Alex spends some misty rainy season days in the mountains in Chiang Rai, revelling in lush serenity.
We headed to Chiang Rai almost immediately the summer school holidays started, slap bang in the middle of the rainy season and booked into a mountain resort. It was fabulous with a huge suite room in which the kids delighted racing around and generally being annoyingly rambunctious, whilst we enjoyed the stunning views over the lush mountain; it was all very serene. If not a little quiet – we were one of only two of the 56 suites that were booked.
Day one commenced with breakfast watching the mist on the surrounding mountains clear, before heading out on a bike ride around Chiang Rai. Our guide took us through the surrounding countryside, showing us water lilies which apparently taste ‘a bit softer and not very like morning glory’, so I’m guessing not that good, then? We saw fields of rice paddies, pineapples and forests of rubber trees with the bark pulled down to encourage the latex to drop into containers tied into the trunk. I loved the insight into rural Thailand. Then, we went to the white temple, Wat Rong Khun, which was designed by Chalermchai Kositpipat, a famous Thai artist. It is spectacular and so different to any temple I have seen yet. Quite macabre and yet strangely entertaining there are skulls hanging from trees, a moat of hands reaching up from ‘hell’ in as a bridge escorts you over them away from temptation towards redemption in the safe confines of the temple. It was heaving but lucky for us it closes from 12-1pm, along with a lot of attractions in Chiang Rai, so as we left we got picture perfect photo oops without the madding crowds.
The kids and I also wrote out wishes on silver leaves to be hung from a nearby tree. They love doing things like this and diligently scrolled their wishes based upon a loving kindness meditation I’ve been teaching them. Thank goodness, I was dreading it turning into a silver leaf version of the annual letter to Father Christmas. We cycled further to a natural cave full of bats and Buddhas, a total of 28km expertly completed by my little Tour de Chiang Rai-ers. I loved it all. My 8 year old son had trouble with his ‘peanuts’ chaffing on the seat: cue a lesson from dad on ‘positioning’ within the old boxers and his fascinated little sister asking ‘What’s a scrote daddy?’ Thankfully that comically put an end to the whining.
Obviously the day ended with the ubiquitous ride down the river in a long tail boat. It was a great start to the trip and we were rewarded with well deserved beers on our return to the hotel. I absolutely recommend the bike tour as a way to see Chiang Rai.
The following day, started again in the mist and rain at the tea plantation. Acres of rolling hills and green, green leaves. The smell of tea wafted from the ‘wilting room’ where millions of leaves are left to dry out. We had a lovely cuppa sitting on a table next to a Buddhist monk who was enjoying his brew with a scrumptious looking piece of cake and picked up some gifts for the folks back home. We headed to the golden triangle to view Myanmar and Laos from the gloriously tacky viewpoint on the Thai border.
Then, although Mr P had eschewed the elephant experience at the Anataylia – just hanging out with them costs 19,000B for 2 hours, which weighs in at almost 100 Pound Sterling each. Personally I think that is worth it to support these animals and provide the children with a responsible experience but our self-appointed FD thought otherwise. However, he was generous enough to take us for lunch there. We were so lucky to see 2 elephants were roaming freely around the gardens and the kids delighted in getting the binoculars out to watch them. We were also treated to a small herd of water buffalo thrashing through the chocolate coloured river. So all in all it was well worth it and a brilliant compromise, not to mention a more authentic and ethical elephant experience.
Onto Doi Tong for a tour of the King Mother’s chalet in the mountains. A wonderful take on the blending of Swiss and Thai architecture as we toured this humble abode and heard tales of how well regarded she was as she restored Doi Tong and the surrounding area from a barren opium wasteland capable only of supporting drug trafficking, into the lush landscape which now supports local agriculturists, horticulturists and their families.
After wandering through the Botanical Gardens we drove along the scenic headland for the mountain viewpoint of Myanmar and Laos. Up and down through winding mountain roads we glimpsed stunning views, the border police playing footie but the famous viewpoint eluded us as the kids grew more and more impatient and car sick. When we finally pulled into the side of the road for a snatched shot we got a cry from the backseat, ‘Was that it?!’ Followed by huge sighs. Time to head back for the obligatory sunset Singha. On our final day we decided to visit the Black House, Baandam a museum celebrating the work of local artist Thawan Duchanee. This unusual collection of dark teak wood houses in a village on the outskirts of Chiang Rai is as fascinating as it is weird. Lots of houses full of skeletons, crocodile and snake skins, various furs, furniture made from buffalo horns and the occasional onion shaped concrete monstrosity filled with circles of giant shells. Utterly captivating and completely bonkers.
The trip drew to a close with a visit to Wat Phra Kaeo, where in 1434 a bolt of lightening cracked the old Chedi to reveal the original Emerald Buddha which now resides in a temple in grounds of the Grand Palace in Bangkok after touring a variety of cities in the north of Thailand and southern Laos. A fake emerald Buddha now rests in this Wat, well it is Thailand: fake or original it’s all the same, or as they say guaranteed original fake. A local monk thought my son in his orange t shirt had his eyes on a stint in the monastery and I relished the buzz and sense of community in this very real temple, as novice monks gathered in small groups and the real deal got on with all things divine.
So luxurious elephant experiences or not, Chiang Rai is worth a trip, the scenery alone is stunning but the randomness of unusual temples, the lushness of the tea plantations and some unexpected attractions is oh so alluring.