Chiang Rai: Five Days, Five Nights
I first went to Chiang Rai by boat on the Mae Kok River in 1979. I wanted to make sure it was safe enough because there had been hill tribe fighting and what was most likely a stray bullet had killed a Swiss tourist on the river. I intended to bring up my mother and stepfather four months after so this was a trip to ensure they would not be in danger. I decided it would be OK and it was. We went all the way to the Golden Triangle and had a great time. This time I flew directly on Thai International from Bangkok to Chiang Rai, flying time 1 hour 20 minutes, cost 6,390.00 baht.
So this was my first trip back to Chiang Rai after 30 years. And of course there were many changes. But there is still lots of charm. It just takes a bit longer to find it. There are no motorcycle taxis but plenty of tuktuks and even some elderly pedicabs remain. Of course you can visit an elephant camp upriver and ride an elephant. Some of the hill tribes are not too far away so I visited a few such as the Karen and the Akha, Lahu and the long-necked Karen. My guide was Karen and when I asked him about reports of the long-necked Karen being held in a compound and offered up to tourists like animals in a zoo, I learned a bit. He said there were four groups of long-neck Karen around Chiang Rai, all of whom had come from Burma. If they go back, they could have some trouble or for sure not such a good life. But the group we were visiting was in the forest near the Meo and definitely not fenced in by anybody.
True, anyone wishing to head down the path will pay the head villager about 2 or 300 baht. My understanding is this is to pay off certain parties in power to look the other way as the Long-necked Karen are in fact illegals in Thailand. And although this group seems to roam at will, the one in the compound I heard of cannot. But that might possibly be because if they did head for town they would call attention to their presence thereby possibly causing them to be shipped back to Burma. These things are never quite as simple as some would have us believe. My guide pointed out that the Karen women were very happy with their lives in Thailand and were the least aggressive in trying to sell any products. In fact, they didn't try to sell me anything at all, just displayed their lovely scarves, etc. The Akha were the most aggressive but even then not in a bad way.
Of course in northern Thailand Lanna culture is to some extent preserved and some of the museums in temples or elsewhere have some interesting exhibits. There is also a hill tribe museum and education center on Thanalai Road worth a look. Wat Phra Kaew is where the emerald buddha was discovered in 1434. Not clear to me who took it from whom and who has which but anyway Wat Phra Kaew and Wat Phra Singh and other temples around Chiang Rai are interesting, especially the one about 20 minutes out of town Wat Rong Khun, a white temple complex built by an artist dedicating his life to Buddhism. I visited the night market a few times. It was just a short walk from my hotel on Phaholyothin Road. Not bad, but I had been spoiled by the night market in Luang Prabang. On hot days, the Swensen's ice cream shop was nice but the bars and massage parlors looked depressing and I stayed out of them. Plenty of cheap internet connection cafes and plenty of places to rent cars, etc. The huge statue of King Mengrai is lit up at night and lots of locals gather there. The intersection clock is also lit up at night and changes colors some times which brings out lots of folks with cameras. Kind of like the Empire State Building changes colors except in NY there is lots to do when the color-changing stops; not quite the case in Chiang Rai.
I also visited some of the hotels to see how they were doing: The luxurious Dusit Island, The Legend, the Little Duck, the Wiang Inn (where I stayed), Le Meridien and others. All seemed to be doing lousy business (this was December, high season) and in most lobbies in the evening there were very few customers if any listening to the singer and pianist or other entertainers. Rather embarrassing and depressing for all.
There are a number of excellent maps of Chiang Rai on the internet, just google "Chiang Rai map." Remember to bring something with long sleeves; just in case.
For those few who still read books: There is a small bookstore across from the Wiang Inn right on the main street of town (Phaholyothin Road) with big "Used Books" signs but theydon't have a great selection. I heard Lonely Planet dumped on some bookstore in Chiang Rai for overcharging and it went out of business. Such is the power of the press. Whatever the case, Chiang Rai is not like Chiang Mai as far as a great selection of bookstores is concerned. But Peter does run Orn Books on a lane behind Wat Jet Yod, soi 1, right in town, just a five-minute walk from the Wiang Inn. He has a pretty good selection and you can buy or exchange used books in English and several other languages. It is part of his house in a quiet neighborhood so don't look for any tall buildings. 086 0624080. He is open daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p. m. Several guidebooks have praised his shop.
After traveling upriver by boat to see some Karens and take an elephant ride, the boat continues upriver and you go into an area like a park and pay ten baht for an egg from the pretty egg lady. Then you take the egg and let it boil for about 15 minutes in the incredibly hot water. Then you take the egg home. The chick at right charged me five baht to use the men's room even though I didn't need toilet paper. For shame!
An excellent book on Chiang Rai by Jaffe Yee, a resident of Chiang Rai, has just come out. Excellent text and pictures.