Trekking in Northern Thailand 4
October 19, 2017
The following day I enjoyed breakfast at my Tha Ton hotel before heading to the pier to catch the longtail boat from Tha Ton to Chiang Rai. The ride took a few hours, all of us crouched on wooden benches, which may not have been the most comfortable way to travel, but it was undoubtedly the most scenic. The river wound its way along the jungle-clad mountains that marked the border between Thailand and Myanmar, the landscape dotted with small fishing villages, glowing temples, and rolling farmland.
Chiang Rai itself is a small city, quiet even by Chiang Mai standards but positively somnolent compared to Bangkok. Still, it includes a few lively markets, wide streets lined with gilded streetlamps, and a relaxed atmosphere. I found a tour operator and signed up both for a day tour of nearby sites—the Blue Temple, the White Temple, and the Black House—then another tour of the tea fields and markets of Mae Salong, a short drive to the north.
Of the trio of sites I visited, the White Temple is by far the most famous and rightly so; it is undeniably impressive. It looks like something out of a Southeast Asian version of the Lord of the Rings. You almost expect to see a Thai Galadriel walking among the blazingly white statues and structures. Though a genuine Buddhist temple, the White Temple—or Wat Rung Khun—was designed by Chalermchai Kositpipat, a local artist who also built and owns the structure.
Beyond it’s fantastical appearance, the temple and grounds are peppered with odd pop culture references, often striking and always baffling, from the Predator emerging from the ground and Captain America’s severed head peering from within the limbs of a tree, to Wolverine’s clawed fist reaching out from the moat surrounding the temple.
The Black House is often spoken of as a counterpart to the White Temple, with the latter standing for heaven to the former’s hell, but they are in fact unrelated, aside for the fact that they were both conceived and created by Thai artists. The Black House—or Baan Dam—is the work of Thawan Duchanee and includes installations made of animal bones and skins, lending the house a certain Texas Chainsaw Massacre aesthetic, which does give some credence to the whole “that one’s heave and this one’s hell” theory.
The Blue Temple, easily reached from Chiang Rai, was still under construction when I saw it so that, though impressive, it was visibly incomplete. I’ve since seen pictures of the completed temple and it looks quite spectacular, especially on the inside.
On this particular trip, though, I must say that the region’s natural beauty kinda blew the temples and artist’s constructions away. Driving into the hills and mountains of Mae Salong, I was routinely stunned by the scenery.
Tiny villages overlooked a patchwork of hills and valleys that stretched to the horizon, much of it ridged with tea fields. The sun caught the rows upon rows of greenery, creating arresting patterns of light and shade that begged to be photographed.
I visited one of the many tea plantations within the region, sampling a few of its wares and taking yet more photos.
Long ago, this part of Northern Thailand was a hub for the drug trade with many local villages and families growing poppies. Legend has it that, during his tour of the country, the previous kind, Rama IX, ordered that these poppy fields should all be replaced with tea fields, thereby both dealing a blow to the local druglords while also supplying an alternative source of revenue for the locals. How much truth there is to this I don’t know (many grand feats are attributed to the beloved monarch with often questionable evidence) but it certainly seems plausible.
In a small town I bought some tea for a my Scottish colleague (whom I’d once caught reading an “Encyclopedia of Tea”) and for my parents before heading back to Chiang Rai. My adventures in Northern Thailand had come to an end; the next day I would be returning to Bangkok as school started up again.
I was more than satisfied.