compared to chicken poop or onion. It of course also depends on the ripeness of the fruit. It’s just something you have got to try to know.