We had wondered why there was a group of damp tourists, huddling under umbrellas, looking hopefully up at the clock tower. It was dark and raining hard, but as the hands moved to 8pm we found our answer. The elaborate golden clock tower was suddenly illuminated with changing coloured lights accommpanied by a cheesy backing soundtrack of traditional Thai music. Imagine a clock tower sponsored by Disney and you have the picture. The group of tourists took their photos and pointed while we went to find some delicious street food nearby. Tasty chicken rice tick. Clock tower illuminations show tick…I think we were going to like Chiang Rai.
We had found a cheap and clean room at Baan Bua guest house in the centre of town, within easy walking distance from the bus station, and set about exploring. Our first stop was the Hill Tribe Museum. Having been to a few museums in asia so far, all of which were average at best, we had low expectations. However this one turned out to have some really interesting displays on the different minority groups in the area, their customs, dress, language and also on the link between the hill tribes and the opium trade… which is still practiced in some communities today (however a little more secretly than in the past).
The next stop on the sightseeing trail of chiang-rai was the black house. A museum/art gallery of works by a local artist called Thawan Duchanee. This guy clearly has a fascination with the dark and morbid, and has created lots of different furniture and sculptures using odds and ends of dead animals…. think snake skin, animal hides, antlers and hooves! The macabre beauty is undeniable, however we couldn’t help but feel like we had stepped into a Game of Thrones set….
And now for something completely different… another local thai artist, another man with a love of the macabre, however this time all in White…
Undoubtedly Chiang-Rai’s most famous attraction the White temple (or Wat Rong Khun to be precise) is the brain child of the Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat. This Buddhist temple is unlike any other temple we have seen before… in fact unlike any religious building we have ever seen. From a distance it is stunningly beautiful.. the white paint is almost blinding and the highly ornate carving is instantly visible. However the closer you look, it is clear that all is not as it seems. As you enter the temple you are greeted by a sea of hands reaching out from the underworld, including one giving you the finger…. As you look around you notice stone representations pop culture figures heads being used as plant holders in trees, cartoon characters painted in amongst the buddhist figures and anti capitalist messages hidden all over (complete with George Bush and Osama Bin Laden’s heads in the eyes of a dragon)… very strange indeed.
We ended our day with a trip to the night Bazaar in search of some tasty local food. After a quick scout around we ended up with a clay pot full of stock set atop of some hot coals, a plate of raw meat, a basket of noodles and vegetables, an egg, and no idea what to do with it. We had watched the people around us and the idea seemed pretty simple, it was kind of a DIY soup, but as we clumsily tried to copy everyone else we were met with laughter from the thai people… apparently shoving everything in the pot at once wasn’t the right thing to do… never the less we had some tasty soup, even if the meat was extremely overcooked.
After a few days in the city, and with our time in Thailand coming to an end we set of in search of some relaxation in the mountains around Chiang-Rai. After some internet research we booked ourselves into a guesthouse called Bamboo Nest 25km out of the city. We were picked up by a small man called Noi and driven up the steepest ‘road’ ever know to vehicle through hill tribe villages, past hot springs and green lush countryside to a handful of traditional bamboo bungalows, built on stilts into the hillside. We very quickly settled in, spending the afternoon lazing in the hammock on the veranda, overlooking some picturesque rice paddies and breathtaking mountains.
It wasn’t all just laying in hammocks tho, promise. The guesthouse is situated in the middle of some amazing trekking routes around Chiang-Rai, so we took off the next day to explore. We hiked across into the next valley to the Acka hill tribe village with the help of our three guides. Though they had limited english our new dog friends made sure we didn’t get lost on the route, and even led us to a stunning waterfall to top it all off…. not bad for less than an hours walk away.
As some may have noticed we love our food, so when we had an opportunity to learn how to cook in the traditional way using Bamboo we couldn’t say no. We arranged for our guide Noi (a real guide, not one of the dogs this time), to take us into the jungle, gather the raw materials and then give us a cooking course on how to use them on an open fire. So with Machete in hand, and feeling like real hunters, we set of through rice paddies (saying hello to the workers along the way) to find the bamboo to cook with. The hunter gatherer illusion however was soon shattered (for Ella anyway) when we realised that our Bamboo cutting skills left lot to be desired….
With Bamboo in hand and some foraged bamboo shoots and corn, we set of back to the guesthouse to start a fire and cook our dinner. We filled the Bamboo with some wet sticky rice and another with some beaten eggs, before stuffing with a banana leaf and throwing them on the fire. Noi then showed us how to BBQ some chicken using only utensils made from more Bamboo, and when all was cooked we dished it up, and it was delicious!
Our time time at Bamboo Nest was heavenly…spent around campfires and watching the weather change across a beautiful landscape. It was just what was required before the next leg of our adventure…see you across the border in Laos.