Chiang Mai was not my cup of tea, but I’m hoping that Chiang Rai, a smaller city to the north will offer a more authentic atmosphere. Not that there isn’t anything to see in Chiang Rai. A day trip around the city proves that it has a lot to offer with modern temples, art installations and a huge purpose built park with a tea plantation.
I’d originally planned to get around by local bus, but have a lucky break and manage to get myself a seat in the back of a tuk-tuk with five younger backpackers. Splitting the cost by six makes it cheaper for everyone.
First we drive south to the White Temple, arriving at 11.30 along with every other tour group in the area. In order to control the crowds, officials use loud speakers to encourage people to keep moving in various languages. The White Temple looks like a wedding cake from the outside, all glistening icing with decorative swirls. Inside it looks, at first, like any other temple. A Buddha statue presides and scenes of the life of the Buddha decorate the walls. However, those astute enough to turn around will find a rear wall decorated with pop culture references. First I spot Kung Fu Panda, then Neo from the Matrix and Michael Jackson moonwalking. There are superheroes and antiheroes and a depiction of 9/11. It all seems a bit out of place in a religious building. But that’s what makes it so special.
Note: Photos are not allowed inside the White Temple but you can see the artwork at this website : travel photo report
The theme continues outside with a water feature decorated with Ninja Turtles, Alien and Predator! The heads of Terminator, Jack Sparrow and Captain America hang from trees and it makes a perfect selfie playground.
We had all wanted to visit a tea plantation but hadn’t realised just how far away they were. So, I suggest Singha Park instead. Created by the Singha Brewery, this purpose-built park boasts a tea plantation, indoor farm, several large lakes and a small zoo. It covers a huge area and to get around we pay 100 baht for the hop-on-hop-off tram.
The first stop is Swan Lake, where we can feed giant catfish and admire graceful white swans, but we decide to continue to the tea plantation in order to roam amongst the tea bushes and try some jasmine oolong tea. The next stop also offers a tea tasting, but this one is made from bright orange fungi and tastes like mushroom soup. At the farm stop we have ice-cream: blueberry and thai tea flavours. We can see the giraffes and zebras from the tram so don’t bother alighting at the zoo, instead returning to the main gate where our tuk-tuk driver is waiting.
I persuade the group to make a brief stop at the city navel pillar. Located on top of a small hill just outside downtown, it marks the spiritual centre of the city. 108 pillars represent major features of the universe and 5 channels represent the great rivers watering the earth. Apart from half a dozen people chanting, we are the only ones there.
The Black House (Baan Dam in Thai) is also busy with tour groups who have come to see this unique art installation of dark wood buildings housing furniture and sculptures created from dead animals, amongst other things. Nearly 40 structures make up the site and some have the appearance of rooms that guests could actually stay in, with carved wood, four-poster beds and en-suite bathrooms filled with shells. There also seems to be quite a few phallic sculptures around which, I’m sure, have a more symbolic meaning.
Last on our day trip is the Blue Temple, which is definitely very blue. Unlike the White Temple or the Black House, there is no entrance fee but, judging by the amount of money that I see the monks collecting from the donation boxes, they have no need to charge. The Blue Temple is certainly the most spiritual and calming place that we visit. After a day of sightseeing, it is obvious that Chiang Rai has a lot to offer.
The following day is the 11th of November and a full moon. It is time to celebrate Loy Krathong and my hostel has arranged a krathong making session, providing only natural materials such as banana palm stem, leaves and an assortment of colourful flowers signifying prosperity, long life and eternal wisdom. It proves to be a great way for guests from different countries and cultures to get together and have some fun.
Later, we all pile into the back of a pick up truck and drive to the river. Neon flashing lights mark the route and the south bank has been turned into a fun fair. We follow the crowds to a small wooden pier where we can launch our krathongs. Mine is helped into the middle of the river by a local man who is wading around for a few baht. I watch it float away, hoping for good luck in the year to come.
The next evening a parade passes through the city centre with beauty queens riding on colourful floats, brass bands playing Lady GaGa and groups of lavender ladies carrying lanterns. It is a nice way to mark the festival and the locals are out in force, watching the spectacle.