After my stint being a Chiang Mai local, I felt it was time to act be a tourist again and see what everyone else was coming here to see. I had originally planned to stay in Chiang Rai for a couple of days but changed my mind because they only thing I really wanted to see there was Wat Rong Khun, the White Temple, which could be done on a day tour. I chose one where I could combine seeing the White Temple and the Golden Triangle – talk about killing two birds with one stone!
I was picked up at 7am by my vivacious guide Sara, who I think used to be a Steven. I'd see a few ladyboys around Chiang Mai but it definitely wasnt as prominent as in the south of Thailand. There's always that initial awkward moment with ladyboys, standing in front of you is a girl with a deep voice and big hands. Nonetheless, Sara was lovely and had this thick, lucious hair I could only dream of having. As we drove along the busy highway towards Chiang Rai she gave us a lowdown of the history of North Thailand. We were smack in the centre of the Lanna Kingdom, a fact that people from the North like to remind us of. It's like they prefer to say they're Lanna people instead of Thai people, which I guess would be a similar rivalry to people from NSW and QLD. We drove for about and hour and a half before having a quick stop at a small hot spring. It was more of a large market that had a tiny but smelly hot spring in the centre of it. I tracked down an iced coffee to wake me up and chatted to some of the others in the group. We were a mixed bunch from all over but the conversation was the same. "Where are you from", "How long have you been travelling for?", "Where to next". It's such a predictable conversation between travellers, but I guess it's always a good way to break the ice.
Jumping back in the van we drove for another hour or so before reaching Wat Rong Khun or more commonly known as the White temple. It was one of those rare occasions where you see something in real life that you've been looking at online and you're still impressed with what you see. The huge, intricately designed temple glowed under the clear, blue sky. We'd arrived at the perfect time, the clouds had cleared and honestly it hurt to look at this giant structure in front of us, the white was blinding.
Wat Rong Khun is the masterpiece by local artist Chaloemchai Kositpipat. After years of the temple being abandoned, Kositpipat decided to reconstruct the temple, as an offering to Buddha. Kositpipat vision is simple, one must overcome hell (the cycle of death and rebirth) to reach heaven and nirvana. Instead of the traditional temples, ornate with gold trimmings, Kositpipat has used white to cover the exterior of the main hall, symbolising the purity of Buddha and fragments of glistening mirror to reflect his wisdom. To reach the main hall, visitors must cross a bridge over the 'sea of suffering' which is represented by hundreds of ghostly hands reaching out in eerie desperation, personifying untamed desire and greed. Once past the sea of suffering, it gets even more interesting.
Instead of intricately designed, golden arcs and arches inside the main hall, Wat Rong Khun is emblazoned with an unusual juxtaposition of Buddha and pop culture references, such as Superman and Michael Jackson. It's a strange contrast, which drew controversy amongst the Thai people for disprecting the Buddhist faith, however its a clever move to attract the younger generation towards the temple. By using modern images, Kositpipat has given a cool new outlook on the faith, attracting not only thousands of tourists but the younger Thai generation.
I wandered around the temple complex, completely smitten with the tiny details, like the small skulls lining the fence posts, the Marvel superheroes sporadically popping up around the place and the shimmering silver prayer charms that hung from the roof of the walkway. Even the bathroom was this grand golden building that could have easily been mistaken for another temple! The only bad part of the temple was the hordes of tourists around the place, if I'd stayed in Chiang Rai overnight I could have gone earlier to avoid the crowds but it was just too easy to go with a tour and be led around.
After about an hour and a half at the temple, we jumped back in the van to our next destination. We had a quick stop at a hill tribe village which didnt feel authentic at all! It was basically a set-up of huts filled with touristy souvenirs. I'd heard about the exploitation of hill tribes and it suddenly was very apparent. The rest of the group had the same thought as me and it was a quick walk through the 'village' before getting back in the van to go towards the Golden Triangle. It was another hour or so and we were getting close to the borders of Myanmar and Laos. It was pretty exciting actually, even though the Golden Triangle is such a popular tourist hotspot, it felt like we were crossing foreign borders! I don't know, perhaps that's just my inner geography nerd coming out!
Stopping for lunch first, we had a buffet style meal before heading up to a lookout that gave us a perfect view of the Golden Triangle. Fun fact – the Golden Triangle has been one of the most extensive opium-producing areas in the world and as a result, most of the heroin in the world came from here. This was until the early 21st century when Afghanistan took over and became the worlds largest producer. The Thai people are quick to abolish rumours that opium is still produced this far north. They say that the late King came to North Thailand to negotiate deals with illegal opium farmers. In exchange of changing their crops to something less damaging as opium – such as tropical fruits – these farmers who are usually also refugees, will receive Thai citizenship. It seemed like a sweet deal however fruits and vegetables don't bring on quite the profit as opium once did so it's believed that undercover opium sales are still occurring, mainly on Myanmar's borders though. This is proven by evidence that opium production has tripled since 2006 however as it seems to not be officially on Thai soil but criss-crossing between the waters of the Mekong, the locals are pressing hard to spread word that North Thailand is out of the opium trade.
We took our obligatory photos with the view of the Mekong River and looked out to the grassy plains of Myanmar and Laos. It's funny to thing that just a stretch of water separates these countries, but I guess its not different to an imaginary line that make up land border crossings. Some of the group took the boat cruise along the Mekong that stopped on the edges of each of these countries. The rest of us stayed behind and wandered around the markets surrounding the area. From the tourists eye, the Golden Triangle seemed like one big tourist trap, though it was interesting to think that all around us was potentially one of the biggest drug trades in the world!
After the rest of the group got back from their tri-country boat ride we got back in the van and headed south to Chiang Mai. It was a long drive and we didn't get back until about 9:30pm. It was a big day and I was glad to be back in my little apartment for a solid nights sleep! Tomorrow I head to Doi Inthanon National Park to go to the highest point in Thailand!