After a quick pit stop back in Bangkok to trade Gil’s mom for Jen’s parents, we flew up to Chiang Rai. We descended through luscious green mountains to land in a quiet little city that introduced us to the relaxed pace and friendliness that characterizes Northern Thailand.
Chiang Rai has a great night market with handicrafts from the local tribal communities, classic dance and music performances and stalls selling local cuisine. The food wasn’t particularly appealing to us (fried crickets, anyone?), but we did enjoy the entertainment and the cold pitchers of beer.
To learn more about the people who create the lovely goods we saw at the market, we visited the Hill Tribe Museum, which presented information about the culture of the various ethnic groups that live in the area. It was interesting to learn about the traditions of the Hmong, Karen, Akha and other tribal groups and about the challenges they face today in preserving their way of life. Most of the hill tribe people have migrated here from their native lands, as have thousands of Chinese. As it was nearing Chinese New Year’s, we got to see families presenting meals as offerings, lighting firecrackers, and undergoing other preparations for the big event.
There are some lovely temples in Chiang Rai, both ancient and modern. The most impressive one is situated about 15 kilometers south of the city. Nicknamed the White Temple, this work in progress is designed by a man who became an internationally recognized modern artist, and then returned to his local community to erect the monument. Standing tall in gleaming white and adorned with delicate embellishments, it glows like a bride on her wedding day. But this temple is not innocent and blissful, but rather presents a complex interpretation of the cosmos and the Buddhists journey toward enlightenment. On approaching the temple, you are greeted by red skulls surrounding a bottle of alcohol, warning you of the perils of not following the Buddhist precepts. You then step across a bridge spanning over ghostly arms reaching to pull you down into hell. Inside the temple, the back wall depicts a soulless science fiction future illustrated by scenes from the Matrix and an image of the Twin Towers burning, among other images. Finally, after you’ve been reminded of all the suffering that can be relieved by nirvana, you are confronted with a radiant image of the Buddha, painted in bright pastels and swirling brush strokes and reminiscent of something you might have had hung in your dorm room under a black light. It was very fresh and very different and seemed to give an ancient religion new relevance in this quickly modernizing society.
We rented a car and driver to take us to the border town of Mai Sai, where we needed to cross into Myanmar to renew our Thai visa waiver for another 30 days. We saw very little of Myanmar, but if it is representative of the rest of the country, the country consists mostly of bootleg videos, cheap cigarettes, dried mushrooms and other junk from China. Mai Sai didn’t have much more to offer, but we do get to say we’ve been the northern most point in Thailand and the Golden Triangle, the historic center of the opium trade.
Much more interesting was the countryside we passed through on the way to the Golden Triangle. We stopped at a cave temple frequented by mischievous monkeys and drove up into the mountains to visit the summer home of the King’s mother. She wanted to influence the lives of the hill tribe people by bringing them needed medical care and supporting agricultural initiatives to wean them out of the opium business. We were humbled by the relative modesty of her Swiss-style chalet, and stunned by the intricacy of her gardens, which included an orchid laboratory, rock garden and hundreds of fountains.
On the way home, our driver’s break neck speed slowed to a crawl as we tried to reach Mae Salong, a Chinese village nestled in the mountains. He yelled for us to get out, and suddenly we were running after the sputtering car. We finally reached a tea plantation, where we gave the car a rest and devised a plan to get the rest of the way to the village (two at a time). Given our troubles, we didn’t get to do much in the town other than taste some local teas (accompanied by fried bamboo worms), but it was a beautiful journey nonetheless.