The lush, mountainous chunk of land where Thailand, Laos Myanmar and Vietnam meet has long been one of Southeast Asia’s most noteworthy areas for a variety of reasons. There are the inevitable issues with cross-border migration and smuggling, but the “Wild West” image that some like to play up doesn’t really reflect the reality of this beautiful area.
Too many travel operators in Northern Thailand tack a night in Chiang Rai city onto a slapdash tour of the entire region. Visitors whisk in, see the statue of King Mengrai and drive past the brand-new clock tower before heading out to the ‘lawless’ frontier of the Golden Triangle. It’s too bad because there are some spectacular side trips in this laid-back regional hub – hill-tribe treks and elephant rides of course, but there are also a few surprises.
The best way to visit Chiang Rai is to snub the package tours and take a VIP bus from Rose-of-the-North Chiang Mai. You’ll arrive near the Night Bazaar, where there are plenty of Chiang Rai hotels. If you can stomach driving in Thailand, you may want to rent a car to explore the countryside on your own. Otherwise, hire a car and driver.
Chiang Rai is a slow-burning travel destination, and I recommend giving it two or three days to impress you. If the first 24 hours seem less than promising, you can always board a tour bus for the Golden Triangle. Just don’t be surprised if the House of Opium is about as lawless as the International House of Pancakes.
Here are few Chiang-Rai activities that are well worth looking into:
Drink coffee where it’s grown
Coffee is grown across all of Northern Thailand, but Chiang Rai is the caffeinated heavyweight. The bigger resorts and hotels in Chiang Rai each have their own trendy coffee shops, and many serve some of the freshest coffee you’ll find in Thailand. If simply brooding over a cup of java knowing it was grown locally isn’t enough, then consider signing up for a plantation tour at local heavyweight Doi Chaang or some of the smaller plantations in the surrounding hills.
Tour the White Temple
Artist Chalermchai Kositpipat (who also built the clock tower mentioned above) likes you to remember that in his humble youth he was a movie billboard painter. His temple is chocked full of emotive scenes vaguely reminiscent of What Dreams May Come, that last Pirates of the Caribbean movie and other flicks you forgot you’d ever seen.
Refreshingly free of gold-painted chedis and glass ‘jewels’, Wat Rong Khun is built from bleached-white stucco with a few well-placed mirrors to add extra layers of brilliance. The entire complex is filled with garish, sparkling white characters – sword-wielding giants, ephemeral nymphs and demonic, Marlboro-puffing gargoyles. The most striking scene is a bridge across a chasm symbolizing Buddhist hell, complete with writhing hands grasping for light. One hand is holding an eye; another’s proudly flying the middle finger; still others are hoisting jars and begging for alms. The entire scene is as gritty and disturbing as it intends to be.
The political and pop-culture critiques are probably not as scathing or scandalous as they could be (a demon’s eyes reflect the faces Osama Bin Laden and George Bush), but hey, where else are you going to see a temple mural featuring Batman and Spiderman? Regardless of your final take on the White Temple, there’s no denying its originality. See this feature in the Chiangmai Mail for photos and more information.
Watch the sunrise at Phu Chi Fa
The logistics of this are a little tricky, but the view will redefine your Northern Thai experience. Phu Chi Fa is an abrupt 1,600-meter cliff overhanging the Lao border. Sunrises are spectacular, and if you arrive early enough you’ll be the first person in Thailand to see that day’s light break the eastern horizon. For the sun, the first order of business is dissolving the sea of fog that clings to valley below. It’s a well-orchestrated event that too many visitors are completely unaware of.
I’m not going to pretend like it doesn’t take two and a half hours to drive here from Chiang Rai city proper. If rising that early sounds daunting, consider ditching the accommodation in Chiang Rai for one night and staying in Thoeng, a small town not far from the cliff.
Ditch the highway
Long-tail boats dock at the pier just north of Chiang Rai city. They’ll arrange to take you back into Chiang Mai province, dropping you off a few hours later in the river town of Thaton. Prices vary, but a charter boat won’t set you back much more per person than a bus ticket, especially if you’re traveling with a small group. The trade-off affords relative seclusion, a scenic angle on Chiang Rai’s backcountry and the chance to stop by hill-tribe villages along the way.
Back in Thaton, daily buses depart for Chiang Mai city (170kms). Guesthouses and river resorts in Thaton are on hand if your boat arrives too late in the evening.