14 November 2011

No Ordinary Temple [Chiang Rai, Thailand]

One thing that kinda irritates me is when a place really does not have a lot going for it, but someone decides they are going to make it into a tourist attraction. They look for a weak reason to make it famous, cheese it up a bit, put up a few statues, bang up a couple of tourist shops and voila! You have The Golden Triangle.

We arrived back in Chiang Mai late afternoon, too late to get a seat on the last bus heading toward Chiang Rai that evening. So we found ourselves a cheap guest house near the bus station and had a relaxing evening doing a whole lot of nothing.

The following morning we rose early to get our 6am bus. Chiang Rai is a small city it the north west corner of Thailand. A friendly place, quite lacking in major tourist attractions (in the city center at least). There are the hundreds of temples with their spiked roofs that rise above the city, as we have come to expect in Thailand. Being a little 'templed-out' we just checked out the main one in town; Wat Phra Kaew. It is a peaceful place not far from the center of the city. Beautifully decorated inside and out, and with several very cool Buddha sculptures. Well worth a look.

The locals market, which is an intense mix of sights and smells, has locals selling everything from fresh meat, fish and vegetables, pigs heads to childrens toys. Also well worth a visit.

The much more touristy 'night market' was also very cool. Not so much for all the touristy crap that they have, but for the atmosphere and great food. I'm hooked on the fresh fruit shakes they have made right in front of you. And the banana roti is also really good. Oh, and the HUGE deep fried flying cockroaches and silkworms; delicious!

The following day we hired a scooter and drove ourselves 60kms to the 'Golden Triangle'.This is a small area where three counties; Thailand, Burma and Laos all meet, only the river seperating the three. As you might guess from my introduction, I was not overly impressed. I had been sold (by the travel agents in Chiang Rai believing I might actually pay some ridiculous sum of money to take a tour with them) beautiful views over the three countries and the river. What I got was, well, unimpressive. It seems to me that they have just tried way too hard, with a couple of big Buddha statues and a few other random 'attractions' scattered around the place to make up for the unspectacular view.

But all was not lost. Having the scooter allowed us to travel the 15kms out of town (in the opposite direction. Yes, we did a fair few kms that day) to the White Temple. This was without doubt the coolest temple I have ever seen. It is pure white, amazingly decorated with silver and mirror mosaics. I really cannot describe seeing this place for the first time, it is totally unique. The perfectly kept green lawns and clear ponds full of fish surrounding just make this place even more spectacular.

So alone, the temple is awesome, like nothing I have ever seen. But there is something that takes it to a whole other level. While walking up to the temple we saw road cones topped with red skulls; that was our first clue that this was no ordinary temple. Directly out the front of the temple was a sea of hands all reaching up from below like they are climbing up from hell. The hands are gnarled and bent, some with claws, others holding skulls, all reaching upward, stretching to be saved. There is a small path that leads through these hands and to the front of the temple. Surrounding this are small sculptures of what look like the faces of demons and human skulls. And off to one side is a tree of hanging skulls... A gothic/buddhist temple?

The interior is sparse, but has an amazing mural in the same vain as the exterior; skulls, demons, death in general. But strangely it includes random characters from modern pop-culture, including Spider-man, Batman, Kung-fu panda, and Neo from the Matrix. Outside in the lawn there is a half buried sculpture of the 'predator' from Alien vs Predator.

What did I tell you? COOLEST TEMPLE EVAR!

We spent the final hour or so of sunlight at Chiang Rai beach. Beach is not really an accurate description, it is more of a small patch of muddy sand next to a brown river, but the scenery was nice and we enjoyed relaxing in the sun for a while.

So that wraps up Northern Thailand. I have really enjoyed it, and while I don't think it quite lived up to the hype, and was not nearly as cheap as it was made out, limit your expectations and you will love it!

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