Category Archives: Chiang Rai

The White Temple

White temple

Just south of Chiang Rai, off Highway 1, there is one of the most amazing and stunning temples I have ever seen in Thailand. Called officially the “Chapel of Wat Rong Khun” it has become to be known simply as “The White Temple”. This is another one of those places that hasn’t been discovered by the Lonely Planet people yet. (One of these days, I will start a website called “Not in the Lonely Planet”. Though I am sure that many of these places we have been featuring the last year or so will sooner or later end up in future editions.)

White temple
White temple
This is a modern form of architecture which you don’t often see in temple grounds. It was designed and built by Thailand’s premier artist Chaloemchai Khositphiphat. The attention to detail is remarkable and you do need to spend some time here studying the beautiful artwork. To reach the temple you have to cross a bridge over a pit of hell. Down below there are sculptures of people who are presumably trying to escape from hell. Inside the temple is a beautiful coloured mural of the Buddha.
White temple
The weather wasn’t too good the day we visited this temple. You really need a blue sky to show off the fine details of the sculptures. However, it was still worth visiting. Next door there is a small art gallery showcasing the work of Chaloemchai Khositphiphat. You can also buy copies of his paintings here. They are all very beautiful. Chapel of Wat Rong Khun is 13 kms south of Chiang Rai. We stopped here on our way back down south. Alternatively you can use Chiang Rai as a base while you visit this temple and other places.

Mae Sai and the Golden Triangle

Mae sai

During our trip to Chiang Rai, we visited Doi Mae Salong, Doi Tung and then drove along the border with Burma towards Mae Sai. This is the northernmost spot in Thailand. In fact, there is a sign to the right of this bridge that says just that and you can have your picture taken underneath it. There is a lot of cross-border activity going on here with markets on both sides. I remember coming here over 10 years ago on a tour. I don’t think we did much as there wasn’t time to cross the border. We just took a picture of the blue gateway which marks entry into Burma. That is basically all we did this time too! Though we did find a small restaurant to eat a late lunch on the other side of this bridge. We chose a table overlooking the river which didn’t turn out to be a good idea. There was a lot of garbage there. Much of it on the Burmese side. Some children were playing in the water. This river marks the boundary between Burma and Thailand. I was just wondering about border security when a young Burmese boy walked down to the river, stripped to his underwear and then proceeded to swim across. No-one seemed to care as he climbed up the steps on the Thai side, pausing only to put back on his clothes.

 We didn’t stay in Mai Sai too long. There isn’t really much to see there. So, we got back in the car and we proceeded on our journey to the so-called Golden Triangle. This whole area is now historically important as the center for the opium trade in the three neighbouring countries: Burma (now called Myanmar), Laos and Thailand. The “triangle” actually covers a very large area but someone chose Sop Ruak as being the town at the centre. (Probably a local tour operator). This is where the three countries meet as well as two major rivers. Other than that, the town is pretty miserable and boring.

I had read in the Bangkok Post a few years back about the grand opening of the Hall of Opium which is just north of Sop Ruak. It sounded like a fascinating place and I was looking forward to visiting and finding out a bit more about the opium trade. It is run by the Mae Fah Luang Foundation which was initiated by the late Princess Mother. You may remember that we visited her summer villa and gardens earlier in the day at Doi Tung. It was easy to find the hall as it was just off the main highway, though literally in the middle of no-where. The car park was virtually deserted. The only two vehicles belonged to the foundation. We walked up the steps and into the reception. That is when I spotted the sign “Foreigners: 300 baht”. I was so disappointed. When we had visited the gardens and villa in the morning I was happy to note that Thai and foreigners were charged the same price. I sang the praises of the Princess Mother. At the Hall of Opium we debated for a while whether it was worth to go in. A sign said photos were not allowed to be taken. So, we chose not to go in. I decided I would use the money saved to buy a book (or two) on the opium trade instead.

We drove on wondering whether we would know once we had reached the magical spot called “The Golden Triangle”. We needn’t have worried. Apart from the coaches, the first thing we spotted was a giant seated Buddha and two large elephant statues. I don’t remember seeing these before on my tour. I believe the elephants were built in commemoration of His Majesty the King. People were having their picture taken here and at a nearby sign that said “The Golden Triangle”. A dozen or so children dressed in hilltribe costumes were posing for the camera. Of course they weren’t doing it for free. I didn’t really want my picture taken with them but took a picture of them standing with some foreigners. I just turned away when that girl on the right came running up to me demanding 20 baht. Luckily she was then distracted when two big coaches suddenly pulled into the parking lot. The kids then started squealing in delight. “The farang are coming! The farang are coming!”

If they were charging 20 baht each then they must be making a lot of money. Keeping an eye on them from the sidelines were some adults also dressed as hilltribes. It was starting to look like they were using the kids to make money. A bit further on there was an older woman with what was presumably her baby. As foreigners walked by she tried to get the toddler to perform. She beckoned to the foreigners and gestured taking a photo. What is that advert on television? It has a child and she is saying something like “we are not tourist attractions”. I just kept thinking of that advert when I walked around this tourist trap. And that is basically what this place is. OK, the elephant and Big Buddha are nice. But the location? It is just a spot besides the river. And this river is really long. There are many attractive towns better than this one. There isn’t much to do in Sop Ruak apart having your picture taken below the sign or go on a boat ride that advertises that you will visit three countries in one hour. We stopped to buy an ice cream each and one for a little hilltribe girl. At least she wouldn’t be passing that onto her “mother”.

Our final stop on the way back to Chiang Rai city was Chiang Saen. This was once the location of an important Thai kingdom. Scattered around town are a number of ruins. So far, we were having a bit of a disappointing afternoon. We were hoping to see here something along the lines of Ayutthaya or Sukhothai. We noted in our guidebook that Wat Chedi Luang was an impressive stupa in ruins. So, we decided to make that our first stop. We drove into the car park where we could clearly see our stupa a few metres away. “Was that it?” We debated whether it was worth getting out of the car to take a closer look. It had been a long day. But, we decided for the sake of these blogs and our online guidebook we should make an effort. It was then that I spotted the sign in English that said “Foreigners 30 baht”! OK, I am not stingy and I know that is less than a dollar. But really, there wasn’t much there and we could see just about see all of it from the front seat of the car. So, we just drove off. This town wasn’t a “Sukhothai” and we didn’t want to pay 30 baht for each of these little ruins. I am sorry.

I was just re-reading my diary of the tour I took 12 years ago of the Golden Triangle. (One of these days I will try and type it up for you). The Golden Triangle tour didn’t take me to Doi Tung which was by far the highlight of our day today. They took us to the places we visited in the afternoon. You know what the funny thing is? I wrote that the highlight of the tour was a buffet lunch in a five star hotel outside of Mae Sai! I really should have re-read my diary before the trip. Anyway, at least we got some pictures and a story to share with you. If you are tempted to go on a “Golden Triangle” while in Chiang Mai I advise you NOT to go. There is nothing to see.

Doi Tung (Mae Fa Luang)

Doi Tung

We left Doi Mae Salong in the late afternoon and continued driving through the mountains passing more tea plantations along the way. As the sun was setting and dusk was upon us, we finally made it to the relative safety of Highway 1. Although we were only halfway to Chiang Rai City, the multi-laned highway meant we could cover the remaining distance in little over half an hour. We then used this city as a base over the next few days to explore the province further. Our first destination the following day was north to the mountain ranges of Doi Tung. According to legend, King Lawacahkalaj came down from heaven on a silver ladder. His purpose was to protect and uphold the Buddhist religion. A giant flag was flown from the peak of the mountain which marked the spot of where two chedis were later built in 911 A.D. The mountain upon which he appeared became known as “Mountain of the Holy Banner”. In northern dialect this is “doi tung”.

Probably the greatest influence in persuading the local people to turn from growing opium to other crops was the presence of the late Princess Mother (the king’s mother). She built a charming summer palace on the slopes of the mountain called Doi Tung Royal Villa. It is a cross-between traditional Lanna style and a Swiss chalet. The Princess Mother had fond memories of Switzerland where she lived for a time whilst her children were completing their education. The villa was officially opened in November 1988 though sadly the princess Mother didn’t have long to enjoy the beautiful surroundings. She died seven years later.


Today the villa has been turned into a kind of museum and has been left almost exactly as it was the year she passed away. It is open to the public between 6.30 a.m. and 5 p.m. and costs 70 baht for both Thai and foreigner alike. You can only enter the building in groups and at the door you are given plastic bags to carry your shoes in. I would have liked to have shown you some pictures but you are not allowed to take photographs inside. It is not really like what you would expect a summer palace to look like. The floors are made from teak wood but the wood paneling is made from recycled pinewood shipping crates. On the walls are photographs of the Princess Mother gardening and doing needlework. In some ways the villa is quite simply furnished. The guide only speaks Thai but she will give you a photocopy of an English translation.

Doi Tung

From the terrace of the villa you can look down through the trees to the Mae Fa Luang Gardens. (I should point out at this stage that “Mae Fa Luang” is an affectionate nickname the nation had for the Princess Mother as it meant “mother of us all”.) The climate in the garden is quite different to the rest of the country and so it is possible to grow plants here from different ecosystems. The seasonal plants in the floral garden probably makes this the most beautiful garden in Thailand. I certainly haven’t seen anything like this for a long time. The entrance ticket to the gardens cost 80 baht which is very reasonable. We visited the Princess Mother Commemorative Hall first as this then leads down to the garden. The hall has some interesting exhibits about the life of the Princess Mother. Most of this is in Thai though it only costs 30 baht to enter. If you do decide to visit all three places in one go then you can buy a combined ticket for only 150 baht which makes the hall free.

Doi Tung

From the gardens we drove a short distance away to visit Phra That Doi Tung. The chedi contains a bone of the Buddha. It is believed to be the first temple built in the Lanna Kingdom. If you don’t mind I will write more about this temple later as it is one of 12 temples that represents the Thai zodiac. From this temple we had the choice of driving back down to the main highway or continuing along the mountain range to Mae Sai. We weren’t sure how risky this road would be as it would mean driving along the border with Myanmar for about 15 kms. There have been border skirmishes before and sometimes shells from the Burmese side have landed in Thailand. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago that someone was killed in the market at Mae Sai.

At an army checkpoint we asked if it would be dangerous for us to go to Mae Sai this way. The soldier assured us that there hadn’t been any problems for a while now. He then wrote down the details from my Thai drivers license. He said that if we didn’t report to the checkpoint at the other end within an hour he would send out a search party. We then set off, a little nervous but thinking it would be alright. The road was literally on the border as at one point we passed a Burmese village alongside the road. If we wanted to shoot rabbits (polite term for relieving yourself) we would have to make up our mind whether to do so in Thailand or Burma.

(This story will be continued late. You can find the archives for these travel blogs at

Tea Plantations on Doi Mae Salong


Phra Barom That Chedi in Mae Salong, Chiang Rai

After spending about a week in Chiang Mai, I decided to drive over to Chiang Rai. I had never been there before and so I was quite eager to do a comparison. A lot of people “do” Chiang Rai as a one day trip from Chiang Mai. What they usually only see is Chiang Saen, Mae Sai and the Golden Triangle. A visit to a hilltribe village is also thrown in for good measure. But, that isn’t the real Chiang Rai. They are missing so much. I am not knocking these tourists as I did this very same tour the first month I was in Thailand all those years ago. To really appreciate Chiang Rai as a province you need to rent yourself a car and go to places these tours don’t go. I was only there for four days but would love to go back to explore more. What you can do is fly into Chiang Rai if you like and then rent a car there in order to explore the province. Or, you can do what I did and travel through the mountains from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai.

We left Chiang Mai early in the morning and headed north towards Mae Rim on Highway 107. A short while later we reached Mae Tang. This is the turn-off for Pai and Mae Hong Son. We did this 600 km loop a few years back when we went to see the Long Necked hilltribe. Instead of turning off we kept on going north, stopping briefly at Chiang Dao to visit an Elephant Training Camp. They have shows there that start at 9.05 a.m. and 10.05 a.m. It is really worthwhile. You can either drive here yourself or take a tour. The advantage of a tour is that they take you to other places like a hilltribe village and an orchid farm. Sometimes it is difficult to find these places when you are travelling by your own transport. After watching the show we continued north through Chai Prakan, Fang, Mae Ai and stopping briefly at Thaton.

On my map, Thaton seems quite insignificant, but I was curious why we had passed so many “Chiang Mai – Thaton” buses. The town itself isn’t very big but it is dominated by the Mae Kok River. So, it is quite possible that in the past this was a major trading route before the roads became paved. In fact, I did remember reading in the Lonely Planet that you can catch a boat from here to Chiang Rai. We went down to the jetty to get further information. The public boat leaves every day at 12.30 p.m. and costs only 300 baht for the four hour journey. If you arrive too late you can always stay in one of the guesthouses that seem to be springing up all around this small town. An alternative to the public boat  is to rent your own boat for 1,900 baht (share the cost with up to 6 people). Though of course, as the journey is so long, you would want to leave as early as you can. I would like to do this trip myself one day (a bit difficult when you have to come back to pick up your car) but I think it is best not to go at the end of the dry season as the water looked pretty low.

Maesalong Tea Plantations

Tea Plantations on Mae Salong, Chiang Rai

This isn’t the most direct route to Chiang Rai. You can, of course, take Highway 118 north-east of the city all the way to Chiang Rai. This way shouldn’t take too long. However, we were keen to go a longer route through the mountains of Mae Salong. This whole area was settled by the Kuomintang (KMT) after they fled mainland China during the aftermath of the revolution there in 1949. Their influence can be seen even today with many shop signs in Chinese and the shopkeepers talking to each other in Chinese. Mae Salong was off-limits for many years partly because it was the stronghold for the opium warlords and also due to fighting between government forces and communist insurgents. These days it has become a popular destination for Thai tourists on day trips from Chiang Rai. Due to the crop substitution program, the locals now grow tea, coffee and various fruits.

The road into the town is extremely steep. Dotted on the hillside on both sides we could just make out the tea plantations through the mist. The weather here was much cooler compared to Chiang Mai. Though due to a combination of crop burning and low cloud we didn’t get as good of a view as we hoped. In fact it was disappointing for us as our expectations were high. Obviously this wasn’t a good time of year to visit. There isn’t really too much to do in town apart from visiting the tea plantations and shops lining the road through town. However, we did make the effort to go and see Phra Barom That Chedi which is located on a nearby hill. This was built to honour the Princess Mother Somdej Phra Srinakharindra who had such an important influence over the lives of the hilltribes in this area. Apparently this vantage point gives you excellent views though we couldn’t see anything!

Back in town we stopped at one of the many shops that were selling tea leaves and dried fruit. We couldn’t come all this way without buying some souvenirs for people back home. The shopkeeper was quite keen for us to taste everything, not only the different teas but also the fruit. She also demonstrated a statue of a  little boy. She poured water on it and it started to pee! That was only 10 baht so we bought a few as gifts. Then she demonstrated a tall tea cup that changed colour as you poured hot water into it! It started with some Chinese characters with a dark background to a colouful picture of a Chinese temple. We asked her what the Chinese characters said (best to check these things first) but she admitted she didn’t know. This was strange as she was talking to her husband in Chinese earlier. Anyway, we bought a couple as gifts for people as they were only 70 baht each.

Tea Shop in Mae Salong

Our original plan was to stay here the night and then move on the next day to another mountain range called Doi Tung. However, due to the bad weather, we decided to drive onto Chiang Rai city and then use that as a base to explore the province. I will tell you more about our side-trips later.

Tweety Birds on a Chiang Rai Hillside

A caveat to any amateur (or pro) ornithologist reading this blog. This is neither an entry about my search for a new species of aviary mystique in the jungles of Northeast Thailand, nor is it an essay about Warner Brothers’ influence on Thai culture. No, the tweety birds to which I am referring were the ones I saw above my melon after being knocked flat on my butt at Wat Phra That Doi Tung. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In April of 2004, I spent two weeks in and around Chiang Rai. I would either drive Pon’s father’s motorbike (a risky endeavor, I admit), take the bus, or ride with her uncle in his rickety Toyota pickup (he was the only person in the very entended family who had a car).

On one of my last days in Chiang Rai, Pon and I, along with about eight of her relatives (I kid you not) loaded up into this old pickup for a ride into the surrounding hills. One does not need to be a member of Mensa to realize that five or six people would be riding in the bed of said truck. I happened to be one of those windblown unfortunates. Suffice to say, at the end of that day, my milky-white skin ended up a beautiful BBQ’d red, not unlike moo daang! This in spite of using sunscreen. April in Thailand? Are you kidding?

Chiang Rai Countryside
The view from Wat Phra That Doi Tung

After a long ride, we ended up at Doi Thung Mae Fah Luang Flower Garden. These beatifully manicured grounds sit around the “chalet” that was home to the King’s mother in her later years. She had it built to look exactly like a Swiss chalet, to remind her of the years she spent in Switzerland when her children attended school in that country. The gardens were beautiful, and I took several photos. Pictures were not allowed during a tour of the interior of the chalet, so I am sorry that I cannot show how it looked. It was very beautiful. I don’t think anyone lives in the residence now. Most of the rooms are roped off and left as they were when the King’s mother passed away in 1995.

Doi Thung Mae Fah Luang Flower Garden
Some of the garden park

Not far from this chalet and garden park, sits Wat Phra That Doi Tung. One of the more interesting aspects of this wat is that it has Buddha’s left collar bone enshrined in a chedi that is draped with a saffron-colored cloth.

Buddha's Collarbone
Here’s the chedi housing Buddha’s collarbone

Another interesting aspect of this wat, is the walking path leading up to it from one of the lower parking lots. This steep ascent is lined on both sides by large bells. Hundreds of them going all the way to the summit. People going in both directions will retrieve sticks from the thick foliage, and bang each bell as they pass. The walk is anything but a time for introspective meditation in aesthetically-pleasing surroundings.

Upon reaching the summit, the climber is afforded gorgeous views of the countryside. So…I was walking around these grounds taking in everything. I spotted a beautiful vantage point from which to take of picture of the distant haze-covered hills. I knelt down by a bench to steady my view. “click” I took a couple of snapshots. Then I stood up..”BONG!!” right into a bell that was hanging next to the bench!

I don’t think that I was knocked out, but it took a moment to get my wits gathered back into my ringing noggin’. My sunglasses were sitting sideways on my sunburnt face. Embarrassment turning my already red face an even darker hue of scarlet. I was flat on my back, my legs splayed akimbo. A nice purple knot appeared almost immediately above one eye.

I sat up amidst the flashing stars and looked around; my eyewear still draped precariously off of one ear and part of my nose. Such a sight I must’ve been. Bystanders’ concerns for my well-being were quickly dispelled as I sat up. This concern was replaced by the urge to chuckle at the clumsy pink-faced Farang sitting on the flagstones, blinking slowly and surveying his surroundings. I had to laugh myself as I stood up and brushed pine needles off my keister. A truly memorable day for me this the Wat of the Tweety Bird.

He looks like how I feel
Oh, my aching head!