Saturday, 23 November 2013

Chiang Rai in a Day

When we decided to come to Northern Thailand, we considered staying in a couple of places. Chiang Mai was always a definite but we looked into a couple of smaller cities as well- Pai and Chiang Rai. We decided not to bother going to Pai as there isn't a huge amount there and we only had limited time in the region, but we were planning on spending a few nights in Chiang Rai. When looking into it, we realised we could see everything we wanted in one (very long) day and this seemed like an easier option. The bus picked us up at 7am so it was a very early start. 

The first of many stops of the day was a 'hot spring' which had been advertised as a key attraction. This is a bit of an overstatement as it turned out to be a glorified service station with a fountain of hot water. We were allowed to dip our feet in the flowing water however, it's location next to a toilet didn't make this very appealing. 

Arriving at the next attraction was much more worthwhile. We visited Wat Rong Khun which is also known as the White Temple. I'm sure you're all thinking 'not another temple' but this one was very different to the typical temples we have visited so far. This temple was built only nine years ago and looks almost like something you would see in a Disney film, complete with towering spires and a glistening white coating. It is in a tiny village in Chiang Rai province and the reason behind this is that one of the villagers became a famous architect and donated the temple to make the village a tourist destination.

The architect of the temple obviously has something of a sense of humour and on arrival we were greeted by some very unexpected sights including a predator sculpture emerging from the ground, a tree with hanging heads and gothic references including skulls and clenching hands everywhere. 

The temple is set with a lake in front of it and a bridge to cross this to the entrance. This provided a great place to take photos of these various, surprising additions. Crossing the bridge and entering the Wat, there were even more surprises in store. The walls were covered in a mural with some well-known characters from recent popular culture, including: Superman; Elvis; Harry Potter; Spider-Man; Terminator; Godzilla and Jabba the Hut. Not your typical Buddhist temple. 

The final attraction at the Wat was the sparkling golden building housing....the toilet. 

Needless to say,this unique Wat has definitely been one of the most memorable temples so far. 

After leaving Rong Khun, we drove a while further to a hilltribe village. The tribe who live there are the Karen tribe and there are five different branches in Northern Thailand. We saw four of these- the black , the red , the big-eared and the long-necked.  The Karen tribespeople are originally Burmese, but following decades of civil unrest in Myanmar, they are now no longer welcome in the country. The Thai government has offered them a limited amount of refuge within the North- they have a place to live and to maintain their customs, but they are not able to work in the vast majority of jobs thus they depend upon tourism to sustain them. 

The long-necked and big-eared branches of the tribe are perhaps the most unique. The long-necked women wear an increasing number of rings around their necks from the age of five and never take these off as long necks are considered most beautiful. The big-eared pierce their ears and expand the holes annually (strangely this is more well-known now due to the trend in the west to do the same). We read up on their customs before visiting the village and there is divided opinion on the ethical nature of visiting these tribes. Some consider it exploitation as the young children are being forced into these practices in order to generate more tourism for the people. We did confused this when deciding whether to visit, but the Thai government offers the Karen people no other alternative to make a living so we decided to go and hope that our entrance fee to the area goes to them. 

The village is not what we were expecting. We both had pre-conceived ideas that it would be like what we saw in Sa'Pa in Vietnam and the people would be playing an active role in the tourism industry. Instead, it's very much a set-up with a few simple stalls and the people sitting waiting for the tourists to take photos of them. The women are lovely and friendly but at times we felt uncomfortable with this 'human zoo' approach. I'm not sure if we would gone had we known what to expect although it's definitely a grey issue and tourism is at least providing them with an income.

Leaving the Karen village, we took the bus another 60km north to the 'Golden Triangle' the area where Laos, Thailand and Myanmar meet across the Mekong river. The area is famous, as historically it has been one of the largest regions of opium production in Asia. Firstly we stood next to the Mekong River and could see both Laos and Myanmar (previously Burma) in the distance.

Around the area, there are a few points of interest. There is the exact point where the border lies marked by a golden triangle, a huge golden Buddha, the border crossing into Myanmar and a small market selling various items from Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. 

It is possible from here to take a speed boat to an area of Laos across the river which you need neither visa nor passport to access. Speaking to our guide, we got the impression that this is simply a duty-free region where you could buy knock-offs at Laotian prices, so we decided to give it a miss. While the rest of our group did this, we walked a km or so along the road to the Hall of Opium, a museum developed by the Queen of Thailand to educate on the history and the dangers of Opium. Considering the huge damages which have been inflicted upon the region and the tribespeople of Northern Thailand through opium production, and the issues with drugs throughout the world, we thought this would provide really interesting insight. 

We weren't expecting a huge amount from a museum in such an obscure region, so we thought we'd be able to see everything in the half an hour or so we had spare. We were really surprised however by the amazing design and technology of the museum. It's incredibly interactive and well thought out and we wish we'd had more time to fully take it in. We did manage to glean some information from our race around however, although photography isn't allowed so there won't be many photos here.

Firstly we walked through a huge tunnel with purple lighting and many faces scattered around the walls, seemingly to create the illusion of a drug-induced hallucination. There was some brief information about the life cycle of the poppy plant and how opium is produced from this. We then watched a video on the wars caused by opium and the effects of the drug along with the project which the queen had implemented in the region to prevent local people depending on opium production e.g. Encouraging the growth of other plants, offering incentives to farmers and educating local people. 

Continuing the multi-media theme we then walked through different rooms portraying various historical and social facts about opium-

- A room built as a boat to show the shipping methods and passages used across the world
- Many holographic images depicting leaders perspectives and their involvement in drug wars
- The history of opium usage from Ancient Greece to Benjamin Franklin
- A room set out like an opium den with a waxwork of a heroin addict
- Artefact collection for how it is smuggled e.g. in plaster casts, soles of shoes etc.
- Posters showing the benefits of legal opium production e.g. Morphine and codeine
- Case studies and images detailing the famous deaths and addictions to opium from Billie Holliday to River Phoenix
- Posters advertising campaigns to prevent addiction from the last few decades

Our long day ended walking back to the bus and travelling back to Chiang Mai. We would have tried to nap on the bus back had it not been for the insane driver racing along the country roads. After a quick dinner from a local street cart, we called it a day and had a very early night!! 

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