Chiang Rai & the Golden Triangle

12 May

Orestes and I spent our most recent long weekend in Chiang Rai, along with two of our fellow teachers/partners in crime, Sean and Shorna. Chiang Rai is in the northernmost province of Thailand, and borders both Laos and Myanmar (Burma). The area is known as the Golden Triangle from back in the days of the profitable opium trade. The Chinese, and later the French and British, paid large amounts of gold for the opium produced there. (Interesting fact: Myanmar is still the second largest producer of illegal opium in the world, after Afghanistan). Nowadays, the area is quiet; downtown Chiang Rai is uneventful, and the surrounding countryside is extremely rural. I am completely in love with the northern provinces of Thailand. The houses are cute, the people are friendly, the food is tasty, and the stretches of rural towns and rice paddies are some of the most beautiful landscapes I have seen to date.

On one of our days in Chiang Rai, the four of us took the Untouched Golden Triangle tour with Chiang Rai Bicycle Tour, which turned out to be a lot of biking (52 km) and a lot of good fun. The country girl in me has been living it up with bike tours and waterfall hikes galore lately, and the rest of the bunch were willing to indulge me for a day. We started in Chiang Saen, rode around some ruins, and headed off into the countryside. When the tour described the area as “untouched”, they were not joking. A large part of the land is cultivated, but we were most definitely in the middle of nowhere. We saw all kinds of things growing, including pineapples, papayas, rubber trees, tobacco, tapioca, rice, and bananas. It was raining when we first set out, and dirt roads plus rain equals major mud factor. True to form, I managed to become filthy while the others somehow stayed clean. Within 20 minutes, I was completely coated in reddish orange mud. Classy. We biked up to the Thai border, where the Mekong and Ruak Rivers come together to form an actual triangle. Thai nationals can take a ferry across to Laos at this point. We also visited the House of Opium, an odd but informative museum about the history of opium in the area. I learned that “bong” is originally a Thai word, and that opium smokers reclined on fancy pillows made out of stone whilst smoking (once you’ve had a few hits off the opium pipe, apparently stone pillows are comfortable). The tour ended in Mae Sai, the northernmost point in Thailand. Mae Sai was filled with Thais and Burmese crossing the border bridge for the day, shopping like mad, and then returning to their respective sides. I purchased some pineapple wine, mostly out of curiosity (ok, the free samples swayed me) and made oddly sweet wine spritzers later that night. Adventure!

The next day, we explored downtown Chiang Rai and determined that there was very little to see but tons of delicious coffee to drink (they grow lots of coffee in Chiang Rai province). The most interesting attraction nearby is Wat Rong Khun, also known as the White Temple. After you’ve been in Thailand a while, all of the temples start to look the same, but the White Temple is unique. It was built in 1997 by a Thai artist named Chalermchai Kositpipat (say that ten times fast). The outside is all white and silver, very classy and beautiful. Inside is a giant mural depicting tons of figures from pop culture: Harry Potter, Neo from the Matrix, Ben 10, and many others. The grounds around the temple are beautiful but completely random – wishing wells, prayer trees, and statues from the Predator movies all mixed together. Shorna and I made the mistake of wearing shorts to the temple, and were given giant white aprons to wear to hide our offensive legs. Shorna managed to look like a fashion model in hers, while I looked like someone bundled into a giant white apron. 😉

In a weird turn of events, Chiang Rai had a big earthquake about an hour after our plane departed Monday afternoon. The 6.3 quake was one of the biggest ever with its epicenter in Thailand. The airport was evacuated, and there was a good bit of damage to roads, houses, etc. Tons of the decorative bits of the White Temple were destroyed, although apparently the structure is secure, so the artist is going to rebuild. As I type this, one week later, the area is still having fairly sizable aftershocks. Craziness.


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