For my winter break for my first year of my MBA, I decided to go to Thailand. While I had been to Southeast Asia 3 prior times, I had never been to the Land of Smiles- a destination that for many is their first country in all of Asia. While Thailand has a lot to offer, I would say its most well-known asset is its beaches. Therefore, I decided to stay as far away from the beaches and experience the culture of the north.
December 13, 2019: The Many Temples of Chiang Rai
Due to the logistics of my trip, I got 5 hours of sleep in a Bangkok airport hotel and then flew up to Chiang Rai on a 6:30 am flight. I arrived in Chiang Rai around 7:45 am exhausted but energized. Nothing in town was open until 9 so I ate a spicy noodle soup in the airport food court. It was so spicy I teared up. Yes it was spicy, but I also had been eating the not-spicy Spanish food for 5 months. I was off my spice game…for now.
At 8:45, I caught taxi to Black House- an art installation created by the same artist who built the world famous White Temple. The Black House was very odd and not for the faint of heart. It was advertised as a representation of hell…and I suppose it was. Inside the 20-ish dark wood buildings were more crocodile skins and other dead animals than I have ever seen- and I’ve been to a taxidermy museum. Additionally, there were hundreds of sculptures of penises. Why? I can’t tell you.
There weren’t any taxis near the Black House, so I walked 10 minutes back to the main road and caught bus into the center of town and then walked to hostel. Luckily they let me check in early. I then took a long nap because I was exhausted from the trip over.
Around 12:30 pm I got moving again. I booked a trek for the next day and got more noodles at a local shop next to the bus station. Then I caught the public bus to the world famous White Temple.
The White Temple was meant to represent Heaven. As Chiang Rai’s largest tourist attraction, it was swarming with tourists. Shockingly, some people came all the way up for the day from Chaing Mai- 200 miles and 4 hours south.
Like the Black House, the White Temple was also bizarre but had an upbeat magical air. The temple was so ornate and white that it felt almost cartoonish. The entrance to the temple was lined with hands reaching up- seemingly in desperation.
Inside the temple (where photos were not allowed), a very realistic monk figuring prayed in the center. A huge red demon covered the front wall. If you looked closely, you will also see many figures from pop culture including Keanu Reeves, Kung Fu Panda and Spiderman. Who knew that these characters would make it into a Buddhist temple?!?!
In addition to the temple building itself, there was also a Ganesh temple, a Buddha garden, the fanciest bathroom I have ever seen and an art museum containing magical Buddhist-themed paintings by the complex’s creator. I absolutely loved the White Temple! But don’t come up from Chiang Mai for the day. Seriously, just stay in Chiang Rai and see the rest of the town too!
From the White Temple, I caught a tuk tuk directly to the Blue Temple- also by the same artist, I think. Unlike the other two colored temples, the Blue Temple is actually a normal Buddhist temple. I really enjoyed it!
I headed to a touristy Western restaurant on the Kok River set in a beautiful colonial-type building. My mango smoothie with whipped cream was 8x price of the noodles I had at the train station. While outrageous for Thailand, these prices were normal for this quality of restaurant in the West. The price difference is shocking- an I am sure shocking to any Thai person who accidentally wanders in, but I suppose this is the price for a taste of home. There are certainly many Western and Thai businesspeople who are making a fortune off the tourists’ price insensitivity.
Back in town I visited the temple marking the spot where the Emerald Buddha, the most famous statue in all of Thailand, was found. The legend is that in 1434, workers were polishing a stone statue when a bolt of lighting struck it to reveal the Emerald Buddha inside. For 600 years the statue moved between kingdoms. It has been in Bangkok since 1784 and is considered an important item in maintaining peace in Thailand.
After another spicy local dinner, I headed to night market. It appeared to be for both Thais and tourists. Chiang Rai definitely did not have enough tourists here to sustain the night market.
December 14, 2019: Trekking to the Hill Tribes
I slept nearly 10 hours and happened to wake up at 8:45 just in time for the 9am trek! I usually set my alarm but didn’t this time because I didn’t expect to sleep in this much!
Anyways, I walked over and got into the van. My two guides and I picked up 3 other tourists: a teacher from Saskatchewan on sabbatical, a MBA student from Dartmouth and his girlfriend-also a teacher on sabbatical who moved to New Hampshire for the year.
We drove an hour west into the hills and got dropped off on the side of the road. There we started hiking up through the thick jungle. The trail involved some boulder scrambling and was pretty tough going.
After an hour, we reached a clearing and a fire pit.
The guides made lunch using only a machete and the bamboo in the forest! By only bamboo and a machete, I mean it. The spit was made of 3 sticks of bamboo. The cooking “pots” were large hollow sticks of bamboo where we poured in the ingredients and then stuck into the fire. The guides made chopsticks and bowls (more like cups) out of bamboo. Finally they made a big communal platter made out of a huge stick of bamboo cut in half. Eventually the food was ready and we are: tom yum soup, grilled pork and an omelette (the best thing). This lunch was easily the highlight of the day and one of the most unique meals I’ve ever eaten.
We kept walking and reached a hill tribe village. There, we drank oolong tea with an amazing view.
Down the hill, we reached a larger village and then meandered through tea farms and more jungle to reach an 80-foot waterfall.The truck picked us up again and took us along the most beautiful drive to natural hot springs.
We arrived back in town just in time for dinner. Instead of the normal night market, on Saturdays Chiang Mai transforms into the “walking street”- a 1km Long market. It was seemingly endless. I ate a 3-course meal of papaya salad, pork noodles where I saw my guide eating with his family- and a sticky rice pancake for just $2.67. What a steal!!
On the far end of the night market, there was a large courtyard full of plastic tables and chairs. In the middle were about 200 people…line dancing. Most of the dances were circle dances but there were some bona fide line dances in there. Obviously I had to join in! The dances were very easy so it was no problem. I seemed to impress the Thai people. Lots of people came up to shake my hand. I wonder if this is truly a Thai thing or if it was appropriated from somewhere else like the US.
While Chiang Rai didn’t sell me right of the bat, I grew to really love it! The town wasn’t overwhelmed by tourists that it felt authentically Thai. At the same time, the town had a tourist infrastructure with hostels, restaurants, and tour companies. I had a fantastic time and would recommend it to anyone.