Theresa and I returned this morning from a three-day visit to Chiang Rai with more stories than I can possibly put into one posting. So, today I’ll provide a quick, abbreviated rundown of our trip with more detail and many more pictures (we took over 600) to come in the days and weeks ahead.
We left Don Muang Airport in Bangkok at 7:45 a.m. on Saturday and were on the ground in Chiang Rai just after 9 a.m. Our local Nissan dealer arranged for his secretary and driver to meet us at the airport, and they took us to the Chiang Rai Le Meridien to check in and grab a quick breakfast.
By 10 a.m., we were on the road in a 2011 Nissan Teana with the driver and our tour guide, Khun Oui. Khun Oui is a native of Chiang Rai, he speaks English very well, he went to the local university, and he knows the geography, history and culture of Northern Thailand.
Our first stop was the White Temple or Wat Rong Khun. The White Temple is a Buddhist Temple that was designed, built, and paid for by Chalermchai Kositpipat, a well-known Thai artist. Unlike traditional temples, the exterior of Wat Rong Krun is all white and replete with artistic impressions. The temple compound is still under construction – the temple itself still has ornamentation that has not been completed and the frame of a new building is on its way up. The project began 14 years ago, it covers 4 acres and will have nine building when complete. Chalermchai has made no commitment on when it will be done. However, many estimate that it will be 60 or 70 more years to complete, and Chalermchai has trained over 50 disciples who will continue work on it until it is finished.
From Wat Rong Khun, we went to Mea Fah Luang Art and Culture Park. Mea Fah Luang means “Royal Mother of the Sky” and is a reference to Srinagarinda, the mother of the current King of Thailand (King Bhumipol Adulyadej or Rama IX); she is also referred to as The Princess Mother. The art and culture park was conceived and developed by the Princess Mother in 1977 and it occupies over 50 acres near Chiang Rai.
After leaving the art and culture park, we stopped at a local restaurant for lunch. Khun Oui ordered for us and we had several dishes that are typical of northern Thai cuisine. After lunch, we made a brief stop at the clock tower in Chiang Rai that was also created by Chalermchai and then a short visit to Wat Phra Kaew.
The Emerald Buddha currently resides in the Golden Palace in Bangkok, but it has been moved around southeast Asia numerous times in the past 2,000 years. It was constructed from solid jade in India around 43 B.C. It was moved to Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and from there to Cambodia where it resided at Angkor Wat until the Thailand captured Angkor Wat in 1432. The Emerald Buddha was taken to various locations in Laos and Thailand and ultimately was hidden in a chedi (a place where sacred artifacts are stored) in Chiang Rai. The story goes that when the chedi was hit by lightning, the Emerald Buddha was found and then taken to Lampang and Chiang Mai. From the mid 1500s to the late 1700s, it was held in Laos before finally being returned to Thailand.
After leaving Wat Phra Kaew, we headed to Baan Dam or the Black House, home of Thawan Duchanee, Thailand’s national artist. While the first building that you see (out of about 40 or more) looks like a temple (see picture below), there is nothing religious about the compound. The artist lives and works here in buildings that are almost all painted black (three white igloo-like structures are the main exception). Thawan seems to use animal skins and bones, particularly horns, in most, if not all, of his work.
We were back at the hotel by about 4:30, in time for a quick pre-dinner swim. We had a fabulous dinner at Favola, the Italian restaurant at the Le Meridien, with the local Nissan dealer who also owns the hotel.
On Sunday, we were back in the Teana at 9 p.m. with a very long day ahead of us. The first stop was Doi Tung or Flag Mountain (Doi translates as Mountain and Tung as Flag). Doi Tung is in the northern mountains of Thailand, about 40 miles north of Chiang Rai and about 1 mile from the border with Myanmar (Burma.) The Princess Mother built a Royal Villa at Doi Tung, her first and only permanent residence in Thailand, so that she could oversee the development project that she began when she was 88 years old.
The main objective for the Princess Mother’s project was to reforest the mountains of Thailand that had been left bare from over-harvesting of teak wood and the slash and burn farming practices of the hill tribes. At the time, the hill tribe people were growing poppies for opium production and many became addicted to the drug themselves. The Princess Mother understood that a holistic approach was needed to provide economic alternatives for the hill people through reforestation of the denuded hills and the introduction of economically-viable crops such as coffee and macadamia nuts.
The compound in Doi Tung consists of a Royal Villa where the princess mother lived and worked, fabulous gardens, and a Hall of Inspiration.
We spent the entire morning at Doi Tung, and then headed northeast to Mae Sai, the northernmost part of Thailand. At Mae Sai, we visited a jade factory that creates jewelry and statues from jade, rubies and sapphires that come from Myanmar. We saw the friendship bridge that crosses the Mae Sai River and that links Thailand with Myanmar. There was a steady flow of foot and vehicle traffic between Mae Sai and Tachileik, Myanmar. The border is open for about 12 hours each day and people, including foreigners, can easily go back and forth. While we did not go into Myanmar, if we had we would have surrendered our passports for an entry permit and then gotten our passports back when we returned to Thailand from Myanmar.
From Mae Sai, we headed east about 20 miles to Thailand’s Golden Triangle. We arrived at the Hall of Opium shortly before 4 p.m. and spent about 90 minutes going through the exhibitions. The museum opened in 2005 and it provides fascinating stories on how opium is produced, some historical context of the drug, and its spread throughout the world. Prior to this visit, I didn’t know anything about the Opium Wars, and I think that it is no exaggeration to state that much of the drug problem that the world faces today can be laid at the feet of the 19th century British and French.
From the Opium Museum we headed to the confluence of the Ruak and Mekong Rivers. From this vantage point, we could see across the Mekong into Laos and across the Ruak into Myanmar.
Two interesting anecdotes — first, gambling is illegal in Thailand but not in the bordering countries. Thus, casinos are the most prominent buildings across the Ruak (in Myanmar) and the Mekong (in Laos) and are easily reached by boat from the Thai side of the river. Second, there is a huge statue of Buddha on the river and at this statue there are benches that are sponsored by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration complete with the website — dea-rewards.com — where you can leave a tip (in English, Thai or Chinese) and get a reward if you know anything of value to them.
Before heading back to the hotel, we continued east to Chiang Saen, a port city on the Mekong that dates back to the early 1300s. For protection, the city had the Mekong river on one side and walls protected by moats on the other three sides. I doubt if the moats had alligators in them (although I expect that President Obama would know!) but I would not be surprised if they contained nagas (cobras.) While the walls have crumbled over time, you can still see where they once stood as well as where the moats ran. Parts of the local temple, Wat Chedi Luang, also date back to the 1200s and are still used today. The temple’s chedi, however, was damaged by the earthquake that struck Myanmar about a week after the large earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in March.
On Monday, we were again on the road by 9 a.m., but this time in a heavy downpour. We drove north for 30 minutes and then west for another 30 minutes. We arrived at a village settlement that had several hundred people from four of the hill tribes. The hill tribes are people who migrated from Tibet and China into Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos over the past several centuries. They are not citizens of Thailand but are allowed to live in Thailand under control of and supervision by the local authorities. We saw a number of police checkpoints during our trips, and Khun Oui explained that they are supposed to stop suspected smugglers and keep the hill tribe people from going to places where they are not permitted.
We made our way up a rain-slickened red clay path to a small village that is home to about 150 Akha people. We were invited into one of the huts where two men showed us their home. The homes are very basic — one large room, bamboo-woven walls, a dirt floor, and a thatched roof. The homes do have electricity; the one that we saw had a single fluorescent tube for lighting as well as a TV and DVD player for entertainment.
After visiting this home, we headed out into the rain and down toward a second village that is home to people from the Lahu, Karen, and Padong (long neck) Karen tribes. The tribes can be distinguished from each other by their dress. Unlike the Akha, the three tribes in the second village lived in homes built on stilts. Beneath their homes, they stored firewood and kept animals. Homes on stilts also provide protection from animals and from flooding from nearby creeks.
Along the way, we passed multiple shops where the local tribal women were selling handicrafts, and we came back with many souvenirs and keepsakes. Perhaps most precious of all was the memory of the two little girls who accompanied us back up the hill to our cars. While we couldn’t understand each other, their smiles were universal.
The rain had ended by the time we left the tribal villages. We continued driving toward Myanmar through the hills and mountains of Northern Thailand. The drive reminded me very much of being in the White or Green Mountains in New England (sans snow) or the Appalachians in the southern U.S. Breathtaking views and narrow roads that I am still amazed that two vehicles had enough room to pass each other.
Our last stop of our journey was Doi Mae Salong, a mountain town a mile above sea level that was settled by Chinese immigrants who had fled the Communist takeover of China by Mao in 1949. Members of the Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT), they initially fled from China to Burma where they survived by growing opium. In 1961, the Burmese pushed them into Thailand where they were welcomed by the anti-communist Thai government. In the 1970s, the Thai government reached a deal with the battled-tested KMT soldiers that granted the Chinese citizenship in return for fighting the communist rebels in Thailand.
The Chinese immigrants thrived in Doi Mae Salong by cultivating tea. The mountain sides are covered with oolong tea plantations that provide work for many of the hill people. We stopped for tea tastings and toured a local tea plantation and factory.
In honor of the Princess Mother, the Chinese built Chedi Boromathat on top of one of the nearby hills. There are two ways to get to the chedi — drive up an incredibly steep and winding road with many blind turns or walk up 718 steps from Wat Santikhiri. While there may be two ways, there is really only one viable option and the Teana handled it with ease!
We flew back to Bangkok today with many fond memories, a ton of pictures, lots of stories, and many souvenirs. I will post the stories and pictures as time permits over the next several weeks.
I’m back to work in the morning but on Saturday we take off to Germany and Switzerland for a week.
Kop Khun Krab.
© 2011 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.