After three months, our loop through Southeast Asia has come full circle, to the black-hole of good times…Thailand. We left northern Laos from the Huay Suay border caught a boat across the river then a bus to Chiang Rai, of recent White Temple fame (pictured above). Thailand has such rich history but the draw to this town is its modern architectural additions. One of the country’s most revered artists, Chalermchai Kositpipat, is from Chiang Rai and in 1996 he decided to build his greatest masterpiece in his hometown and many other artists have followed suit…giving Chaing Rai a edgy little architecture scene that’s worth checking out.
The gems of Chiang Rai are outside of the city center so we rented a good old $7 motorbike and started to explore the region. After being out of Thailand a few months, we forgot about the ever-present Rama #9! Images of King Bhumibol, Thailand’s longest reigning monarch and one of the world’s richest royals, are everywhere in the country so when we saw this familiar billboard, we had to get a selfie with his highness!
We arrived to Wat Rong Khun, or popularly called the White Temple, and it was so over-the-top it was dazzling. Kositpipat says he wanted his Buddhist temple complex to be an imitation of heaven, and spared no expense to make it worthy. There is barely a square inch that is unadorned and without religious symbolism….read here for a detailed explanation from the artist.
To add to the total fantasy and surreal quality of this temple, the interior walls tell the stories of Buddhism with the help of superheroes, movie stars and cartoons. (Yea that’s Kung Foo Panda, a Rolex and a rocket ship.) Artists were still working on the frescoes while we were there and after recent events there is even more work to be done….On May 5th, 2014 a massive earthquake hit the area and severely damaged the temple and the building is now closed indefinitely! Upon hearing the devastating news, the distraught artist was on the verge of demolishing the entire temple but instead has committed as long as it takes to repair his life’s work and legacy.
Since the recent earthquake visitors can only visit the outside of Wat Rong Khun and pay their respects from a distance and give offerings. This silver leaf is one of thousands dangling from a series of prayer trees…We are sure its boughs are full of wishes for a speedy architectural recovery!
We returned to town and beelined for the night market. The food in this region is known for its extra spicy kick and a unique blend of styles from the nearby hill tribes and Myanmar exiles. Looking around the sea of tables, this clay hot pot dinner seemed to be the popular choice. We ordered our basket of veggies and cooked them in our own pot of broth..delish!
Chang Rai is pretty touristy and sadly wherever the tourists are in Thailand, seedy bars will follow. Rant: The fact that Thailand allows sex tourism to flourish and that sicko-westerners are creating the demand for it makes us absolutely ill!
Anyhooo. The area around Chiang Mai has a bunch of nice outdoorsy options like rock climbing, biking, hot springs, and waterfalls. We got a good recommendation to take the hike to Kun Korn Falls about 15 km south of town and an easy stroll through a lush forest led us to this beautiful 70-meter waterfall and happening local hangout.
We met a lovely Dutch couple Bas and Myrthe (the Dutch are always the sweetest!) at the waterfalls and decided on a little road-trip to Baan Dam, aka The Black House. What probably should have been a 30 minute drive turned into a two hour conquest…asking locals for directions and somehow always winding up on a dead-end street. By our third dead-end, we had to snap this photo to document our laughable back-roads tour.
At last, we made it the Baan Dam! The architect studied under Kositpipat and it seemed like he made the Black House as a direct rebuttal to the heavenly White Temple. Themes of death and decay were everywhere, namely in the form of skulls, hides, daggers, skins, and a toilet in the center of the main house….though somehow it was done beautifully. It’s an interesting place, if you can figure out how to get here.
We thought Chiang Rai was a great stopover from Northern Laos to Thailand or a side trip from Chiang Mai…what do you think?