Chiang Rai is a city and province in Northeastern Thailand, about a 3-hours drive from Chiang Mai. I chose to visit Chiang Rai as a Day Trip from Chiang Mai with hopes to see lots of unique temples. I started the morning with a typical breakfast at a street vendor near my hotel adjacent to the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar.
A small van picked me up, along with a few others, and we set off toward the north. We stopped at a popular rest area about midway to Chiang Mai. The Mae Kachan Hot Spring and Geyser was definitely a tourist trap but it was a nice place to stop for a little break.
Apparently, every single tour group that passes this location makes a stop. It was a pretty place, and you could find everything from fresh grilled Thai sausage, fruits, coffee, and all sorts of souvenirs. Oh, and you have to pay to access the restrooms... I opted for some fresh mango and sticky rice - YUM! I'm still not convinced that the "geyser" was just a pool with a water heater and pump...
Wat Rong Suea Ten - Chiang Rai's "Blue Temple"
Our first stop in Chiang Rai was at Wat Rong Suea Ten, known as the "Blue Temple". While this is a relatively new temple (doesn't have a long history) it truly is stunning! The name "Suen Ten" means dancing tiger and this comes from the fact that tigers would jump the nearby river. The temple has a very vivid blue color with golden accents and many carvings throughout.
If the amazing statues or architectural elements of the exterior haven't wowed you, wait until you see the inside! That vivid blue color is carried throughout, along with gold filigree, ornate portraits, and a magnificently white Buddha in the "earth touching" pose. Even though this is a new structure, it is still inspiring to see this space. There's something about the community coming together to create an amazing place of worship.
Baan Dam Museum - Chiang Rai's "Black House"
Created by the Thai artist Thawan Duchanee, the property consists of about 40 small black houses made of wood, glass, concrete, bricks, or terracotta in a variety of designs and styles. The smattering of structures each contains Thawan's collections of paintings, sculptures, animal bones, skins, horns, and silver and gold items from around the world.
Several of the structures contain elements of Balinese and Burmese architecture and art dating back to the Ayutthaya Period. If you quiver at seeing taxidermy on display, This is definitely not a place for you. The art is absolutely exquisite and the property is very peaceful making it comfortable for an afternoon stroll.
Chiang Rai's Hill Tribe of The Longneck Kayan
After our leisurely stroll through the grounds of the museum, we set off through the Chiang Rai countryside, passing many rice patties along the way. The drive was only about 20 minutes but when we arrived it felt worlds apart.
The Kayan people are originally from Myanmar and consist of a few different subgroups, Kayan Lahwi (also called Padaung) being the most prominent. Many Kayan tribes fled Myanmar in the 1980s and early 1990s due to a military regime that ran the country, which is how some settled in Thailand.
Women of the Kayan tribes identify themselves by their forms of dress. Women of the Kayan Lahwi tribe are well known for wearing neck rings, brass coils that are placed around the neck, appearing to lengthen it. There is lots of speculation as to the reason women wear brass rings.
Hypothesis range from making them less attractive to men, to protecting themselves from tiger attacks since they aren't as strong as men (I'm sure men made this one up). I'm no anthropologist, so I am not sure which is true, but I am glad to see that they are keeping their traditions alive even with the small population at the village I visited.
The village was very primitive and the bamboo structures didn't have a floor. The thatched roofs of the buildings provided much-needed shade. I have to say, it was kind of weird being here... It felt somewhat like a human zoo or maybe akin to what it must have been like to see circus sideshows.
The women were all very humble and quiet. There were women of all ages, kids included, and each did their part to create some unique handmade goods for purchase.
You can find wood-carved figurines, blankets, coin bags, and lots of other knick-knacks. I did buy a couple of things from the village that I proudly display in my home. I really hope the money does go mostly to help them. At least they have solar panels!
Wat Rong Khun - Chiang Rai's "White Temple"
Wat Rong Khun, perhaps better known as the "White Temple", is a privately-owned art exhibit in the style of a Buddhist temple. It is owned by Chalermchai Kositpipat, who designed, constructed, and opened it to visitors in 1997. He has spent over $31M USD to restore the grounds to their current, well-manicured state.
The artist intends for the area adjacent to the temple to be a center of learning and meditation and for people to gain benefit from the Buddhist teachings. Kositpipat considers the temple to be an offering to Buddha and believes the project will give him immortal life. Although the grounds of Wat Rong Khun have a touristic feel, it is still an impressive sight!
Wow, this place is filled with art in many forms and there is lots of symbolism in each of the elements.
The bridge of "the cycle of rebirth": the main building at the white temple, the ubosot, is reached by crossing a bridge over a small lake. In front of the bridge are hundreds of outreaching hands that symbolize unrestrained desire. The bridge proclaims that the way to happiness is by foregoing temptation, greed, and desire. Next to the lake stand two very elegant Kinnaree, half-human, half-bird creatures from Buddhist mythology.
Gate of Heaven: After crossing the bridge, the visitor arrives at the "gate of heaven", guarded by two creatures representing Death and Rahu, who decides the fate of the dead. In front of the ubosot are several meditative Buddha images.
Ubosot: The principal building, the ubosot is an all-white building with fragments of mirrored glass embedded in the building's exterior. The ubosot embodies design elements from classic Thai architecture such as the three-tiered roof and abundant use of Naga serpents. We weren't allowed to take any photos inside but it is quite the contrast from the all-white exterior. The interior has an unusual mix of murals of flames and demonic faces with added elements of popular culture and war. The overall theme appears to be that humans can be evil, but you should interpret it when you see it for yourself.
The golden building: A structure that stands out because of its color is the restroom building. Another very ornately decorated structure, this golden building represents the body, whereas the white ubosot represents the mind. The gold symbolizes how people focus on worldly desires and money. The white building represents the idea to make merit and to focus on the mind, instead of material things and possession. So fancy...
It appears that Chiang Rai is investing private funding to help drive tourism from the more famous Chiang Mai; it is obviously working because it got me to go. However, I really do like genuine history, although I do appreciate the artistry and creativity that went into many of the structures I saw. This was only a day trip so I am sure there is so much more to Chiang Rai than what I experienced, so I encourage you to check it out sometime!
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