Chiang Rai Day Trips

edventuremama's picture
15 years
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11 years
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2012-07-03 to 2012-07-07

If you find yourself in the far north of Thailand ignore the guidebooks and come to Chiang Rai province. The writers seemed to find it a slow and tiresome place (we have pages torn from two books in our possession, both ones you’d have heard of) but we are loving it. There is no McDonalds downtown, that’s worth five extra points in our book right there. Besides Wats (a plenty) there aren’t loads of cultural sites, but there is a lot of quiet hearted “real Thailand” going on in this province, and that’s always more interesting than the contrived versions.

Night Bazaar

Chiang Rai Night Market MusicWe sat in the night bazaar munching crisped pork skin and chilied peanuts while Hannah sucked down her “snake head soup” last night and watched beautiful ladies dance to music played on stringed instruments that the girl was just itching to get her hands on. “You know Mom,” remarked Elisha, “This is not at ALL like Asia at Epcot.” This analysis is a good sign. It would have been much cheaper to go to Epcot. But I digress.

The night bazaar in Chiang Rai is the cultural and economic center of the city. Every night there are free live music and dance performances on a couple of different stages. You’ll find travelers and locals alike having dinner, shopping for everything from fruits and veggies to local art and crafts, to sneakers and the ubiquitous cheap t-shirts. It’s a great place to eat dinner. There are a range of nicer “sit down” restaurants as well as a hawkers food court near the smaller stage. You’ll get a good feel for the city by wandering around.

The Hill Tribes Museum

Visiting the Hill Tribes Museum in Chiang Rai before we ventured into the mountains ourselves, seemed an educational and edifying thing to do. We’d learn about people groups, get an etiquette lesson, and perhaps see some artifacts. The admission price is 50 baht, about $1.60 USD per person, a bargain made even better by the desk officer letting the two little boys in for free. The icing on top: tickets for free tea and coffee at the restaurant downstairs when we were finished. That alone would have cost more than $6.40 USD at home! Spirits were high.

It is, without question, worth your time. It will take only an hour and the slide show alone is worth a buck sixty. It’s not entirely politically correct. There are a few jarring bits in which the Thai sentiment exhibits more than a little lack of compassion for the plight of the refugees, but the pictures are lovely and it provides a nice explanation of the people groups of the region, albeit not in their own words. The role that opium has played in the history and culture of the hill tribes was eye opening. For kids just coming to grips with the effects of drugs on mind and body, this museum will dig a layer deeper and expose the effects on communities and culture as well. 

Cabbages & Condoms

Super hero decorated with condoms

It was one of those classic parenting moments from the instant we opened the pristine glass door and entered the air conditioned room with Santa Claus and some Super Hero in life sized standing at our left to welcome us. The boys were talking excitedly about whether they’d order noodles or rice, shrimp or pork today. Hannah gave me a queer look and said, “What the…” voice trailing off… “Mom?!!” I followed her eyes to the festive sculptures and then to the name over the door of the restaurant. Tony and I exchanged a look that said, “Well, why not, today is as good as any for “the talk.”

Cabbages and Condoms is somewhat of a chain in Thailand, in that there are a handful of them scattered around the country. They were started to educate the peasant class on the finer points of family planning and HIV/AIDS prevention with heavy emphasis on prophylactics, as the name suggests. Their menu boasts that they’ve successfully helped reduce the average Thai family size from seven children to two. Their stated goal is to make “condoms as accessible as cabbages” to the rural people. They do seem to be making a dent in it.

I have to say that we were impressed by this restaurant. With so much potential for the inappropriate, it was really quite PG. They seem serious about their mission, the food was good. The free tea was excellent and there was even live music. It was actually the worst live music we’ve ever heard. A Thai man with a synthesizer keyboard banging out cheesy American love songs, one, after another, after another, when clearly he had no idea what they said. Perfect.

Wat Rong Khun

There are lots of wats in Thailand. There is one, however, that is unlike any other. It’s called Wat Rong Khun and it was built in 1996. Actually, it’s still under construction. It looks a lot like a wedding cake and I felt like the whole thing was constructed out of sugar, fondant and royal icing. Its “whiteness” is its most stunning feature because every other Wat you see is a colour assault on the senses. This one radiates serenity.

Wat Rong KhunLook hard. There are some scary themes here. On either side of the bridge are lakes of “people” grasping upwards from the depths, holding skulls and baskets and backbones, struggling toward the surface. It reminded me of Dante’s allegory for Hell in the Christian tradition. “The Bridge of the Cycle of Rebirth” is guarded by two fierce figures, this one, on the left side, facing the bridge is Rahu, or Mara, the controller of man’s fate, the other side is guarded by Death.

The entire place is painted white, as aforementioned, but it’s also covered with mosaic mirror detail. The artist says that this is to represent purity and looking inward, reflection on the condition of the soul.

Inside the wat is completely different! These pictures were taken from the guide book pamphlet the we bought, you can see more by visiting the website for Wat Rong Khun for yourself. Taking pictures inside a Buddhist temple is not allowed. 

Here’s some of what we noticed:

  • Star Wars figures
  • Michael Jackson
  • Freddy Kruger
  • Time
  • Natural Diasters
  • Man made diasaters (see the twin towers burning?)
  • Ancient cultures (the pyramid at Chichen Itza is in there)
  • The space race
  • Dragons
  • Cities
  • The bomb blast over Japan
  • Neo, from The Matrix
  • Predator (like in the garden picture above)
  • And they’ve added a figure from Avatar riding a dragon, which doesn’t show up in this picture
  • Buddha presiding “above it all” serenely at the top.

Chalermchai Kositpipat

Say that name three times fast!

That’s the name of the man who built this Wat. He’s an individual, an artist, and when he made his fortune (helping to illustrate a book commissioned by the King) he returned to his village to build a Wat.

Things I like about this guy:

  • He’s used his own money and he doesn’t allow large contributions. No money is collected anywhere at the Wat.
  • He’s the artist and the designer of this Wat. It’s his vision of what Buddhism means.
  • He built it even though everyone thought he was nuts. I like that kind of grit.
  • He built it in his home village and has taught the artists himself so that they also are from his own village. 
  • His money serves a triple purpose: a gift to god, a gift to mankind (us), a gift to his village. What a great guy.

I loved how he blended the traditional Buddhist beliefs into the modern realities of life and “white washed” the whole thing in a way that was both art and history, culture and commentary. 

The Golden Triangle

Golden Buddha at the Golden TriangleRent a car and take a long day’s drive up through the golden triangle, where the Mekong river cuts through the corners of Laos, Thailand and Myanmar. It’s spectacular to stand at that Y and look out over three countries. Be sure to wander the big “boat” that is at the site and send a coin down the slide into the happy Buddha’s belly for luck or health. We sampled tea from roadside vendors and took home several packages of locally grown sorts. The drive will take all day, round trip to Chiang Rai, but it’s one of the best forays into “the real Thailand” that we’ve made. You’ll get off of the bus routes and the tourist tracks and see life in action for the highland people.

Chiang Rai Night Market
Chiang Rai Night Market Music
Cabbages & Condoms Restaurant
Golden Triangle Road Trip
Golden Triangle Road Trip
Golden Buddha at the Golden Triangle
Wat Rong Khun
Wat Rong Khun
Wat Rong Khun- toilet
Wat Rong Khun
Golden Triangle Road Trip
Santa decorated with condoms
Super hero decorated with condoms
Wat Rong Khun
Wat Rong Khun
Article Type: 
In-Person Impressions


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