We spent 22 hours in buses, minivans, pickup trucks and ferries, but we finally arrived.
Chiang Rai, the northern little sister to Chiang Mai offers good strong coffee, a relaxed backpacker environment, a cooler climate, border runs to Laos and let’s be honest…drugs.
The choice to head to Chiang Rai came from our want to travel to the Golden Triangle. We wanted to learn more about the power struggles of the Shan State peoples, the history of the opium wars with potential CIA conspiracy and explore two architectural heroes – the White Temple and the Black House.
The Golden Triangle so called for the meeting place of three countries – Thailand, Myanmar and Laos – represents one of the top opium-producing areas in the world. It has been suggested that most of the world’s heroin comes from the Golden Triangle.
So was visiting Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle worth it?
If you are remotely interested in how borders are won and lost, the impact of trade between neighbouring countries and its peoples. Throw in the global use of heroin with the added potential CIA controversy – then you will love it.
If you couldn’t give two hoots about the above, then I’d say hire a scooter from Chiang Rai and ride to the White Temple and Black House and forget the rest.
Here’re our trip notes from a day of drugs and devotion. I must stress this was a learning day trip and not an experiential one!
For about 800 baht you can get a day tour and lunch to seven sites:
- White Temple (Wat Rong Khun)
- Black House
- Monkey Cave
- Tea Plantation
- Long-neck hill tribe village (pay 300 baht for entrance)
- Golden Triangle
- Opium Museum (pay 50 baht extra for entrance)
We thought this great value given many tour operators were suggesting 1000 baht. I even read records of people visiting only the White Temple and Black House and paying 500 baht.
Ethical tourism note: Skip the visit to the Longneck village. We try and not support these human zoos and everyone from our group who did visit regretted it. If you can get consensus from your group to skip the hill-tribe visit you may enjoy spending longer at the Black House or one of the other destinations. If your group does decide to go then do what we did and stretch your legs and wander around the rice fields.
I promised drugs and devotion. Let’s start with the devotion side of things.
The White Temple (Wat Rong Khun)
Pretty special huh?!?
On a Thai sunny morning, the white and mirrored temple blind you as soon as you exit the van.
Everywhere you look you are drawn into another story. Be it love, death, suffering, enlightenment, hope or balance. And that’s just the exterior.
The interior of the temple could be interpreted as a Buddhist’s love of all things superhuman or animated mixed with his devotion to his faith.
Crowded with tourists, which is no surprise, but if you have the time, wander slowly over the coy carp filled pools and try and understand the level of devotion by the artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat.
The Black House (Baan Dam)
Acclaimed Thai artist, Thawan Duchanee (1939-2014) built a place that has been described as “dark”, “macabre” “an anti-thesis to Buddhism”, “a vegetarian or animal lover’s nightmare”.
Whatever you may think of the contents within the Black House, Thawan’s mix of traditional Thai architecture with Balinese and Burmese can only be described as striking. Combine this with the modern white pods filled with sea shells and statues with cricket bat length appendages and you have yourself a complex of sculptures within sculptures.
The three-quarters of an hour were not nearly enough to explore the museum. While not all 40 buildings are open to the public, each space offers multiple stories to be interpreted…
…or do what Thawan asks in his 2004 poem. Written on simple A4 white paper and stuck on the wall:
Do not seek for understanding
in the temple of mysterious
feel them my friends from heart to heart
Do not ask the meaning of the stars
in the constellation
Smile of the baby in the cradle of mothers
Sweet fragrance in the pollens of flowers
it is the work of art, my friends
in the deepest of my mystic mind,
come closer to my spirit
Listen to my heartbeat, without word.
After only 2.5 hours into the day tour, Rich and I had a new appreciation of what devotion means and looks like for some people.
The next three stops were interesting enough and a good brain-break and leg-stretcher before we got onto the Golden Triangle and the opium story of the north.
The Golden Triangle
Yep, it’s three countries separated by Rivers Ruak and the Mekong.
Yep, it has a big Buddha statue.
Yep, it has a Wat.
Yep, it has a kitsch arch you can take your picture under.
Yep, it has touristy stuff to buy.
The Golden Triangle is all those things, but it also represents a confluence of power, power delivered by this flower.
Opium – Get ready to rethink what this plant is about
“Opium”, “God’s own medicine”, “the joy plant” or “the stones of immortality”. This plant has a 5000 year-long and fascinating history. Opium has started wars, fuelled the efforts of medicine, and brought you works by Keats. If you want a 5-minute rundown, read this.
If you prefer the legend, then this info board will be more your thing.
For Rich and I the visit to the Opium Museum was about understanding this history and in particular, the alleged role of the CIA in the late 60s who actively supported the production and shipment of opium to the US. They also used the Golden Triangle as a base to fund groups opposing communism in China.
That brings our day trip to and end. We enjoyed heading up to the Golden Triangle and exploring two wacky buildings that you could only find in Northern Thailand and learning more about the region.
In saying all that, it is a true thing about knowledge, the more I learn the less I know.
Solution: Keep traveling with a new set of questions.
Powered by sounds from Robin Schulz’s album Sugar.