Chiang Rai or Chiang Mai? Are they two separate cities or do we just confuse the two for the one which we all know and that is Chiang Mai? To set the record straight, they are definitely two separate cities with many differences. I have been coming to Chiang Mai for eight years but only visited Chiang Rai for the first time last week. So many times I have heard the same refrain: “Why do you want to go way up there? There’s not much to see and do. It’s just a miniature of Chiang Mai as it was 20 plus years ago.”
By not heeding this advice, I believe I just made one of the wisest decisions I could have made to start off this year of 2015. I am so glad I went and only have one regret which is, I wish I had planned to stay longer. Contrary to all the naysayers, I found a thriving little city with plenty of things to see and do, so many in fact that if I had stayed for two weeks instead of three days, I would not have accomplished all I wanted to do.
Because of the pouring rain on the day I left, my bus trip up didn’t get off to a great start. Rain in the midst of winter and the dry season is rare in Thailand, but who knows any more what we are going to get when it comes to the weather? Fortunately, I had an umbrella (lent to me by my wonderful dentist the day before when the rain started) to protect me as I stood on the street outside of Pachkit House where I am staying trying to flag down a songtao (the red trucks which ferry us around Chiang Mai).
Chiang Rai is Thailand’s northernmost city about 200 km. north of Chiang Mai. Northern Thailand is more mountainous so we weren’t too far out of Chiang Mai before the fog set in along with the driving rain. With no prospect of seeing any of the beautiful scenery, there was only one of two things to do and that was to attempt talking to my young Thai seatmate, or sleep. I thought I would first try my luck at conversation fully expecting no positive response other than “No speak English” but was totally taken aback when she replied to my question in almost perfect English that she was a university student on her way to Chiang Rai to participate in a volunteer project for Children’s Day, which was coming up the following day. We ended up talking for most of the three-hour ride on many topics, an opportunity which seldom happens in Thailand because most Thai have a limited English vocabulary or are too reserved to open themselves up to a foreigner as much as she did. Not only was she articulate but very insightful for a person so young so when we parted ways on our arrival, I couldn’t help feeling I was leaving behind a true friend. This was a wonderful start to my visit to Chiang Rai which continued throughout my stay.
To me one of the most important parts of a trip is the accommodations I find. I was fortunate to find Jansupar Court, a family owned guesthouse near the centre of town with a great atmosphere. The family consisting of mother, father, son, daughter-in-law, and a precocious cat were so very welcoming that when I checked out I felt like I was leaving home. Not only was it good value for the money, but it also had a little bistro which not only provided some really good food, but drinks, including wine at 75 baht a glass, and for breakfast homemade bread and real coffee. You can even get a pretty good cappuccino made by Jiab, the son. For information on Jansupar, you can check out places to stay in Chiang Rai on booking.com.
Another priority of mine is the availability of good eating places and Chiang Rai certainly has its share of those. They know what the tourists want so there is no lack of great coffee shops and bakeries plus authentic Northern Thai food. Aside from my meal at Jansupar ( translates to Moon Woman) which served the best cashew chicken I’ve ever had and the food I picked up from the vendors at the markets, I ate lunches at Yod Doi (translates to high mountain) which was all organic and freshly prepared, and a tasty dinner at Destiny Cafe and Restaurant another great find where the emphasis was on healthy and freshly prepared. For more information on this eating place go to www.tripadvisor.ca – Best places to eat in Chiang Rai. Thai food is good but can be very spicy which for me is fine for awhile but every few days I need a break from it to appease my craving for fresh Western.
However, my piece de resistance was recalling a place called “Melt in Your Mouth” recommended to me by my bus seatmate. She was insistent that I go, but just the name of the place was enough to convince me that this was well worth pursuing. All I knew was that it was somewhere near the river. The Thai are not good at giving directions or following maps so what my seatmate had told me was very vague. Thanks to my unrelenting ‘sweet tooth’ and a helpful TAT (Tourist Authority for Thailand) girl I was able to find it and what a find it was! It is a huge restaurant in a beautiful location on the Kok River, a tributary of the Mekong, and the coconut cake and coffee was ‘melt in your mouth’ delicious. I paid 200 baht ($7.50 Cdn.) for this treat which is expensive for Thai food and those of us on a tight budget, but it was worth every penny. To find out more simply go to www.facebook.com/meltinyourmouthghiangmai
Now that my room and meals were taken care of, I began to plot out what I should try to see in what amounted to just three days. My first day resulted in much walking while trying to orient myself to the layout of the town. For a small town it was quite confusing at first because right in the centre is the famous Clock Tower which forms a round about. Everything seems to radiate out from there so you have to know in which direction north, east, south and west lie. However, my first day was cloudy so I couldn’t use the sun as my guide. The little map given to me by Jiab’s mother wasn’t much help either. Not gifted with a great sense of direction, I often made too many unnecessary steps in the wrong direction. I should mention that the Clock Tower is quite a sight and especially at night when at 7, 8, and 9 o’clock a light show can be viewed accompanied with lovely music. The tower is painted in gold making it beautiful in the daylight as well. It was designed by Thailand’s famous visual artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat who also designed the famous White Temple, another noted attraction south of Chiang Rai. The tower is dedicated to the Thai King, Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Chiang Rai is one of the oldest cities in Thailand so has several significant wats a visitor should check out. My first visit was to Wat Prah That Doi Cham Thong sitting atop a small hill with a gorgeous view of the city and the river. It was well worth the climb up the long serpent lined stairway.
Wat Prah Kaew, Chiang Rai’s most significant wat, was my second choice. It was here around 1434 that the famous Emerald Buddha (since discovered to be jade, not emerald) was discovered when a bolt of lightning hit the chedi housing a large clay Buddha. The lightning split it open to reveal the Emerald Buddha which now resides in Wat Phra Kaeo in Bangkok after being moved around the country and even to Laos because it is such a symbol of dominance. The grounds are forested with many trees, a contemporary Lanna style museum, and a chapel which houses the largest and most beautiful Palava style Buddha image in Thailand.
My third wat visit was Wat Prah Sing which used to house a major Buddha image which is now in Chiang Mai in its sister wat of the same name. It has a Lanna style ubosot with exquisite wooden door panels.
It was two years ago when I took a day trip from Chiang Mae up to the Golden Triangle which is the pivotal point for three countries: Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos and the undisputed centre for a once thriving opium trade. Nowadays this area is a major tourist attraction due to its exotic history as well as the controversial White Temple situated about 35 km southwest of Chiang Rai. This modern-day travesty or work of art, depending on how you look at it, is a Buddhist temple (Wat Rong Khun) built and designed by that same Thai artist who designed the Clock Tower. It’s an ongoing project with new buildings being added all the time. I have to admit the the tiny glass mirrors embedded in the pure white of the structures is breathtaking. The murals inside the temple are painted in vivid colours depicting scenes from the life of the Buddha and our immortality with a modern twist showcasing our present day pop culture. You can spot Elvis, Micheal Jackson, and MacDonald’s for example. The theme of the whole complex is about freeing ourselves from rampant consumerism – an appropriate message exemplifying the Buddhist philosophy.
Like all the cities and towns in Thailand there is always a market or two to take in for the fresh produce, Thai food, crafts, cultural performances, and other sundry items depending upon the kind of market it is. Chiang Rai has its fair share with the most popular being the Saturday Walking Market and lately the Sunday Walking Market which happened to be just down the street from where I was staying. I went to both just to soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the never-ending variety of Northern Thai food. I was in for an additional surprise on Saturday at that market when I ran smack dab into the most beautiful display of flowers in the park which bordered the street where the market vendors were displaying their wares. I wandered through the park at dusk and an hour later when it was then dark. The creativity displayed with the lighting and the flowers was outstanding. I discovered that this Flower Festival is an annual event to celebrate the New Year.
At the Sunday Market I got a chuckle from what appeared to me to be the main attraction: stall after stall selling woolly hats of all shapes and sizes. The emphasis was definitely on winter which to the Thai is when the temperature at night might dip down to 10 degrees. Those vendors who were selling any kind of warm clothing were far busier than those selling their Hill Tribe crafts. The food vendors were doing a roaring business especially those selling anything hot and spicy, but the biggest surprise for me was those selling insects. Yes, deep-fried crickets, silk worms, and water bugs were being gobbled up by the Thai. I didn’t see any of the few tourists who were there sample them. I also enjoyed watching the cultural shows of dance and music but mostly the families as they went about their shopping.
Since there are so many smaller villages and towns in the province of Chiang Rai which are fairly easily reached in a day’s trip from the city, I decided that my last day would be devoted to visiting one of them. I chose Mea Salong which I will write about in my next post. However, going there meant I had to forfeit seeing other attractions in Chiang Rai. For example, you can take in the Hilltribe Museum and Cultural Centre, the Chou Fong Tea Plantation, the mineral water bath just outside of the city, a boat trip along the Mae Kok River, or the Luang Mae Fah Cultural Park. These choices will appeal to the older traveller but for those with children you can opt to visit any of these fun places: the Boomerang Adventure Park, the Black House, with its bizarre artifacts, the Singha Park …. built by the beer company…. which offers bike riding, animals and oodles of play space. Then finally, there are numerous long treks to the Hill Tribe villages for an authentic cultural experience. I was told that the golf courses in Chiang Rai are pretty decent, too.
Additional sites to visit are not the only reason Chiang Rai is calling me back. My other considerations are the cooler climate and cleaner air, the manageable size of the city (about 200,000 souls compared to about a million now in Chiang Mai), all the amenities that a tourist or ex-pat would look for, such as good value for accommodations, eating spots, shopping, hospitals, numerous activities, and an active ex-pat association. I should also mention that the ethnic influence of the Chinese who have migrated there from south China and the Hilltribe peoples who live in the area i.e. the Lisu, Aka, Hmong, Yeo, and Karen make for an interesting population and culture. It is what Chiang Mai must have been like before it got over developed and over run with tourists and isn’t that what some of us no matter what our age are still looking for?