Chiang Rai greeted us with overpriced restaurants and the return of the flesh trade. Ahh, the old familiar sight of an overweight western man with a young Thai girl on his arm. We weren’t ready for the city yet and so with Chiang Rai tailing behind us we rode far out of town on a hired scooter. Enjoying the wind in our hair, or beard as it may be, and feeling more peaceful as the town gave way to small pockets of villages and a mighty load of green in the palette. After riding way to far and stopping for a delicious bowl of roadside soup we finally doubled back and found our goal. The aptly named ‘white temple’. Begun twelve years previous and continuing to be built by a famous Thai artist called Ajarn Chalermchai Kositpipat, Wat Rong Khung or the ‘white temple’ is a masterpiece. Assisted by sixty artisans the temple is Ajarn’s life’s work which he intends to continue till he dies and will be completed by his disciples after he is gone. Funded entirely out of his own funds the temple is extremely modern and amazing!! With visions of both heaven and hell, were you must walk the path of the dark to get the light, and incredibly intricate paintings and sculptures, all the details are immaculate. When finished it will be an entire complex of temples where even the toilet is incredible detailed and beautiful.
Winding our way back towards Chiang Rai we turned off towards a waterfall to complement the peaceful day. A gorgeous ride through small villages and into the jungle we left the bike and hiked a small distance to a big, cooling waterfall. The spray was fierce and we admired the way a parade of big caterpillars were making their way up a giant tree to become chrysalis’ near the top. Laughing in the face of the waterfall which was constantly berating them.
After spending far too much on a single drink at a cool little Rasta bar we stumbled upon a little tattoo shop hidden away on the corner. We were greeted with a hearty “good morning!” as we walked past by an energetic Thai man with his fair share of tattoos in the process of making awesome popcorn on a concrete fire bucket the same same as the one in Alack’s home. Conversation flowed over a couple of beers, in the circle of logs was a young Canadian who was volunteering at a school in the local Akha village teaching english and a couple of locals. We got to talking about the ‘white temple’ and were told about another temple complex built by another famous Thai artist called the ‘black temple’. It was purposefully difficult to find with no room for tour buses to enter and no english signs to discourage all but the most enthusiastic of art buffs. We decided immediately that this was something we had to find and will tell you all about it in another episode.
After our amazing experience in Luang Namtha and getting a real look into the life of the hill tribes we were considering a little more cultural immersion. Before booking anything in we decided to visit the hilltribe museum to get some more detailed information about the history and the culture of the region. As the central research facility into the hilltribes the museum had a plethora of information about the various tribal cultures in Thailand. One such group which is plugged incessantly in tour companies is the long necks. The tribes we have all seen in National Geographic with the metal bands around their necks, stretching their heads far above their shoulders. This tribe is also one of the most exploited we were quick to learn. Originating in Burma the women of the tribe are accepted into Thailand as refugees only if they take up residence in villages which are constructed by businessmen in the hills of northern Thailand. They are forced to remain there as a sideshow for visiting tourists. The villages are built to resemble a real village, but are entirely fabricated. The remnants of the Golden Triangle’s famous opium trade has also degraded the cultures of the tribes, as the opium turned to amphetamines coming from Burma and China, the number of addicts have risen and a lot of the traditional culture has disappeared. Almost no money goes to the hilltribes when tourists visit for a homestay or a tour, unlike Laos which has laws in place to ensure money goes to the right places. Our mind was soon changed and we no longer wished to visit any more hilltribes.
We decided to move on and check out the”culture capital of the north”, Chiang Mai. On our last night of Chiang Rai we headed back to the tattoo hangout where an invitation for vegetarian BBQ was taken advantage of. More popcorn and beer was popped open and soon music was in the air as Mr Morning played his violin like a banjo accompanied by the laid back strums of his friend.
Chiang Mai was a tour wonderland with every man and his dog trying to sell a hill tribe adventure or animal spectacular. But we hadn’t the stomach for the exploitation of ether animals or humans. Although the insect museum did look cool (Is it wrong to exploit insects?) Instead we wondered the maze like alleys of the ancient capital of Sukho Thai. Whistling at birds in cages, waving at kids at school, looking at art galleries and temples (oh really) and found a fantastic english fry up breakfast. But the forest was calling and plans were made to venture forth.