Chiang Rai; The White, The Blue and The Black

On our second day in Chiang Rai Suzannah and James suggested we share a songthaew to visit Wat Rong Kung, better known as the White Temple and then to travel to Singha Park, the site for the annual International Balloon Fiesta.

The White Temple was built by the artist Ajarm Chalermchai who wanted to build the most beautiful temple in the world. It is an amazing spectacle, completely over the top and packed with tourists but still a must see place. Macabre sculptures of demons and other creatures, skulls and outstretched hands represent evil which is left behind when you enter the temple. The temple is white and includes many small mirrors and these represent purity and wisdom. The inside of the temple (no photography allowed unfortunately) is also amazing with beautiful paintings and an enormous Buddha.

Leaving the temple there are more amazing buildings and structures to wander around including a hall which looks as though it belongs on the top tier of a wedding cake and a gold building which is the most amazing toilet block I’ve ever seen.

Adjacent to the temple grounds there is a collection of original art work by Ajarm Chalermchai and it was fascinating, and also far less crowded. He is certainly an extremely talented artist and he was also responsible for the ornate clock tower in town we had dined beside the previous night. Photos of the Balloon Fiesta, and there are lots, are in a separate post.

On our final day in town Paul and I took a tuk tuk for a visit to two other major attractions near the city. The first was Wat Rong Seua Ten, better known as the Blue Temple. It was built by Phuttha Kabkae, a protege of Ajarm Chalermchai. While it’s not as large and glitzy as the White Temple we preferred this one, the blue’s were beautiful, the art-work fascinating, we were allowed to take photos inside the temple, and, much to our relief it was nowhere near as crowded.

From there we went further out of town to Baandam Museum. In Thai ‘baan’ means home our house and ‘dam’ means Black so of course it is simply called the ‘Black House’. It is a collection of buildings scattered around a garden and was created by Thawan Duchanee, an internationally acclaimed Thai artist. It’s another crowded tourist attraction and we filed through the first building and around several others. The buildings and carved wooden decorations are magnificent and interesting and the few art works we saw were also excellent but the collection of animal bones, skins and horns and quite a few of the abstract sculptures were less intriguing.

Perhaps we’d just had too many wonderful experiences in the past couple of days but we cut our visit short and returned to town to continue with our journey.


Tha Ton

Early morning mist in Tha Ton

From Chiang Mai we headed for the hills on a big orange bus. There were a few tourists on board but it was mainly used by locals travelling to the large town of Fang while a few up-country locals and one other westerner were travelling like us to its final destination of Tha Ton. Seats which we thought the right size for two were actually meant for three but we were lucky, or looked too big, and had one to ourselves. Those trying to fit three to a seat often ended up sitting on the edge of a seat or standing in the narrow walkway. Apart from that it was fine with open windows and fans to keep us cool and rural scenery to watch which kept us occupied through the four hour trip.

Tha Ton is a small country town near the border of Thailand and Burma (Myanmar) and is a huge change of pace from Chiang Mai. It has one main road and straddles the Kok River.  We stayed in a comfortable guest house beside the river for a couple nights and soon had our favourite places to visit for our meals and for coffee, revisiting a few of them several times. We loved the atmosphere of the town and the friendliness of the local people. It was a peaceful stay except for the evening Karaoke across the river from our guest house. Paul enjoyed the early morning mist for some atmospheric photography.

Worth a visit is Wat Tha Ton, a temple which stretches up the hill beside the town. It is set over ten levels and we huffed and puffed our way right up to the top. We had plenty of reasons to stop along the way to look at amazing buildings and the statues at various levels as well as the fabulous views to the valleys and river below. We could even see the Thai army emplacement on distant hill tops which looked out over the border with Myanmar. The many coloured temple at the top contained an eclectic collection of statues.

From Tha Ton we headed further into the hills and into the area previously known as the infamous Golden Triangle, the area near the borders of Thailand, Burma and Laos which used to be the major opium trafficking route but is now a great area for tea and coffee.


Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai Flower Festival

Chiang Mai, the capital of northern Thailand, is a fascinating city with lots to see and experience. With only three days in the city we barely scratched the surface but we arrived in time to catch the annual flower festival, visited some of the seemingly unending temples in the city, explored up and down busy streets and quiet laneways in the old town, wandered through a bustling night market and also much quieter local fresh food markets, took an excellent cooking class and ate lots and lots of delicious food. Hopefully the many kilometres we walked balanced out the calories we ate.

We missed the grand parade of flowers but the displays in the gardens were fantastic and although the flowers on the floats lined up nearby were starting to wilt they were still very impressive.

The main streets in the old town are busy and have lots of cars to dodge but the lane ways are delightful to walk along and the motor bike riders are not too numerous to become a problem. The red songthaews ferry people around the city for 30 baht ($1.20) provided you are heading in the same direction they are. There are new hotels going up in any available space and quite a lot of the temples are being renovated using the typical asian style of scaffolding.

We did a cooking class with the delightful Yui, a fount of information and practical advice and the dishes we prepared were delicious. After a visit to the market with Yui we left with a cook book so hopefully we can reproduce the tastes.

Chiang Mai is particularly noted for its dish of Khao Soi and one of the places which had the best review for the dish was a tiny open area on the northern edge of the old town. The reviews were right, it was excellent and it is no wonder all the tables were filled and people were lining up.

We couldn’t possibly count the temples in the old city and didn’t get to see any of the interesting sounding temples in the surrounding areas. The old temples which are often at the side of the new bright and fancy temples were fascinating. To properly see most of the temples and to avoid overload we would need to stay weeks and visit just one or two a day.

There are night markets every night but Saturday and Sunday have their own special night markets and we arrived in time for the Sunday session. The market covered at least two kilometres in the old town and all of it was packed with visitors, both local and international. Lots of craft work was offered and some delicious food. Some of the stalls and eating areas were even in temple grounds, a good way to see the temples lit up at night.

The fresh food markets were more our speed, we always try to visit them even if we can’t buy the produce. We even caught a performance in one morning market, an elderly lady singing with her husband accompanying her to the delight of the stall holders nearby.

Chiang Mai was a great introduction to northern Thailand but now we are headed for smaller places so we can get away from the crowds, see more of the country and visit some of the hill tribes.