Welcome to Thailand', said our taxi driver who was waiting, as promised, at the Thai border. As he set off it was 5.20 pm. It soon became clear that he wasn't hanging around! The excellent dual carriageway was virtually empty, and he drove fast... in whichever lane he chose it seemed to us.
Occasionally there were traffic lights. If they were on red he would slow down a good distance away, ready to roar off when they went green. However if they were green, but went Amber as we were approaching, he would just mutter something, and whizz right through on red....but beeping his horn loudly all the time! Strangely, we never felt unsafe and he did the 75 mile journey to Chiang Rai in 1 hour 15 minutes.
Our hotel was the Sleepy House. It was a simple hotel. Spotlessly clean, and tucked in the back streets, but really close to the bus station and the night market, both of which we would need. The room was a traditional Thai layout with a floor bed on a platform, and a floor chair and desk! We were both sure we would fall off the platform if we needed the bathroom in the night, but thankfully no mishaps.
The girls running the hotel were so helpful, and there was an excellent 24 hour drinks and snacks room, as well as proper breakfast, although they made us a picnic breakfast as we were leaving early! We had booked a full day minibus trip that took in the main sights of the area.
Chiang Rai is on the edge of The Golden Triangle, the area of land that once tourists would never have visited due to the violent crime associated with the drug wars. This area, stretching into Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and China is mountainous jungle, but has the perfect climate for growing Opium poppies. At one time it produced 45% of the opium reaching the USA. Why the 'Golden' triangle? Because opium was known as Black Gold. In 1979 the Thai authorities, led by the King, introduced initiatives to the Thai opium farmers to grow alternative crops like tea and coffee. This has been quite successful and has reinvigorated the area. The drug trade hasn't stopped, and in fact it has moved into a different territory, the manufacture of synthetic drugs like Methamphetamine, and the emphasis now is on trying to intercept the shipment of the raw materials to the factories. However much of this is now in Laos and Myanmar.
This area was once known as Lanna, and is still home to many tribes. Chiang Sean was the original capital of the region before that was moved to Chiang Rai.
Our trip today was a bit of everything! Firstly we visited 2 temples! These were a bit different! Both were created on the site of old ruined temples by modern architects wishing to give something back to their communities, and to create a focal point, a place where they could 'give merit', and also a possible way of bringing in visitors, and therefore wealth, to their villages. In both cases it has worked. The white temple is unbelievably ornate and is surrounded by gardens and mini temples, and even some quirky futuristic characters.
Created betweeen 1998 and 2008, the site symbolises a Buddhist's journey through life, and a very evocative sculpture of hands grasping for wealth and material things while sinking into the despair of hell was, strangely, our favourite! The interior of the temple was beautifully painted with scenes from a person's mind. We also loved the silver donation leaves which are hung to make an effective ceiling. (No photos inside). It also had these golden toilets! Free of charge and very grand!
The blue temple, on the other side of town, was created by Putha Kabkaew between 2005 and 2016 and is staggeringly blue and large! This is my favourite photo of the day. 2 seconds before there were about 30 tourists there!
Apparently used extensively by local people, it has achieved its objectives.
We like looking at striking architecture from any era, and this certainly fits that bill! The next stop even more so!
The black house is a striking building built by artist and architect Thawan Duchanee . He became internationally famous for his contraversial art, and then bought this land in his home village. He built his main building to house his art work, and added many more buildings and shrines to preserve the old Lanna style of architecture. His main theme are the dangers of doubt, fear, lust, lack of concentration, and he is famous for using animal remains to create furniture, floor coverings etc. That crocodile rug does not look as snuggly as a sheepskin one!
The architecture was impressive, and it was a fascinating place, and very peaceful, especially by the lake.
Next we visited some hill tribe villages. Many of these tribespeople were refugees from Myanmar where they were/are persecuted. They live in villages which are essentially refugee camps, and many do not have the right to work in Thailand. We had discussed the ethics of visiting, as we had seen it described as a human zoo, but equally we had read that the money raised from tourists visiting and buing handicrafts was an essential source of income. Each tribe has its own customs and clothing which they are keen to maintain. The most notable are the Karin Tribe whose women wear neckrings. The first few rings are put on age 5, and a few being added at subsequent significant birthdays or events. Today, at age 15, the girls are given a choice whether to continue or not. Certainly the women we met were more than happy to have their photos taken,. They have to sleep on their side, but can take the rings off occasionally although their neck is then vulnerable.
Our next stop was the Choui fong tea Plantation. These new businesses are thriving here, and 'boutique teas' are very popular in Thailand. Chris did a tea tasting and said they were quite nice, but not as good as Dorset tea! They harvest the very tops of the plants early in the morning, on a 2 week cycle. As I first encountered in Uzbekistan, when making the tea, they pour on boiling water, then swirl and strain that away, and then add more boiling water. And how about a double spouted teapot?! Or tea popcorn?
After a tasty Thai buffet lunch at a very local restaurant we went to the border with Myanmar which seems to be a mini world of its own. Hundreds of shops run by Myanmar, Thai and chinese traders sell jade artefacts and every item of the brightest, sparkliest gold and precious stone jewellery you can imagine.... except if this one man has this amazing stock of these jewels, why isn't he very rich and retired? Hmmmm...I smell a rat! Sadly no new country for us today, but then we headed for Chiang Sean, the heart of the golden triangle, at the junction of the three borders.
Here, statues, temples and monuments abound, and also it is home to the Opium museum, which gave a fascinating insight into the opium trade and its dire consequences. The scale and status of opium use was shown by the incredibly high quality items associated with its use. Exquisite weights in all sizes, beautiful ceramic pillows to acheive the optimum smoking position, and of course the pipes. It also had excellent display on how to grow, harvest and prepare the opium, and how to shake it... so if you notice a few unusual poppies in the garden next year...! Our final stop was the reassuringly unglitzy Wat Pa Sak which is the oldest in the region dating from the 7th century.
On returning to the hotel, we did a quick turn around and headed out to the very good night market. Stoves on tables, fresh produce and even thai dancing. What an excellent day.
Our journey to Chiang Mai next morning was on the Green bus service... very cheap and reasonable. However, the 3.5 hour journey was along very windy mountain roads, and we both felt a little queasy! Luckily, our hotel in Chiang Mai was a gem. The Villa Thai Orchid is just around the corner from Chedi Luang and is truly lovely. We had a very comfortable room, and the price included a super breakfast. In addition there was a 24 hour free snack bar, with tea and all sorts of things to eat! The icing on the cake was a basket in the room, inviting you to put your laundry out each morning and it would be laundered free, and returned by the evening. The young couple running it were so sweet and kind, and helped us with all sorts of things. We loved the little garden and the shoe racks, and we were asked to choose complimentary slippers to wear indoors. Our favourite place to stay so far!
We did eventually leave the hotel and wandered around this city that is definitely explorable on foot or by bike. The old town was built in 1292, once had city walls, and is still bordered by a moat. You never know what you will find here. 24 hour tailoring services are popular... anyone fancy this suit?
This is Thailands second city, so it won't surprise you to know that there are lots of.... temples! Our favourites were Wat Phra Singh, a vast 14th century temple and monastery with Gold everywhere, and some very ornately carved shrines.
Wat Muen Ngoen, an out of the way temple with no visitors. Again 14th century, with ornate woodwork and a rather bored looking monk who appeared to be using 2 mobile phones!
Wat Phantao was the 14th century Kings throne Hall, and houses a treasured and revered Buddha statue. The interior is made of teakwood.
Wat Chedi Luang is the biggest complex and was incredible. The central focus is the 98m high, 15th century Chedda, or shrine, which would once have had elephants and Nagas (serpents) all around.
The throne hall is beautiful, and there is also a men only shrine which houses a sacred pillar from the founding of the city. The reasons why women cannot enter are interesting. Who knew we had such power!
There are numerous other shrines and statues.
This is backpacker central, so the area thrives on tourism. To persuade the visitors to spend their money, every kind of adventure is offered in the surrounding mountains. Quad biking, kayaking, riding rapids, elephant bathing and much more. We chose some rather more leisurely pursuits for our short time here. We visited the Queen Mother's Botanic garden, which involved a rather high, half kilometre canopy walk with lovely views.
However everywhere here is hazy at the moment due to the early start of farmer's crop burning season. It happens right across this part of Asia, and leads to terrible air pollution. It usually peaks in early March. Thousands of deaths are attributed to it each year. In the Gardens there were lots of greenhouses with a good array of plants, but we are spoilt in the UK with our wonderful gardens like Kew, National Trust gardens and others.
They did have an excellent display of carnivorous plants...
Then another waterfall walk at Mae Sa, much less dramatic than the ones in Laos, but very refreshing in the heat, before returning to Chiang Mai.
That evening we went to Kat's Kitchen, a very local restaurant that was packed. Our very tasty 2 course meal with drinks was under £12! We revisited Chedi Luang and it was glorious in its night time illuminations.
Early next morning a sad farewell to our lovely hosts, and an early flight to Bangkok.