48 Hours in Chiang Rai
A two hour bus ride northwest of Phu Sang will land you in Chiang Rai, Thailand - a city teeming with beautiful temples, Thai massage parlors, restaurants offering international cuisine, and a bustling night bazaar. In celebration of completing (surviving) our first full week of teaching - we hopped on the local bus and headed to this charming city to do some weekend exploration, seeking new adventures and a little anonymity.
The bus station in Chiang Kham (the closest city to our school in Phu Sang) is a hub of buses and travelers leaving for various destinations across Thailand each day. We caught (quite literally) the bus to Chiang Rai at the nondescript bus stop across from our school on Friday afternoon. Lucky for us, on Fridays David and I both finish class around 2:30 PM. Although, the school day does not technically end until 4:10 PM, our incredibly sweet co-workers in the foreign language department encouraged us to leave right after class so we could make the 3PM bus. We paid for our tickets while enroute to Chiang Rai - each ticket was 45 Baht (or ~ $1.37). A man came around to each row and collected money. Truthfully, we were a little unsure of what was happening when the man began walking around the bus. But as they say - when in Rome, do as the Romans do. We observed some of the other passengers handing over their Baht - so we followed suit and did the same. After two hours of meandering our way past beautiful rice fields, mountains, and several dogs leisurely snoozing in the sunshine we arrived at the Chiang Rai city bus station around 5PM.
Stepping off the bus in Chiang Rai, that sweet beginning-of-the-weekend feeling descended upon us. We were reinvigorated after our first week of teaching and ready to put our ‘Lonely Planet’ research to the test. We headed from the bus station straight to our hotel, about a 15 minute walk through the city. When browsing the internet for our weekend accommodation, Dave sought a place that met three main criteria (which I was happily on-board with): close proximity to the bus station, free wifi, and air conditioning. We booked a room at a hotel called “Your Home”, run by a very sweet, very smiley Thai woman who spoke little English. We arrived at Your Home to a pair of unmoving sliding glass doors. We stood perplexed for several minutes wondering if there is was an obvious way in that we were just not seeing. Two minutes later a charming 5 year old boy dressed in traditional Thai clothing came to our rescue. He opened the doors, handed us a room key, and lifted up three fingers, as in the number three; then closed the doors and waited patiently outside, watching us. We entered a dark lobby with a couch, an empty front desk, and a staircase. In true farang fashion we approached the front desk and stood there - expecting a concierge to check us in and exchange pleasantries. After another minute of standing at the empty front desk in the dimly lit lobby with confused looks on our faces, the sage 5 year old boy opened the sliding doors again, looked at us, and formed a number three with his fingers. I nodded earnestly at the 5 year old boy, hoping to appear far more sure of myself than I actually was. I whispered to Dave,“I think we are supposed to walk up the stairs and find the door that says number three.” We walked up the stairs, relieved to discover that our key did in fact open the door to room number 3.
After settling into our room (which included wifi, AC, and a temperature controlled shower!!) we headed out for the evening and walked over to Chiang Rai’s famous night bazaar. The night bazaar is a sizeable market boasting an impressive food court, live entertainment, and merchants selling a variety of clothing, jewelry, art, and trinkets. We surveyed the different options at the food court - a variety of tempting smelling fried food (spring rolls, fried shrimp, french fries, etc.), an assortment of traditional Thai food (chicken and pork cooked in different spices with noodles or rice, etc.), an array of fresh fruit smoothies (mango, pineapple, durian, banana, etc) and sweet coffee drinks, and the option of cooking your own produce and meat/seafood in a “hot pot”. We elected to go with the hot pot option - a popular choice among many of the patrons at the food court. We selected a basket of produce from the food stall and indicated our selection of meat (chicken and pork) to the cook. We sat at a nearby table with our produce basket where the waitress brought out the hot pot, utensils, and different sauces. A few minutes later she brought out a selection of pork and chicken and we got to work cooking up some delicious meat and veggies in our hot pot.
After dinner, we took a stroll around the bazaar. There must have been close to a hundred vendors selling all kinds of Thai clothing, accessories, snacks, art, and more. We walked by several stalls showcasing intricately designed scarves and wraps made of Thai silk. There were bags galore - beautifully handcrafted, vibrant handbags and backpacks designed by local craftsmen. There was lustrous jewelry - gemstones, silver bracelets, delicate necklaces, and colorful brooches lay on display tables tempting our eyes and our wallets. There were salesman beckoning us to purchase leather belts and wallets (or several) and offering to lower their prices when we declined. There were stalls showcasing exotic snacks like durian chips and ice cream. Durian is a tropical fruit grown in Southeast Asia. It’s actually banned in several countries due to its pungent aroma (however, it’s supposed to have a sweet, creamy taste!). We’ve yet to try it, but it’s on our bucket list. When we left the bazaar, we walked away with full stomachs... and a handful of postcards to send to our family and friends back home. There were many purchases we considered making, but we were happy just to be there and witness the market in full swing. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that it won’t be long before I become the proud new owner of one (or two) of those colorful bags.
Post bazaar we met up with a new friend, Christian, who we met at our CIEE orientation in Bangkok. Christian is teaching English to middle school students at a school a few kilometers away from Chiang Rai city. We met Christian and a few of his friends (also teachers in Thailand) at a bar on the first floor of a popular hostel called Norn Nung Len (Sit Sleep Play). The hostel was filled with fellow travelers (lots of farangs) and much to our surprise, a live band playing American music. There was even a Christmas tree, appearing to be made of beer cans wrapped in red and green paper. We hung around the hostel for a while, enjoying a bit of home in a foreign land and talking about our experiences as teachers and what brought each of us to Thailand. A few drinks later, we made our way to a rastafarian bar and enjoyed some Thai whiskey. We sat outside for a bit and made friendly conversation with a group of twenty-something locals sitting beside us. After a few rounds of cheers (or “rwy” - Thai for “rich”), we said our goodbyes and took the scenic route back to the hotel, stopping to see the Chiang Rai Clock Tower on the way.
The Chiang Rai Clock Tower is an intricately designed, golden structure encasing a clock that serves as the center of a traffic roundabout. The Clock Tower was designed by Thai artist Chalermchai Khositpipat as a tribute to a Thai King (Majesty King Bhumibhol Adulyadej) and was revealed in 2008. Supposedly at night there is a laser show - a synchronization of lights and music at 7PM, 8PM, and 9PM daily, that is somewhat of a “must-see” for passersby in Chiang Rai. We’ll have to take the word of the internet on this one though, as we were a bit preoccupied with rastafarian bars, new friends, and Thai whiskey to make it to the show.
On Saturday morning, we set our sights on temple hopping and good eats. We rented a motorbike so that we didn’t have to rely on taxis, tuk-tuks, or Grab (the Thai version of Uber) to get around the city. It cost 240 Baht (plus gas money) to rent the bike for 24 hours; the shop provided us with sweet helmets too (mine had minions on it). We were required to leave a security deposit with the shop owner to rent the bike - we had the option of leaving our passports at the shop or paying 3000 Baht that would be returned to us when we brought the bike back the following day. We decided to leave our passports at the shop so that we wouldn’t have to carry them around with us all day. HA - just kidding, Mom. We paid 3000 Baht, put on our fashionable helmets, and drove to one of the most beautiful temples in all of Thailand - Wat Rong Khun, also known as the White Temple.
The White Temple was designed by Thai artist Chalermchai Khositpipat. If you’re thinking that name sounds familiar - you are correct. This is the same guy who designed the Clock Tower, but the White Temple came to be about 20 years prior. To date, Khositipipat has spent ~40M Baht (of his own money) to completely redesign and rebuild the original dilapidated Wat Rong Khun as an offering to Buddha. The White Temple opened to visitors in 1997, although construction remains ongoing and is expected to continue through 2070. Upon completion of construction, there will be nine distinct buildings at Wat Rong Khun each serving their own religious purpose. The White Temple is a breathtaking work of art, full of Buddhist symbolism and mythological metaphors. Inside the main structure of the temple, known as the ubosot, the Buddha is displayed. It is custom for both Thai and foreign visitors to remove their shoes before entering the ubosot as a sign of reverence. Photos within the ubosot are considered disrespectful and therefore, are not permitted. Within the White Temple’s ubosot, an exquisite mural laced with religious and pop culture references adorns the walls. Within the mural tributes to American culture can be found including a picture of the twin towers at the World Trade Center, Neo from The Matrix, and Iron Man. You can read more about the design and symbolism of the White Temple here.
Next up on our agenda was touring the “temple-like” compound known as Baan Dam (Black House). Crafted by the late, contemporary Thai painter, architect, and sculptor Thawan Duchanee, Baan Dam is truly an architectural feast for the eyes. Nearly forty unique and somewhat sinister houses of varying shapes and sizes stand juxtaposed by a peaceful garden that is open to tourists during the day. We purchased a ticket granting us access to walk through the ominous garden and peer into the mind of the brilliant Thawan Duchanee. There is no denying that this artistic maze of houses is a captivating work of art. The structures in Baan Dam are intricately and deliberately architected - a common design theme is woven throughout the property showcasing dimly lit rooms with animal bones, skins, and phallic totems. Duchanee actually lived on the premises for a period of his life and offered use of the space to other artists. He passed away in 2014, leaving his visitors to ponder what message he was hoping to convey through this intriguing masterpiece.
After a day of sightseeing, we headed back to Your Home to do two of the things we do best - take a nap and gameplan for dinner. We woke with dreams of hamburgers and french fries, so we took to Trip Advisor to make this dream a reality. With a dinner reservation made for 7PM, there was about an hour and half standing between us and the fulfillment of our western food fantasies. So we sunk into full vacation mode and topped off our leisurely nap with a decadent Thai massage. There were several Thai massage parlors within walking distance of Your Home and we picked one at random. Two incredibly warm women greeted us and promptly started on our foot massages - which we anticipated to last for thirty minutes. Much to our delight, our masseuses stretched, kneaded, cracked, and pulled our tired bodies (including our legs!) for a full hour. They even served us tea at the end and handed us a card of the “get 10 massages and the 11th one is free!” variety. In total, we paid 400 Baht for both massages - $7 per massage. Yes, please.
In our relaxed state, we headed to our dinner reservation at Chivit Thamma Da - a highly regarded coffee shop and bistro located along the Kok River. Chivit caught our eye per the overwhelmingly gushing reviews on Trip Advisor and the restaurant’s extensive menu offering international cuisine and breakfast all day. We arrived 15 minutes late to our 7PM reservation due to rainy weather but were greeted by friendly staff and promptly seated at a cozy table tucked away in the corner. If your grandmother’s cutesy living room and a hipster coffee shop had a baby - the result would be Chivit Thamma Da. Glass tables, wicker furniture, bookcases, and a central fireplace create an inviting ambiance for dining inside the restaurant. The outside terrace offers patrons the option of enjoying their meal alongside the river. The menu is expansive - offering traditional Thai food, Western food, Asian favorites, and more. We opted for the Northern Thai Sampler which included cut up vegetables, a schmorgus board of sausage, and three dips with varying degrees of spiciness. Indulging our craving for a taste of home, we decided to split a cheeseburger and french fries, and washed it down with a bottle of red. We declined dessert, enjoying our state of satisfying fullness (“im” - as the Thai would say), paid the bill, and ordered a Grab to drop us off at the Saturday evening walking market.
Note to self and other frequenters of Thai transportation - if it’s raining outside, and your driver is nervously laughing while asking you to confirm the address you requested, he/she is probably trying to tell you something. When we arrived at the destination we entered in the Grab app, we were bummed to see most vendors hurriedly packing up their stalls. The rain had put a damper (pun intended) on the ability to comfortably walk through the “walking street market”, resulting in an early closing time. A bit dismayed but not defeated, we devised a quick plan B and headed back to the night bazaar for some tipsy perusing and rolled ice cream.
On Sunday morning, we wandered into BaanChivitMai bakery where I leisurely sipped an artfully made, non-instant cappuccino (my first non-instant coffee in weeks!). A buttery danish and some homemade peanut butter made their way into my backpack to be enjoyed on the journey home. We learned that all proceeds from the bakery support the BaanChivitMai Foundation (translating to “Home for New Life”), a relief organization that supports vulnerable hill tribe children in northern Thailand. The foundation does some pretty incredible work to support children affected by HIV and lack of quality schooling. You can read more about the BCM foundation here.
With our road trip snacks in tow, we headed to the shop to return our motorbike. The friendly shop owner kindly inquired about our trip and thanked us for our business. We returned our fashion forward helmets (goodbye, minions!) and received the 3,000 Baht deposit we had left at the shop the day prior. We thanked the shop owner for a seamless experience, walked a short distance to the bus station, and boarded the bus back to our new home in Phu Sang, already plotting a return trip to Chiang Rai.