Thailand has always been one of my favourite holiday and shopping destinations. It represents a good mix of the old and the new, traditional and contemporary. The food, whether from a roadside stall or restaurant, always tempts the taste-buds. Learning about the earthquake that devastated Thailand in early May brought back fond memories of my trip to Chiang Rai last year.
White Temple (Wat Rong Khun)
When the hotel’s limousine pulled up at the White Temple before just before 8:30am, the sun was just peeping out after a drizzle. This was my first breathtaking view of the magnificent Wat Rong Khun, sparkling majestically and beckoning every visitor to bow to its beauty.
Wat Rong Khun stands out as the only white temple in Thailand and is the work of celebrated artist and owner, Chalermchai Kositpipat. Everything about the temple reflects the artist’s idea of heaven, hell and Nirvana. Everywhere you turn, there are sculptures, features and carvings to marvel at, including hundreds of koi swimming in the huge fountain in front of the temple.
To get to the Central Hall, I crossed a bridge guarded by demons, and made my way across over a sea of clawing hands. Once you get on the bridge, you are not allowed to turn back.
As expected, there were statues of Buddhas, symbols and motifs adorning one wall in the Central Hall. But wait! Those images on the opposite wall look familiar! New York’s Twin Towers on fire, with another plane fast approaching, George Bush, Spiderman, Michael Jackson, Star Wars characters, Harry Potter, Freddy Kruger, Avatar characters, Terminator, Transformers, Elvis and even Kungfu Panda! I was taken aback by what the murals were trying to convey.
Story has it that the villagers were initially against the construction of Wat Rong Kun 1997. Temples in Thailand are usually painted in gold. To have a temple in white was considered sacrilegious. Chalermchai chose white instead of gold, to symbolise Buddha’s purity. The mirrors embedded in the structure represent Buddha’s wisdom shining across the earth and universe. The White Temple has since brought thousands of tourists to the area, and the community has benefited socially and economically.
Visiting the restroom in Wat Rong Khun is an experience. The room is spacious, luxurious and painted in gold. Chalermchai might have been trying to say that riches, opulence and wordly desires are transient, superficial pleasures that do not possess any real value or lasting happiness.
There is no admission fee for those who want to visit the temple.
I was saddened to read that the White Temple suffered heavy damage from the Bangkok Quake, and is now closed for repairs. Whether the shutdown is temporary or permanent is anyone’s guess.
Black House (Baan Dam)
The Black House is the personal art collection of Thawan Duchanee, but it isn’t your usual art collection or museum. The Black House is dark and gothic. The 40 wooden houses are decorated and lined with animal skulls, shells, bones, skin and painting from South East Asia.
Every new turn was full of surprises. Baan Dam is Thawan Duchanee’s depiction of hell. This structure is the opposite of the White Temple, designed by Thawan’s teacher, Chalermchai. Entry into the Black House is also free.
Chiangrai may look like a traditional provincial city but from the looks of the White Temple and Black House, it is a remarkable centre for nurturing Thai tradition with unique artistry and creativity.
Doi Mae Salong
Doi Mae Salong is one of the highest peaks in Chiang Rai. The ride up the mountain was pleasant, and the air fresh and cool. Most of the villagers staying today are ethnic Chinese and direct descendants of the Kuomintang.
The ideal conditions in Doi Mae Salong allow the cultivation of high quality teas. The sharp difference in night and day temperatures hold back the growth of the tea leaves, resulting in greater sweetness and aromas. The high altitudes are ideal conditions for the tea to absorb moisture from the clouds.
The Golden Triangle
The Golden Triangle is the meeting point of the Mekong River and Ruak River, that make up the borders of Laos, Myanmar and Thailand. This area used to be the centre of the flourishing opium trade.
My first stop was at the Hall of Opium. This fascinating museum houses the history and politics of how the opium trade started.
I then enjoyed a boat ride just to feel what it was like to be surrounded by three countries.
The boat also took me to the small island of Don Sao belonging to Laos. No visa is required for this quiet, tax-free shopping haven, selling souvenirs, cigarettes and local drinks. For a small fee, you can also have your passport stamped as proof that you have been to Laos. However, tourists are not allowed to enter into the rest of Laos without a visa.
Monkey Temple/Fish Cave Temple (Wat Tham Pla)
There were only a few local visitors at the Monkey/Fish Cave Temple When I arrived in the late afternoon. After feeding the thousands of fish swimming in the lake at the base of the cave, I was ready to make the climb up to the Monkey Temple.
A young boy of about 12 years old volunteered to be my guide. Armed with a long stick, we proceeded to climb the 200+ stone steps to get inside the huge cave hidden behind towering limestone walls.
The moment we started climbing the steep steps, monkeys appeared from nowhere and started to follow us on the metal railing. Occasionally, they would make their way in front of us and block the narrow steps. I was told to keep close and ignore the monkeys. As we reached higher, the air felt different and the scenery was breathtaking. There were all kinds of sounds coming from the nearby forest.
Just as we were about to reach the top, I turned around to take a photo of the view below. Big mistake! As I was composing my shot, some monkeys began inching their way towards me. A monkey started to snarl and show its teeth. I started to shout for help but it was too late! Before my young guide had time to react, the monkey had lunged at me and sunk its teeth into my left arm. While I was trying to shake it off, a second monkey came at me and attacked me from the front. A third one went behind me and started biting my inner thigh.
The monkeys retreated when my guide started to shout and swing his stick madly on the ground. We hurriedly made our way across the 15- meter clearing and sought refuge inside the cave.
I asked if the monkeys would follow us into the cave, but was told that the temple was sacred and no monkey would dare enter where Buddha sat. In the meantime, a group of 15 to 20 monkeys had made their way from the trees down to the clearing in front of the cave. No doubt they were planning their next move and waiting for me to come out of the cave!
I turned my attention towards the cave temple. It was damp, cold and dark, with two chambers housing a shrine of a golden Buddha.
The soothing smell of incense permeated the main chamber. Somehow, I felt safe inside the cave temple, despite hearing the loud chattering of macaques a few feet outside.
When the time came to leave, the guide told me that we had to remain inside the cave until the monkey leader left the compound. We had tried to make our way towards the steps, but retreated once again into the cave when monkeys started scrambling down from the steep limestone walls. After about half an hour later, the chattering stopped suddenly and the compound fell eerily silent. The guide signalled that the monkey leader had left the area, taking his followers with him. We hurriedly made our way across the clearing and down the steps.
Only after reaching safe ground did I realise that there was a big tear in front of my T-shirt and the bites to my arm and leg had drawn blood. I nursed my wounds by buying some “holy” water that had been blessed by the monk, and wrapped up my visit by drinking a cup of hot chocolate in one of the nearby eating stalls.