As the little tour bus motored on through the hills towards Chiang Rai, I was sitting on pins and needles. I had been waiting to see the White Temple, also known as Wat Rong Khun, for years. Also to come would be the Golden Triangle, the meeting point of the Thai, Myanmar, and Laos borders all in one spot. So it was a big day, and despite the slow progress of the bus and the kind of heat that melts the faces of pasty Canadians like me, I was excited.
I would have preferred to travel on my own and explore Chiang Rai and the northern borders on my own schedule, but my time was limited on this trip, so I joined a Viator tour out of Chiang Mai. Viator is a company I had heard a great deal about from other travel writers, and wanted to try them out. The group leader, Oi, was kind, knowledgeable, and she led our merry band of travelers (me and a friendly Romanian family) well.
We made a brief stop at a hot springs an hour and a half outside Chiang Mai. For me it was a welcome stop, as I hadn’t eaten breakfast, so it allowed me to piece together a less than wholesome meal at the 7-Eleven. If you’ve never been to Thailand, you can take some comfort in knowing that there are more 7-Elevens around than you can shake a stick at – it might not feel very “Thai” to see all of these convenience stores dotting the landscape, but trust me, when you need an icy cold bottle of water or a bag of wasabi peas you’ll be thanking heaven for 7-Eleven. And be warned – don’t jam fifty wasabi peas into your mouth at the same time…it’s one of the few health and safety tips I’ll give you here on the blog, but it’s one I caution you to take seriously. One wasabi pea at a time.
Another hour down the road we hit Chiang Rai and the White Temple. Stepping out of the van and into the heat was a shock to the system – the day was cooking, about thirty-seven degrees, and sunny. We walked through a small market area where people were selling drinks, coconuts, pineapple, and touristy trinkets. Turning the corner, the White Temple came into view – and it took my breath away.
I have seen hundreds of temples, and I consider myself a fairly seasoned traveler. Especially in Chiang Mai, where gorgeous temples are a dime a dozen, it’s hard to elicit an emotion from adding one more to the list.
But this thing was stunning. Everyone in our group stopped and just looked at it for a minute. It was like something out of fantasy, a temple dreamed up by Tolkien, brought to life by Peter Jackson, and then put on the big screen only to be imagined, never experienced. The White Temple, however, isn’t a figment of the imagination; it’s real, a vision created by famous Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat. He’s spent more than 40 million baht on it, and continues to build on the site, his goal to complete it before he dies. It’s a shrine to Buddha, and a gift to the people of Chiang Rai – his hometown – and the people of Thailand.
When you enter the grounds you notice gargoyle heads hanging in the trees. Oi explains that they represent evil in the world. Here’s one made to look like Hellboy; there’s also a Gollum, a Batman, and a Pinhead. Apparently Chalermchai Kositpipat is a pop culture fan when it comes to choosing his gargoyles.
It was the Saturday of a long weekend in Thailand, so the place was packed. Thousands of tourists crawled all over the White Temple, creating the only negative aspect of the experience – temple security guards stood at the top of the bridge and screamed at people in angry Thai to keep moving. They were squaking through megaphones, creating an unnecessarily loud screechy distraction in what should be a tranquil environment. They were far more annoying than the slow moving crowds, but they felt justified, so they just kept on yelling. After a while I tuned them out, taking in the surroundings and soaking it all in. Thankfully the temple won the battle for my attention, and I’ll remember the majesty of this place long after I’ve forgotten about the ill-tempered security guards.
After spending just less than an hour at the temple we headed out, Oi buying us some fresh pineapple from a local stand. It was deliciously sweet and totally refreshing on a day when I am sure I had already lost sixteen pounds in sweat. She offered me bag of hot chili powder to dip the pineapple in; I did (the only taker) and it was fantastic. I love the hot and sweet combo and vowed to remember this little trick when I get home.
We got back in the van and motored further north, taking in the countryside. The highway is four lane divided, in far better shape than I would have guessed this far north. After a couple more hours (total time from Chiang Mai to the Golden Triangle is about four hours) we pulled into the Golden Iyara Resort Room and Restaurant for some much needed lunch.
I enjoyed some Myanmar rice with saffron (spicy kick – very nice), tiny Thai pancakes (tasty), salad, chicken satay, and a handful of other local delicacies. It’s a buffet, so after the first round, I went back for more tiny pancakes. This pancake artist was pumping them out non-stop, the tiny pancakes an obvious crowd favourite. You can see each pancake in their own cup, cooked over high heat. She makes about thirty at a time, adding onions, pepper and other savoury ingredients to create fresh little silver dollar-sized cakes of deliciousness.
Fuelled for the Golden Triangle, we headed out and made our way to the top of a steep hill where the official Golden Triangle sign stands.
From here you can look out over the mighty Mekong River and take in the borders of Laos and Myanmar. East of the river is Laos, west Myanmar. Over the hills on the Laos side is China. It’s amazing to stand at one of Thailand’s northernmost points and take in countries I could only dream about seeing as a kid. I loved every minute of it.
Standing at the top of the hill is a huge Buddha, the highest placed Buddha on the triangle. Each country has one to greet visitors (reminiscent of the Christo Redentor in Brazil), with Thailand’s having the distinction of being the highest. Photographing this was a huge challenge as the blazing sun was directly behind it, leaving the face in almost total darkness. Had to bust out my HDR chops here to pull this one off.
It wasn’t always the highest Buddha – the Thais originally had one down on the Mekong (pictured below) but then one of the other countries built a bigger one, so Thailand one-upped them by putting another Buddha at the top of a massive hill. I’m sure at some point Myanmar or Laos will try to top it, but for now Thailand wins this little contest.
I bought a stylish black t-shirt to add to my arsenal of other stylish black t-shirts. This is the lovely shop owner who sold it to me. She was chatty and told me she loves meeting people from around the world. Eying my glistening, red face she took pity on me and gave me a cold bottle of water and a towel. I quickly became her biggest fan.
We went on to explore more of the Golden Triangle area as well as the Opium Museum. Interesting place, but the others on the tour weren’t really into it, so we kind of raced through which was fine by me.
We got back in the van and headed back to the hills outside Chiang Rai where we found a village populated by the Aka hill tribe. Jumping out we were greeted by these two very persistent girls and about six chickens.
Chickens seem to have the run of the place, which works out if you enjoy the company of chickens.
Walking through the village we found it mostly empty.
“Villagers are out, working on the farms and rice fields,” Oi explained.
This guy saw me, fired up his huge pipe, and watched as we walk past. I asked him if I could take a photo and he nodded, so I did.
The girls who met us at the van followed us, constantly trying to sell us their items, but none of us were takers. I offered to give them 20 baht each for a picture, and they quickly agreed. Thinking they might leave us alone after making a bit of cash (oh, how naive I was) they adopted me as their personal project, following me around the village, offering to sell everything in sight. I had a running conversation with them, knowing they don’t understand a word, but we were all having a good time. Their tenacity was impressive; if you live in North America and need a lesson in persistence, come learn from these girls – the cast of Glengarry Glen Ross has nothing on them.
The village is interesting – it feels very rural and I like the setting up in the hills, but there weren’t many hill tribe people around, so we didn’t spend a lot of time here.
Tired after an amazing day of White Temple exploring, Golden Triangle viewing, and chicken dodging, we got comfy in the van and began the long four hour trip back to Chiang Mai. I liked the scenery as we rode, taking in the hills and blue skies of Northern Thailand. It’s an area I would like to return to and explore more when I have time. For now, it’s a great introduction. Viator has done a good job on this excursion, and I won’t hesitate to use them in the future.
This trip basically wrapped up my time in Thailand’s north – the next day I would be heading back to Bangkok and then onward to Taipei, Taiwan. In my list of places to return to I add Chiang Rai as well as Pai and some other northern communities I never got to. It’s a unique part of the world, the people are amazing, and there is no shortage of things to do and see. I can’t wait to return!
How about you? Have you been to Chiang Rai, the White Temple, or the Golden Triangle? What did you think? Don’t forget to mention your own blog or website in the comments! Cheers –