Chiang Rai

Enough days have passed while being here in Chiang Rai that I have lost track, allowing them to dreamily flow into one another like they did during the summers of childhood. If I had to stop and count, I would say that I have been here for… six days? Consulting my hand-drawn ledger would let me know for sure. 

In any case, I thought I would share a few anecdotes from the past few days. To start with: arrival. The minibus pulled into the local bus station in town, and left with luggage still on top. This incident was more easily rectified than when the border crossing bus from Thailand to Laos pulled the same stunt. A guy in a soldier uniform’s bag was also on top of the van, so he told the appropriate person, who made the appropriate phone call, and after a minute of chuckling the van was back. The young driver laughed and said he was forgetful (kee leum, a phrase I know well and use often in reference to myself) and thus it was resolved. 

Pack in hand, I set about finding accommodation. My luggage makes me easy pray for tuk tuk drivers, and one immediately approached me with a couple ragged brochures for different places to stay. I was looking them over when he got a phone call, during which time I studied the map for one in particular and decided to try and walk there. Walking is more of an adventure, makes the city more familiar, and, best of all, it’s free. I thanked him (he was still on the phone) and went off to ask the nearest person which way to the river. 

En route, I found an outrageously cheap internet cafe — just ten baht! That’s about 35 cents for an hour on a fast, modern, no-problems-loading computer. I have been back several times since. So I stopped there for an hour on the computer to check on my destination online, then kept plodding along. Soon I found the tourist police (dial 1155 for your first friend in Thailand!) and the tourist information office, where I got a most excellent map and brochure of activities and sights in the area. Chiang Mai has plenty to offer, which is why I have been here for so long, and has all the facilities for tourists, though it isn’t touristy. Only rarely do I see other farang in the street.

So I found the place I was looking for: Chat House. It was next to Overbrook Hospital, as the map said, and is in an alley next to a coffin-maker. (Thais cremate their dead, but they put them in coffins first.) It is a little ways away from the bus station and main part of town, which is fine by me. More exercise, and I am not in a rush to get anywhere. 

Now the first full day in Chiang Rai… It was one of those days. And I mean that in the best way possible. It was one of those days when, before it is even over, you feel like you are living your life just as you want. Like you have seized the day — carpe diem! — and would have no regrets if it was your last. That of course doesn’t mean that I wish life would end, but it was just such a great day for no reason in particular. I got up early, walked to a viewpoint marked on my map, met some horses on the way, and enjoyed the sunrise at the “city navel.” Cities are thought to be living beings, and as such are given the mark of a living being: a belly button. Although I must say that the navel looked looked more phallic than anything; or perhaps Chiang Rai has a prodigious “outie” belly button? As I saw it, there was one big lingam in the center, with smaller linga radiating out in a circle around it. Fifty-something in all. I took the appropriate goofy pictures and moved along.

Later that day, I took a local bus heading for Pa Yao, literally bouncing with excitement for no particular reason, and got off at Wat Rong Kuhn, or the White Temple. It was perhaps the most photogenic building I have ever seen. I have my own pictures, but here is one from online:

It was a stunning place. Even the bathrooms are located on the first floor of a palatial golden building. You could buy a silver ornament to write prayers on and hang it in a tree with hundreds of thousands of others. (Ironically, the ornament says “Rooai Rooai Rooai” at the bottom, meaning “Rich Rich Rich.” Thai people may be Buddhist, but they are still people. There was a museum with other work by the designer, Chalermchai Kositpipat, including paintings and metal work. Photos aren’t allowed inside, but I had to sneak one of some of his more recent political ones. Notably one painted in 2009 titled “Bye Bye Bush,” which had Bush clinging to a rocket with a goofy grin, already heading into space. Another one in a similar style had Bush and Osama Bin Laden (who was carrying a machine gun) riding a rocket together, straddled like riding horse, both looking equally in awe of the universe around them. 

The best part of the White Temple was that a) it was free and b) it was wheelchair accessible, which is incredibly rare for Thailand. They even had a couple of special “For the disabled and elderly” stalls in the bathroom with the appropriate side rails and space. AND I only had to wait three minutes for a tuk tuk heading to Chiang Rai to pass and pick me up. It was an unusually great day.

The next day, my mission was to go to the Golden Triangle and visit the museums there. For fifty baht (about $1.60) I enjoyed the hour and a half ride in an air-conditioned van. The Golden Triangle is where Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand meet, and is historically known as a hub for opium. The two museums are both dedicated to opium. I found one with ease, as we passed the enormous “Opium Museum” sign on the way in. It was privately owned but well done, with plenty of paraphernalia and accompanying explanation. And for some reason you could buy all the pipes, bowls, and bongs in the museum store. (Bong is actually a Thai word adopted by the west, according to the museum. Go figure.) In the comments book I wrote a nice review, thought about writing “Samples?” in another line, but thought better of it. Looking back, I should have done it. It might have made someone else laugh. 

Afterwards, I wandered around, consulting my map frequently, looking for the other opium museum. I ended up on the side of a road, with jungle on my left and the river on my right. Outlook was grim for this path, and I was getting tired of looking. I decided to get to the next bend and, lacking evidence of a museum, would have lunch at a riverside restaurant before calling it quits and heading back. At the bend and… more trees. Okay. Time for lunch. The mama-san was pleasant, making me an egg and fried veggies, which I enjoyed while watching the tiny border post in Myanmar. No one entered or left. It was a border crossing for locals anyway. After lunch, I showed the mama-san my map and she said that the museum was just 100 meters ahead. Nit dieow eng! Just a little further! 

Around the bend after my “final” bend, there was a sign. Finally! I’m glad I made it, as the museum ranks with the best museums I have seen on this trip. (Among them: the Neka Art Gallery in Bali, the Textile Museum and the Museum of Islamic Art in Kuala Lumpur, and the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City.) With the 200 baht ($6.50) entrance fee paid (student discount only if you are a Thai student; foreigners are SOL) you start the tour of the spacious museum with a walk through a blue-lit tunnel that seemed like something right out of Universal Studios. I get the impression that it was actually underground. Then there is a woman at the other end to welcome you in front of a display about the growing process of opium, after which there is a video about the museum. Then another woman opens another door and the tour begins. I was alone in these enormous museum for much of the time, which was cool but also kind of creepy. It had information about the history of opium in the region, as well as plenty of info about the history of the tea trade (the Boston Tea Party had it’s own snippet), beautiful collections of paraphernalia, information about drug laws today, and a room of reflection at the end. The museum is a royal project with the goal of educating people and reducing drug use. Pretty well-done, I’d say, if only more people made it there to see it.

Today, I hopped on another bus to check out Baan Dum, or the Black House. I was on one of those local buses that is standing-room only, with the doors (there was a backdoor on this one too) always open. After awhile, the porter/money collector, a nimble old man, said “youyouyou,” in reference to mememe. My stop was coming up. I squeezed towards the door, and he pointed at a rapidly-approaching side street. The bus pulled over and slowed somewhat, though I was wondering if I would have to jump out and roll. At the last second he slowed, and I took the chance to hop out of the still-moving bus. The porter followed me, pointing down the alley, before swinging aboard through the backdoor. That’s one way to stay young, I guess.

Turns out the system works once again, and I found Baan Dum with ease. It was a contrast to the White Temple, with more simple (but still elegant) architecture and, of course, a black motif. There were a number of buildings on this compound, and each one was a vegetarian’s nightmare. Animal skins (including leopard and zebra) served as rugs in the closed-off houses, to be seen only through windows. Animal skulls were a recurring motif. Chairs were made out of leather, thigh bones, and buffalo horns, which was admittedly kind of cool but… In one open-air collection of instruments and grisly chairs, I had to scoot around an object, brushing against a hanging skin. The bristly fur still on the hardened skin gave me the shivers. A building shaped like a whale, with the entrance being in the mouth, was locked, but through a crack in the door I could see a forest of antlers, with an American Buffalo head staring back at me from the center of it. Here is one room in the Black House compound: 

Also in the compound there were rock gardens, several groundskeepers cutting the grass with edgers (the racket was almost able to rival UT in the afternoon), and fat moss-covered demons that made me think of Bali, which made me subsequently think “I’ve been to Bali?” All the carnage aside, it was a pretty cool place. My favorite part was the enormous hall, the roof of which I could see from the main road, which had one super-long table and four tables on the side. It was like a scene out of Lord of the Rings or some other other-wordly story, like a table for a pagan king long ago. It was simple wood with snakeskin runners, and buffalo horn chairs at each end.

The side tables were smaller and more intricate, one with enormous shells (for the River King) and one with more skull decorations and bundles of hair (for the Mountain King — shown below). I decided that the long table was for the Forest King. (What can I say, the place sparked my imagination.)

Besides using public transport for day trips in the province, I have been enjoying wandering the city. It is a good size, large enough to take a new route each time I go to the bus station but small enough to cover everything on foot. And the people! On long stretches I have been offered the backseat of a motorbike, which I accept. Random people will smile at me. One old lady gave me a thumbs-up as she drove by. Children will wai politely and encourage their younger siblings to do the same. No one points and says Farang! Farang! No one calls after me, trying to sell stuff. It is a peaceful place, tolerant of tourists and not overrun. Love it.

4 thoughts on “Chiang Rai

  1. Your trip is sounding awsome. Love that jacket as well. Sure to be a hit in London.! I can see it with jeans or black / any pants or over a skirt. Counting doun to Oxford . Life is at its usuall best here in Tampa. Missing you and enjoying your blogg.
    Love Uncle Daves


  2. Kelly,
    I am glad you are enjoying your adventures. Very interesting — quite ironic you walked into the animal skin room. The images remind me of the Place on the Rock.

    Waiting for the next…
    Wishing you well.
    Aunt Stacy


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