Chiang Rai

Our main reason for wanting to visit Chiang Rai was to see the infamous White Temple, Wat Rong Khun, often listed as one of the most beautiful temples in the world. When we arrived in the city, however, we heard rumours that it was closed because of an earthquake in the area a month earlier. Apparently, it had suffered architectural damage and was unsafe for tourists to visit. Since we couldn't find any concrete information on whether it was open or not, we took our chances and headed to Wat Rong Khun anyways.

When we arrived, we realized just how lucky we were -- the temple had been reopened just the day before! Construction and repair work were still going on, but the public was now allowed back inside the grounds.

Wat Rong Khun is different from other temples in South East Asia. For one, it's relatively young, being built in 1997 with work still ongoing. Secondly, it's not considered a true temple, but rather a privately owned art exhibit. Thirdly, the architecture and style of the White Temple are rather interesting and downright scary at times (note the statues of grasping hands above).

The entire complex of Wat Rong Khun is quite an experience. The interior of the main building is filled with a mural that displays contemporary figures as the "dark side" and the glorious and bright figure of Buddha as the "light". Strangely, some of these evil figures are famous pop culture icons such as Harry Potter and Superman.

There are many other things you can do at the Temple complex, such as write a message on a metallic charm, throw a coin down the wishing well, and of course, visit the washrooms. The three of us explored the area for hours, mostly basking in the dazzling brilliance of all the buildings and enjoying the calm and pristine grounds.

Chiang Rai is a popular jumping-off point to many famous surrounding areas. To get the most out of our few days there, we hired a driver for our second day. Our first stop was the Black House, a series of strange buildings filled with animal skins and other animal pieces such as horns and teeth. It was an eerie and spooky place, and I almost felt like some sort of black magic had once been practiced there.

Our next stop was called "Monkey Cave", but it was more like a wide open area filled with wild monkeys that would quickly gather around you if you had any sort of food. We bought a bucket of bananas to feed them, but it was more scary than fun because of how aggressive and competitive the monkeys would get.

The Long Neck Karen village was a great little area to buy handmade goods from the women who live and work there. Everyone was very friendly and enjoyed having their photos taken. The younger women were some of the most beautiful I have ever seen, and the children were precious and rambunctious (as all children are.)

On the day trip, we had the opportunity to cross over into Myanmar (Burma) if we so desired. Unfortunately, I was the only one out of my friends to bring my passport along, so I had to cross over all alone. The little market town that's popped up on the Myanmar side is full of cigarettes, knock-off purses, DVDs,  and strange medicines promising miracle cures. There truly isn't that much to see (or buy) but it's worth the few extra minutes to cross over and get an extra stamp in your passport!

I wasn't allowed to take any photos inside of the Opium Museum, so you'll just have to take my word for it that it's worth the visit. Carved into a mountain that used to be one of the main opium distributing centres, the museum is modern and informative, albeit somewhat preachy about the dangers of drugs. Nevertheless, the stunning architecture and high-tech exhibits are impressive.

Our final stop of the day was the Golden Triangle, the area where Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand meet. By this time of the day, we were quite tired, so we hopped out of the car to take a few pictures and hopped right back in, napping the rest of the way back to Chiang Rai.

Each city, however small it may be, has a night market, and we weren't about to leave Chiang Rai without exploring what its own night market had to offer. Just like in every other city, the market was full of cheap t-shirts, strange foods, and touristy tokens.

Highs: The White Temple, Long Neck Karen village, our hostel Baan Bua with its wonderful garden area

Lows: Getting (almost) attacked by monkeys at the Monkey Cave, the utter chaos of Myanmar's market