Tuesday, 10-02-2015. Day 174.
White Temples, Golden Toilet, Golden Triangles.
Our initial plan had us staying in Chiang Mai for a few days, then taking a bus up to Chiang Rai, even further north in Thailand, to take in some of the sights up there for a few days. But once we got settled into Chiang Mai, we didn't really want to take a three-hour bus ride. So we arranged for a day tour of Chiang Rai through the host of our apartment.
We were told that our tour bus would come pick us up at 6:00 a.m. It didn't arrive until 6:30 a.m., which wasn't really a problem—we had no other plans. With us on board, there were a total of ten of us—a number of Chinese ladies and a married couple (she was Malaysian and he was German). Our guide told us that we had a long day ahead of us and we wouldn't be back until after 8:00 p.m. He also mentioned we'd be eating lunch about 1:30 p.m.
There was only room in the back of the van, and, since it wasn't exactly a new van, the air conditioning didn't work well. I still wasn't feeling well, and sitting in the back of a hot van traversing questionable roads made for a somewhat unpleasant trip. But after an hour and a half of twisting, bumpy roads, we arrived at our first stop. I felt decidedly woozy. This wasn't going to be a pleasant day.
Rest Stop: Hot Springs
This place is a typical tourist trap that has been built up around a series of sulphur hot springs. There were a few geysers and some pools where tourists can soak their feet. We were happy there was a toilet (which we had to pay for) and lots of merchants selling the same old stuff. I was happy to find a bottle of soda water, because we had another hour and a half before we got to our next stop, The White Temple.
Wat Rong Khun (The White Temple)
The White Temple is not so much a temple as it is a privately owned art exhibit designed like a Buddhist temple. The original Wat Rong Khun had fallen into disrepair and there was no money to restore it, so in 1997 Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat decided to recreate the temple, combining classic Buddhist imagery with modern iconography. These days it's one of the biggest tourist attractions in the area.
Chalermchai has already spent 40 million baht on the project, one that he believes will grant him immortal life, and the complex continues to be a work in progress. It isn't expected to be completed in 2070.
The temple proper was closed when we visited, so we didn't get to see the images of Michael Jackson, Harry Potter, Hello Kitty, Superman and Neo (from the Matrix) that are painted on its walls (photography wasn't allowed inside anyway). But we did get to see the Golden Toilet.
The Golden Toilet
The Golden Toilet is part of the White Temple Complex. When our guide told us about it, I was expecting an actual toilet made of gold. But no, it's just the building that's gold. And with all the tourists stopping here, the lines were really long. This was the last building we visited before getting back on the bus—after all, we had another hour and a half before we'd arrive at The Golden Triangle.
The Golden Triangle
When we arrived at the Golden Triangle, everyone was hungry. And by everyone, I mean the entire van, not just the four members of our family. The lady from Malaysia (who was not going on this part of the tour) appealed to our guide to have lunch first, but he wasn't having it. Instead, he directed us to a long pier where a boat was waiting for us. We climbed aboard the boat with a mess of other tourists and started off down the Mekong River, the 7th longest river in Asia.
As we cruised down the Mekong, traversing the borders of Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), and Laos, a different guide pointed out interesting features of the area, like borders between the nations. But the most time was spent showing us where the casinos of Laos (pronounced Lao) were located. There's no gambling in Thailand, so many Thais travel across the river to Laos to get their gambling done.
Welcome to Laos
For 30 baht, we all got a special one-day visa to the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone in Laos. This was just a big market with vendors hawking all the same stuff you could find at the Chiang Mail Night Market, just maybe a little cheaper.
Before we could do any shopping, however, we were treated to a hands-on introduction to a number of different rice alcohols infused with unusual items. The oddest of these was tiger penis (you can see this below on the left), which people allegedly drink for potency. Everyone was offered a sample, but everyone declined ... except for two Chinese gentlemen.
We did end up buying a deck of playing cards for 50 baht to replace a deck we'd lost in Cambodia. We were told that, because of the "no gambling in Thailand" thing, a deck of cards in Thailand would run us $10. Although we didn't confirm this, we weren't interested in paying that much, but $1.50 was a right civilized price for cards.
After we got back from Laos, it was well past 2:30 p.m. and no one on the van had eaten since before 6:30 a.m. Thankfully, we finally went to have a very forgettable lunch at a forgettable place where all the tourists go to have lunch.
Northernmost Point in Thailand
After lunch we all piled back into the van and drove for a while to the Northernmost Point in Thailand. Unless you're a cartography nut, there's not a lot going on here, other than being able to see a gate leading to Myanmar across a river and the obligatory market stalls. If you're interested to see where this is, check out these coordinates: 20.444347,99.880634.
KayAn Lahwi Hill Tribes
Yes, these are the so-called "giraffe women, " the tribe of people who wear rings to elongate their necks, and they're set up in a really touristy village setting where they make and sell all sorts of crafts like woven blankets and hand-carved figures.
We did get to see a number of women and girls wearing these heavy rings, but the whole thing was very sad and felt exploitative, the polar opposite of our visit to a Cambodian village. This was set up for tourists, and the villagers didn't look like they were having any fun. Watching so many people snapping pictures of these women and putting on fake neck rings to pose with them, made us feel sad. We decided to not to take any photos of them. I really regret this part of the tour.
There's a whole display about the effect of wearing heavy brass rings on a person's neck—it doesn't actually elongate the neck, but rather pushes the shoulders down deforms the ribcage.
On the way back to the van, there was an ice cream vendor here selling, among other flavors, durian ice cream. The four of us passed, having had our durian experience in Singapore, but everyone else jumped on the chance to have some. We were surprised how popular the stuff is.
After our visit to the hill tribes, we started the long drive back home. We arrived back in Chiang Mai well after 8:30p.m., and we were dropped off first, which we were really happy about. It hadn't been the best tour, even though we saw what we'd set out to see, and it was good to be home.
- 7-Eleven "Chilling Towels" used: 5
- Hours in a van: 9
- Countries "visited:" 3