1YoT: Chiang Rai, the Golden Triangle, and the White Temple

Inna and I were on the fence about going to Chiang Rai. Sure, there’s an amazing temple outside of town, but the city didn’t seem to have much else, so we considered doing it as a day trip from Chiang Mai. Then we found an amazing flight from Chiang Rai to Phuket, where we wanted to go next. The flight didn’t operate everyday however, and that gave us extra time in northern Thailand, enough to spend a few nights in Chiang Rai. And let me tell you, we are glad we did.

There was something special about Chiang Rai, something that we enjoyed a lot. The city was simple, the sites unspectacular, even the food wasn’t as good as the rest of the country, but even so we really enjoyed our time here. I think it was that the city was super relaxing, very friendly and artsy, and we enjoy those things a lot.

As an example of how artsy this city was, check out the hotel we stayed at. So colorful, so fun! This was one of our favorite hotels on our trip.

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Chiang Rai had lots of awesome businesses, like a massage place where we got acupressure massages (they may be psuedoscience but we don’t care, because it felt awesome) and, even better, a cat cafe! 

I am allergic to cats so we couldn’t stay long, but even so, we really enjoyed this place. All the cats were owned by the cafe owner, who seemed to take really good care of them. And check out the cat in the bottom photograph, the one with one blue and one brown eye. Is this normal? I thought it was awesome.

Another business we found was this amazing Dutch deli. We were so excited to find this place, because as good as Thai food is, it was nice to have high-quality western food for a change (Chiang Rai had a surprisingly strong international influence, at least compared to the rest of Thailand).

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Lets see, what else did Chiang Rai have to offer? Well, we found this mosque, by far the most beautiful mosque we’ve seen since Malaysia and Indonesia.

Like the rest of Southeast Asia, Chiang Rai had a great night market. We actually bought several things here, like the shirt I’m wearing above. 

This is Chiang Rai’s Clocktower, the most famous site in the city. The clocktower itself isn’t too spectacular, but every night it lights up in different colors, the lighting choreographed to music. It reminded me of the Magic Fountain of Montjuic, and even if it wasn’t quite that spectacular, it was awesome.

Because we had extra time in Chiang Rai, we were able to explore the surrounding areas. For our first stop, we visited the Golden Triangle. This area, ~40 miles northeast of the city, is located at the confluence of the Mekong and Ruak rivers, and marks a portion of Thailand’s northernmost border.

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This confluence doesn’t just form a border for Thailand, it also forms a border for Myanmar and Laos. Basically, Thailand lies southwest of the two rivers, Laos lies northeast, and Myanmar lies between the two. This pretty much the same situation as the more famous Argentina/Paraguay/Brazil Triple Frontier, which Inna and I visited on our honeymoon!

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Here it is, the Golden Triangle. We are in Thailand, the V-shaped land to the left is Myanmar, and the land to the right is Laos. I love how you can see where the water from the two rivers meet; I think it looks really cool.

In addition to being an interesting geological/geopolitical landscape, the Golden Triangle has one other claim to fame: it used to be the largest opium producing region in the world. However, thanks to eradication campaigns, opium production has been reduced by more than 70% in this area in the last twenty years.

Having now explored the Golden Triangle, there were two places left worth visiting outside Chiang Rai: the Black and White Temples. Unfortunately, we didn’t make it to the Black Temple (by far the less spectacular of the two) but we did visit the White Temple and it was awesome.

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Inna and I have never seen a temple like this, before or since. This temple, technically named Wat Rong Khun, was built by local artist Chalermchai Kositpipat and opened to the public in 1997. The temple cost 40 million THB ($1.2 million) to construct, all paid for by Kositpipat, who built it as an offering to Lord Buddha, a service he believes will bring him immortal life.

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The architecture of the White Temple, a modern and unconventional version of Hindu and Buddhist architecture, is often compared to the works of Gaudi and Dali. It is stunning, with the white color making it even more beautiful.

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Here is some detail work, which hopefully shows how intricate this temple is. All the silver pieces are mirrors, mirrors that allow the temple to sparkle and shine in the sun.

The journey into this temple depicts Buddhist beliefs about rebirth. To explain: the outstretched arms represent unrestrained desire, which are kept at bay outside the temple, as happiness is only achieved by foregoing these temptations. After bypassing these desires, the visitor is brought to the Gates of Heaven, just outside the entrance to the temple. Here, the visitor’s fate is decided by creatures waiting there.

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The entrance to the temple (ie the Gates of Heaven), just beyond the bridge over unrestrained desire. I guess the creatures here decided my and everyone’s fate positively, as we were allowed to enter. Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside, but let me tell you, the imagery was very strange. Specifically: the walls are covered by murals depicting war, terrorism, and pop-culture icons, all delivering the message that people are wicked. 

Finally, here are back and side views of the temple. This temple actually was quite large, and that combined with its ornateness made it difficult to photograph the entire building at once.

In addition to the main temple, the plans for Wat Rong Khun consist of nine buildings, the ultimate purpose of the complex being a center for learning, mediation, and Buddhism. The whole project, or at least the artists ambition for the project, reminded us of Crazy Horse in South Dakota.

Of the nine buildings, some have been constructed while others have not. As shown above, several of the additional buildings are yellow instead of white, as yellow represents the body, while white represents the mind. Knowing this, it makes sense for the temple to be white, but don’t think the yellow buildings are any less important, for the building pictured upper-left contains the complex’s bathrooms, and when you have to go to the bathroom, there’s nothing more important than that.

The grounds of Wat Rong Khun are also beautiful, the most striking feature being the thousands of keys on display. Unfortunately, I forgot what the keys represent, but they definitely represent something.

Finally, just outside the complex, we found these statues: of Iron Man, Predator, and I don’t know who the ones hanging from the tree are supposed to be. These statues were cool and I guess they go with the murals inside the temple, but even so, they felt really out of place here.

With this, we come to the end of our visit to the White Temple, and with it the end of our visit to Chiang Rai. So, what’s next on our Thailand plate?

Well, by this point, Inna and I have done temples, palaces, ruins, elephants, bikes, massages, shopping, food, iced tea, floating markets, night markets, and more, and that is pretty much everything Thailand has to offer. But there’s still one Thai-must we haven’t done yet: the beach! And so, we left Chiang Rai by plane heading south, to Thailand’s major tropical beach destination: the Andaman Coast!

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