Looking for a starting point to Chiang Mai was indeed a daunting task, with an impressive 300 Buddhist temples lining the streets of the capital. The place thrives on tradition, instilling a rare sense of calm and peace in its visitors – a stark contrast to the modern bustle of Bangkok.
Research led my sister and I on a day tour towards Thailand’s northernmost city, Chiang Rai. Tour pictures flaunted its most well-known temple, covered in a breathtaking blanket of white. Turns out, real life did live up to fantasy. As though shrouded in snow, Wat Rong Khun (also known as the White Temple) was as beautiful as one might imagine.
Construction began only back in 1997, when artist Chalermchai Kositpipat had painstakingly designed and constructed the artistic site with his own funding. And his work is barely done. The already grand architecture is still a work-in-progress, and will be till the year of 2070.
Old traditions meet modernity, in the city founded in 1262. Themes of heaven and hell referenced traditional Buddhism and oddly enough, pop culture too. It was a strange sight. Wall paintings featured more easter eggs than Black Mirror, with Sailor Moon hiding behind Ultraman, beating these morbid displays of beheaded superheroes in subtlety.
After an hour of wandering, we continued our long bus journey towards the next vibrant destination, Wat Rong Suea Ten (Blue Temple). The relatively new art project was built by one of Kositpipat’s students, which might explain the similar style to the White Temple, only in striking shades of blue.
The structure, despite featuring none of the Marvel oddities, was a no less stunning sight. It was however much smaller, and parts of it were still under construction. Before long, our exploration came to an end, and we were off to Mae Hong Son (the Long Neck Village).
Many call it a human zoo, culpable of exploitation. There is some truth in that. But not for those who grasp the wonderful opportunity to get to understand the Kayans and their fading culture. Many of them were in fact happy to welcome visitors, whom they also warmly took photos with (so long as you ask politely).
Their friendliness made for a pleasant and interesting experience, with more to gain than beautiful hand-crafted souvenirs. Of course, there would be nothing better for them than to resettle beyond the village, lose their refugee status, and eventually live in better conditions. The guide assured us that this is happening, albeit in small steps.
In less than an hour’s time, we left the village for a journey much further ahead. Surrendering our passports to the guide, we boarded a boat towards the Lao island of Don Xao. (All you need is a temporary permit to step into what is technically Laotian territory.)
On the river, we caught glimpses of the Golden Triangle, where the nations of Laos, Myanmar and Thailand border one another. There seemed to be casinos and resorts at almost every turn. Sadly, the brief drift turned in more intrigue than the final destination did.
Rows and rows of shops at the Don Xao Marketplace offered standard souvenirs and suspiciously cheap branded goods. There were also several bottles of various insects and arachnids on display; some bathed illegal parts of wildlife in alcohol. If true Laotian culture is what you are looking to experience, this tourist trap will not fulfil your expectations.
The trip back to Chiang Mai was close to four hours long, a duration that made us wish we had kept the schedule to the highlights. Nevertheless, the exhausting tour was a brilliant start to our week-long Thai travels.
More to follow on our Chiang Mai adventures and night market fun.