Buddhism is all about calmness, poise and meditation; I thought so until I saw Chiang Rai temples extremeness! I could not even imagine a Buddhist temple would have a Michael Jackson painting inside. The bright blue colour and grandeur is a contrast to the rest of Thai temples & Buddhism’s simplicity. The city’s uniqueness is amplified by the tribal community, who wear brass rings around the neck to look long! Welcome to the city of surprises– Chiang Rai.
Reaching Chiang Rai
How do you like these – at the White temple
- By air – Chiang Rai’s international airport gets connected to Bangkok for most foreign destinations.
- By Train – The nearest train station is Chiang Mai -250km away.
- By Public bus – Cheapest way to get to Chiang Rai from Chiang Mai., Green bus companies leave from Chiang Mai Arcade bus terminal to Chiang Rai. Click here to check the schedule. Choose AC buses in the summers.
- By private taxi –Public buses are reliable in summers and winter, while taxis are the best choice in the Rainy season to get to Chiang Rai from Chiang Mai. We booked a bus in advance to get here from Chiang Mai. After seeing two day’s of rain, we ditched the public bus and booked Mr Boon’s taxi. Boon is extremely, knowledgeable and fun to hang around. The route is scenic, and he made the journey lively with his talks. Plus, we could stop at hot springs and other spots, which was not possible if we had taken a bus.
How many days to spend in Chiang Rai
A day trip is good enough if your interest lies only in seeing the unique temples and Karen tribe village. Two days are excellent if you want to go to the Golden triangle -one side of the Maeklong river in Laos, the other side is Myanmar, and you see it standing in Thailand. Chiang Rai vibe is different from Chiang Mai. So rethink if you are thinking of a longer stay here.
Why visit Chiang Rai
I always thought Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia was the most detailed building on earth until I read about the White temple here. The strange faces, weird statues, mirror works on the whitewashed walls come together to form a unique Buddhist temple experience of all the time. It doesn’t matter if you have seen Ayutthaya or Sukothai; there is nothing like this white temple. As a bonus and contrast to the white, a vibrant blue temple is 2km away from white.
Of course – the controversial Long neck village of the Karen tribe is a unique place in Northern Thailand. (I will talk about why it is controversial later in this post.) With Caves, waterfalls, rivers, temples – Chiang Rai is more of Thai domestic tourists pick. So experiencing a place amidst native tourists is really a unique experience.
Tips to explore Chiang Rai
- Weather-wise, November to February is the best time to visit Chiang Rai. It’s the coolest and driest time of the year. Mid-June to October isn’t the best time due to heavy rain. Fortunately, we were there at the beginning of June, so the rains didn’t trouble us too much.
- Tuk-tuk and Songathews are the way to go around the city. The grab taxi app works fine in Chiang Rai too.
- Dress suitably while visiting the temples. My mother, who was wearing a saree, wasn’t allowed until she tied it with a rubber band to cover her waist entirely in the white temple. Read our post” What to wear in Thailand” to know more.
- Chiang Rai is a big town and less developed as a tourist destination than Chiang Mai. Plus, there was no Vegan vibe. Most restaurants serve Thai non-veg food
HEADS UP– If you want that perfect shot of the white temple in front of the bridges, you need to go early in the morning as soon as the temple opens for visitors. We reached there by 10.30 to see a flock of tourists. The central place near the bridge had a long line of people because everyone wanted to stop and spin their skirts, or men wanted to remove the shirts for a perfect Instagram photo. The caretakers keep shouting in the mike in Thai and English,” “Move, move. Enough photo, no lifting skirt, no sexy, no sexy.”
Things to do in one day at Chiang Rai
Hot Water Springs
When you travel between Chiang Mai and Rai, you spot a small pound with water bubbling up high. Until you observe the stream surrounding it, you assume a fountain.
Dip your feet in the stream nearby, boil eggs in the ponds here & wash your butts at toilets nearby with natural hot water.
Chiang Rai houses many hot water springs and geysers, while Mae Kachan is closer to Chiang Mai and easily accessible to everyone. There are two springs at Mae Kacha, one on either side of the main road. Everyone does the most common thing here is buy and boil the egg in a tiny bamboo basket. These baskets are so in demand the Thai man selling them keeps running out of the basket! I saw at least four tourists boiling the eggs that took just four-five minutes to get cooked! Away from the first pond you see, there is a small stream kind of a thing, where you can dip your feet in hot water. The temperature here is lesser than what you feel in that roadside one, so no worries about burning your foot. The toilets here get water from this stream. It feels good to wash your butt with hot water on a cold day.
The geysers rising height was more in the evening than the morning. So make sure to stop at both times of the day. You can enjoy a cup of coffee watching the hot and sizzling geyser as there are many small coffee shops around it.
Wander in beautifully bizzare White temple
A mesmerizing temple deviating from the usual Buddhist temples yet holding on to some of the typical Thai styles, this temple is going to shock/surprise you. It is located 14km away from Chiang Rai on the outskirt. When you arrive from Chiang Mai on a sunny day, you see this structure as if snow exploded in the tropical country. The bright structure glitters because the glass and mirror work adorn the white walls. Call it bizarre or beautiful. You can spend more than an hour wander and wondering here.
A painter/visual artist named Chalermchai Kositpipat started constructing this in 1997, and it was nowhere near to completion in 2019! He started building the temple out of his own funds. Now the entrance fees and donations help him to continue the work. Chalermchai Kositpipat expects the temple to be complete in 2047! All his concepts and ideas are explained well at a small museum inside the premises.
A CREEPY FIGURE WELCOMING VISITORS AT THE WHITE TEMPLE ENTRANCE
There are hundreds of weird faced statues that look like monsters everywhere. What caught my eyes were those monster faces! There are demonic faces everywhere, be it a nearby tree or the entrance gate. This may be the artist’s symbolization of human’s evil side. The white represents the purity of Buddhism, mirror and glasswork represents Buddha’s shining wisdom.
The way Kositpipat creates something similar to Chedi that looks like Umbrellas are crazy. There are thin metal foils hung to the inside+outside of these umbrellas, and they swing slightly with the wind.
Have you ever thought of a religious place with sculptures showing middle fingers at you right at the entrance of the central place? When you walk beside the pool, admiring the reflection in the water, you meet a demon in the skeleton. Further ahead, a bridge connects either side of the pond. The bridge got two monsters welcoming you to the central part of the temple. While crossing the bridge, you can never miss seeing those stucco sculptures of hands rising! While some of them are with the bowls begging, others seem to be asking for help. One hand is highlighted with red nail paint on its middle finger. I have no clue if this has an inner meaning or just saying “f*c* off.”
The inside sanctum gets even crazier with Michael Jackson, Mickey Mouse, Bin Laden & George W. Bush! But photography is strictly prohibited. There are guards constantly snatching phones and cameras from the visitors. Of course, there is a Buddha statue too – calm and poised as usual.”
The Fresco paintings in the ceiling are proof of the dedication of those 120 artists working with Kositpipat to build the temple. The temple’s backside was still plain as the artists worked on the other temple parts.
Take a Piss in the fanciest Toilet at Wat Rong Khun
The fanciest toilet I have ever used in my life is here at Wat Rong Khun. The simple concrete framed structure with the wooden roof is heavily cladded with metal sheets pained or pasted with gold coloured foils. Trust me; you wouldn’t have seen this much gold colour even in Dubai Gold souq.
If you had too much white, it’s time to get soaked in blue. The Blue Temple is unmissable for its brilliant shade of rich sapphire hues. The temple walls, roof, and surrounding statues are all covered in this gorgeous hues of blue.
When you observe from the exterior, anyone can call this blue temple “little brother of the white temple.” The modernist approach, mysterious faces, sanctum with fresco paintings, detailed sculptures remind you of the white temple in each of its corners.
The Blue Temple was designed by Putha Kabkaew (A student of Kositpipat who built the eccentric White Temple). The Thai name of this temple is” Wat Rong Suea Ten”, which translates to “Temple of the Dancing tiger” because an ancient temple that stood here was abandoned centuries ago & It is said the tigers roamed freely here. After the villagers observed the success of the white temple, they began to rebuild the temple in 2005. Unlike the white temple, the blue temple construction was completed in 2016.
Inside, the Blue Temple is a kaleidoscope of colour and patterns. Each part of the temple is painted with either orange or green patterns. Most paintings depict Buddha’s life, while others create a psychedelic feel. Buddha’s white and glossy statue gets highlighted with all the intricate patterns and paintings, creating a soothing atmosphere. It is fascinating to see dozens of colours in complete harmony with each other here.
ALL THESE PICTURES WERE TAKEN WITH CONSENT
I have neither disturbed nor humiliated anyone for a picture. I requested them if I could click. Few of them were shy and said no. Few of them were happy to get clicked. Others even asked my mom to join them for a photo. There were only two women who asked for money if we wanted to click their pictures. Everything here has been clicked with Karen women consent – Peace.
The Karen Longneck tribe, also known as the ‘giraffe women’, are famous for the long brass coils they wear around their necks. Their tribe originated in the Thailand-Burma border centuries ago. Due to particular ethnic and political issues in Burma, many fled to Thailand seeking help. They are given refugee status, not the citizenship of Thailand as of now.
Karen tribe prefers to settle in mountain ranges. North Thailand is close to Myanmar and is a perfect place with mountains. So you find Karen tribes across many places like Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son.
The uniqueness of the Karen tribe lies in their costumes. Traditionally Karen women wear tunics and Sarongs ( Thai style wraparound) and turbans of wrapped cloth on their heads. The brass rings on the neck are the unique thing Karen women use in their costumes. The Karen tradition says, “Longer the neck, more beautiful the woman.” Other stories say the practice began to protect themselves from tigers’ bites on the neck in ancient Burma. It is a good place to spend an hour or more with a unique tribe you can’t find anywhere else besides Northern Thailand.
A few hours of a visit is nowhere enough to learn beyond their costume. So there is always a debate on online platforms about this kind of village being labelled as a Human zoo. Read my post “What is it like to visit a Karen Village in Thailand” to know what I think.
A Place I hate in Chiang Rai – Black house
Thailand’s drugged tigers and other animal attractions are infamous. I tried my best and avoided all that involved harassing animals and landed in a place full of animal skulls and skins! Researching too much about if it is ethical to visit the Karen tribe and fascinated with the bizarre budget temple” Wat Rong Khun”, I was carried away, and this black house went unnoticed. Knowing Blue temple is similar to the white temple, I assumed the black house to be another unique temple, just like the other two.
It was all lovely outside the black house, aka Ban Dam Museum. A black & brown wooden house with sloped roofs and horns kind of things accentuating the look felt unique and beautiful. I had no idea what I would see inside until I saw glossy crocodile skin laying on a table and chairs with animal horns for legs!
That moment was one of the spookiest in my life.
The house belongs to artist Thawan Duchanee who passed away in 2014. I was least interested in knowing what kind of an artist he was when I was there. Because mom and I were irked and felt nauseous among the skulls and skins, it was only later that Mom and I sat together to find out the reason behind his eerie house. His approach to art had shocked traditional Thai society as it was against Buddhism. He was honoured by the Thai government only after an international organization recognized him.
Art appreciation is subjective. It is your perspective -agreed. But arranging animal skins and bones on a fancy teak wood can’t be art! You name an animal; its body part is there in this so-called museum. Crocodile, Polar Bear, lion, tiger, elephant, cow, whale – What the hell! Polar Bear? Really? Why would you kill a polar bear that lives away from southeast Asia in the north pole? If he hasn’t gone and hunted it personally, he must have purchased it from poachers. Why on earth do you encourage such things?
Bottom line: It is eerie; it is creepy. I do go and see catacombs. I have witnessed Mummies in Egypt. They are all human remains. But these are helpless animals tortured by humans for pleasure in the name of arts. There is nothing “artsy” in seeing animal skins and horns. Both of our minds were disturbed after spending 45 minutes here! We went room to room, searching for something calmer in the black house. We found wooden men with oversized penes and some shells along with animal skins. It was a waste of our time and peace of mind. Thank god, we went to Karen village from here for some quiet time in the countryside of Chiang Rai.
Which is the place that irked you most in the world? Let us know in the comment section below.