Being lovers of all things art and creativity we had to go to the White Temple in Chiang Rai. And, given that Paul has always wanted to travel to Myanmar, we had to go to the Golden Triangle so that he could glimpse the country of his dreams. So we booked a one-day Chiang Rai / Golden Triangle tour with TravelHub Thailand. Neither of us are really tour people but with so little time remaining before we head home, it was the best option. And it ended up being a fantastic day; the tour guide really just facilitated the transport, food and site entries and gave us just the right amount of time in each location. But you don’t want practicalities. You want to know what we felt, saw and experienced.
It was a long three hour drive from Chiang Mai to the White Temple. Some of the drive was beautiful and took us along a winding road snaking across a mountain range while other sections travelled through hot dry towns slung out along the highway. But the drive is worth it because words will never do the White Temple justice. It is hands down the most beautiful structure I have ever seen. It glitters like ice and snow on a bluebird day. The attention to detail is spectacular, if somewhat disturbing with all those skulls and flailing hands. If you go there, take the time to walk around the back of the complex because, while there were hundred of tourists competing for photo space out the front of the temple, we pretty much had the sides and back of the complex to ourselves. The temple is still under construction so we could not go inside. The artist is building it as an example of modern Thai art and, apparently, the interior is being decorated to reflect the state of Buddhism in the twenty-first century, rather than the traditional historical stories.
After 40 minutes we pull out of the White Temple complex and join the convoy of mini buses heading north on the same itinerary. Don’t be mistaken here: Thailand’s tourism industry funnels everyone nicely along the same route. It’s easy to see why The Beach was set in this country because it really is like Leonardo di Caprio’s speech in the opening scenes of that movie. But that’s no reason not to travel to this amazing country. Just be prepared to join the convoy if you want to see the most famous sites.
Our mini bus pulls into the carpark at the Hill Tribe village site. I cannot remember which tribe we visited but I am sure they are all fairly similar on this tour. There’s a big sign on the highway announcing the exit to the village and a carpark already lined with other mini buses. But it does seem as though people actually might live here from the way the huts are constructed and the washing hanging on the lines. It’s a way of life that seems so primitive. We learn that many of the hill tribes originate from Myanmar or China and crossed into Thailand as “illegal immigrants” (I hate that term). They never used to have citizenship status but now do so many work in the cities selling souvenirs at markets and their children now have access to Thailand’s education system. The hill tribe village visit is almost totally commercial in nature. We get a little talk about their houses and vegetable gardens before we are let loose in the small market under the watchful eye of the tour guide, who enquires after every purchase (to make sure the company’s commission is accounted for?). We buy a few small things. Paul has a softer heart than me and enjoys buying gifts for people so he buys a bit more.
But I guess, this is responsible tourism in a way because $2 or $4 mean very little to us at home. It won’t even buy us a coffee. But here it is enough to feed a family for a day. I mean, we donate money to charities and give coins to beggars because we feel it is the right thing to do. But then we haggle to the last baht with vendors who are actually working to feed their families. It’s an interesting conundrum isn’t it. And the prices at the hill tribe market are not extortionate so that makes us more comfortable buying.
Another long convoy drive takes us to the Golden Triangle. I sleep almost the whole way there so cannot tell you about the scenery. Once there we eat a buffet lunch overlooking Myanmar, which is only about 100m away on the other side of the river. I have a chuckle about how one of the biggest tourist attractions in Thailand is the view of its neighbours (Myanmar and Laos).
After lunch we decide to pay the extra 330 Baht ($16) to take a boat ride on the Mekong River and to enter Laos. The river is muddy and wide. We head upstream to the place where we cross into Myanmar (on the boat). I am surprised to see a huge casino on the Myanmar bank of the river. The visa requirements for Myanmar are relatively complex so we cannot touch the shores but it doesn’t matter because I’m not into casinos anyway. The boat turns and we move towards the opposite bank, which is Laos. My excitement at being at these borders needs to be viewed in the context of my living on an island nation in Australia where visiting a foreign country requires a long flight over the oceans (hence why we call visiting foreign countries “going overseas”).
The boat docks at an island on the Laos side of the river and we are allowed to disembark for thirty minutes. Our passports are back in Thailand and our tour guide has organised our land tax for the island as part of the 330 baht we paid for the boat trip. We are fortunate because the tall trees are bathed in red flowers. I can’t recall the name of the flower and Google isn’t helping me. The flowers drop to the ground with a thud and are then collected and dried for use as a tea. There’s a festival on the island and gambling seems to be the main purpose with all sorts of gambling games set up in the festival grounds. Nearby there is also a casino in the Laos side of the river. The locals jokingly call it Laos Vegas.
Our final stop for the day is supposed to be the markets at Mai Sei on the Thailand-Myanmar land border but the tour guide offers us the option of going up a nearby hill to see a view over into Myanmar instead. We all readily agree and that’s our next stop. Here twin border towns flourish as vehicles cross a bridge into Myanmar. I’ve never been to a proper border town before (I don’t count border towns in Europe and the UK because you don’t need a visa or anything to cross them). On one side of the river the temples are Thai and on the other you can clearly see that they are Burmese. It’s fascinating.
There is a massive Buddha statue on the side of a mountain near the border. It’s impressive and I wonder who it’s intended for.
It’s already about 4.30pm when we leave the border and we have a long 4-5 hour drive back to Chiang Mai. We watch the sun set over the mountains to the west of the highway and then are plunged into a dull darkness. If you are taking this trip with children or are easily bored, I highly recommend carrying something you can use to watch movies on (because you can’t quite read in the dark). The drive is broken up by a short quarter hour stop for bathrooms and snacks. We arrived home at about 9:30pm, 14 hours after leaving. It was a brilliant day and well worth the 1,000 baht ($40) per person.
But the question now is whether we can say we went to Laos? Haha