It is dark, cold and we are stumbling up a rough mountain goat track at 5 am to try to get a memorable image of sunrise over Laos. Sometimes I wonder about the sanity of travel writers!
But let me start at the beginning. We are in far northern Thailand experiencing the attractions of Chiang Rai Province far from the crowds of Bangkok and Phuket. We spent the night in the border town of Mae Sai where the constant traffic between Thailand and Myanmar creates a booming economy. Thais come here to cross the border on shopping expeditions for cheap Myanmar and Chinese goods but there is limited appeal for foreigners.
The Golden Triangle
Fifty years ago, this was almost a no-go zone as it was controlled by various gangs who turned it into one of the world’s most prolific opium producing areas. Today it is cultivating tourists rather than opium. Its peaceful, untouched landscape has become a draw for visitors and as we passed through vibrant green rice fields and little villages with their golden temples, I understood its appeal.
As we headed southeast, we moved from the plains into rolling hill country and before long we reached the Hall of Opium.
I believe this is one of the best museums in Thailand outside Bangkok and almost certainly the most interesting place to visit in the Golden Triangle.
It exhibits the history of opium around the world, the production process, the devastating effects of opium smoking, and campaigns to eradicate and substitute the crop.
The Hall is something of an opium theme park, with the latest in multimedia exhibits and lots of information in a modern setting. I was impressed! It was built by the royal Doi Tung Foundation, who have been instrumental in changing the lives of the locals in a very positive way.
Where the rivers meet
The main triangle area is a few kilometres south on the Thai riverside near the point where three counties meet. You can look out and see across the Ruak River to Myanmar and across the Mekong River to Laos. This is only mildly interesting for most people, so a series of bizarre attractions have been erected by the riverside to add to the appeal.
There’s a giant golden Buddha on a ship, elephant statues which you can climb, elaborate shrines to the royal family, half a dozen signs announcing you are at the Golden Triangle, and river cruise touts, souvenir shops and various cafes. I must say I was under-whelmed and quickly realised this was a major tourist trap, so we moved on.
Chiang Saen and south
About ten kilometres downstream on the banks of the Mekong is an old Lanna capital, the small but charming Chiang Saen, which is dotted with temples, historic buildings and ruins. Wat Pa Sak was built by King Saen Phu in 1295 when three hundred teak trees were planted here. The temple’s chedi is beautiful in the Chiang Saen-style and the exteriors are elaborately decorated with designs.
Wat Phra That Chedi Luang was built by King Saen Phu, the 3rd ruler of the Lanna kingdom in the early 13th century. The bell-shaped, Lanna-style principal chedi, measuring 88 m in height, is the largest structure in Chiang Saen.
Phu Chi Fah
For the next few hours, we more or less followed the Mekong River downstream but this is not a river drive because you need to pass through some rugged mountains with plenty of winding, steep parts of the road. Little villages dot the hills and corn fields and other crops abound.
Finally, we reached our accommodation in Phu Chi Fah at the Phu Mok Dok Mai Resort which had bungalows with a small bedroom, a private bathroom, and a balcony.
The reason for visiting Phu Chi Fah is to watch the sun rise over the hills in Laos from the top of a mountain range in Thailand. If you are lucky, mists blanket the mountains below, revealing only the jungle-covered peaks in Laos. This is a magical sight.
After settling into the resort, we checked out the town. It was tiny and late afternoon most of the vendors had packed up their stalls so we decided to drive through the Phu Chi Fa Forest Park to the car park to watch the sunset. An hour later we drove down again and enjoyed dinner at the resort.
We were told by the locals that to watch the sunrise transform the skies from dark blue to a pinky-orange, we would need to get to the top of the Phu Chi Fa Forest Park trail way before the actual sunrise.
So, there we were climbing the 760-metre rough dirt path in the dark. We were certainly not the only ones. Flickering lights from mobile phones and torches dotted the hillside.
It was cold at the top with a stiff breeze making it uncomfortable so we were pleased when the first signs of dawn appeared. Slowly the view opened up, revealing forests, hills, valleys, farmland and the mighty Mekong River. Above it all, golden rays turned the sky into a wonderful work of abstract art.
Phu Chi Fah is not only great at sunrise and sunset though; the daytime views are also pretty spectacular. To see the snaking valleys and the rows of endless pristine mountains in Laos makes many visitors stop and contemplate their lives. It could well be Thailand’s greatest view.
How to get there
When the travel situation returns to ‘normal’ there will be flights to Bangkok from many cities around the world. From Bangkok there are many daily flights to Chiang Rai which take about 1 hour 15 minutes.
Most visitors are permitted to stay in Thailand for up to 30 days if entering via an international airport under the Visa Exemption Rule.
Images: Phensri Rutledge
Len is the author of Experience Thailand 2020 available as an e-book or paperback from https://www.amazon.com/Experience-Thailand-2020-Guides-Book-ebook/dp/B082WZZ19G/
Two years ago, the world held its breath. When the media spotlight shone on the dramatic rescue of 12 young soccer players and their coach from the Tham Luang Cave, Chiang Mai, Thailand was put on the world map.
Overnight, the entire world became aware of Chiang Rai. Previously, if anyone thought of it at all, it was often confused with the larger Chiang Mai, 180 km to the south, but not anymore. Now Thailand’s most northerly city is firmly on the tourism route.
And so, it should be. Our recent visit showed that Chiang Rai City has an abundance of tourism attractions, headlined by three amazing architectural marvels. These can be summarised as the black, white and blue. The surrounding province contains some of Thailand’s most dramatic mountain scenery so a week in this area is not really enough.
The Baandam Museum (Black House) will astound you. Renowned Thai artist Thawan Duchanee spent more than fifty years building this somewhat controversial museum of folk art. It isn’t just one structure but a collection of around 40 buildings of varying shapes and sizes dotted around a peaceful garden. Each one is different and most are worth visiting.
Thawan was an incredibly talented recluse who lived in one of the houses on the site until his death in 2014. Now the whole complex has been taken over by the government. Black, gold and red were the three signature colours of the master painter. These striking contrasts permeate the collection of houses, sculptures, animal skins, bones and relics.
Located about 12 km north of Chiang Rai City, you will need at least 1 hour to look around. This is a very popular spot, so if you want to beat the crowds its best to go either early morning or an hour before the museum closes. Try the mini-pineapples while you are there and you will agree that they are the sweetest in the world.
Wat Rong Khun or the White Temple was designed by national artist and native of Chiang Rai, Chalermchai Kositpipat. The entire complex is an enthralling fusion of religious sanctuary, museum and art gallery. It has evolved into the top attraction for first-time visitors to Chiang Rai and the complex is packed in the mornings with tourists who commute from Chiang Mai for the day.
It’s not really just a temple, despite the monks; it’s more of a wildly expensive and expansive art exhibition. Visitors are surprised to find curiously irreverent imagery on the exterior — as well as Hello Kitty, Michael Jackson and Spiderman on the inside. Some find this imagery kitschy and its sacrilege to others.
The emergence of the Predator from the ground is interesting and many hands reaching up as you traverse through the lifecycle of life, death and rebirth is a strange experience. But none of this should distract from what is probably the most artistic of Thailand’s temples.
Work on the temple will probably never really be finished, with present projects scheduled through 2070 but this on-going work does not distract a visitor. There is an art gallery, shop and café amongst the other structures in the compound.
The best time to visit is near dawn or dusk to miss the tour groups. The temple is 12 km south of Chiang Rai City. Foreigners are charged Baht 100 (about £3) to enter.
Wat Rong Suea Ten, commonly known as the ‘Blue Temple’, opened in 2016. An artist who studied under white temple artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat, completed the exterior and interior designs.
What’s instantly attractive about the Blue Temple is just how vibrant the colours are. The deep blue building decorated with golden detail is simply stunning to look at. Unlike the White Temple, you’re allowed to take photos inside the Blue Temple. You won’t find any pop-culture references inside this one as the interior has a more classic design. At the centre of the room sits a white Buddha lit up with bright blue lights.
The temple has quickly caught the imagination of visitors who flock to its courtyard to take photos and worship. Entrance is free. A popular activity is to buy and eat the blue ice cream available from a vendor on-site.
Wat Huay Pla Kung which is a new entry on Chiang Rai’s growing list of unusual temples combines gold and white. There is a giant white statue of the Bodhisattva Guan (Goddess of Mercy) within which you ride to the top in an elevator, a white temple decorated with Lanna-Chinese art, and a 9-storied gold pagoda.
The monk here has supposed healing powers and the mainly Thai Chinese who come to the temple to be healed have donated large amounts of money to build the Chinese statue. It is a giant landmark which dominates the local area.
Getting to Chiang Rai
There are many daily flights from Bangkok on several airlines which take about an hour and 15 minutes. If coming from Chiang Mai, the road trip takes about three and a half hours. The city has a wide variety of accommodation suitable for all tastes and budgets.
Images by Phensri Rutledge
Len Rutledge is the author of Experience Thailand 2020 available as an e-book or paperback from amazon.com