Northern Thailand by Volvo (Among Other Forms of Transportation)

Casey and I left for Chiang Rai from the smaller airport in Bangkok (Don Muang) after a not-so-full Thursday at school (we both have A LOT of prep time on Thursdays!). Friday, February 14 was a national holiday — no, not that one — called Makha Bucha Day, which is a Buddhist festival all about not being sinful and making merit at the temples, so we had that day off. We spent Thursday night through Sunday morning cruising around the region, checking out temples, mountains, border towns, hot springs, and a waterfall; and learning about the fine art of smoking opium and eating a spicy Northern Thai specialty. Oh, and we also learned — as we must learn over and over again here — to be patient and flexible…

We stayed at a modest yet charming little guest house called Chezmoi Handicraft & Homestay (clearly an attempt at “Chez Moi”; pronounced “shay-mooey’ in Thai). “Handicraft” is in the name because there’s a cute Hill Tribe handicraft shop attached to the guesthouse. It’s called a homestay because we literally stayed in a family’s home. We ate breakfast with them in their kitchen, used their showers (which were detached from the rooms), and slept in the room next to a mom and her daughter.

Chiang Rai reminded me a lot of Ayutthaya with its suburban sprawl, tuk-tuks, temples, and lack of Western restaurants. On our first night in Chiang Rai, Casey and I were hard-pressed to find a restaurant that was open (though it was before 8PM). We stumbled upon a little Lanna Thai restaurant and had a dish that our co-worker recommended: nam prik noom. This became our Chiang Rai staple; we had it three nights in a row! It’s just slow-cooked green chillies, onions, garlic, and salt, and it’s generally served with pork rinds. Because I’m veg, we went for the nam prik noom sai pak (the yummy sauce with steamed veggies). The second night’s batch was the spiciest; it was quite the challenge to finish it all, as our mouths were on fire. But we loved it!

Tourist attractions around Chiang Rai are rather spread out. On our first day, we took a pick-up truck taxi to the White Temple and to the Boon Rawd Singha Beer Garden. I think that the words ‘weird’, ‘creepy’, and ‘creative’ could sum up Wat Rong Khun, the White Temple, designed by artist Chalermchai Kositpipat. The path leading to the temple is a journey through Hell, where one sees arms reaching up from below, and inside the temple there is a typical-looking statue of the Buddha. However, the walls are painted with an odd mural featuring enlightened people flying around on magic-carpet-esque clouds and Hell portrayed by fictional characters (Neo, Spiderman, Angry Birds, the minions from Despicable Me), Michael Jackson, and an image of the destroyed Twin Towers of NYC. It was free to get in and quite the experience. Just a note: the golden building you seen in a photo below is the restrooms…

The Singha Beer Garden was fun and pretty. We saw tea leaves growing, lovely flowers, and a giant sing (lion). It was built on some random land that the owners of Singha Beer decided to buy.

After all that, we rode bikes (which were free with our accommodations!) around the city to see a few temples, including the one where the famous Emerald Buddha was discovered centuries ago. Now the statue, which is actually made of jade, has a home in a temple in the Grand Palace in Bangkok. We also visited the Clock Tower after lunch.

On our second day, we went to Doi Tung, the Golden Triangle, and some hot springs with our driver, Mr. Dang, in his sweet old Volvo.

Here are some photos of the beautiful grounds at Doi Tung, a mountain that was converted from jungle to opium fields to land for coffee and macadamia nuts through a Royal Project (and of course a gorgeous estate with an amazing garden for the Royal Family!):

Below are photos from the Golden Triangle, where we had a view of Laos (straight across the Mekhong River), Myanmar to the west, and some mountains in Yunnan Province, China in the distance. You can also see Mr. Dang on the steps up to the opium museum, photos from inside the museum, and also photos from around the famous meeting of three countries.

Here you can see photos from the hot springs, which were as disappointing as they look. The dinosaurs were a nice touch though!

And on our third and final day, Casey and I took a taxi to a waterfall, which was a 30-minute drive from town and a 30-minute hike through dense bamboo forest from the parking lot. It was a beautiful sight to see, and we had it all to ourselves. We put our feet in the chilly water, enjoyed the cool breeze caused by the falls and its mist, and soaked in all the nature we could before heading back to the urban jungle that is our home, Bangkok.

All in all, it was a really fun trip. I understand now why people say that seeing Northern Thailand is best done on a motorbike. It’s freer and cheaper and more exhilarating, but I was happy to be a little safer! Customer service in Chiang Rai was horrendous (though smiley!), very few people spoke even a few words of English, and airport security was laughably (or perhaps frighteningly) lax. But as travellers, we learn to go with the flow, to enjoy any meal — even if it is not what we ordered — and to let go of unnecessary concerns. Life is way more fun that way anyway!

Now Casey and I are looking forward to our grand Indonesian adventure, which is just a bit over a month away.

“Once the travel bug bites there is no known antidote, and I know that I shall be happily infected until the end of my life.” -Michael Palin

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