Chiang Rai to Huay Xai

After three weeks in Sri Lanka, Thailand (and its refined tourism) was a welcome change. For a couple of days anyway.

As this was our fifth visit to Thailand, we decided to fly straight into Chiang Rai for a quick stopover before crossing the border into Laos. With a mental list of our favourite Thai dishes committed to memory we set out to eat each one in the two full days we had- massaman, chicken cashew, thai green curry,  phad thai and mango sticky rice. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to tick off khao soi, which is apparently difficult to find outside of Chiang Mai.

Chiang Rai, while not as popular as its neighbour Chiang Mai, has a handful of sights to keep visitors amused. We found two particularly memorable:

The White Temple

How to describe this creation by Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat? The word tacky springs to mind, but let me elaborate.

At first sight the White Temple is a thing of beauty, totally covered in white plaster and mirrors reflecting the morning sun.

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Upon closer inspection you begin to realise that this is no traditional wat. With demon-like sculptures at the entrance and arms protruding upwards as you cross the bridge, the ‘temple’ only gets stranger the deeper you look. Inside, the farthest walls are painted with Buddhist imagery, while those close to the entrance include demons intermingled with pop culture references and commentary on modern day events, like a gas bowser protruding from the twin towers. We wish photography was allowed inside so we could show you the odd depictions of Buddah alongside darth vader, angry birds, sailor moon and even Keanu Reeves in The Matrix.

We left thinking that the White Temple was more an art project with hints of Buddhist idealogy and architecture than a temple. Either way, it is definitely worth a visit.

The Golden Triangle

Roughly a two hour drive from Chiang Rai is the Golden Triangle, the place where the borders of Thailand,  Laos and Myanmar meet. To an Australian the concept of being able to see three countries at once is a very foreign one indeed.

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Why ‘The Golden Triangle’ you ask? It is so named because of its history as Asia’s largest opium growing area (recently it was overtaken by Afghanistan). Opuim was called black gold and it generated a substantial amount of wealth for the region. These days Thailand, under pressure from the US, has cracked down on poppy fields however we saw a small field in Laos where Niall was also offered ‘good opium’ by a friendly chap on the street. So of course it makes sense that the Golden Triangle now has an opium musuem.

The romantic poets of the nineteenth century were fond of the stuff. That was about the extent of my knowledge prior to visiting the musuem so I found it a particularly interesting excursion.

But the true highlight of our fleeting visit to Chiang Rai was the bus out of there. Its not how it sounds. After being quoted 2000 baht for a car to take us to the Laos border we opted for a 65 baht each local bus ride. Walking towards the station the bus driver spotted us with our backpacks and kindly stopped the bus, stuck his head out and motioned for us to run across the road and jump aboard. So we did with a khop khun ka.

The next two hours, while chilly, were filled with beautiful scenes of green rice paddies, occassional cliffs and rural life in northern Thailand. In fact, if you ever have a spare day in Chiang Rai we’d recommend getting a bus to Chiang Khong and back.

After getting dropped at a junction we jumped in the back of a tuk tuk and headed for the border. If there’s one thing you’ll learn in Laos it’s patience. It is not a fast paced way of life here. It is however wonderfully relaxing if you learn to go with it.

The border crossing was our first encounter with Laos’ lacking sense of urgency.  After a quick stamp on the Thai side, we caught a bus across the Friendship Bridge, lined up for our visa and immigration forms, lined up again to hand them in, lined up again to pay for our visa and finally made our way through the checkpoint. Just one more tuk tuk and we were in Huay Xai. Hooray!

Huay Xai is a small town that predominately sells tickets onwards to Luang Prabang. That night we enjoyed a nice BeerLao and dinner watching the sunset over the Mekong. Being sure to rise early the next day, we watched as the local monks silently made their way down the street to collect food offerings. Afterwards they stopped in line to sing a blessing together, which was amazing to hear. It was certainly a great way to start our day.

Next up, zipping through the Bokeo forest!

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