We caught the ‘Green Bus’ from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai for under 600 Baht for 2. The bus left on time and we had a hostess who distributed water and a sweet bun. The bus itself was comfortable but not very clean.
The trip was pleasant enough and we saw some nice scenery but the roads are quite bumpy so if your aim is to get some sleep, good luck!
After 3 hours, we arrived at Chiang Rai bus station. A tuk tuk driver approached us so I asked him how much to our hotel. I had printed out a google map showing the location of our hotel and it was only 1.6klm from the bus station so when he quoted 120 Baht I thought it was a bit too much. He seemed disappointed so I showed him my google map and he explained that we were at the new bus terminal and my map showed distance from the old bus terminal. So we were happy to pay 120 Baht for an 8klm ride.
Our hotel (Nak Nakara) was very acceptable, large room and clean. I have written a review about it.
We were not far from the markets and the main streets, probably a 10 minute walk.
The first thing we noticed about Chiang Rai was how clean it was compared to other Asian towns we had visited. The streets were very clean and there was very little traffic in comparison to Chiang Mai. Also it was a lot quieter and the motor bike traffic was very sedate …. There was no revving and racing away at the lights. The main street had an ornate gold clock tower and street poles in gold. The whole town appealed to us…I guess it was because it wasn’t over-run with tourists and traffic.
Before we went out for dinner we asked the girl in reception if she knew any tour operators as we had nothing planned for the next day and we had not discovered any tour operators on our walk around town. She spoke English perfectly and gave me a laminated sheet for a “Mr Chai” who owned a taxi. He could take us where we wanted to go for 2000 Baht for the whole day. We booked him then and there to pick us up at 8.30am. We were pleased we had organized our sightseeing for the next day.
We found our way down Jed Yod Street which has eateries and bars. There was a Happy Hour at the Coconut Sports Bar so we stopped for a couple of beers (165 Baht for 660ml) and chatted with some other Australians who were also having a couple of ales.
Next we went across the road to E&Z restaurant where we had some tasty Thai food for reasonable prices. Some younger boys were trying to sell garlands of flowers for 10Baht and it was very hard to say no but all the books I have read have advised against giving in to this practise. It broke my heart to see their little faces. I watched the young boys and saw them talking to a lady on a scooter. They had not managed to sell their garlands and both hopped on the scooter. I could only assume the lady was their mother. I don’t know the circumstances but how sad to see such young boys doing this work when their mother sat on the scooter waiting for them…..perhaps she could go out to work instead of making her young sons beg.
As we were finishing our meals I looked up and thought I was hallucinating. Emerging from the darkness a couple of big silhouettes appeared….they were two very young elephants being led around the streets. Their handlers were selling bananas to people who then feed them to the elephants. I love elephants but felt their grandeur was diminished as they had been taught to beg for their food but in fairness, elephants and their mahouts have been doing it tough since elephants no longer have the job of collecting timber logs (machinery has taken over apparently) and if they are to survive, they have to be fed and food is not free.
The next morning we enjoyed an unusual breakfast at the hotel (it was included in the price). It was mainly Chinese with fried rice, calamari etc and other food which we were not familiar with We found some toast and fried eggs plus there was some nice fruit and yoghurt so our breakfasts were a strange conglomeration but enjoyable.
At 8.30 Mr Chai arrived. He was very polite and eager to please his customers. His ate model car was immaculate and plus he spoke English which is always a bonus.
We weren’t really sure where we wanted to go so we asked him to suggest an itinerary. We mentioned we might like to have a boat trip on the Mekong River at the Golden Triangle so he said this would be best last.
First he took us to the White Temple. It is hard to explain this temple – sort of temple on steroids! In any event, if you go to Chiang Rai this is a must see.
When we returned to the car Mr Chai greeted us with cold bottles of water which he kept in the boot of the car in an esky full of ice. We thought this was very thoughtful.
Next we went to the “Black House”. This is a large property owned by an artist who, very generously, makes it available to the public. It has a huge Thai house/building at the front and many more Thai buildings dotted around the land and there are some very interesting inclusions. It is certainly worth the visit and we found it very interesting if not a little unsettling. Mr Chai told us that the locals were not fond of visiting and I can understand why even if I can’t explain it.
We were now on our way to the “Hill Tribe Villages” but on the way Mr Chai found his normal route down a side street was blocked by a funeral – but this is not the word Mr Chai used, so we had a lot of laughs explaining some English words. We had developed a good rapport with Mr Chai (hard not to as he is a good bloke with a good sense of humour) and he explained that he had never learned English at school. What he knew he had taught himself. We were impressed that he was doing so well and as our day progressed we had many laughs about language. He told us he was teaching himself Chinese as well because being a taxi driver he had to adjust to the emerging tourist market.
We finally arrived at the Hill Tribe Villages and not being a weekend we were the only guests there. We both felt that these peoples had been displaced and were now in an exploited situation. We paid money to enter and as we passed the different tribes they would try and sell us their wares (although we were not sure they were all authentic/genuine). One tribe even performed a dance and song just for the two of us (not all looked happy!). We felt uncomfortable but also felt we needed to buy some small item. I think that is was the “Karen” tribe which left the biggest impression as they are very elegant and gracious people with fine features. The ladies place large rings around their necks to give the look of an elongated neck which they believe is enhancing. The Karen were the last tribe we passed and did not push to sell us anything. I am not saying don’t go here but be prepared, these Hill Tribes were nomadic people and here they are 5 tribes living only a few metres from each other.
When we got back to the car Mr Chai was surprised that we had not taken very long. We did not share our thoughts.
Next stop was a tea plantation. Mr Chai was full of information about all our stops. This time he told us that unfortunately, as it was lunchtime, we would not be able to see the workers picking the tea. We were fine with that but enjoyed the beautiful scenery none-the-less. There is a sales area which we did not enter as we knew we probably wouldn’t be able to bring back any plant items to Australia.
By this time we were hungry and I had mentioned I liked “Laab” a Thai dish. Mr Chai knew a little local “restaurant” on the highway that served laab and that is where we ate. There were many locals eating there so we knew it had to be OK but being from such a regulated country, it is sometimes hard to accept that not all places in the world work with refrigeration and stainless steel benches! Anyway we trusted Mr Chai and we all enjoyed the food…..for the three of us the total was 220 Baht (about $7 Australian). We intended paying for it all but unfortunately we only had 200 Baht then a 1,000 Baht note which this restaurant would not be able to change, so Mr Chai was very happy to put in the 20 Baht. Back at the car Mr Chai opened the boot and his esky and produced two chilled handwipes – talk about customer service!
Back in the car and off to the Mae Fah Luang gardens and villa. This is the queen’s mother’s gardens (I think?) which is up in the hills. A lovely drive. Mr Chai could tell we were not spring chickens so asked if either of us were over 60…if so we could get half price entry into the gardens and the villa. He also told us other customers had told him that the villa was unfurnished so you would only see basic rooms - we decided just to look at the gardens. When we hopped out the car it was starting to rain. Mr Chai was into the boot and produced 2 umbrellas….what else does this guy keep in his boot?!
The gardens were beautiful and extensive and I took a picture of a plant I have never seen before which I would like to plant back home….hopefully a local nursery will be able to help me out if I show them a picture.
Next and last stop…..the Golden Triangle. It was an amazing feeling standing on a hill at the bottom of a very old Buddhist temple, looking over the Mekong River to Laos to the, east then Myanmar to the right, and directly below, Thailand. When you consider how many events have happened around this river it is quite the landmark. We looked at what we wanted to look at and walked back to the car. Mr Chai wanted to know why we are not on our river cruise we mentioned in the morning before we started out. We explain we have seen what we want to see and really don’t feel a need to do the boat trip – plus we are getting tired. He is concerned that he has not shown us enough. On the contrary Mr Chai, we could not be happier!
Mr Chai drives us back along the river and tells us that the two large buildings we could see in both Myanmar and Laos from our viewpoint were both casinos. It is difficult to believe that these two countries would even consider having a casino in this unusual location but I guess if people want to gamble they can just catch a boat down the river and go between the two casinos.
We are on our way home and Mr Chai takes us through the town of Chiang Saen to look at the remnants of very old Buddhist temples. Very old this part of the world.
We are now ready to get back to the hotel for a rest before dinner. We have had a great day and Mr Chai turned out to be a treasure. The day had worked out better than we thought. For two people you cannot beat a tour like this. You can go where you want to go, stay as long as you like, then adjust your tour accordingly, plus you have your own personal guide. We have taken bus tours before but you have to conform to their schedule which doesn’t always give you enough time in any one place.
We asked Mr Chai if he could pick us up in the morning to take us to the airport and that is where we ended up saying goodbyes. We liked Chiang Rai and Mr Chai cemented that opinion. I am looking at Mr Chai’s card now as I type and note he has an email address….email@example.com. I am sure he would do his best to accommodate anybody that would like to see the sights of Chiang Mai.