Chiang Rai, Thailand. Saturday 26th October 2019.
Sometimes the best things about entering another country are the simple ones. (I almost wrote ‘new country’ just there, but Thailand is almost like home now.) In this case those best things were a little more complex in their nature, even if they seem simple. Decent roads, good infrastructure and petrol stations that sold nice coffee. The contrast with Lao is stark. But in fairness to Lao, it’s a very poor country and has different priorities to its richer neighbours, such as delivering electricity to its poorest regions and sending its children to school. But despite the slight pangs of guilt about being so pleased, It was good to be able to go round a bend knowing that the surface wouldn’t have sunk or turned to loose stone halfway round.
The road to Chiang Rai was a pleasure to ride, as it wound its way through the green clad hills. Eventually I joined the main dual carriageway and headed into the touristy part of the city. I parked the bike and walked around until I found a suitable hostel, conveniently opposite the Siam Bar, run by an Englishman. Once settled in I went over there for a sundowner and got chatting to an English guy, name of Windy, who runs a website aimed at photographers. It includes lots of info on places to visit, directions to get to them and how the roads are. Very handy for the traveller too.
Chiang Rai was founded by King Mangrai in 1262 and was the capital of that dynasty. It was taken over by the Burmese, under whose control it remained for several centuries. In 1786 it became a vassal to its bigger neighbour, Chiang Mai until both were finally absorbed into greater Siam (Thailand). There are a fair number of Buddhist temples in, and near the city. The most famous is Wat Phra Kaeo, where Thailand’s most treasured and revered Buddha statue was found. The theory is that an earthquake split open a stupa, revealing the Emerald Buddha. It was later ‘donated’ to the King of Thailand, who installed it in his temple in Bangkok. When I went to see it there I was impressed by its beauty but underwhelmed by its very small size, which wasn’t helped by it being located at least five metres above the ground.
Chiang Rai sits on one corner of what’s known as the Golden Triangle, a monicker coined by an American politician, charged with fighting the opium trade. This is one of the things I discovered when I visited the Hill Tribes Museum, an interesting place that describes the lives of the various tribes in the area. These people came from China, Burma, Lao and Thailand. There are many variations on their culture and ethnic dress, especially the Karen tribe, where the women wear brass neck rings. Many of the tribes are considered to be outsiders by the Thai authorities and have been refused citizenship, despite having lived in their current locations for many centuries. They’re often spread across more than one country, just to confuse this situation. Their lifestyle includes the slash and burn technique of subsistence farming, often in protected forests, so the authorities sometimes criminalise them too.
When the opium trade took off in he 19th century these tribes became involved in growing the poppy plant it comes from because their land was very suited to this crop. The value of it changed the dynamics of the power structure in the area in may ways, as did the American money that was thrown at it while they tried to ban the unbanable. But it was China’s efforts to cure opium addiction that had the biggest effect as the growers, and some users, pushed south into Thailand and Lao. Powerful private armies forced farmers to pay them for the privilege of being allowed to grow, and these heavy penalties forced them to increase their crop to meet them. That extra crop created the need for new markets. At that time most users were in SE Asia. Foreign markets came along later. Most of these people remain poor, despite the end value of their crop. If you want to know more about it, look here.
Chiang Rai is proud of its heritage and I visited two monuments relating to this. The first was a memorial to the founder of the city, Muongrai. It’s a strange affair, with three very tall, highly decorative gold coloured monoliths, stood in a row. In front of that is a statue of the king, surrounded by small models of elephants and horses, all decorated with strings of flowers, flags and beads. It looked very odd but is very important to the city residents. I was half expecting a fairground roundabout too.
The second is the Navel Pillar, a more modern memorial to the king but also celebrating the city itself. It’s a tall pillar, surrounded by dozens of smaller ones, all decorated with ribbons by the locals. Here, I got chatting to an English couple, about my age, who were enjoying a SE Asian tour. We had a nice chat and subsequently I bumped into them in a couple of other places too.
It seemed a good idea to visit Wat Phra Kaew, the temple which used to house the Emerald Buddha, just to see what it was all about. The main temple has a series of painted panels, telling the story of the finding and moving of the Buddha. Close by was Wat Phra Sing, a complex with some very nice buildings and yet more very impressive painted panels. Many temples have these, and they’re usually illustrating a Buddhist myth. Very few of them are old as Buddhists prefer to renovate and redecorate buildings and paintings than to preserve old versions. An earthly form of reincarnation, perhaps?
Most Buddhist temples focus on gold coloured decorations so I was intrigued to find there’s a white and a blue one in Chaing Rai. I jumped on the bike and headed south, to see the white one. It became increasingly cloudy as I neared the temple. It had already rained, and I expected more. I parked the bike, paid the entry fee and then gazed in wonder at the bright, white and very decorative building that rose before me. It was incredible, and I felt somewhat overwhelmed. Set against the grey clouds, it curled and twisted its way up into the sky. The designer is, apparently, a very devout man and wanted to take temple design and Buddhist art in a new direction. Well, he certainly achieved that. I found it to be garish and overblown, not at all a place that engenders feelings of peace and tranquillity. About as over the top as anything could be. I walked around it and was fascinated by many of the carvings around the outer wall. They depicted the tortures of daily life that has to be endured by mortals before reaching Nirvana. One of them included a TV remote control and many others were very phallic. Now to my way of thinking, sex in front of the TV probably isn’t necessarily such a bad thing.
Elsewhere was a large golden building, with a figure on the top which I couldn’t distinguish. It was surrounded by a moat and had a different design to most temples. Access wasn’t allowed so it wasn’t possible to discover its purpose. I’m guessing it pre-dates the white temple, as do the other golden buildings there. A small art gallery was enjoyable. The threatened rain did arrive but once it had passed, the sun came out and everything looked much nicer against a blue sky. Better contrast for photos and an all round nicer demeanour to the white temple. Verdict on this strange place? It may well be a design that moves Buddhist art and design forward, but exactly to where is hard to say. But it’s definitely a break with tradition.
Time to go blue. Was this going to be another onslaught to the eyes and senses? Was I going to see blue curls and whorls everywhere? “No”, turned out to be the answer, fortunately. Wat Rong Sua Ten was a fairly normal looking place, more or less standard Buddhist design. But it was extremely blue, a colour which is associated with infinite wisdom and learning. Walls, roof, doors and decorations. The Buddha inside was gold, but that was all. And yet, I liked this excessively ornate building, as well as the blue statuary outside. The theme outside was mostly focussed on the Naga, a mythical serpent-like creature frequently found in Buddhist myths. Most of them were very decorative, with all their normal features greatly exaggerated for artistic effect. Good subjects for photos too. Inside the main building was a pretty much standard arrangement regarding the Buddha statue and what surrounded it. A nice place and it seemed far more friendly than the White Temple.
A final colour themed visit was to the Baandam Museum, otherwise known as the Black House, a bit north of the city. Not a temple, just for a change, but a museum focused on the art of one man. Thawan Duchanee is a world renowned Thai artist, with lots of clever sounding letters after his name, including a PhD in metaphysics. The complex houses about forty different buildings, most of them made from very dark teak. They are filled with examples of ethnic artwork from around the world, much of it made from animal skins, skulls, horns, gold and silver. Some of it is from SE Asia, dating back hundreds of years. The layout of the buildings seems to be quite random, scattered around the woodland. A few buildings are bright white and are made from terracotta. They contain yet more art, most of it very phallic. He uses his collection as inspiration for his own artwork. It’s a fascinating and unique place. The design of the wooden buildings is largely ethnic, but has wonderful timber structures to support the roof. They seem like artwork in themselves.
While I was north of the city I rode up to another place mentioned on Windy’s website. This was the Tham Luang Caves, where twelve football players and their coach were trapped underground last year, for over two weeks. This story gripped the world while the drama unfolded. I wanted to go and see it for myself. I followed the GPS to the location given on the website, but ended up in some kind of agricultural research centre. I spoke to one of the workers who tried to put me on the right track but communication failed. I continued on up the steep hill and followed signs to the Phu Phahee coffee centre, in a tiny village up a winding track. I was clearly in a coffee growing area and i rather fancied a cup. Inside the café were two small girls wearing ethnic costume. Nobody else was wearing it so I guess they were there for tourists to photograph. So I obliged. The coffee was nice too. I spoke to a couple of youngsters there who tried to show me on their phone where the cave was. My phone had died by this time. I set off back down the hill, trying this place and that, but without success. In the end I headed for home, defeated.
I reviewed he cave’s location when I got back and discovered Windy’s website had it wrong. Next time I saw him I let him know that. It was very easy to find in the end. I had to park the bike by a row of roadside stalls and that was when I realised I’d ridden through here the day before. Damn! But that’s the way things go sometimes. I walked up to the cave entrance only to find that it was closed off while they finished making the steps that led up to it. Foiled again! There was a visitor centre nearby. Some displays outside showed the layout of the cave, depicting all the key points that became so well known. There was a very descriptive timeline too, and it was all in English as well as Thai.
Inside the centre were more displays, sadly only labelled in Thai, but still interesting. They showed some of the equipment used in the rescue and had photographic cut outs of some of the people involved. The display I liked the most was the one that showed small flags of all the countries involved in the rescue – twenty two in all. It brought home just how much of an international effort it was. Outside was a memorial statue to the Thai navy Seal, who died during the rescue. The only casualty of the whole operation. It’s a statue of him in his diving gear surrounded, on the base, by the thirteen Wild Boars he helped rescue. A moving, and very fitting tribute to a brave man. The event, and this display was, to me, very moving anyway. Nobody expected them all to come out alive, and yet they did. Directed by the Thai authorities, this real life international rescue was a stunning testament to the powers of human endeavour, skill, determination and teamwork.
There’s a couple of excellent videos on You Tube. One is a general video about the whole event. The other goes much deeper into the almost impossible nature of the rescue. Both are well worth watching. Here and here.
I spent a couple more days in Chiang Rai, mostly on administration of various sorts. Writing of the blog, sorting out photos and so on. But there was one challenge that was proving difficult to solve, which was arranging my journey across Myanmar. There is no way of crossing over to India from Thailand without going through this country, but having a permit and a guide was compulsory. There were plenty of tour companies available but the problems related to sorting out suitable dates, length of trip and finding or forming a group so as to spread the cost. Five days/four nights was possible but involved long riding days and no time for sight seeing. Ten days/nine nights was my preferred option, giving a relaxed journey and lots of time. But there weren’t any such tours happening within my time deadline. By luck, I happened to talk to Steve and Amelia, an Aussie couple who had stayed at Plodd Stop earlier in he year. They were in contact with a guide who was putting a package together for them. Time constraints meant they could only spare seven days/six nights, but that was a reasonable time frame so I agreed to join them. As they were already engaged in negotiations I left it to them to finalise the deal. Departure date was 14th November so I still had plenty of time to finish exploring northern Thailand.
The rugby world cup final was on in the Siam Bar so I joined the merry crowd, which slowly got less merry as South Africa’s points tally rose. However, there was a group of Springboks there too, who seemed quite happy! Out thought and out played, it seemed to me. There are plenty of bars that show football nearby and I was pleased to be able to catch a couple of Liverpool games and, just the once, a Charlton Athletic game too.
The Siam Bar did a very nice full English breakfast, which I indulged in a couple of times. The day after the rugby game I had breakfast there and was watching some football highlights afterwards. A young Irish guy came in and asked if he could change channels. He switched over to watch some MMA style fighting, from the US, known as the Ultimate Fight Championship (UFC). He reckoned it was bigger than boxing in the US, and was a very fast paced event but with some odd rules to it. Lots of fights in a short period of time, naturally very much hyped up for TV. It was very entertaining to watch.
Time to head off to Chiang Mai. I’d really enjoyed Chiang Rai, with its lively entertainment area, including a reggae bar where I got beaten at pool by a one armed man – twice! Lots of different places to visit, my favourite being the Tham Luong caves. I wonder what the next city will have to offer?