Five years after planning my first trip to East Asia, today I finally made it to a place I never managed to get to. I have long been in awe of the architectural wonder that is the White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) in Chiang Rai, and to finally see it in person was an experience I will remember for the rest of my life.
Last night, we returned to Mr. Saran in the Ansararn Market (near the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar) after an incredible excursion we booked through him to the Karen Elephant Sanctuary. He discounted our day trip tickets to 1,000 THB (£25) per head, and told us we could opt to visit the Karen Long Neck people for 300 THB (£7.50) and the Mekong Boat Ride for 300 THB if we wished to.
Today, we started our day at 6am, as we were the first to be collected. From our hotel – full review here – we picked up another five groups before making our way north to the province and city of Chiang Rai. After around ninety minutes, we arrived at some hot springs in the mountains. In all honesty, I think the hot springs are a guise for a toilet break and a place to buy food if you need to. We were given around twenty minutes and then were to return to the bus, where we would then drive for another ninety minutes to the White Temple.
If you’re not booking a tour, tickets for foreign visitors cost just 100 THB (£2.50) per head, and there are public buses that can take you to the temple. Our guide purchased our tickets for us and we were given fifty minutes to explore, which I much prefer to being chaperoned as so I have plenty of time to not only photograph a space but to truly absorb the experience for myself. The grounds themselves consist of two main temples, one gold and one white, and another white building that appears to be a mausoleum.
The White Temple is often described as one the most beautiful temple in Chiang Rai, if not in the entire nation of Thailand. As I followed the queues around the ponds that flank it, I was mesmerised by the sheer amount of detail it possessed. There is a strict way of entering and leaving the temple, as you climb the steps over hell and ascend into heaven. Hell is depicted by hands clawing upwards from the ground, skulls and heads apparently screaming in either fear, pain, or both. Enormous sculptures flank the entrance to the White Temple, pointing towards guests as they approach and wielding a knife. I don’t know an awful lot about Buddhist or Thai architecture, but from what I learned in my years of studying that of Catholic Churches and institutions, my interpretation was that it was a way of forcing each guest to confront their own sins, and to bring them to the forefront as they prepare to go and pray to Buddha. Could be wrong though!
Once passed the stone guards, I was struck once again by the ornate detail of each and every part of the balustrades. Mirror is used in very small pieces, making the already blindingly bright building sparkle even more in the Thai sun. At the entrance to the temple itself, you are asked to not photograph the interior and to remove your shoes, as is standard practice in most Buddhist temples. The interior was covered from floor to ceiling in sunset coloured murals depicting the story of Buddha, with gold leaf detailing echoing the gold tiled floors I walked across. The temple interior is very small, so we hurried out to allow room.
Once outside, we followed the crowds around the exterior, and down the steps into the left hand part of the site. Directly behind the White Temple is a large white building in the style of other mausoleums I have seen across Southeast Asia. There wasn’t any information around it, and online most of the information is about the White Temple itself. It is surrounded, at some distance, by white stone posts in a similar style to the bridge of the white temple with sharp, flame-like points that are decorated with mirrored glass.
Further to the left is the Gold Temple, which again is accessed by a bridge that crosses the temple’s moat. Within its walls is an exhibition dedicated to the Buddhist symbol Ganesha.
We returned to our tour group and drove just seconds along the road where we are our complimentary lunch, a Thai buffet. There were lots of staples such as minced pork in tomato and chilli sauce, green curry, various styles of rice and lots of fruits and vegetables. From lunch, we headed towards the Thai-Lao border, with one final stop along the way to visit with the Karen Hill Tribes, more commonly known as the Long Neck Tribes. Much like Chiang Rai, I attempted to visit a group of people who followed this practice whilst I was in Bagan in 2015 to no avail, so I was keen to learn more about their cultures and the meanings behind the rings they wear around their necks and bodies. I will say, once I arrived at the village something felt very uncomfortable to me about the entire situation. I was happy to roam around and watch them work look and see the products they had made, but there was a strange underbelly of people shoving cameras in their faces without asking, guides encouraged you to sit beside the women and be photographed with them, and I can’t explain why but it all just felt a little off to me.
What I learned, however, was that the Long Neck people originated in Myanmar, and some of them have migrated east of the border into Thailand. Our guide explained that there are two stories behind why the women wear their neck rings. The first, that women were chosen to wear the rings to protect their necks from tigers, as they were weaker than men. The second, that men placed them upon women so that they were unable to leave their circles and marry out with them. I know which one I believe.
From the village, we drove the last forty five minutes of the journey to The Golden Triangle, the confluence of the Mekong River flowing to and from three countries: Thailand, Myanmar and Laos. We were driven to the viewpoint, which was home to several temples on the way, and allowed time to overlook the river and the incredible Southeast Asian countryside that surrounds it. It was explained to us there, and on the boat ride that we took along the river, that The Golden Triangle refers to the exchange of gold and opium, weight for weight, between the three nations. Each one uses a different currency (baht, kyat and kip respectively) and so one kilogram of gold was used to pay for one kilogram of opium, and vice versa. We were shown a small island in the centre of the three countries – No Man’s Land – where the trades took place until the Thai government cracked down on the opioid and amphetamine epidemic at the turn of the twenty first century. The perspective of our Thai tour guides was very much that the epidemic was still rife on either sides of their borders, but I’m not entirely sure on the veracity of that statement. The boat then took us over to Laos for thirty minutes to a small market where we were able to shop, watch the water and have some drinks. Afterwards, we piled back into the bus and started the four hour journey home.
Overall, had I know all those years ago just how easy it was to take a quick day trip from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai, I would have done it in a heartbeat. However, I am also very glad that the person I got to experience the city with for the first time was my mum. If you’re in the north of Thailand and are contemplating a day trip, I can’t recommend it to you enough. There were also alternate tours that focused on the Black House, Blue Temple and White Temple as well as seeing the Golden Triangle, so regardless of what you want to see I’m sure you’ll be able to curate a trip that fits your needs.