On Tuesday 26th November we took a VIP bus for the three hour journey north from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai. Upon arrival in Chiang Rai, our first priority was to get some lunch. Luckily we had done our research and had found a nice bakery, called Baanchivit Bakery, located right next to the bus station. We had cheese and ham toasties and this was actually the first proper lunch we had had since the French bakery in Hue. After a delicious lunch we walked through town to out hotel, which was located right next to the clocktower in the centre of Chiang Rai. After checking in and dropping our bags in our room, we headed out in search of the PDA Tour office. We were looking to do a tour to the Golden Triangle (the three-point border between Thailand, Myanmar and Laos), but the majority of the tours visited a Karen Long Neck ‘village’. These ‘villages’ are not traditional villages, rather they are set up be businessmen and exploit the Karen villagers. According to numerous reports, all village entrance fees go to the businessmen and the female Karen villagers get paid a wage of 1500THB (£30) per month – the men are paid only 180THB (£3.60) per month. We didn’t want to be part of this exploitation and so set out to find a tour company with similar beliefs, which is when we found out about PDA Tours. They run the Hilltribe museum in Chiang Rai, educating visitors about the different hill tribes found in the region and the difficulties they face. We booked a day tour for the following day and then visited the museum. We learnt more about the Karen Long Neck tribe – they are native to Myanmar but fled into northern Thailand as refugees to escape the war in their home country. In Thailand they do not have any official status and so their options are very limited. This is one reason why their exploitation in the ‘villages’ has been allowed to continue. The museum was very interesting but few tourists visit as the majority head north to the Golden Triangle on day trips from Chiang Mai, which don’t stop in Chiang Rai. After exploring the museum we headed to Destiny Restaurant for dinner. As this was our third meal of the day we weren’t particularly hungry, so shared a small pizza and a portion of chips – a nice change to the rice and noodles we had been eating almost exclusively since arriving in Cambodia six weeks earlier. We then returned to our hotel to get ready for our tour the following day.
The alarm went off at 0630 on Wednesday, but the snooze function was utilised until 0700 we we decided we really ought to get up! After toast and coffee for breakfast in the hotel we were picked up at 0900 for our day tour of the north. It was just the two of us, our guide and a driver in the small minibus and our guide gave us an overview of the day as we made our way out of the city to the Black House, our first stop of the day 30 minutes north of Chiang Rai. This collection of buildings was created by Thawan Duchonee, a national artist, and was only officially opened to the public two years ago. It is a collection of more than 40 dark Teak wood buildings, some containing art and others where the building was the art.
After exploring the Black House we climbed back into the minibus and set off for our second destination – Doi Tung factory – where we would be able to see mulberry paper being made by hand and cloth being woven in hand looms. This factory was set up by the Mae Fah Lung foundation to provide training and employment for villagers who live in local villages. As we walked around the factory we could see reference to big European brands who ordered products from this factory. On the way out of the factory we were able to see coffee beans being laid out to dry ready for roasting.
From the Doi Tung factory we continued northwards to Mai Sae, the northern-most town in Thailand. From here it is possible to cross a bridge in town across the river into Myanmar (Burma). We walked around a temple and the market before heading to a buffet restaurant for lunch – one which all tour groups visiting here seemed to stop at!
After lunch it was only a short drive to the Golden Triangle, the three-point border between Thailand, Myanmar and Laos. From the viewpoint we walked to the House of Opium, a museum explaining the history of the Opium trade in the region.
We then climbed back aboard the minibus for the drive to Chiang Saen, an ancient city dating back around 1500 years, where we visited Wat Chedi Leung. This is an impressive Wat in the town that was apparently the birthplace of King Mengrai, the founder of the Lanna Kingdom that once controlled this area. This was our last stop of the day and it was then about a one hour drive back to Chiang Rai.
Back in town, we dropped our stuff back in our hotel room and went for dinner at Destiny Restaurant. During our dinner the owner of the restaurant came over for a chat and we learnt about the Destiny Foundation, the foundation the restaurant helps to support. On the walk back to the hotel we stopped off to watch the lights and music at the clock tower. At 7pm, 8pm and 9pm every day there is a 5 minute show where the clocktower is the centre-piece of a fantastic light and music display. The clock tower is on a roundabout in the middle of town and it was odd to see traffic continuing as normal whilst crowds gathered to watch the show!
After a busy day the day before we both enjoyed a lie in on Thursday morning, not making it out until 1030. Our plan for this morning was to visit the Wat Rong Khun (more commonly known as the White Temple), which required walking back to the bus station to get a tuktuk or songthaew (a pickup converted into a shared taxi). Our first priority, however, was breakfast and for this we paid a visit to Baanchivit Bakery. Feeling ready to take on the world, we crossed the road to the bus station and managed to find a songthaew driver who would take us to the White Temple and back for a reasonable price. The drive to the temple took 15 minutes. Upon arrival you immediately see what is special about this place. It is a very modern temple – building work only started in 1997 – and was designed by an artist called Chalermchai Kositpipat. Construction on the main temple building has largely finished (although there is still some scaffolding present) but construction work on surrounding buildings is ongoing, and the artist still spends most days working at the temple.
It is quite a spectacular sight as it glints and glistens in the sunshine and we really enjoyed our visit here. Our time exploring the temple passed quickly and we were soon in the songthaew heading back to Chiang Rai. We were dropped back at the bus station and walked from there across the city centre to Wat Phrase Singh and then on to Wat Phrase Kaew, where the original Emerald Buddha was discovered, before wandering through the local market back to the hotel. It was 1500 by the time we got back to our room and spent the next couple of hours updating the blog and our journals before heading our for dinner. We returned to Destiny for the third night in a row – we had found somewhere we really liked, so why go elsewhere! Since our visit the previous night they had put up their Christmas decorations – the first decorations we had seen in a restaurant or shop this year! After dinner we headed out to the night market, which was a very different experience to the night markets we had visited in Chiang Mai. This one was quieter, with fewer tourists, and easier to look around. We were back in the hotel for the light show from the clock tower, which we watched from our balcony before going to bed.
The alarm went off early again on Friday morning as we had to get a bus back to Chiang Mai. We had checked out of the hotel by 0745 and walked to Baanchivet Bakery for breakfast before catching the bus at 0915 for the three hour journey.
Photos from our visit to Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle can be viewed below or at http://photos.andywicks.com/ChiangRaiAndTheGoldenTriangle