If Chiang Mai is slowed-down compared to Bangkok, Chiang Rai is on a whole different wavelength. It’s a beautiful city devoid of the hordes of tourists we found in the larger northern city, and it has a quiet, spiritual feel to it. I hesitate to say I preferred it to Chiang Mai, but I’m not sure I preferred Chiang Mai, either. Just do both! They’re not that far from one another.
How I got there:
We took a longtail boat from Tha Ton–an unbelievable experience I wrote about in this post.
Where I stayed:
We stayed at a hotel called Le Patta, which was probably the nicest place we stayed on the entire trip (though comparably priced). It was very sleek and ultra modern with a great included breakfast, and it was walking distance from everything we did in the city itself.
What I did:
We arrived in the late afternoon, and we spent the evening exploring the city itself. After dinner, we had a couple beers at an outdoor beer garden inside the night bazaar, which was HUGE. While there were far fewer vendors than there were at the everyday night market in Chiang Mai, this one had room to spread out, which we appreciated. At the beer garden, you could sit and listen to a duo covering Western hits (I videoed their entire rendition of Hotel California), and once every 20 minutes or so, a group of elaborately costumed dancers would come onstage to perform. And around the other side of the market, there was a larger stage with music surrounded by stalls selling the kind of food oddities that make for “you’ll NEVER believe what I ate in Thailand” stories for tourists more intrepid than I.
With our one full day in the area, we actually set off from the city on a daytrip tour we had customized of points north, guided by a great tourguide from Golden Triangle Tours. The first stop was Wat Rong Khun, or the “White Temple.” It’s a modern building by artist Chalermchai Kositpipat that’s still under construction, and inside you’ll find colorful murals that integrate pop culture and celebrities to create a new-age depiction of evil.
While the interior is certainly interesting, it’s the aesthetic of the exterior that blew us away. The facade–white, to symbolize purity–is covered in a mosaic of mirrored glass that makes the whole temple sparkle in the sunlight.
Our next stop was Baan Dam–the “Black House”–which is the former residence of the late famous artist Thawan Duchanee. It serves as a stark contrast to the White Temple, but they share a mystical, spiritual feel in common. Inside the house–an interesting architectural structure in its own right–you can peruse Duchanee’s impressive collection of taxidermy, artfully arranged to explore the theme of death. But it’s not somber; the grounds are shady and peaceful, and the entire site feels like a work of art.
From there, we drove up to a tea plantation in the mountains–Choui Fong–which was worth it for the scenery alone. We stopped briefly to watch people working with harvested tealeaves and learn from our guide about the process, and then we tried a few (and I bought a few) of the different teas inside the shop.
Our tourguide also showed us pineapples growing in some nearby fields (which didn’t look anything like what I expected) and took us to buy passion fruit at a roadside stand, which we (Nikki especially) appreciated.
And then it was on to the Golden Triangle region, which is where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet, divided by the Ruak and Mekong rivers. It’s a beautiful part of the country–as well as the site of quite a bit of the world’s opium production.
Once there, we did a speedboat ride around the area and crossed over into Laos–and while I will never say no to a speedboat ride, I wish we’d skipped the Laos crossing. We were only technically in the country, disembarking on a tiny island where few, if any, people actually live. It’s really just a place for locals to sell souvenirs to tourists who come to snap a photo–and to beg for money. Depressing.
Where I ate:
Chiang Rai was the home of our favorite food of the entire trip. Our food at Jatujak was so good I literally ordered another of my dinner after I’d finished it. It’s also beautiful inside, and all the art and decor in the restaurants is for sale.
What I missed:
We opted to skip the opium museum in the Golden Triangle region–I know there’s a lot of history there, but it just sounded like something that would be so completely touristy. One day I’ll buy a nonfiction book about it…