White Temples, Black Houses and Emerald Buddhas

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June 20th 2013
Published: June 20th 2013
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We finished up our 10 day visit to Chiang Mai in quite the good mood. Chiang Mai is an easy place to like. It’s pretty and easy on the budget. The food is good, plentiful and inexpensive. It’s easy to walk almost anywhere a tourist would want to go and there seemed to be something of interest going on every evening that was either free or inexpensive. The museums are excellent and the Wats are gorgeous. During our stay we had a few cloudy, overcast days but all they seemed to do was cool the day down and make Chiang Mai even more engaging.

In general, I’m not a big fan of over-touristy towns. Travel to places that have lost their sense of self doesn’t interest me. Even though Chiang Mai has lots of visitors and certainly caters to them, I found the quiet lanes, filled with small locally owned restaurants and cafes made for a great place to relax and enjoy a unique travel experience. Our second hotel had a good variety of visitors and the hosts were unobtrusive and really helpful. The locals we met were almost overly nice and truly made us feel welcome. We were happy that we had extended our stay from 7 to 10 days.

Nevertheless, we found we had to be on our way. We decided to continue moving north and made our way to Chiang Rai. We got up early and arranged a taxi for our 10 minute ride to the bus station. We had purchased tickets on the “VIP” bus earlier in the week. The bus featured air conditioning and a light snack and bottled water during the trip and since it was only about 4 dollars extra we decided to enjoy a little extra luxury during our 2 ½ hour ride from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai.

The road was nice, although a quite curvy. We passed through some beautiful scenery as we climbed through green valleys and passed many small towns along the way. Eventually the road straightened out and almost exactly on time we pulled into our new home of Chang Rai.

We booked a fairly new hostel in town and had a little trouble finding our new place. The songtaew driver took us the few blocks to where most of the tourist houses are located. When our hostel wasn’t located there, he seemed to be puzzled. Luckily we found a young lady who spoke English and knew where our hostel was. She was able to explain to our driver and we quickly arrived at our new place.

We continued our recent good luck by getting another nice place to stay. We have a double room with air conditioning and private bathroom. We have an excellent restaurant in the lobby and friendly, helpful hosts. They are extremely hard working and have gone out of their way to help us anytime we have asked questions. Hotel prices in northern Thailand have been unbelievably inexpensive which has greatly helped us stay closer to our budget.

Chiang Rai is definitely not as tourist oriented as Chiang Mai, but we haven’t lacked for things to do during our week long stay. We took a free tour on an electric bus around town to visit some of the local temples. Each Wat was unique and while our visits to each were a little short, we were able to see them and get a good general feel for the town. Our favorite temple in town is called Wat Phra Kaew, famous as being the original location of the Emerald Buddha. The story goes that the Wat was hit by lightning and cracked exposing the Buddha. It was covered with clay, which was removed showing the beautiful Emerald Buddha, actually made from jade. After making its way to Laos and several cities in Thailand it ended up in the Grand Palace in Bangkok and is one of the most revered Buddha images in Thailand. A replacement statue was installed in Chiang Rai in 1991 and that is what we see today.

Chiang Rai has two other unique things to visit. The first one is called Wat Rong Khun, more commonly called the White Temple. It is absolutely stunning and is unlike any temple we have seen in SE Asia, or frankly anywhere in the world. Designed by a local artist/architect, construction began in 1996. The main temple, along with some out buildings, is completed but work is scheduled to continue until 2070. It is blindingly white and surrounded by water. I suppose some might find it slightly off-putting as it is radical in design, but we found it absolutely stunning and a must if visiting Chiang Rai.

The second truly unique place in Chiang Rai we visited is called the Black House, or Baandam in Thai. Some call it a temple but it is much more of a house. Designed by local artist Thawan Duchanee, it is actually a collection of buildings which together represent an unbelievable achievement. Intricately carved wood and hundreds of animal skins and horns of various sizes are used to decorate the many buildings which are predominately black in color and Thai influenced in design. The Black House was a little difficult to find and apparently is not visited by many western tourists. It is difficult to define, and again could be a little off-putting to some, but it is without a doubt one of the most amazing places we have seen in all our travels.

We have done a pretty good job of staying on budget during our stay in Chiang Rai. The Wat tour, White Temple and Black House were all free. However, we felt that our visit to Northern Thailand would not be complete without a trip to the surrounding area to visit some of the hilltribe communities located in the area surrounding Chiang Rai.

On our first day in Chiang Rai we visited the Hilltribe museum located near our hostel. We found that they offered tours of local villages and had many partnerships with the villages that supported nonintrusive visits to their communities. We have been hesitant to take a tour in the past, as many of the tours seemed exploitive of the communities and would not provide an authentic experience. The tours run by the Hilltribe museum (PDA) seemed to stress cultural awareness and not just a photo taking opportunity.

We were picked up at 9 and transported to the nearby Mae Kok River that runs through the outskirts of Chiang Rai. We boarded our longtail boat for an hour long ride down the river. The river level is quite low and the driver displayed his skills as we narrowly missed the submerged logs and sandbars that filled the river. We passed through beautiful hills and saw many small riverside houses.

We arrived for the second part of our tour in a small Karen tribe town where we found the local elephant camp. Again we were pleased that the elephants were kept in a nicely shaded area and were told that they are well taken care of and receive regular government mandated health visits. We boarded our elephant and began our 1 ½ hour ride into the surrounding mountains. We were amazed at how gracefully such a huge animal could make his way along the narrow paths that would be impassable by any other means. We passed local fields, both corn and rice. The views became incredible as we looked back towards the river. It was hard to believe we had climbed so far in such a short time.

We arrived at the small village of Banyafu where we were to have our lunch. The local houses are raised off the ground which was convenient as we could get off the elephant directly onto the front porch. We ate a delicious meal with a local family and then took a short tour of the house and village. Most of the villagers were busy working in the surrounding fields.

We continued our trip on foot making our way down the mountain on a small dirt trail. We walked for about an hour, mostly downhill and visited a very nice local waterfall. The local school had just gotten out for the day and many of the local kids were cooling off after the hot day swimming in the natural pool at the bottom of the waterfall.

A songtaew transported us to another village, which had just recently gotten electricity. Many people had taken advantage of the new luxury by installing refrigerators, fans and satellite dishes. It was nice to see that improvements are being made in the community and yet they are still able to keep their local traditions.

We made one more quick visit to a local homestay project which was incredible and reminded us of something Robinson Crusoe would have called home. A few backpackers were staying there and they said they absolutely love it. From there we returned to our songtaew and made our way back to Chiang Rai. It was an absolutely enjoyable day and was one of the best adventures we have had in SE Asia so far.

As we look back it is hard to believe we have only been in Chiang Rai for one week. We did so much here and enjoyed ourselves immensely. We leave in the morning to head further north and hope to see the Mekong River by tomorrow afternoon. We have had a good time during our second visit to Thailand on this trip and will be sad to leave, but are happy to know that we will return again soon.

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20th June 2013

Chiang Rai
We enjoyed our time in Chiang Mai, even though I got food poisoning and was down for 3 days. As you say it is touristy but some how holds on to its charm. We didn't make it to Chiang Rai and regret that after reading your blog. We'll see what the future holds for us. Until then enjoy your adventure heading north.
21st June 2013

Make sure you get a two month visa before returning to Thailand...
so that you can return to your previous pattern of living several months in a place before moving on...I so admired your non-tourist life style as a way to become immersed in a culture. I'm glad you have enjoyed northern Thailand as we loved it when we lived there for 18 months.
21st June 2013
Wat Rong Khun - Chiang Rai

How do you let a picture do the talking without words? Enough said!

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