We were slightly apprehensive about hiring a car to travel around the north of Thailand but, having discovered the many uses of a smart phone, we found that we could google map our way out of the mayhem of Chiang Mai without too much trouble, although we did miss one turning and had to find our own way back onto route 118.
Unfortunately, this road is being reconstructed and there was very heavy traffic heading north so it was a painfully slow journey at times but we were at our accommodation by early afternoon. Grab taxi came in useful in Chiang Rai as the place where we were staying was on the outskirts of the city.
On our other trips to Northern Thailand we’d never quite made it as far as Chiang Rai so we were looking forward to exploring the city. Although we hadn’t planned it we were fortunate to arrive on a Saturday because this is when a Walking Street market is held. In fact several streets are cordoned off from about 5pm and the stalls come out. Walking down the crowded thoroughfare is amazing and all manner of goods are on sale but almost every stall seems to be selling a different item, unlike many night bazaar which all seem to sell more or less the same things.
But even better than the goods on display were the food stalls purveying more or less any cooked foodstuff you could name, and in a number of cases many you could only but wonder at. We didn’t try these scrummy looking delicacies :
The fried creepy crawlies were the exception. Most of the produce on display was perfectly normal looking.
The smell of cooking was amazing and we bought some steamed dumplings (which weren’t all that great to be honest) and went and sat in the square where some ballroom dancing was taking place. There was a live band, dressed, for some reason in cowboy clothing even though they were playing strict(ish) tempo music. The dancers (at least 90% female) seemed to be dressed in team colours and it was slightly difficult to make out if they were dancing a cha-cha or a rhumba but they were clearly enjoying themselves and there was quite a crowd on the dancefloor and sitting around so ballroom and latin is obviously a popular pursuit in Thailand.
After all that food and jiving you could still call into a local cafe for a coffee – and something for the weekend, sir?
Chiang Rai is an ancient city and has its fair share of temples, such as Wat Ming Muang which was founded by Queen Ta La Mae Sri at the same time as the original city was built in 1262. Apparently, she found enlightenment in just this spot and so built a temple there. Well, I’m sure she didn’t actually hod any bricks or carve any woodwork, judging by her statue, but you know what I mean.
Queen Ta La Mae Sri who looks pretty good for someone more than 800 years old.
This Wat had a completely different style to those in Chiang Mai and had some wonderful depictions of elephants.
One particular ‘elephant’ looked like it was being eaten by a snake. Many of the creatures which decorate temples seem to be strange amalgams of the real and the fantasy and it would be very interesting to learn all of the stories and myths behind these creatures.
The biggest tourist draw in Chiang Rai has got to be Wat Rong Khun – the White Temple. The day we visited was overcast so it wasn’t quite as blindingly white as I’ve seen it in photographs but the buildings were still intensely white, absolutely crowded and not at all like the Wats we had so far visited.
The original Wat Rong Khun was in a very bad state of repair until a local artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat, acquired and turned it into his own vision of what a Wat should look like. It is now one of the most recognisable temples in Thailand and there was no doubting the sincerity of Asian visitors praying, receiving blessing, posing for selfies and tossing coins into a well for luck. But for us it seemed very much a place for making money and didn’t feel very spiritual. For sure the artwork is unique but we were quite glad to dial up a Grab and get away from the outstretched hands.
The other big draw is Wat Rong Suea Ten – the Blue Temple. Equally gaudy as the white temple, and almost as crowded, the Blue Temple does seem to have retained some spirituality about it.
Inside the Wihan, a massive alabaster buddha is surrounded in a wonderful and calming blue light. For us this was a much more peaceful and pleasant place to visit.
Our spiritual energies renewed, we decided that a walk amongst the flowers was just what we needed. Chiang Rai had a flower festival going on and in one of the parks we were able to wander, completely free of charge, amongst some glorious displays.
Our time in Chiang Rai was quite short and we missed out on taking a trip on the River Kok which would have been nice. We had a spectacular thunderstorm on our final night – all flashes, bangs and timpani drum rolls. But it was coming up to New Year so we hoped it would be a good omen for the next part of our trip – heading deep into hill country. More in the next instalment.