If you head north from the tourist mecca of Chiang Mai you come to the confusingly named city of Chiang Rai. One-tenth the size of its more famous southern neighbour, Chiang Rai sits near the very top of Thailand, and is one of the country’s oldest cities.
It’s an interesting part of the country; a blend of cultures from neighbouring Myanmar, Laos and to the north, China. It’s Thailand and then it’s not really. Nearby are the tri-border areas of the fabled Golden Triangle and the market town of Mae Sai at the border crossing with Myanmar. These days there’s a growing influence from southern Thailand, and now the ever-increasing flow of tourists, some short stay others for the long haul. Temperatures vary unlike the rest of the country. The winters are cool, the mornings decidedly chilly. The summers by comparison are hot with temperatures reaching into the forties. At any time of year it pays to cover up.
Over time Chiang Rai has been usurped by its larger neighbour, Chiang Mai. While Chiang Rai hosts many of the adventure tourism and features boasted of in northern Thailand, much of the region’s tourist industry is run out of Chiang Mai. So while tourists base themselves in Chiang Mai and book and pay for treks and white water rafting among other activities there, they largely ignore Chiang Rai. In the north standard hill trekking, or tramping or hiking depending on where you’re from, consists of a swim at a waterfall, a stay in a hill tribe village smoking opium with the head man, a morning bouncing around on an elephant ride, and finished off with bamboo rafting. The latter can be real hard on your hands.
Northern Thailand affords a brief insight into the dwindling traditional lives of hill peoples; Karen (and Kayan), Akha, Lhau, Yao (Mien), Hmong, and Chin Haw (former Chinese soldiers) among others. For these people the political borders of modern Southeast Asia are at best an irrelevance, at worst an inconvenience. It’s estimated 12 percent of Chiang Rai Province of 1.1 million residents are so-called hill peoples. Many have lived here for centuries through empires and kingdoms; civil and political wars, displacement and refugee status. They’ve been political pawns, ethnic victims, economically marginalised, and now some are the items of touristic curiosity.
Chiang Rai retains much of its character. Unlike Chiang Mai there are no ring roads and air-conditioned mega shopping malls. Multinational chains are less inclined to blemish a town with barely 200,000 people. Manufacturers prefer bases in other parts of Thailand and the economy is still predominantly rural.
The name means City of King Rai, and is named after King Mengrai, who went on to found the Kingdom of Lanna, which ruled much of modern Southeast Asia for 500 years. Lanna later moved its capital 200kms south to “New City” or Chiang Mai, a start of a sort of northern rivalry; while the tourists go to Chiang Mai in droves, most drive through Chiang Rai. Chiang Rai is becoming increasingly popular with expats searching for a cheaper alternative lifestyle, and one less prone to the trappings of the tourist industry. Many of the locals probably prefer it that way as well; though jobs and a steady income are an attraction.
Aside from trekking and now an increasing array of other adventure activities, the other main tourist attractions in the far north are; visits to a number of hot springs, great in winter not much go in summer; temples, traditional and contemporary, the border town of Mae Sai and the Golden Triangle; albeit through a watered down tourist lens. Most of these are visited with tours run out of Chiang Mai.
Chiang Rai has its fair share of the odd. Some are macabre like the Black Temple or Baan Dam which is far less visited than the so-called White Temple. The former is full of dead things like an elephant skeleton and parts of other animals such as skulls, horns and skins, making you wonder about threats to endangered species. By comparison with the eerie calmness of Baan Dam, Wat Rong Khum or White Temple is so inundated with tourists it resembles an airport battling a strike by ground staff.
The White Temple is somewhat significant as it was designed and built by local artist Chaloemchai Khositphiphat. Khositphiphat has an international reputation and his earlier work has been cause celebre in Thailand as he merged Buddhist art with contemporary images for which he was roundly criticised. Lately he’s become more accepted at home with even the Thai king among his clients. He’s sort of Chiang Rai’s answer to Antonio Gaudi and the temple like the Sangrada Familia, with work ongoing since the project started back in the late 1990s. With its intermeshed style and indefinite timeline I’m reminded of Wang Boran or the Sanctuary of Truth in Chonburi near Pattaya.
At the border is the market town of Mae Sai connected by the Mittapab Bridge to Tachiliek in Myanmar. Above Mae Sai on a hill is the Wat Phra That Wai Dao which affords great views over the whole area including the border crossing with Myanmar. Supposedly, this wát was constructed in memory of a couple of thousand Burmese soldiers who died fighting Kuomintang Chinese forces in 1965. The presence of the Nationalist Chinese the legacy of World War Two and the victory of Mao Zedong over Chiang Kai Shek’s armies in 1949. To get there is a walk up an impressive set of steps, easier in winter than in summer, or a drive through narrow lanes lined with market stalls.
Towards the river is a monument to King Naresuan, a Lanna king famed for repelling numerous Burmese invasions and allegedly killing a Burmese crown prince in a duel. Given the historical animosity between the two nations and repeated cross-border incursions, the Thais erected a giant scorpion statue brandishing its claws towards Tachileik offering symbolic resistance.
Over the bridge between the two cities a constant stream of traffic and pedestrians moves one way and the other, the border on the Thai side marked by the distinctive blue customhouse. Day passes across the border are permitted for Thais and Burmese. Tourists too for a fee, you just surrender your passport at the customhouse and remember to pick it up on the way back.
Tours are like eating off a fixed menu, there’s not a lot of choice in what’s offered. Part of any tour of the north around Chiang Rai invariably includes a stop at a Long Neck “Karen village”. This is wrong on two counts. First they are Kayans, a sub-group of Karens and not all are long necks, and second; I wouldn’t describe their home as a village. Rather it’s a third world human zoo, more like a camp. Tourists bused in to see ethnic Kayans are confronted with a dilemma, to visit and offer some income to these marginalised people or boycott, which in theory leaves them more impoverished.
The actual status of the Kayan in Thailand is unclear and seems entirely open to the vagaries of the Thai authorities as to how it suits them best. Sometimes they’re viewed as refugees, and sometimes as economic migrants. Kayans in Thailand, some of whom have been in Thailand for years, fled internecine fighting between the respective armed wings of their separatist movements and the government armed forces, or oppression by the Burmese army. Mistrust between Burmans and the country’s many minorities was exacerbated by World War Two. Years of brutal repression by Burma’s military followed creating a flood of refugees, many of whom found their way to Thailand where they fester in dreadful conditions.
The women get by selling handmade merchandise largely to tourists. The camp I saw was primitive. There were women of all ages but I saw no men. There was no electricity or running water and the homes were all temporary structures. The only water supply I saw was a broken pipe laid along the roadside at the entrance to the ca rpark. An endless procession of minivans delivered van loads of tourists. While the drivers stood about like touts at a football match tourists wandered about the camp.
The young Kayan woman I spoke to said her family had lived in Thailand for years “over there” she said motioning towards the hills in the distance. As we were talking a tourist, a woman, came up to next to me and leaned her telescopic photo lens straight in towards the Kayan and started snapping away. Then, as quickly as she appeared she took off, all without a word. When I asked the young Kayan what she thought of all that she said “Well, I can’t really say anything.” Back at the car park young Kayan with snotty noses, dirty clothes and distended bellies were being bought multi-coloured ice blocks. All rather depressing.
A highlight of a trip to the far north of Thailand is the so-called Golden Triangle. When I first heard the term it was notorious as the area of mainland Southeast Asia where most of the world’s illicit opium was then grown. Others told me it was merely the juncture of two rivers and three countries, so was geo-political with a riparian twist. Actually, it’s both, though the title of largest producer of opium now belongs to Central Asia.
These days the Golden Triangle is known for tourism, smuggling, piracy, and most of all gambling – and drugs. On the Thai side of the Mekong there are souvenir shops, restaurants and a museum on opium. The latter is rather good. The staff at the restaurant I visited must’ve been on opium as the service was so slow I gave up. Over the river you enter the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone. Myanmar and Laos are cashing in on gambling with casinos springing built by Chinese money and investors with links to Macau, so much so the area is now referred to as “Macau on the Mekong” or as “Las Lao”.
The roulette wheel is replacing the poppy.