Chiang Mai & Chiang Rai, Thailand
Temples Galore in the Countryside
Huay Xai, Laos
A Familiar Countryside and a Sleeper Train
It’s becoming quite clear that my camera phone isn’t cutting it. We had hopped on an overnight sleeper train to Chiang Mai, which actually became a drinking and cards game train with minimal sleep in our silk sleeping bags we’d just bought. I was dreading these next 15 hours because of a past experience on an over-crowded sleeper train in Italy…where the walkway was littered with people sleeping on the floor. But outside of that, I’ve always had a thing for overnight sleeper trains and this did not disappoint. It was actually a very comfortable ride and bed. There were no actual beds…but instead the benches turned into bunks which was pretty cool. I fell asleep at 10pm and woke up around 4:30am…and never went back to bed. The scenery is so lush and beautiful, and what I believe are coconut palms remind me of the lands that the Vietnam War were fought in. Clearly Thailand is a different country, but the vegetation and view look similar to what I’ve seen in every Vietnam movie. But it’s amazing how at the same time, this could just be another state back home (view wise at least).
An even greater contrast was the social differences between Japan and Thailand. What makes one society desire to advance technologically and economically, while another’s dedication is primarily to religion (Buddhism in this case)? And to me, this seemed to be at the expense of economic advancement (I’m not talking about amassing wealth…but instead social development like clean tap water, easy access to healthcare, etc). I know my view on this may be short-sighted, or outright wrong…so I’m hoping my Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Lao, and other friends can throw in some insight here. I’m sure I’ll be seeing many variations and differing levels of this throughout the rest of the trip, and I’ll only be able to glean a tiny bit of insight in my short time here.
Temples & Beers
We arrived at 10am and had breakfast before checking in. Immediately I can sense that Chiang Mai is much more laid back than Bangkok, which was expected. A few of us rented bikes and rode around this walled old town, which is also surrounded by a moat, stopping to see the numerous temples. Wat Suan Dok was the best one. Temple visits quickly turned to numerous drinks and food pit stops on our bike ride. It was probably the best way we could have used our time. In the afternoon, we went to another temple. Wat Phra Doi Suthep is on top of the neighboring Doi Suthep mountain range, and has a breathtaking view overlooking Chiang Mai. Our tour guide JB had timed this so that we could see and hear the monks chanting. I recorded some of this (it’s allowed) with the hopes of making it an alarm to wake up to.
Night Markets & Muay Thai
The sights and view from Doi Suthup there were spectacular, but we soon headed back and went to an awesome dinner (I’m particularly in love with the seafood here). We cruised the night markets a bit and saw a group of ‘lady-boys’ as JB taught us the correct term. Then came the best part of the trip so far: watching Muay Thai fighting! While these were amateurs and these fights happen every night, it is still so awesome to watch these kids battle. You do not want to go head to head with one of these guys. And while they were all Thai, there was one exception: an Icelandic guy who had flown in to fight. We thought this guy was going to get rocked by the local Thais…but I wasn’t sure. I swear I was watching Ivan Drago from Rocky IV. He had the same haircut, look in his eyes, shoulders, swagger, everything. And he whooped his opponent (clearly, no Rocky). What an amazing experience this was. Slowly, we meandered our way home through some random backstreets and called it a night. Thank god I have good map sense or else I would have ran across more lady boys in these back alleys. Tomorrow morning: a 5 hour car ride to Chiang Rai and then a river crossing to Huay Xai in Laos!
A Temple of Extremes
The countryside drive to the border was very similar to the train ride as far as the view. I was extremely tired so I slept the last half. But what I did see was a countryside that seemed almost more developed than the USA. Northern Thailand is dominantly agricultural (about 90% of Chiang Mai’s population lives outside of the urban area), so it makes sense that the farmlands and houses are so well built. The one thing that really caught my eye was a massive emerald green Buddha sitting in the middle of nowhere. Too bad I couldn’t snap a picture of it fast enough.
We arrive in the farming town of Chiang Rai to see the White Temple, Wat Rong Khun, which seemed out of a science fiction movie. This was an amazing contrast to see the wildest temple design in a farming town. Definitely the most glimmering temple, it was all white, with silver and gold glass trim. Inside on the temple walls there were paintings from fantasy and sci-fi cartoons and movies like Robotech and Star Wars. I had no idea why this belonged on the inner walls of a Buddhist temple. Then I saw one thing that really stuck out to me, and I still have no idea what to think of it. On this Buddhist temple wall, there was a painting of the World Trade Center Twin Towers on fire, with planes flying into it. Open-mouth snake heads coming out of the buildings gasp for oil drops, with bombs and blood raining down out of the sky onto the fiery scene. A gas hose wraps around and comes out of the towers to spill fuel into another person’s mouth. Clearly, I was shocked and offended at the sight. To back up for a second, I moved to NYC two months before 9/11, and spent the actual day of 9/11 and the following 3 days at the site trying to assist. That event is very sensitive for New Yorkers and Americans in general. But I have a feeling the intention was to motivate ‘anti-violence’ rather than incite hatred. If anyone knows anything about this painting or if there’s been any controversy around it, I’d be very curious to learn more. Until then, I’m going to reserve judgement.
Laos or Lao?
We leave Chiang Rai and finish the drive to the Thailand Laos border, which is the Mekong River. After going through customs on the side of the road, we take a long narrow raft across to Laos which only takes 5 minutes. The next few days will show how little I’ve known about Laos (or is it Lao? I guess we’ll learn soon…) and why no expectations were a great way to meet this country. A new city, a new country, and a new adventure awaits!
On to the next one:
Huay Xai, Laos (coming soon)
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