Things to do in and around Chiang Rai: 30 full days of activities
Many tourists think that they can ‘do’ Chiang Rai in two days. Let me outline some of the wonderful and exciting activities that will keep you entertained for a whole month.
Chiang Rai is cooler, cleaner, quieter, safer and cheaper than Bangkok. It is ideally suited for exploring The Golden Triangle and as a base for forays into Myanmar and Laos. It is 780km (484 miles) NE of Bangkok, 180km (112 miles) NE of Chiang Mai and some 60km south of the border with Myanmar.
Many tours sourced in Chiang Mai and Bangkok actually come to Chiang Rai Province. Why not stay here, instead? In terms of action, we don’t have a great deal of nightlife. We are a quiet and sleepy town. Actually, I am not certain that we are sleepy: I think we are secretive.
Tourists come here to relax, as well as to enjoy art, craft, nature, archaeology, trekking, caving, rafting, X-treme sports and many different traditional hill-tribe cultures.
There are three seasons: the hot season from March to May, the rainy season from May to October and the cool season from November to February. In the cool season, the temperature can drop to 13 C at night.
Several airlines fly into the local airport. If you are coming from overseas, it is possible to transfer in Bangkok for a short direct flight.
There are modern hospitals, including Overbrook and Siriburin. Chiang Rai is a major centre, servicing a population well in excess of 200,000 people. Here you will find traditional markets as well as supermarkets.
Please note that 2012 is the 750th anniversary celebration of the founding of Chiang Rai and will be an excellent time to visit. Activities start on the 26th of January and will continue throughout the year.
Many accommodations in Thailand have a strange speciality called ‘long-stay’. This means that it can cost you less to stay for a whole month than it will cost you to stay for two weeks. Prices and premises vary, of course. Here in Chiang Rai, if you know what you are doing, you can get a ‘long-stay’ deal for about 6,000BHT, which includes electricity, Thai TV, and Thai wireless internet. That’s about $200 a month. So, Chiang Rai is cheaper: it is also quieter, cooler, safer and cleaner than Bangkok.
Here are 30 days of activities. This is an imaginary itinerary for the armchair traveller.
You arrive in Chiang Rai at your accommodation.
First, soak up the ambience.
What to do for the next 30 days?
You most probably don’t speak Thai. This will result in some frustration for you at times, and terrify the Thai you are speaking to, if they do not speak English. This is called Fear of Farang. Keep calm and cool. Speak very slowly. Smile a lot. Be strategic: your host or hostess will no doubt speak very reasonable English and can smooth most of the pitfalls in your path. They can negotiate with people: they can write directions down in Thai for you: they can phone on your behalf.
A very, very useful book to read before you come is Culture Shock: a Guide to Customs and Etiquette: Thailand, by Robert and Nanthapa Cooper. Wai to go.
Orientation: 1 day
Get to know the city and get a feel for where you want to go again. Take an overview tour on your first day: either a professional tour or a zip around by tuk-tuk or hire car. Just do a drive-by: you don’t want too much detail at this stage. Initially, you will think Chiang Rai rather lacks ambience. Eventually, you will come to love it. Acquired tastes give the greatest pleasures. We are a city of secret delights.
A drive-by tour of the city centre and its main focal points does not really require a licensed guide. A chauffeur-driven car or a tuk-tuk should really come in under 2,000BHT for a full day, because you are not travelling a great distance out of town and you will be spending some time lunching and shopping. Ultimately, it will depend on your bargaining skills. A car is really preferable to a tuk tuk: otherwise everything wizzes past you backwards and you will be more confused than you were before. Get your itinerary ready: mark the places you want to see on the map, and you’re ready to go. Explain that you want to go slowly and that you want the places you have marked on the map to be pointed out to you. See if you can add a stop @ Doi Khao Kwai (Buffalo Horn Hill), to the west of the old airport, for a panoramic view.
Concentrate on the New Clock Tower and the Old Clock Tower as orientation points. The Kok River runs across the city to the north of the centre. There are three bridges across the river in the CBD: my especial favourite is the New Bridge, with its fantastic golden decorations and baby elephant bastions.
Another orientation point is King Mengrai the Great’s Monument. Backed by three giant golden tungs (vertical Lanna flags), it is situated at the starting point of Highway 110, which leads north to Mae Chan, Chiang Saen and Mae Sai. Stop, make offerings, buy souvenirs, take photographs. Give thanks for your safe arrival.
You might also want to find out where the Post Office is. You will probably want to use their services at some time during your stay. They also provide Poste Restante: always check whether your mail has been filed under your surname or your first name. The building is slightly depressing. Don’t go at lunchtime: you might have to wait 10 minutes. You get a number, etc. They provide one really useful additional service, as do most post offices in Thailand: you can have your parcels wrapped for you downstairs for a small additional cost. Few tourists travel with cardboard, scissors and tape. However, postage is quite expensive and you may have to find an alternative way to send your souvenirs home. The main Post Office is upstairs. Although Thais drive on the left, they like to go up stairs on the right-hand side: arrows mark the way.
Also, it is a good idea to locate the local TAT (Tourism Authority of Thailand) office, @ 448/16 Singhakhlai Road, 8:30-16:30. Here you can get free brochures, maps and information. Stop here briefly.
All freely available maps of Chiang Rai (CR) are dreadful. I don’t care what anyone says. I am, of course, very happy that other people are happy with the maps: I myself am not happy. Regarding the many maps I have tried to use, I am not happy for the following reasons:
The print is usually too small, even with spectacles. Carrying a large magnifying glass around is simply impractical. Orientation varies: personally, I like north to be north: call me old-fashioned, but there we are. The streets are occasionally not named at all, or only a few of them are, and sometimes they are only named in Thai script.
There is very little on the maps regarding the city north of the river.
I bought 2 commercial maps when I arrived. One was not satisfactory: the better one is a bilingual map of Chiang Rai: go to the front counter @ The Hill Tribe Museum in the heart of the CBD and purchase a copy immediately. It is topographical on one side, with the city on the other, and it is definitely the best map available. You will save yourself much grief and confusion if you do so. Trust me. It is produced by Thai Panit. It’s not perfect, but it’s very much okay. (I think I am losing the use of my mother tongue. This starts to happen after only a few days.)
For touring, you can’t go past the excellent Budget Car Rental maps, which are free to download off the Web in English, French or German: www.budget.co.th/travel_worldclass.aspx, although a magnifying glass will help here also.
Working out where you are in Thailand can be confusing. It took me a long time to find out exactly where I lived, and perusing Google Earth did not help. Why is it so hard? One of the reasons is that Thailand has a completely different address system to the west. There’s no consistent town-planning system. You don’t have 15 Smith Street, Smithsville. Oh, no. Oh, goodness me, no. Numbers are allocated, it seems, when the structure is built. So numbers 15 and 512 might be adjacent. So, if you decide you want to go to a particular place, make a note of the phone number as well as the address. Your driver can then have long impassioned discussions with someone on the other end of the line regarding the exact location.
If you arrived by plane rather than bus, find the Old Bus Station: you’ll be taking several trips around the Province from here. I love the decrepit old buses: of course, you can go on the VIP ones, but the vintage monoliths are for me, with their windows tied up with twine. The school bus runs in the afternoon are best.
Have coffee @ Doi Chaang Coffee shop: you’ll return many times for coffee and sweet treats and to read the newspapers. They even sell, as a speciality sideline, civet coffee: Kopi Luak (If you don’t know what that is, don’t ask.) Educate yourself about peaberries, and see if the cafe has some coffee-flower honey for sale. Doi Chang is a success story based on a constructive relationship between entrepreneurs from overseas and local coffee growers: read their inspirational tale at http://www.doichaangcoffee.com. The quality of your cup of coffee can vary at times, but you really come here for the atmosphere, the papers, the food and the facilities. They have a nice garden courtyard and good toilets. These two things are rare in the CBD.
Sort out your mobile phone arrangements. The staff at 7/11 is amazingly helpful. Look confused, hand over the phone with some baht, and see what happens. (300BHT is a good figure to start with.)
Have an extended lunch somewhere wonderful. Things change so rapidly, and people’s preferences are so different, I don’t really want to recommend anything at this stage, but for you, research is part of the pleasure of travelling. Isn’t it? Let your driver go for an hour or 2: you both have mobile phones. Ring him when he is required.
Then, after lunch, get some supplies.
Go to the local markets for a look round. In the future, when you go again on a regular basis, go early, if you can, for the freshest ingredients.
The most useful denominations in the market are coins and 20BHT notes. The vendors use our numeric system and many have calculators: they will flash the price up on the screen for you to see. Sometimes in desperation I just hand over a 50BHT note and see what happens next. I have always been treated with exquisite courtesy and total honesty. My Thai friends will sometimes barter a few satang off the price of a piece of pumpkin, but I prefer not to. Besides, I wouldn’t even know where to begin.
Ta-Lat means market.
This is where you will find Chiang Rai confusing.
The markets are all over the place.
The main Municipal Market in the centre of town is TA-LAT Sod TESBAN.
One of the ways you can gain access to it is off the street running between the 2 clock towers. There are mountains of brassieres, a good variety of cheap shoes (few of which last more than 2 weeks) and some ‘chemist’ shops, with unusual soaps. There are some interesting products: at my advanced age, I no longer need ‘Bust Boom’: it’s happened already and is out of control.
For people who have trouble sleeping, it is very, very difficult to get sleeping tablets in Thailand, other than herbal ones, which have as much effect on me as a butterfly brush. At one of the pharmacies in the market you can purchase over the counter the anti-histamine Chlorpheniramine. (Please note: there’s an excellent new pharmacy which has just opened near the New Clock Tower.)
The municipal market is divided into distinct sections. There’s clothing, shoes, meat, etc. The Muslim stall has the best beef but it is really only good for stewing. This protein area is best viewed in the early morning, or perhaps not at all.
You need to wander around quite a bit to find the section you want. My basket lady is to the north just off the Song Teo parking bay, which is called Tha Rot Noi (terminus for Song Teo people carriers). She sells exquisite colourful hand-woven baskets made from spliced plastic packing tape which I adore. I also like the spice and seed section. If you intend to visit a hill-tribe, and are not too judgemental, you will find in the spice section small resin blocks about the size of a Mars Bar for sale, red-black in colour, which superficially appear to have been chewed by rats, in that their surfaces are irregular. I suspect these are made of betel-nut resin. Whatever they are, some elderly people in remote areas value them immensely. In the central part of the market there is a special stall where you can purchase fresh coconut cream as it pours out of a small machine.
Having wandered about the market, you will say to yourself, where is the fruit? The vegetables? The flowers?
Okay, exiting the covered market to the north, you will find a succession of vegetable sellers on the pavement along both sides of Uttarakit Street, west of the Old Clock Tower. Here you buy your vegetables. Cabbage, lettuce, garlic, onions, potatoes, ginger, etc.
For fruit and flowers, you need to take a samlor or tuk-tuk to Tha-lat Sirikhon, which is not that far. It is east-south-east of the New Clock Tower. Come home with bags of fresh seasonal fruits in all their glorious profusion and colour. Fill vases with flowers.
If it is durian season, and you have an iPod, you might like to Thai a little experiment. Look up U-Tube for a fascinating video which will show you how to use this fruit to charge your iPod: later you can eat the durian itself. What I want to know is, will the fruit then be lower in calories?
As I am not tech-savy, this is the only way I know how to recommend a video on U-Tube: look up its title: ‘iPod recharged using durian ... recommended How to!!!.’ MOST interesting. Durian, however, is a taste I have not acquired, and the smell is something else again. I bought some in the supermarket the other day for my Thai friends: forgot about it, and kept wondering how I seemed to smell of fresh cow manure. I kept checking my shoes.
Go to the major supermarkets if you need to: Big C and Central Plaza (Tops). Big C has a wide range of goods of all kinds: Tops is more about food. Be careful: Central Plaza (Tops) does not open until 11 on weekdays: (11 – 9 on weekdays, and 10 - 9 on weekends). Tops will also deliver to your door free if you buy above a certain amount and fill out some paperwork. I also recommend The Royal Project Shop at the Plaza, because it is a worthy cause. They have great shampoo (it’s hard to find a good shampoo in Thailand for farang hair): the essential oils are not so good: in fact, they are a complete waste of time. The vegetables are great. They sell huge potatoes but potatoes in Thailand are rather strange. They tend to be soggy. They look wonderful, but they do not deliver. A special treat: the Bubalos Feta, made from the milk of water buffaloes.
There are some other traditional markets, but that is enough for you at the moment.
Wine is a problem. I think grape wine is taxed at a flat rate of 176.5% and an interior tax of 21.2%, with additional import duties on foreign wines: therefore ‘even the cheapest bottle of wine will set you back over 500 baht’. This IS changing, slowly. You will therefore find that wine in the supermarkets is of variable quality and rather expensive. White cask wine does not travel well. There is a drinkable red cask wine @ Tops called Kiss my Kangaroo. Goodness knows who came up with a name like that. Big C has an equally quaffable Peter Vella cask red. You will soon come to like drinking your wine with ice.
The only reasonably priced and drinkable local wine which surfaces @ Big C occasionally is Siam Winery’s Naga range, but it is often unavailable. Alternatively, you could make a trip out to the local Mae Chan Winery, 30 kms north of CR, which specialises in shiraz. Look up their website to see the scale of this sophisticated modern attraction: http://www.maechanwinery.com
I tried a 2009 Sawasdee Shiraz purchased out of town @ Rai Boonrand the other day: 350 BHT, PB Valley, estate bottled by Khao Yai Winery @ Nakhonratchasima. Hey, this is a seriously interesting wine. It can handle ice-blocks and Asian food, the brave little creature. It’s complex and full-bodied: 13.5% alcohol. I really recommend it. The owner, Dr. Piya Bhirombhakdi, was once the President of Singha Beer: he is a visionary and I believe he will go on to do great things with Thai wine in the future.
Personally, I try to avoid some of the longan, lychee, strawberry and mulberry wines produced elsewhere in the mountains. I am sure they are very good for you indeed. I am not quite ready to be good yet.
Chiang Rai Winery’s fruit and herbal wines are a possible exception, but are not for the serious wine-lover. However, you may well enjoy a visit to their premises in Mae Suai, to the south. The place is way off in the midst of paddies and orchards and is quite hard to find. When you finally arrive, you have to walk across a narrow bamboo bridge about 20 metres long which has seen better days, perhaps in medieval times. If you are very heavy; unsure on your feet; or a Nervous Nellie, this place is not for you.
The distilled Mangosteen Wine is 40% proof: also try Black Ginger/Ginseng wine and an excellent sweet Tokay, made from the herb Elephantopus Scaber Linn: firstname.lastname@example.org. The Tokay, goes rather well with Bubalos Buffalo Feta cheese. The red Mangosteen wine is disappointing if you are used to full-bodied reds. Another product of interest is White Kwao Kreu Wine, with natural estrogenic properties helpful to middle-aged females. A case of this is a good idea, but there is no way I can get it across the bridge. I am eagerly awaiting a low calorie version. They also have a medicinal tonic to boost immune systems threatened by HIV and cancer.
The wine shop at Chiang Rai airport is very good: grab some supplies if you are arriving by air. There is a grog shop in Phanolyothin Road, on the right as you walk south from Doi Chaang Coffeeshop and towards Da Vinci’s Restaurant: this shop also sells a range of cigars.
If you are invited to a party by your Thai friends, they seem to like red wine. Indeed, they like it so much, you might need to take more than one bottle. Of course, their very favourite gift is a bottle of expensive whiskey. Regarding duty-free on your arrival, the authorities look on wine and whiskey as being exactly the same, and you are only allowed to bring in one bottle of alcohol.
Your tuk-tuk driver will quite happily stop at a wayside stall on the way home for you to purchase beer and bags of ice. Remember: Thailand has some rather strange laws regarding alcohol. You can only purchase alcohol during certain hours, unless you buy 10 litres, which is considered wholesale, and this amount can be purchased at any time. To add to this fascinating regulatory mix, national bans regarding the sale of alcohol for the next day or two might be introduced overnight without warning, for a variety of reasons. Stock up.
Da Vinci’s Deli: hard to find (it’s at the back of the restaurant of the same name, up a laneway and to the right slightly: 879/13 Phaholyothin Road) is good for special treats, such as roast beef, apple cider, cheese and pork pies. Don’t put the pork pies in a plastic bag at the bottom of your basket, unless you enjoy eating pastry in the form of minute crumbs. This pastry is so delicate that the slightest shock shatters it. It is delicious. Open daily 8 am to 6 pm (except Sunday): www.friendlyfarm.asia
The people behind the two restaurants, Ayes and Da Vinci’s, and The Deli, are Hans and Aye Verschuur and family, who run their farms using permaculture principles: organic, free-range, and aquaculture.
You will find several major Western food franchises here in CR, although the quality varies. After all, why come a thousand miles to eat what you can find in your own town? However, I have mentioned these farang delicacies because Thai cuisine is everywhere: you don’t have to seek it out. Rarely is a Thai more than an arm’s-length away from a source of food.
A quick note on tuk-tuks and the blue people-movers: occasionally in Chiang Rai you will come across a driver who tries to take advantage of you: this can happen anywhere in Thailand. I have only met 1 in 4 months, but, hey, who wants to meet one at all?
I really miss the excellent service provided by Best Tuk Tuk Tours in Chiang Mai: www.facebook.com/pages/Best-Tuk-Tuk-Tours/. It is very rare to find a guide in Thailand with two mother tongues, so to speak: English and Thai. So, in Chiang Mai (CM), if you utilise this service, you will be able to have a full-on dialogue about what you are seeing, from a farang point of view. No such creature exists in CR.
The best thing in CR is to find a tuk-tuk driver you like, ask for his business card, and develop a good working relationship. Please be courteous: don’t expect your favoured tuk-tuk driver to be available to drive you at all hours of the day and night and on weekends. They have families, too. Some of the younger ones are studying at night. You will generally find a tuk-tuk near the Edison Department Store, south of the Doi Chaang Coffee Shop; east-south-east of the New Clock Tower.
I wonder what the collective noun for a collection of tuk-tuks might be? A trouble of tuk-tuks? A tranche? A tumult? A trundle?
I have recommended some tuk-tuk drivers below. Note that they go in and out of the trade frequently: it is not an easy way to make a living, so the phone numbers won’t last long. They don’t really speak any English, so there is no point whatsoever in ringing them up out of the blue and saying ‘Please collect me @ the following resort at 1 pm and I want to go to the museum.’ This will result in hysterics by both parties. You could, of course, ask a Thai-speaking person to ring on your behalf.
Mr Somnuek (pronounced something like Som-nuk, with the ‘u’ in ‘nuk’ sounding like the English ‘but’. He is very pleasant, reliable and honest. If he quotes you a price, it is the right price. Sometimes, when I give him what I think is the appropriate fare, he insists on giving some of it back. 084-6105273. More than a fair fare.
Manat Kuakool: and he is definitely ‘kool’. Young: an organiser: a bit of an entrepreneur: 085-0290457. Brooklyn Bridge, anyone?
Wikrom Jaikla: 081-9617604
Anuchat Wankaew: 084-1763-886
Once you have developed a good working relationship with the tuk-tuk driver of your choice, you can negotiate an hourly rate. Personally, I am happy to pay 200BHT per hour around town. Be nice to your tuk-tuk driver: they can make your life a whole lot easier.
Or why not have a private half or full-day’s speciality shopping with Mrs Amdaeng in her comfortable airconditioned twin cab with safety belts, and CD? email@example.com. You will be chauffeured in style and she will bargain on your behalf. Khun Amdaeng specialises in shopping: she is not a guide, nor does she speak more than a few words of English: her clientele are usually Hi-So (High Society) ladies from Bangkok. It’s nice to have a woman take you around and to bargain for you. I think she has some Rottweiler in her genetic makeup. Just kidding: she’s a delight: if you want to go on a shopping spree, she is the lady for you. I declare an interest: I enjoyed my trip so much I have encouraged her to employ a translator to handle email enquiries from prospective farang clients.
Some of the more entrepreneurial tuk-tuks have contacts regarding chauffer-driven cars for hire. I would not like to drive myself, but you are perhaps more adventurous. Bring your International Drivers License with you and take out a large insurance policy at the same time. Bicycles, mountain bikes, scooters and motorbikes are available. Each to their own.
A note on health: DO be careful and take out insurance. Recently a woman fell down some stairs @ a temple and is in an induced coma in intensive care. She had insurance, but not enough. We always think it won’t happen to us, but sometimes it does.
If I were really flush, I’d hire the helicopter based in Chiang Mai to come and pick me up and take me for a tour over the mountains. Now THAT would be the trip of a lifetime. It’s a six-seater: www.advanceaviation.co.th
While wandering around near the New Clock Tower, buy a beautiful, brightly coloured handmade hammock at the Fair Trade Store on the southern side of the street, east of the Clock Tower (700BHT). It might come in handy. I would also buy a water bottle carrier: you are going to need one.
Go in the evening (after 4 pm) to the area called Kaad Luang, near the Old Clock Tower, for cooked food to take away. Everything comes in plastic bags tied up with rubber bands. It’s a good idea to travel with a small pair of scissors. Thais are adept at removing rubber bands from plastic bags containing hot food, but I think most farangs (foreigners) are not. You will return home with a veritable feast. In season, the large fried red fish coated in salt are excellent. Thais usually share these, but farangs will want one each. This region loves sticky rice: make sure you get some of it, wrapped in banana leaves.
Right, you are now ready. Your mobile phone is organised, you have had a quick overview tour of the city, you have had coffee @ Doi Chaang, you have had lunch at a restaurant of your choice (or street food), you have been shopping and now you have supplies. Sit back, have a cold drink, and read a good book. You have everything to look forward to. You might want to test that hammock.
The following activities are organised in no particular order. You don’t want to overdose on any one particular activity, so each day try to mix a trip to the market with a visit to a temple; coffee @ a coffee-shop, a swim at one of the exclusive resorts (user pays) and then an excursion somewhere, followed by dinner.
Wats. The temples are magnificent. Do some research beforehand regarding the individual wats: it will make your visit so much more interesting. Make sure you take off your shoes at the bottom of the stairs; that you don’t have an offensive slogan on your T-shirt; you are modestly dressed, and you don’t step on the piece of wood across the doorway. If you are a woman, never touch or give anything to a monk directly. It is good manners to put a 20BHT note in the donations box, should you come across one.
Start with Wat Phra That Doi Chom Thong.
Wat Phra That Doi Chom Thong is on a lone hill (Jom Thong) above the banks of the River Kok, overlooking the town from the north west. It incorporates an ancient pagoda which predates the founding of Chiang Mai. It is also the site for the omphalos (navel) of the City, Sadue Mueang. The main pillar is surrounded by 108 satellite pillars mounted around six-tiered concentric circles that radiate around it, representing the six lower levels of heaven. Those little squares of gold pasted on various pillars are real gold leaf.
The omphalos is right at the very top of the hill. A discerning visitor will immediately sense something strange about the antiquity of this omphalos, and they will be quite right. It was built to commemorate the 725th anniversary of the city and King Bhumibol's 60th birthday, only 25 years ago. Such pillar complexes are designed for monarchs using cosmological calculations based on their specific birthdate, so this pillar is not exactly the same as the one in antiquity.
The best way spiritually to encounter this temple is, of course, to actually climb up the steep staircase from Kaisornrasit Road far below. It is too steep for a samlor to reach the mountain top, although tuk-tuks and taxis can do so.
At the top of the hill there is an excellent view out over the river and the city. Walk down the southern side of the hill and amble south and then east to Thanalai Road. Half-way along on the northern side of Thanalai Road you will find P2’s Restaurant.
Lunch: P2’s restaurant in Thanalai Road has a great salad made with assorted fresh mushrooms and lettuce. They also serve steaks. This is where the international football players who play for Chiang Rai United hang out. They are just the most delightful young men: handsome, polite and charming beyond belief. Few traditional Thais drink wine or beer @ lunchtime: if, as a farang on holiday, you require alcoholic refreshment, you might just have to have a quiet chat with your host, and discuss the situation: is BYO better? Talk to him. He is a most obliging man, although he has great difficulty with English. If you do decide on BYO, remember: you can only buy alcohol between 11 and 2. There is a 7/11 about a block east on the same side of the road. The restaurant is closed on Sundays.
Excursion: why not one of the museums? Perhaps you might like to explore your creativity: there are 2 shops selling art supplies just north of the New Clock Tower. Maybe a movie @ Central Plaza? Why not have a complete makeover? New hair-do ($7AUD), facial, manicure and pedicure? Why not, indeed? Now that’s a pretty good range of choices, but I would recommend museums at this stage.
If you have just had lunch in Thanalai Road, it is easy to walk to the following museum first:
The Chiang Rai Province Cultural Hall Museum, across the road from the TAT building on Singhaklai Road, is located in a large white building that has a huge statue of King Mongkut (Rama IV) at the main entrance. It is only a small museum, featuring prehistoric tools, two medieval cannons, costumes, ancient pottery and examples of ancient Lanna literature in the Dhamma script. It also has videos and models, practices which I abhor, but which are common in Thailand. The entry fee is nominal and hours are irregular. It MIGHT be open every Wednesday - Sunday between 8:30 and 15:30: you never know.
Then take a tuk-tuk to the following museum:
Oub Kham Museum, 81/1 Na Khai Road, Tambon Rob Wiang, one kilometre from the centre of town, in a garden setting: 053-713349/ 08-1992-0342. Open daily from 8 to 6 pm. Admission for adults is 300 Baht and for children 200 Baht. It is the creation of Khun Julasak Suriyachai and is named after the 'Oub Kham', a golden bowl used by royalty.
The museum highlights Lanna culture from the north of Thailand, the northwest of Laos, parts of northeast Burma, parts of southwest China and some areas in Dien Bien Fu in Vietnam. On view are Lanna kings' regalia and royal costumes from the 15th century; the golden throne of Chiang Tung; ritual and religious objects, pottery, processional chairs, textiles, silverwork, peacock fans, wood and bronze statuary, betel sets and lacquerware.
Location: Na Khai Road, about 3km southwest of city centre
Two museums are probably enough for one day. We’ll save the rest for later. These two will have given you some idea of Lanna art and culture.
You have 2 options here for the evening: go up-market and take a tuk-tuk back to town to the Dusit Island Resort Hotel for drinks on the riverside terrace, or go to Pattaya Noi, an informal cluster of thatched bamboo huts which also overlooks the river. Here you can eat and drink to your heart’s content while sitting on mats in a cool fresh breeze.
Why go to the Dusit Island Resort Hotel? Chiang Rai has many faces. You can enjoy some western ambience at one of the premier resorts while investigating the possibility of user-pay facilities you might be interested in using at a later date: like sauna, Jacuzzi, swimming pool, and flood-lit tennis courts. Access arrangements and costs vary from resort to resort: it’s a good idea to start looking now for what you might want in the future.
Take a samlor (rickshaw) from Dusit’s front gate into town to the New Clock Tower, or walk: it’s really not that far. Remember: the New Clock Tower is at the junction of Phaholyothin, Jet Yod and Banpaprakan Roads. Try to say that in a hurry.
Evening: Watch the New Clock Tower’s amazing transformations (son et lumiere): 3 viewings @ 7, 8 and 9 pm. The Tower was built in 2008 to honour His Majesty King Bhumibhol Adulyadej, and was designed by Chalermchai Kositpipat, the artist responsible for the White Temple. Keen photographers will want to be @ street level, but you might also enjoy the view with a cocktail from the second storey of the Kaffee Hub, across the road. A new coffee shop has also opened on the north-eastern corner. Chiang Rai is changing rapidly.
Grab something to eat at one of the traditional Thai restaurants west of the New Clock Tower, on the northern side of the street, just before you reach the big 7/11. And/or wander up and down Jet Yod Road before or after dinner, in order to investigate the restaurants, bars and massage parlours. The Teepee Bar, one block further east along the main road, and then just around the corner on the left, is crazy and charming: classic rock and antiques. Perhaps they go really well together?
How about a boat trip and some elephants?
The ferry pier is on the northern side of the Mae Fah Luang Bridge. It’s pretty organized, and life-jackets are issued. The jackets are a bit tatty, but who cares? Boats can be hired between 6 am and 4 pm: boating at night is too dangerous.
A long-tail boat ride along the Mae Kok River to Ruammit (I hour going upriver) and return will cost 700BHT regardless of the number of people on board. This is great fun and highly recommended. You can hire a boat or there are regular departures.
Ruammit is a ‘short-necked’ Karen village, with Lahu, Lisu and Akha villages nearby. There’s a 100 - 200BHT photo-opportunity with a python @ Ruammit, if your inner-Leda is that way inclined.
Sometimes you can see the elephants being bathed in the river and that is just delightful. I personally found the elephant camp depressing, but I am hypersensitive. It is good fun feeding them bananas and sugarcane (20BHT a bag). You can go elephant riding, if you wish: for 1 or more hours, through rice fields, forests and streams. Excursions can be made, by elephant, or by walking, to the two-tiered waterfall @ Hua Mae Sai and to the hot-springs @ Huai Mak Liam. You can swim at the waterfall or take a dip and a foot bath in the Pha Soet Hot Spa near Huai Mak Liam, across from the elephant camp. Thais love their hot springs and they love boiling little eggs in wicker cages in the hot water.
Elephants in general: try to visit the Anantara Golden Triangle Resort & Spa and Elephant Camp while you are here. You can also learn to drive an elephant: there are half-hour lessons available, or a 3 day intensive course. This is a top-notch organization, with prices to boot. However, they have some specials this year: check out …anantara.com/special-packages.aspx
Extended excursion: You might like to continue up-river from Ruammit by boat to the small village of Tha Ton, to the north-west, which is actually in Chiang Mai province and quite close to the Myanmar border. To go from CR to Tha Ton by boat takes 5 hours going up-river, and 3 hours downriver (times are approximate). So, if you do choose to make this excursion, you need to leave by 10.30 in the morning. If you are visiting during the cool rainy season, that is the time for bamboo rafting back to CR. The river swells with the rains and the rapids can be exhilarating. If you decide to raft downriver, it takes 3 days and 2 nights: Tha Ton Boat Club 053 459427.
Tha Ton also has a monastery, Wat Tha Ton, where they teach Vipassana meditation in English. Within 20 km of Tha Ton you can visit villages inhabited by Pauang, Black Lahu, Akha and Yunnanes. The Akha hill tribe village Ban Lorcha is highly recommended.
Why not spend at least 3 days here in Tha Ton, visiting villages, trekking and rafting? Or 7 days meditating?
Wat Thaton International Meditation Centre (Buddhaleelamahasati Dynamic Vipassana Meditation Retreat): No drop-ins, please. Contact them beforehand. They prefer 14 days notice, will accept reservations by email and like you to re-confirm 3 days before. The minimum stay is 7 days and the maximum is 10. The retreats usually take place early in the month. There is also a Drug Rehabilitation facility. Interpreter: Phra Ratha Mahaviriyo (Vayagool). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Dream boat excursions: I am fascinated by the rivers in and around Chiang Rai. I’m still in the planning stage. The trip on a slow boat to Luang Prabang was wonderful. I could perhaps travel upriver on the Mae Nam Khong (Mekong) by apple boat from Chiang Saen to Yunnan, China. That sounds interesting. I could jump into the Kok in CR and tube downriver until I can’t go any further, e-coli and rapids permitting. Or, as a short side-trip, go from Chiang Saen to Chiang Khong and find my own way back overland to CR. And after that, another cruise down the Mekong, all the way to Vietnam. With an excursion cruising Tonle Sap in Cambodia? Lots of things to think about. Could take years.
Coffee @ Doi Chaang: relaxed reading of papers: coffee and cakes. Or go to BaaChivitMai Coffee Shop and Bakery near the Old Bus Station: 591 Moo 6 Hua Doi. The latter is run by an independent religious aid organization and raises funds to support orphanages, education, vocational training and people suffering from AIDS: www.baachivitmai.com
Taking a car, or bus (20BHT) from the Old Bus Station, rather than a tuk-tuk, is recommended, in order to visit The White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) and gallery complex some 20 minutes south of the city. You could spend at least an hour or two here, or more. The artist is Chalermchai Kositpipat. This is a modern temple and a work of art in itself. Even the golden amenities block is amazing. There is a sophisticated and rather slick gift shop: grab some postcards. Don’t forget the artist’s own gallery/museum across the road.
Now, what next? You have to make a decision. You can go to a wonderful waterfall, or you can go back to town. Lunch is due reasonably soon, and food can be found virtually anywhere.
You can choose the waterfall option:
The White Temple is situated at the entrance to Khun Kon Waterfall Forest Park, 12 km away. Khun Korn waterfall @ Mae Korn, about 30 km south of CR, is the highest waterfall in the district, with a 70 metre fall of cool, clear, clean water which runs all year round. You need to be fit: it’s 1,400 metres above the carpark. The hike takes about 45 minutes along a forest-fringed path that cuts through several cascade pools and over bamboo bridges. Swimming is allowed. There is plenty to see and do in the park.
Town option: shopping (textiles, dressmaker) and/or museum.
Shopping: why not buy some hand-woven cotton fabrics and some silk and have these made up at the dressmakers? There are 2 good shops near the New Clock Tower, just to the west of the Tower on the northern side of the street. Ordinary imported textiles can be found to the north-west of the main market, in a special section.
You will get the best results by bringing along a garment you want copied. If you want really nice buttons, it is best to bring your own. If you want metal zips, specify this. You can buy metal zips in the market, but it will take all your ingenuity to find them. Don’t be annoyed by the shop assistants following your every move: just grin and bear it. Service varies tremendously: you might have your own personal shadow, which I find intensely annoying, or be ignored completely, as the assistants eat and watch TV. In actual fact, it is very rare to go into a Thai shop when they are NOT eating.
If you are really keen on having some clothes made, bring patterns and haberdashery from home. And then have the most wonderful time. This is your chance to be a fashion designer. Enjoy it to the full.
Just a note about silk here: they seem to use a virtually invisible iron-on lining when making silk clothes. If you are fussy, ask to see a finished outfit first: you may, or may not, not like this effect.
Oh, and do be careful about which dressmaker you choose. You get what you pay for. I can recommend Khun Nee, who lives in a sprawling low-set house to the right of the La Vie en Rose Hotel. No English is spoken. She is not one of those overnight users of slave labour: your garments will take a few days to make. I have no idea about tailors.
Option 3: museum
Mae Fah Luang Art & Cultural Park is 5km west of town on Hong Lee Road, @ 313 Moo 7 Baan Pa Ngiew, Tambom Robwiang, Chiang Rai.
053 716 605-7, 053 601 013 Fax. 053 712 429
Tuesday – Sunday, 8:30am – 5:30 (17.30) pm
Video and useful map of the northern region: www.maefahluang.org/mfl_art_cultural_park.php
The region’s largest collection of Lanna folk art and teak artefacts.
‘Originally known as the Rai Mae Fah Luang, the Mae Fah Luang Art and Cultural Park was an initiative of the Queen Mother, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn (‘Phratep’), and began as the office of the Thai Hill Crafts Foundation. By purchasing and marketing handicrafts, the Foundation helped preserve traditional skills, supported ethnic minorities and played an important role in education and socialisation.
Today, the Cultural Park has the region's largest collection of art items from the Lanna culture or Tai culture (the minorities in northern Thailand, China's southwestern region or Yunnan, eastern Myanmar or the Shan States, northwestern Vietnam and western Lao). It is a cultural centre for Lanna Studies and is dedicated to the conservation and promotion of Lanna heritage.’
There are 5 exhibition areas:
The Botanical Gardens and Nature Park: indigenous and rare plants
The Haw Khumm (Golden Pavilion)
The Haw Khum Noi (Small Golden Pavilion): murals
Sala Kaew - ceremonial space for rituals
Haw Kaew - Gallery of Lanna Cultural Arts
Attractions include lakes; a barge; Lanna architecture such as the Golden Pavillion with its two Shan halls; Lanna candelabra, Buddha images, wooden altars and embroidered cloths for wrapping Buddhist scriptures. The museum’s admission fee and sales at the museum’s crafts shop are used to support the northern hill-tribes and their crafts.
Rest and refreshment.
Dinner and entertainment @ The Night Bazaar, which starts at 6 pm. Lots of handicrafts: keep an eye out for the burlwood business-card cases: my favourite. Professional entertainment, which often features transgender performers: large food court. Late to bed.
Personal professional massage at home. I find two hours is good. Schedule a 2 hour massage every week. At the retreat I stay at, it costs 250BHT an hour. This is not one of those soft, sensual, sweet spa massages: it’s a good, hard traditional workout. I have not been able to find a chiropractor here, but I have long believed that it is the muscles, rather than the bones, which are crucial.
After the massage, relax. Eat. Drink. Read. Go fishing: sit under an umbrella and dangle a line in the water. Have a BBQ beside the dam in the evening. Send off some good luck balloons in the moonlight. Sleep well.
If you are really interested in fishing as such, remember that the Mekong has the largest freshwater fish in the world: Pla Buek. These catfish can grow to 2.5 metres and weigh up to 300 kilos. The Chiang Khong Fishery Station, 115 kilometers to the north of CR, inseminates and breeds fingerlings and has released them into several rivers. The Station also sells fingerlings to the owners of commercial fishing dams. This fish cannot breed in dams, and that is why many fishing places allow you to land a catfish, but then you have to put it back in.
The fishing season in the wild is from mid-January to May. During April and May, the catfish make their way upriver to their spawning grounds in the north of Thailand. At Ban Hat Klai, near Chiang Kong, large fish called Payanak, as well as giant catfish, are sometimes caught. You wouldn’t, of course, want to fish for the latter in the wild: it is the most threatened species in the Mekong river. Catch data indicates the population has fallen by 80 percent in the last 14 years.
The catfish like to dine on a weed (filamentous algae) which grows on submerged logs and rocks. It is also a favourite human food, fried with sesame seed. Very high in selenium.
If you are keen to taste freshwater fish straight out of the Mekong, take a day trip to Chiang Khong and try the Nang Nuan restaurant @ on Ban Hat Khrai, which is open pretty much all day and into the night.
Fishing in Thailand often seems to be more social that solitary, and can involve chess, beer, karaoke, food, and a person to bait and hold your rod for you while you wait for a bite. My father would not have approved.
In Chiang Rai you might like to experience fishing Thai-style @ Khieng Doi Fishing Park @ 12 Moo 5 Tambon Ta Sai, 6 km from the CBD. It’s stocked with Pla Sawai (striped catfish), Tilapia, Pla Nuanchan, Giant Catfish and red-bellied Pacu. Having purchased your catch by the kilo, there's a restaurant which will cook your fish. If you really like the place, or succumb to a nap-attack, or meet a fisherperson of a similar ilk and kind, there are some small cottages to rent (350BHT a night). I have to tell you the absolute truth: it’s worth a visit to watch Thais at play, but the food was off the day we went. Nor did I try the caterpillar and chili dip. Stick to beer. There’s a small reservoir with a shady terrace overlooking a shallow shingle where a Tangle of Thais cast lines in close proximity.
There are also several other venues, such as Dao Daeng Fishing Park to the west and Chiang Rai Fishing Park @ 435 Mu 6, Tanon Serm Rat.
For up-market fishing in a calm and scenic atmosphere, you can’t really go past Mae Chan Winery, where it is possible to fish, raft and canoe on the lake. Perhaps its time for a trip combining wine and fishing?
Take a samlor (human-powered rickshaw) and visit 2 or 3 temples in the city.
Do not think that by using a samlor you are doing a bad thing: these people have nothing to sell but their labour. Agree on a price and an itinerary before you start, and tip very generously. The samlors are usually found near Dusit. If you are a couple with some added poundage or extra height, take 2 samlors.
Khun Wim Narenthonsenee is the official patron of the samlor drivers here in CR and is currently preparing 4 suggested optional itineraries on their behalf. These will be written in both English and Thai and you will be able to download them off the web, print them out and point to the one you want. That way you will know where you are going and the driver will know where to take you. Of course, you can make up your own itinerary, and mark it on the map to show the driver.
They already have a Nine Temple Tour around the city: Tour Sam Lo Pho Wat is a half-day tour of nine (a magical number) temples in CR: 120BHT an hour: contact Khun Chalong 08 50310417. I personally feel 9 temples are just too much to take in at one time.
As a compassionate human being, their patron Khun Wim is genuinely committed to helping them. Just a quick note on names: it is good manners to use the honorific Khun for your friends and superiors: Khun applies to both men and women. Thais usually use their first names, which is good, because surnames here are more like tickertape. Thais are also very fond of nicknames: as soon as you have mastered their first name, along comes another one. Conversations can be confusing.
Samlor trip around 3 selected temples:
Wat Phra Kaeo, which is one of my favourites, also has a most interesting two-story museum, and a green jadeite replica of the Emerald Buddha. It’s a very ancient temple and was originally surrounded by groves of golden bamboo.
The original Emerald Buddha is very much revered in Thailand: traditionally its possession has conferred power and prosperity. It’s actually made from jasper or jadeite, not emerald, but as it has never been tested, no-one is absolutely sure. According to some accounts, it is very much travelled. Some histories suggest it originated in Patna in India, went to Sri Lanka, travelled to Angkor Wat, then successively to Ayutthaya, Kamphaeng Phet, Lopburi, Chiang Rai, Lampang, Chiang Mai, Luang Prabang, Vientiane, Thorniburi and then to Bangkok’s royal Wat Phra Kaeo. There it remains, although at one stage in early 1944 it nearly went to Petchaboon.
It is said that in 1390 AD King Mahabhrom of Chiang Rai hid it here. During its sojourn, it was concealed beneath a layer of stucco, which was then plated with gold leaf, and it was then concealed within the principal golden stupa. It was re-discovered in 1434 when lightning struck the stupa, cracking it and revealing the Buddha inside. The Buddha showed considerable independence at this time: the current Lanna king wanted it for his capital, Chiang Mai, but the elephants carrying it insisted, on three separate occasions, on going instead to Lampang.
The main chapel houses the Buddha image, Phra Jao Lan Thong, which is believed to be at least 700 years old and was relocated from the old town of Chiang Saen. It is one of the largest and most beautiful Buddha images in Thailand.
Some most interesting murals. If you have a bloodthirsty child, they will enjoy the image of a war-elephant tearing off a human’s head. The murals are action-packed but the actual details are quite small. I do not think these images will launch your progeny into a life of mayhem and murder. Besides, if they were so inclined, where to find a suitable elephant? And, if they want to take it home, what would Thai Air think? I suspect there is a potential movie in this scenario: tourist child finds brave, valiant, friendly elephant in Chiang Rai and returns with it to New York to fight crime. Where is TAT when you need them? Hello?
The new Emerald Buddha was carved in 1990 from 1.5 tons of Canadian jadeite, donated by Howard Lowe, a Canadian millionaire of Chinese descent. Its official name is:
Phra Phuttha Rattanakonnawuttiwatsanuson Mongkhon.
Please note that the prayer hall (ubosot) was originally built in 1890 as an assembly hall, in Chiang Saen style, which is delightfully described as ‘incubating hen’.
Wat Phra Kaeo was appointed as the First Royal Temple of Chiang Rai on 31 May 1978 (B.E. 2521).
Location of the temple: Corner of Trairat and Saeng Kaew Roads, four blocks northwest of the Clock Tower
Wat Klang Wiang was founded in 1432 at the centre point of the original city. Once upon a time a large ‘Chan’ tree (Red Sandal Wood) was located here. The complex was damaged by a storm in 1903, when the tree was destroyed, and the complex was extensively re-built.
Location: Corner of Rattanaket and Uttarakit Roads, three blocks northeast of the Clock Tower
Wat Phra Singh
Note especially the the viharn’s front door, designed by Ajarn Tawan Duchanee from Baan Dam.
Location: Singha Klai Road, near Overbrook Hospital, four blocks north of the Clock Tower
That’s enough temples in one day for most farangs.
Or, if you are not interested in temples, what about gardens and plants?
If you like gardening, and live in a garden resort, ask your host to give you a guided tour of the garden. There may be fresh fruits in season: sample some. Your host might also be able to show you the leaves used in domestic religious rituals. You will learn interesting things: there is a small green wrinkled fruit like a lemon or a lime, with a fragrant smell. This is called Makreut. Its juice is applied to the fontanelle on newborn babies’ heads. It is also used to condition adult hair. Ask your host to take you to a plant nursery, (called here in Thailand ‘tree-garden’) and revel in all the different kinds of plants. Buy a small plant as a gift.
Learn about the various flowering trees in the city. The official flower of the province is Dok Puang Saed: Orange (or Golden) Trumpet vine, which flowers in and around December to March.
Chiang Rai is very much a seasonal city: fresh products arrive in bulk at certain times of the year and are celebrated with great enthusiasm. Nang Leh is a sweet local pineapple. In March, little crunchy, tart Pu Leh pineapples become available. There are mangoes in April, lychees in May, and in July a sort of oval chesnut-like nut called Kow Laht, which is boiled before eating and is delicious.
You might like to stroll through Somdet Phra Si Nakarin Park, 8 kilometres from town on the road to Mae Chan, behind the Ratchaphat Institute. It is a very large park with botanical gardens and ponds full of lotus flowers. Next to the Park is the School of Traditional and Alternative Medicine of Rajabhat University.
If you are keen on walking every day, choose a nice spot like this. Anyone who wanders along the roads here is looked on with amazement, amusement and concern. I tried it once, and was almost immediately rescued by an amazed young Thai person on a scooter, who didn’t speak a word of English, but offered me a lift. He thought I must have escaped from one of the more expensive resorts, and kept trying to take me back there. We did get to town eventually. No-one walks along city roads in Thailand for the purposes of health and recreation.
Good spots for walking include the verdant gardens around Pattaya Noi.
In the cool of the evenings you can go jogging at the northern end of the old airport runway. Here you can also watch Thais at sport and play. Join in and make some new friends.
As an aside, the nightlife and sporting facilities near Chiang Rai are about to be revolutionised later this year. The 4,000 seat Chiang Rai Hills Stadium opens in October with The Chatipan Cup, when football teams from each hill tribe will compete. Don’t miss this! It will be just amazing. Okay, what’s so special about the new stadium? The Chao Phya Abhai Raja Siammanukulkij Foundation has planned the Stadium as an event centre, catering for sports activities, entertainment extravaganzas, shopping, food etc. It has been built in an ecologically friendly way, but also has an 8 by 5 metre LED screen. The complex will provide support, skills, income and ultimately management opportunities for disadvantaged youth in the north of Thailand: www.chiangraihills.com
Time for lunch.
If you wish, invite a Thai to lunch: ask to try a local speciality.
In Thailand, it is usually the most senior, or most important person, or the person who extends the invitation, who pays. Sharing expenses is out of the question: don’t go there. I myself have had great difficulty in paying for meals, particularly if I am lunching with an alpha Thai male. I realized pretty quickly that it is seen as shameful for me to pay the bill: I am only allowed to pay if I have had a beer, or wine. They see this as a terrible indulgence, outside of the accepted system, and I am allowed to pay in this instance. To save face, don’t pay the bill but give a gift later, instead.
Manners are a strange thing in Thailand and let’s face it, we farang are hopeless blunderers. The very existence of fingers and feet is frowned upon, as is keeping your hands in your pockets. Blowing your nose at table after being overwhelmed by a spicy dish is also infra dig, but young men can quite happily pluck their nose hair in public. It is all a mystery to me.
Anyway, back to you and lunch looming on the horizon.
There is an interesting dish, Kanom Chin Niam Ngeow, made with the red stamens of flowers that grow on tall trees. You will sometimes see people collecting the flowers that fall: they are harvesting these stamens. The dried stamens look like saffron. To tell you the absolute truth, I couldn’t detect a distinctive taste.
A popular restaurant for Kanom Chin Niam Ngeow in CR is a nondescript place opposite one of the entrances to the Reclining Buddha temple: it’s just a glass cabinet @ front, a small buffet with some chairs and tables, and a dusty little courtyard/car park to one side.
So, having come so far in search of this dish made with flower stamens stewed with tomato and pork, you might as well visit yet another temple. It’s just across the road: Wat Phra Non, off Wat Pranom Road.
Few tourists seem to come here. The reclining white Buddha is not one of my favourites, but is much loved by Thais. For the foreigner with a local guide, this is your chance to experience fortune-telling, Thai style. There’s a row of boxes on the left, sort of like vertical roulette wheels. Slip the auguries a 10BHT piece through a slot at the front of one of the boxes, get your number, and it’s self-serve for a little leaflet in a basket on your right. The leaflet is in Thai. I think you need to know what day of the week you were born. My prognosis was not good. I think perhaps I need to drink more herbal wine for health reasons.
This complex is well worth visiting. There’s lovely bas-relief carving, including some glorious doors depicting the life of Buddha. It was raining the day I visited, and we had just purchased a bag of lychees at the market. There’s nothing quite like eating lychees in the rain and watching the temple’s painted façade turn iridescent pink and olive green. There’s got to be a song in there somewhere. There are golden rabbits and elephant-headed reptiles to marvel at.
Another building, made of wood, is three storeys high. The ground floor is an open pavilion, housing bits and pieces of interest, combined with a collection of drums. The bits and pieces include old European clocks, a few traditional toys such as coconut clod-hoppers, the aforesaid drums (as well as a fine drum carriage), some antique bicycles and a few bags of concrete. Upstairs there are banknotes and coins, a few old black and white photographs of CR, and two most interesting decorations, traditionally made with banana leaf. These days they are made with plastic and fabric, but if you are interested in craft, now’s your chance to get up close and personal in order to see how they are made.
If you like architecture and/or wood-working, the stairs going upstairs to the first floor are very interesting, as is the tiny vertical spiral staircase to the very top floor. Note also the sliding wooden screens around the second storey. This temple complex is a must-see for the serious woodworker.
Back to the serious business of lunch.
Northern Thai cuisine is based on sticky rice (Khao niew) which is usually served with curries; chilli sauces; salads and stir-fried vegetables.
Local specialities you can try while visiting CR are khaeng khanoon (spicy jackfruit curry), khaeng yuak (banana palm leaves), sai oo-a (pork sausages) and Yunnese and Burmese rice noodles. You can also try Nam Poo, Tua Nao, Kab, Namtan Aoi, Nam Prik Larb, Ma Kwaen, Dok Ngiew, Ba Laeb, Cha Go and desserts: Kha Won Nam. Larb is a premier Lanna dish, often made using raw flesh. Look it up. I quite like it, but the uncooked versions doused in fresh bile are not to my taste. No traditional family ceremony takes place without Larb. It’s very spicy.
Okay, in the morning you have had the choice of some interesting temples or gardens and botany. You have lunched on local specialities. Now it might be time for some physical activity.
In the afternoon, go to one of the glamorous resorts and pay to use their swimming pool. Prices and premises vary. Or play golf.
There are two premier golf courses (both par 72) set in beautiful surroundings outside of Chiang Rai: Santiburi (20 minutes) and Waterford Valley (45 minutes). The 18-hole Santiburi course was designed by Robert Trent Jones for Khun Santi Bhirombhakdi, the owner of Singha Beer, while the Waterford Valley course was created by Rather International in 1994. In town there are two 9-hole courses. Tuition can be organized.
Or go bowling @ Chiang Rai Bowl. If you don’t want to swim or play golf or go bowling, you might go water-skiing on the local lake: www.planetewakeboard.com
Or mountain-climbing (look up Boomerang Adventure Park: www.ThailandRocks.com
What about horse riding? Mae Salong Outdoor stables at Ban Mae Salong Nai, west of Mae Chan (33 kilos north of Chiang Rai and 9 km west of the highway also offers target shooting and camping. There are 60 horses available. Joe's Horse Club, near Mae Suai, offers half and full day riding tours through longan and lychees plantations (350BHT an hour), and riding lessons. Don’t expect dressage mounts in Thailand.
You can also go horse-riding @ the Ostrich Farm (300BHT an hour), or, if you are completely off your rocker, ostrich-riding (100BHT). The Wana Ostrich Farm is some 7 km south of the city. Here you can sing cowboy songs around the campfire: go camping/fishing/ride in a stagecoach, the normal sort of things you would expect to do in Thailand. Their restaurant serves ostrich eggs and steaks, among other things.
Or look up Chiang Rai Bicycle Tours: they organize half-day to 5 day tours around Chiang Rai: www.chiangraibicycletour.com
There are lots of other activities as well, such as mountain biking, trekking, caving and rafting, but they need a whole day to do.
Between us, in confidence, I would like to do a Harley Davidson tour as well while I am here. Look up The Golden Triangle Rider. You can arrange rental or pillion. They are also an excellent source of maps. Buy one before you arrive in order to plan your trip. Salivate over it for a few months before arriving. Pin it up in your hotel room as soon as you unpack. Allocate 2 or 3 days for such a tour. I think I would like to visit the northwest of the Province in this way.
I personally hate zoos, but you might like to visit the small rustic Chiang Rai Zoo, a 25 minute drive on Route 1211, to the west. Basically a breeding sanctuary, it’s open from 9 – 6 every day: creatures include birds, deer, bears, monkeys, leopards, turtles, pythons, gibbons and Siamese crocodiles. You can buy bananas here, but you also might like to bring some other little snacks: certain birds like sunflower seeds, while others prefer fruit. Perhaps feed the children to the crocodiles?
A boutique travel company I have been impressed by is Smiling Albino. If you want to do something special, it’s worthwhile talking to them: http://www.smilingalbino.com/home/
They also do a 4 day dirt-biking trip through The Golden Triangle.
Later, have drinks on the terrace @ home and practice your karaoke.
If you can sing karaoke, you are more than welcome EVERYWHERE in Thailand. If you are musical, you might even buy one of the famous wooden saxophones at the Night Bazaar. Or various local string and wind instruments, including fiddles and panpipes. Me: I rattle the saucepans.
If you want to be more social, go ‘jam with Sam’ @ The Cat Bar in Jet Yod Road, open between 5pm – 1 am: pool table, cold beer, electric guitar collection, live music after 10.30 pm.
For the more sedate, earlier in the evening, the Wiang Inn has a piano bar. Expensive: solitary and sad, but rather nice if you are in or out of love. I was lucky enough to be invited recently to watch a jam session here between the resident piano player and Carabao’s saxophonist, who was in CR for a visit. You never know who you are going to find jamming in CR: Thais in the entertainment industry like to holiday here. Don’t know who Carabao are? Look them up on the web. Wiang Inn also has the Torino Bar & Karaoke. Try not to get too confused between the Wiang Inn and the Wangcome Hotel and the Inn Come Hotel ….
Day 7: let’s pretend this is a Saturday
Learn a craft.
Organise this some time before you arrive. Be realistic: sometimes the craftsperson may not be available. In Chiang Rai, people do not perform on demand: anything unusual and worth doing is individually arranged. As it should be.
You might want to learn weaving, sar paper making, pineapple paper making, elephant-manure paper making, woodcarving ……. or any one of a myriad local crafts. I personally am quite interested in the punctured sheet-metal foil.
Organise this well in advance, if possible, and be prepared to pay for your tuition and materials.
A new hub for art and culture is Prataap Jai: ‘As an art gallery, tea house, cultural, art and movement educational center, and small store theater, we aim to provide a clear alternative environment to the typical ‘bar scene’ which is often the place where foreigners interact with Thais. The goal of our work is to enable cross-cultural exchange among foreigners and Thais; to provide a place where foreigners and locals can meet and learn from one another in positive, productive and creative ways.’ They provide various classes. This is a great place to meet the locals and find out what is happening in the art scene: http://prataapjai.com/. Check their website for opening hours.
Photography: if you are a very keen photographer, you might like to touch base with SG Photos Thailand, who organize tailor-made tours in this region especially for photographers: email@example.com
Video: Now, for something completely different. Some of you may have seen Aria, which is a wonderful film made in 1987. If you haven’t seen it, and you like opera, check it out. I particularly liked the bedroom farce (Verdi: Rigoletto) set in San Luis Obispo's famous (notorious?) Madonna Inn. Now this is your chance to star. Take a tuk-tuk to The Red Rose Hotel, south of the CBD and near the old airport: 60 Moo 14, Prachasanti Road. Have a look at the rooms, (ask for a tour). Your home movies may never be the same again. Alternatively, young kids (and those who are young at heart) might just enjoy a stroll around. Look up Google images: you’ll be so glad you did. Note: children do enjoy the themed rooms but this is essentially an adult hotel. I told you: CR is full of hidden surprises.
Saturday Night Walking Market (Kaat Jiang Hai Ramleuk) along Thanalai Road: starts @ 5 pm. This market is very good for arts and crafts and FOOD. Eat yourself senseless. The main food section is up a side-street: don’t miss it. When passionfruit is in season, try one of the fresh passionfruit drinks. They are delicious. The Thai restaurant just across from Restaurant P sells chicken feet soup.