Thailand: Chiang Rai and the White Temple

Post 4 of the South East Asian Adventure series. View the rest of the series so far here.

We chose to have a night in Chiang Rai so that we could see Wat Rong Khun, also known as the White Temple: a very modern, very unconventional temple/art installation designed by contemporary Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat. It took a three-hour bus journey to get from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai, but this turned out to be a treat in itself.

We’d booked our seats on the bus the day before, opting to spend the equivalent of a few pounds more on the VIP bus – and it was so worth it. Our seats at the front of the bus were super comfy and roomy, and we were brought free bottles of water (with straws for spill-free drinking!) and brioche-like snacks as we set off.

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The large windows revealed gorgeous scenes of tropical trees and mist-shrouded mountains as the bus climbed into the jungle canopy, before descending into the small city of Chiang Rai. Unfortunately I forgot there were two bus stations in the city – the old one in the centre, and the new one far out of the centre. Our bus took us to the new one, and we had to get a songthaew to the old one (if you’re planning this journey, keep this in mind!)

Na-Rak-O Resort
From the old bus station it was easy to find our guesthouse, Na-Rak-O Resort, and I was delighted when I saw it – it was just as cute in real life as it had looked online. The building is white with rainbow-coloured accents, and each room is decorated with a different colour scheme. Our room had red polka-dot furnishings and fluffy green mats that put me in mind of a ladybird on grass. It had lots of cute little touches too, such as colourful animal-shaped soaps. Up the open-air stairs is a communal kitchen providing free eggs, bread, bananas, coffee and tea, next to a terrace with table and chairs.

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The little old lady that owns the place is very sweet. She told us the cheapest way to get to the White Temple was by getting a local bus from the old bus station, so that’s what we did. English is less widely understood here than in Chiang Mai, but all the bus drivers knew what we meant by “White Temple” – in fact, they guessed we were going there just by looking at us – which made finding the right bus easy. Crossing the major road at which the bus dropped us wasn’t so easy, but the distant white spires at least told us we were in the right place.

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A beautiful nightmare
We reached the Wat Rong Khun complex through a small mall, where we stopped to eat some questionable cold noodles and unidentifiable meat balls. But they were soon forgotten when we laid eyes on the temple – its large, white, intricately filigreed exterior shining in the sun like fresh snow. As we drew closer we began noticing the temple’s macabre details: pits filled with desperately reaching arms, screaming faces tangled with bodily sinews, weapon-wielding demons and one-eyed monsters. All of this sculpted in clay, inlaid with glittering mirror shards. It’s probably the best embodiment of a ‘beautiful nightmare’ you could ever see.

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The interior walls of the central temple (where photography isn’t allowed) are covered in an amazing painting that seems to depict heaven, hell and all that’s in-between. We were surprised to spot depictions of famous characters from popular culture, from Disney cartoons to superheroes, floating around scenes of real-world events that included the Twin Towers falling on 9/11. Steve interpreted this as the Buddhist artist deeming all popular culture evil; I interpreted it as him using popular culture to represent the materialistic temporality of life on earth, as opposed to the enlightenment of heaven. This is what makes the richly detailed, surreal artwork so amazing – there are so many layers of meaning buried within it, and so many interpretations to draw from it. It’s also the only piece of art that’s ever interested Steve!

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Wat Rong Khun has one detracting feature, and that’s the ‘fun police’ that patrol it. They were not only ensuring all shoulders and knees were covered (fair enough) but also blowing whistles if anyone paused anywhere ‘too long’ for photos. When it began raining, they shut off the bridge to the central temple so that no-one could enter. We were inside when the storm started, so had to dash from it to the covered walkway nearby (getting drenched in the process).

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Exploring Wat Rong Khun
When the rain eased off we had a wander round the other parts of the complex, most of which are still under construction, and marvelled at a magnificent golden building – which turned out to be the toilet block. I’d be willing to bet these are the most extravagant toilets in the whole world. The surrounding area was populated by movie characters, sat on benches or hanging from trees as clay heads.

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Closing time came too soon, and we had just enough time to rush around Kositpipat’s art gallery before being thrown out entirely. In there we spotted some very intriguing political paintings featuring George Bush and Osama Bin Laden.

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Unfortunately we lingered a little too long and ended up missing the final bus back to town – although it took us a while to realise this. We turned down offers of comparatively expensive tuk-tuk and songthaew rides back and regretted it when we were still waiting half-an-hour later. Miraculously, about an hour after we started waiting, a local bus appeared and took us back to town, although I doubt our stop was on its route!

An evening in Chiang Rai
Back in Chiang Rai we wandered around its night market, sheltering from the drizzle under an umbrella. This was our favourite night market of all we saw in Asia. Its shops and stalls were more spaced out and seemed to hold more varied, higher-quality items, and the main area – strung up with fairy lights – held a stage where a band were playing traditional music. From there we went to see the clock tower to catch one of its hourly music and light shows.

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For dinner were drawn into Kaffee Hub, an open-air pub near the clock tower, by the buzzy atmosphere and the live musician playing covers on guitar. The evening started off well with us competing to be the fastest to guess the covers while sipping frozen cocktails and beer. Unfortunately, the food was mediocre and the service terrible – once our food had been served the staff seemed intent on avoiding us, even actively ignoring our attempts to get their attention. It’s usually a good tip to go somewhere the locals go, but as we watched the locals being served while we were ignored, it was impossible not to feel that we were being discriminated against.

Thankfully this was our only negative experience in Chiang Rai. After finally managing to get and pay our bill, we went to American ice cream parlour Swensen’s for dessert and treated ourselves to a chocolate brownie sundae and a chocolate lava cake. These tasted amazing, and the staff, who didn’t understand us any more than the staff in the last place, were lovely. Proof that you don’t need to speak the same language to communicate well.

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And that was the overwhelming impression we took away from Chiang Rai – a charming town off the beaten path, which nevertheless welcomes and rewards tourists who know where to look.

The next morning we flew to Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam.

All text and photos (c) Juliet Langton, July 2016. All rights reserved.

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