A Bit of TLC Part 9 - Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle

Chiang Rai, Thailand December 2023

Sounding a bit like a Harry Potter title, our next adventure took us to the very north of Thailand, although we weren’t departing from platform 9 ¾ at King’s Cross, but from the slightly less salubrious Chiang Mai Bus Terminal 3.

A little bit of paradise

The 3-hour journey north took us to our home for the next few nights, Chiang Rai.  Feeling in need of a quick battery re-charge, we’d treated ourselves to a stay in a slightly more upmarket hotel for a few days.  Our expectations were exceeded as we were led through beautifully maintained tropical gardens to our large poolside bungalow.  Things only got better, as we discovered the hotel’s “Happy Hour” with half priced alcoholic drinks from 5 – 9pm! They even gave us generous discount coupons for dinner that evening…

The “After Eight” clock tower

Taking it easy the next day, we did some laundry and I found a nice little nail salon where I had both hands and feet done for under £20…bargain!  We did manage a fair bit of r’n’r by the pool although the weather had turned much cooler (24 degrees!) – I even had to wear a cardi in the evenings.

Blooming Lovely!

There really wasn’t a great deal to see or do in Chiang Rai, but we were lucky enough to catch the Flower and Art Festival on the banks of the River Kok.  As we’d discovered, the Thais don’t do things by half, and this massive outdoor event didn’t fail to impress.  Hundreds of craft and food stalls led the way to beautiful riverside gardens, covered with floral displays that would give the Chelsea Flower Show a run for its money.  The weather had been quite dull that day, but at dusk the lights went on, perfectly illuminating the gardens and sculptures.  We also admired the floats that had been specially created by local artists, which must have formed an earlier parade. The whole event was stunning.

Heroes…or villainesses?

We managed to find a friendly Irish bar the following night to watch the football, and it all began to feel a bit like Christmas when I took myself off Christmas shopping at the local mall to stock up on a few treats for our next road trip.  I even managed to secure a nice bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon and a pack of Waitrose Mature Cheddar cheese without having to take out a second mortgage.  It didn’t feel quite as manic as our shops became a few days before Christmas, and I was amused to see groups of youngsters dressed up in elaborate Japanese Manga cartoon characters. Apparently, this is called “cosplay” …you learn something new every day!

Our second road trip involved heading northwards towards the borders with Laos and Myanmar – and only about 3 hours as the crow flies from China!  Not having wings, we were hoping for slightly less mountainous roads as our hire car was only a 1200cc, and we didn’t fancy having to push it up.  Our first detour was up a rather steep and bendy road to the village of Doi Mae Salong, originally settled by Yunnanese soldiers fleeing from communist rule in China. 

Oh my gourd!

It certainly felt more Chinese than Thai, and we had some delicious yellow noodles before exploring the street market. People from the local hill tribes shopped and sold at this colourful market, where you could buy everything from weird looking gourds, to car engines, a dozen types of rice and everything in between. The scenery was quite dramatic on the way down to Chiang Saen, our base for the night, and reminded me of those old Chinese pictures with bamboo forested hillsides.

Trying to “escape” Christmas, we’d settled on a riverside hotel in an area known as the “Golden Triangle” being right on the border of the three countries.  I enjoyed a glass of wine (a real luxury!) on our balcony overlooking the mighty Mekong river and over on the opposite bank was our next destination, Laos.

Our Christmas view – not too Laos-y

Christmas morning was spent in the neighbouring town of Sop Ruak, exploring the surprisingly good House of Opium.  No, not a crack den, but a brilliant little museum featuring information and displays on the history, cultivation, use and trade of the papaver somniferum poppy. It was a fascinating insight into what was the major crop in this area (at one point producing almost 70% of the world’s opium resin).  Thankfully, the land is now mainly used to manufacture tea, with large plantations dotting the hillsides.

Not often you spend Christmas morning learning how to make heroin!

We admired the views of the three countries from the temples at the top of the hill next to the museum before strolling along the busy waterfront, full of ornate golden buddhas, photo opportunities…and lots of people! Back in town there wasn’t a Mexican or Indian restaurant in sight, nor a menu in English come to that, and we weren’t brave enough to join the locals on their makeshift picnic tables and barbecues along the promenade. So, we enjoyed our Christmas dinner at a local restaurant where Pad Thai, chicken fried rice and a couple of drinks came to the princely sum of £12.50 – the cheapest Christmas lunch I think I’ve ever had!

Christmas dinner!

Not our usual Christmas day, but a memorable one for sure.

Keen to make it to Thailand’s northern most town of Mai Sae, we followed the road through thick bamboo forests and remote villages to a small café where we enjoyed our lattes with scenic views on the side. Mae Sae seemed pretty unremarkable at first glance, and seemed to consist of one huge, incredibly popular market.  I did enjoy wandering up and down the lanes however, being both amused and intrigued by the goods on sale.  Where else can you buy chestnuts, pick and mix and bras in the same place?

Brew with a view

Next was the border town of Chiang Khong (where we were heading back to on our way to Laos in a few days).  We had followed the Mekong as it curved between Thailand and Laos, and locals were able to take a ferry across at this point.  Again, we were pleasantly surprised by this place – our balcony overlooked a modern promenade/walkway along the river and I took a nice sunset stroll along the river, past temples, cafés and sleek hotels, watching fishermen cast their nets and longtails chugging up and down laden with goods.

Teddy bear’s picnic – Thai Style

We spent a sociable evening with Mark, a German ex-pat and his Thai lady, Mim at their Mexican (yes…I know – it was originally Mim’s dad’s restaurant, who was well travelled and loved Mexican food, and luckily for us, jazz and blues music).  The food, music and company were perfect and we wished we could have stayed longer in this very cool border outpost.

The final stop on our loop was the town of Phayao, set beside the largest wetland in Northern Thailand. We stopped for lunch at the picturesque Phu Sang waterfall – set in a pretty park amongst the jungle and huge limestone karsts,  with a waterfall that’s also a hot spring. It was full of school kids who were obviously enjoying splashing around in the warm water.

There be dragons…

Phayao itself was hosting yet another massive flower show, and we admired the coloured lights and displays along the waterfront before dinner.

Breaking the journey back to Chiang Rai the next day was the Disneyesque Buddhist temple Wat Rong Kuhn, nick-named “The White Temple”.  The first building we came to on this massive site, was actually pretty “golden” and fringed by artfully manicured hedges and weird Tolkein-ish statues.  The main temples and outbuildings at first glance looked like they were covered in snow which someone had then bombed with a giant mirror ball!  To say they were stunning, would be an understatement, and although fairly modern (it was designed by Chalermchai Kositpipat, a famous Thai visual artist in 1997 and is still not totally complete), the architecture and ideas are influenced by many different cultures. 

The snow queen’s palace

The various buildings host an art museum, a parsonage, various exhibition halls and even a waterfall featuring the Mutant Ninja Turtles (go figure!).  I think it will rival Barcelona’s “Sacre Familiar” when it is finally completed.

Headed back to Chiang Rai for our last night in Thailand for now…

Next Stop:  Feeling Laos-y

Lots more photos!…

Temple Yaksha tries out Nordic skiing
Triage for English patients!
I resisted!
Dumbo in the dhalias
The garden party
Come wither...
Tulips from...Chiang Rai??
Has anyone seen my bouquet??
The slow ride home
The Day of the Triffids
Funky floats
Giant golden gyroscope
Giant golden...savaloy??
Yummy Yunnan yellow noodles
All the tea in China (could fit in this pot!)
Not mush-room for anything else in this shop
Not too sure about the "traditional" baseball boots
50 shades of rice...
Who will buy???
Trunk road roundabout
Christmas drug re-education trip
The (Opium) Gardening Year
Smokers Paradise??
Pipe dreams
If these are "pillows", no wonder their beds are so hard!
Hmong children
Britney when she was going through her "Tribal" phase
It ain't all bad
The famous Golden Triangle
The biggest Ferrero Rochers I've ever seen!
Through the oblong window
Cross border elephants
Those Greeks got everywhere!
But...but...but...It's Christmas!
Market day
Chiang Khong's giant blue column!
Golden orb spider
Wonderfully warm waterfall
Giant banyan tree
Garden of lights
Chelsea eat your heart out
Purple Reign?
The lengths the Thais go to to keep their flowers watered!
The popular Phayao peacock
Gollum's brother
All that glitters...
...is not gold!
...then again...
Ninja mutant turtle waterfall???
Baby buddah
As soon as Ian saw the Man United shirt, there was no stopping him!

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