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After Laos, our next plan was to travel through the northern part of Thailand back down to Bangkok. We debated which towns to include in that journey. We considered heading straight to the large city of Chiang Mai, but pictures and stories of quirky white and black temples convinced us to head to the far northern city of Chiang Rai for a couple of days.
Where We Stayed
We found a nice place online called the Jansupar Court Hotel with two large AC rooms with their own private bathroom. We were happy to take advantage of the cheap washing machine and also enjoyed some late afternoon drinks in the small bistro onsite. The family that runs the place was also fun to interact with. The main downside of Jansupar was that it was located somewhat far outside of town – about a 20 minute walk – so sightseeing wasn’t as convenient as it could have been.
What We Did
The two main attractions in Chiang Rai provide a nice counterpoint to each other – one white and one black. We took a local bus from the main bus station to both which was really quite easy to figure out!
We first visited Baan Dum, the Black House. This attraction houses many different somewhat traditional structures, most painted black. It was built by the Thai National Artist Thawan Duchanee using his own money. The interior decorating for the buildings was mostly done with furniture made of animal bones and plenty of animal hides. We could only go inside the largest temple-shaped structure, but could see into many of the smaller buildings.
The next day we took a visit to Wat Rong Khun, the White Temple. As the name suggests, this is a large, elaborate temple painted in all white (plus some shiny mirrors). This is definitely a modern take on a temple, with some very strange designs on the outside. It was constructed by a different Thai artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat, also using his own money. The main temple is reached by crossing a bridge over a sea of outstretched hands said to represent desire. Inside the temple itself, we spent a long time trying to decipher the murals. At first glance it seemed like typical Buddhist scenes, but the lower level included many images from popular culture, including Neo from the Matrix, Darth Vader, Michael Jackson and Elvis. We never could quite figure out what it was supposed to mean. In this room and on many of the other buildings we could see visible damage from the strong earthquake that hit the region in 2014. We were a bit bummed that we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside.
Outside the main temple, there are a few other small attractions in the complex that were worth a visit. We paid the equivalent of a dollar to buy a charm to we wrote a small message on and hung up with others. Even the bathroom building was quite fancy.
We had a fun experience on the way back from the White Temple. We had visited with another couple that we had met on the slow boat and we ended up having to wait for the bus back for a long time. It just wasn’t coming, so we tried to hail a songthaew , but the only one that came by was too full for 6 to fit in. Finally, a man in a truck drive by and asked if we wanted a ride. We thought he might be a songthaew but we were confused when we asked how much and he sort of shrugged. We clambered in the back and rode off towards town. Wayne had gotten in the front and chatted with guy who was enjoying the company and trying to teach him Thai. Wayne told him the way and he took us all the way back to our hotel (even stopping once to ask directions). We tried to give him money at the end, the equivalent of what we would have given the bus, and he even tried to give some back. It is times like this when our hearts are warmed that there are people who just want to meet others and help!
We only saw a few of the sights in town itself since it was somewhat of a walk to get there. We did walk by a pretty clock tower in town – it looks quite a bit different from the ones we saw in Europe! We visited the Hilltribe Museum, which felt a little similar to the museum in Luang Prabang but focused on the Thailand hill tribes. There was also a large display here on the opium trade, since the “Golden Triangle” area nearby was once an epicenter of production by the hill tribes. Della was quite excited because she found a new wallet in the gift shop after many years of searching! On the way to the Hilltribe Museum we came across an interesting city park filled with mannequins dressed up in fairy tale costumes made from fake flowers. There was also a night market where both Della and Peggy both bought scarves (yes… more scarves!)
Where We Ate
Everyone talks about the cheap and good street food in Thailand, so we were excited to again have to the opportunity to try it out. Our favorite meal was probably some fried noodles we ate from a stall in front of one of the ubiquitous 7-11s (where we got a cheap beer to wash it down with).
We also ate a dinner in the night market food court, which was filled with stalls offering many different items. The most popular seemed to be a hot pot that allowed you to cook at your table, but we stuck with fried noodles here as well.
One day for lunch we found a simple place near us (that we later think we learned was recommended in Lonely Planet) and got a nice noodle soup. Each one of these meals cost us about a dollar each!
Compared to larger cities, Chiang Rai may not have had as much to offer, but in terms of unique attractions it seems to have a plethora! We are glad that we spent a couple of days here to experience the white and black sides of Thai art.