Seeing Chiang Rai without a tour

Our next stop after the Land of Liverpool was Chiang Rai. We opted to be based here for our exploration of the Golden Triangle area as not only was it easier to reach by public transport, but it had a bit more to offer for a few days stay than the small towns at the very north of Thailand.

Chiang Rai isn’t an especially pretty town, but it is pleasant enough. We took a stroll around town and headed up to the Sunday Walking Street – a night market filled with trinkets, souvenirs and delicious street food. We sat at a table surrounded by tourists and locals and ordered some Khao Soy – a delicious noodle soup that was to become my addiction in North Thailand.

Khao Soi noodles in Chiang Rai
Khao Soi noodles – our new favourite food!

On our walk around town we had spotted many tour companies offering almost identical tours of the Chiang Rai area – a visit to the Golden Triangle, the same temples and a “Hill Tribe Village” – all for about £20. I don’t mind a well run, carefully crafted tour (such as our excellent food tour of Hong Kong) but alarm bells start to ring when every place in town is flogging the same thing. We decided we would swerve the tours and try to explore the area independently.

The next morning bright and early (ish!) we set off for the White Temple. This small, but Gaudi-esque temple glittered so brilliantly in the bright sunshine I could barely look directly at it. It was fascinatingly intricate, unusual and probably my favourite temple in all of South East Asia (and over the last few months I’ve seen one or two).

White Temple of Chiang Rai
The White Temple of Chiang Rai

As we walked over the entrance bridge, carved hands reached up from a chaotic sea of bodies below us. I had assumed it was a kind of sea of the dead, but apparently it represents unrestrained desire; Buddhism of course aims to reach Nirvana by overcoming greed and temptation.

White Temple Chiang Rai
The entrance to the White Temple

Alas, inside there were no photos allowed, so I can’t show you what we found. As well as the ubiquitous Buddha statue, there was a (disconcertingly realistic) fibreglass monk statue and a mural on the back wall. Rather than perhaps depictions of religious tales, this mural featured those well-known figureheads of Buddhism: Michael Jackson, the Terminator and um, Harry Potter.

As we walked out through the courtyard we stumbled across tree-like sculptures which, on closer inspection, were made of thousands of tiny metal plates, each one with a written message on it, which I assume are prayers and blessings.

White Temple Chiang Rai
Blessings and wishes written and hung on a tree

After some delicious Pad Thai in the restaurant opposite the exit (definitely check it out for a post-temple snack!), we headed back into town ready for an afternoon visit to the Black Houses.

If the White Temple is a kind of heaven on earth, the Black Houses are – by contrast – my kind of hell. Created by revered Thai artist Thawan Duchanee to house his work, the Black Houses are a different kind of grotesque. The buildings themselves are interesting examples of Asian architecture, and I liked them very much. The contents I was less of a fan of.

Black House Chiang Rai
The Black Houses Chiang Rai

Inside the few buildings open to walk around were animal skins – mainly enormous crocodiles – and monstrous furniture made entirely of horns, skins, claws and skulls. Given that there were two huge pythons crammed into a small wire cage outside, I wasn’t confident this was an artistic tribute to living animals – it just felt chilling and full of death. I was keen to leave almost as soon as we got there. In a bizarre twist, my beloved White Temple was created by a student to Thawan Duchanee. Perhaps Heaven and Hell are more linked than we know.

Black House Chiang Rai
A chair inside the Black Houses

On our second day in Chiang Rai we headed further afield to the Golden Triangle. The Golden Triangle is an area across Laos, Thailand and Burma famed for its crop of opium poppies, and was once the biggest producer of heroin in the world. Thanks to efforts of the King and Royal Family of Thailand, that dubious award now goes to Afghanistan.

We took a bus to Chiang Saen and jumped into a shared songtheaw pick up for the last few kilometres to the “Golden Triangle lookout”, where you could see Laos, Burma and Thailand meet. Drumroll for the overwhelming photo please…

Golden Triangle Chiang Rai
The Golden Triangle point. Thrilling, no?

One of the joys of visiting the area independently was the opportunity to do things a little, well, better. We’d read that most tours went to the town centre Opium Museum – a poor imitation to the one a mile or so out of town. After a quick (but pricy) lunch overlooking the pleasant vista that was Thailand, Burma and Laos meeting, we walked the couple of kilometres out to the Hall of Opium. Set up in 1988 by the Princess Mother, we spent a good three hours at this interesting and informative museum. As well as some real live opium poppies on display, we learned about the history of opium in Asia (the British, alas, do not cover themselves in glory in this particular period of history), the rituals and social aspects of heroin as well as what is being done today to combat opium production in Thailand, where heroin production has fallen by over 90%.

We were trudging back from the Hall of Opium along the dusty highway – worrying whether we had enough time to find a songtheaw and get back to Chiang Saen before the last public bus for Chiang Rai left – when a local Thai guy pulled over and said he would give us a lift all the way back to Chiang Saen. He was very sweet and funny, and basically just wanted to talk to Craig about Manchester United the whole drive (Craig diplomatically omitted to mention that he was a Liverpool fan and therefore a sworn enemy of all things Man U!). We were very touched by his kind gesture.

In the evening we were invited by Martin – a lovely Slovak guy at our guesthouse – for dinner and drinks with him and an Australian couple, where we swapped tales of Dangerous Animals We Have Encountered In Australia (I think we lost on account of having not actually been bitten by anything). The three of them had spent the day on one of the exact tours we were trying to avoid, and said that it had been a long, rather gruelling day to see the same sights we had enjoyed at our leisure over the last few days, which made us glad we’d chosen to see the sights of Chiang Rai without a tour.

On our last morning we headed for the Hill Tribe Museum of Chiang Rai. When I was little, I used to love sitting with my Book of People of the World and I remember being captivated by photos of the Karen Long Neck tribe, who looked impossibly exotic to a little girl in Northwest England. Being able to see them in the flesh as part of one of the Chiang Rai tours had been tempting. Instead, we headed to a museum.

The Hill Tribe Museum is a compact but interesting guide to the culture and the history of the Hill Tribes who live in Thailand. Many actually originate from Laos, China and – predominantly – Burma, and they often arrive in Thailand fleeing conflict in their own country. They become refugees of sorts without documentation and little by way of civil rights. The “Hill Tribe villages” that the tours would have taken us to were little more than human zoos, which exploited the vulnerable status of these people and kept them in poverty and without official status so that they could not leave the “villages” for an independent life. I’m so glad we opted not to unwittingly contribute to this abuse; feedback from the others who had taken a tour was that the experience was an uncomfortable one and – having learned what I did – I’m not surprised.

As well as managing the museum, the PDA also have an office at the museum where you can opt to go on more ethical visits to emancipated Hill Tribes – their tours work with Hill Tribes to make sure that the money from tourists actually benefits the villages they go to visit, rather than lining the pockets of some exploitative tour company, so it is well worth a visit if you are keen to go.

How to see the sights of Chiang Rai without taking a tour
  • A tour around the Chiang Mai area costs around £20 per person; we spent about £5 over two days seeing the best sights from the tour, and avoiding those we didn’t wish to see (such as the Hill Tribe “zoos”).
  • To visit the White Temple (entry: free), we walked to the public bus station and took a bus from Platform 8 (just say “White Temple” to the bus driver or conductor and they will nod to confirm you are on the right bus). It takes about 30 minutes to get there and costs ฿20 (about £0.40). On the way back, simply cross the road and flag down a passing bus or songthaew.
  • To visit the Black Houses, we took a bus from Platform 6 (again, you can just say “Black House?” to the driver and he will confirm) which again took about 30 minutes and cost ฿20. On the return leg we had a bit of a wait for a bus (about half an hour), but you can also flag down a passing songthaew if you get lucky.
  • To visit the Golden Triangle we took a public bus to Chiang Saen, which departed from the central bus station and cost ฿37 per person (about £0.75) for the 2.5 hour journey. At Chiang Saen, we jumped into a shared songthaew (there were also tuk tuks if you are on less of a budget) with other tourists for the 10km drive to the Golden Triangle point. We then walked the 2km or so to the Hall of Opium and hitched a lift back (perhaps not the most sensible transport plan – maybe hire a return tuk tuk at the Golden Triangle?!) to Chiang Saen, where we found a minivan going back to Chiang Rai at about 5pm. The public bus left at about the same time from a few metres away as well.

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