From Pai we headed straight up to Chiang Rai, which was to be our last stop in Thailand before heading into Laos. The Lonely Planet Southeast Asia guidebook describes Chiang Rai as ‘leafy and well groomed’ and apparently very ‘liveable’, and I have to say I couldn’t disagree more. It’s busy, but there’s not much to do. The streets are dirty, yet the restaurants and cafés are fairly expensive. It’s certainly not great for tourists. After a few days there we were pretty ready to move on. We used our time there to research our journey to Laos a little more, and there were a couple of good things to do in and around the city, though not many.
The most interesting thing to do within the city is to visit the night market. We visited for two nights in a row for food, and it was my favourite thing we did. As the restaurants weren’t that cheap or particularly good from what we could see, the night market was an excellent alternative. Initially it looked like a market that only sold clothes and cheap gadgets, but following the sound of music, we found a large eating area. There were food stalls all around the outside, tables and chairs in the middle, and a stage at the end with some rather bizarre, but very fabulous drag queen showgirl performances. Toby and I had a hot clay pot of broth which we then added noodles, fish and vegetables to, trying to copy the locals around us to make sure we were doing the right thing; it wasn’t always obvious!
One day we went to visit perhaps the most famous thing in Chiang Rai. We had to take a bus, as it’s a little on the outskirts of town, but the White Temple (or Wat Rong Khun) was definitely worth it. It’s a rather bizarre attraction, and we haven’t experienced anything like it anywhere else. We hadn’t done much research and had expected it to be as it sounds, a temple that is white. Well, that much was right, but it was also quite a bit more. It’s the result of an artistic vision of Chalermchai Kositpipat, a Thai painter (and now architect). There are plaster moulds of famous characters from films hanging from the trees outside, and you cross over a bridge over creepy hands crawling out from the ground to get to the entrance. It’s an extravagant and intricate building, which looks like an impressive white temple from the outside, and then on the inside the walls are painted with a mixture of pop-culture references (like Harry Potter, Minions, Neo from the Matrix) and traditional Buddhist murals. I’m not sure whether is was a comment on the corrupting nature of modern society compared to traditional Buddhism, as the contemporary references were against a rather dark and gloomy backdrop, in contrast to the golden light of the Buddha. If it was I’m not sure it was the clearest message; what’s so bad about Harry Potter? Perhaps I missed the point completely. It was an interesting change from lots of the other temples we’ve visited however, and it certainly made for a memorable day.
As I’m sure is obvious, we weren’t too sad to be leaving Chiang Rai. The next part of our journey was an exciting two day boat trip down the Mekong, crossing the border into Laos. The journey continues…