On my first expedition to Southeast Asia 11 years ago, I spent one night in Chiang Rai as a stopover between Laos and Chiang Mai. I don't remember anything of this visit except that I ate one of the weirdest meals of my month-long journey (Thai green curry pizza). As I now had some time up my sleeve before I could return to Hong Kong, I decided to spend a few days checking out what the city had to offer.
Well, I can't speak too highly of the city itself. It was a loud, busy highway town, with a couple of side roads dedicated to tourist restaurants and bars (most of which were unappealing and empty). The one attraction in town was a clock in the middle of a roundabout, which changed colour and played music at night. It held my attention for a few minutes, but I was hoping to see something more inspiring. It seemed the only logical choice was to rent a scooter and see the sights outside of the centre.
The drive out to Huay Mae Sai waterfall was stunning. Once I escaped the city, I was surrounded by lush greenery on quiet, narrow roads. I passed through tiny villages, tea plantations, rice fields and rolling hills before ending up in a dense, serene jungle. From the car park it was only a short walk to the what I presumed was the main waterfall, but after being curious about set of steps off to the path I realised there were further levels to explore. It was a thousand times better than the falls I had visited in Pai, and except for two local woman pulling out various plants from the side of the track, I had the place to myself. Supposedly cliff jumping and swimming are popular activities, but I wasn’t up for testing either. Despite the mud brown colour of the water, it was an astonishingly beautiful place.
My next stop was the Chinese-styled Wat Huay Pla Kang, also known as the Big Buddha. Ironically, there is no large Buddha here, but there is a gigantic Goddess of Mercy statue that people often confuse with Buddha. Regardless of the misnomer, I can confirm the site lives up to half of its name. The goddess, Guan Yin, is quite imposing, staring out from her lofty spot at the top of a tall staircase. After climbing these stairs in the brutal midday heat, I was disappointed to find nothing underneath her backside except shade (which wasn't completely unwelcome). It was only then that I learnt I could take an elevator to the top of her head, which of course I had to do (if stairs had been available, I probably would have opted for them instead). Sarongs were supplied for indecent dressers such as myself. A short ride later I was peering out through hobbit-sized windows at the surrounding scenery, as well as the two temples beside me. I can't say it was a spectacular view, but the white, slightly gaudy sculptures on the interior of the head made it worth the very little money I shelled out. The neighbouring temples were only worthy of a quick peek.
Nearby to the Big not-Buddha was the Blue Temple (Wat Rong Suea Ten). There was no question as to why it was called the Blue Temple. It wasn't overly big or impressive, but it was definitely blue. I wandered through, took my obligatory photos, then headed back to to the city centre for lunch.
The first stop after filling up my stomach was the White Temple (Wat Rong Khun). This is the most popular tourist attraction in the area and it's not hard to see why. The temple is (obviously) excessively white, covered with mirrored pieces of tile to give it a shimmering effect. While viewing the temple from the outside was free, payment was required for the best vantage point. This turned out to be from the entrance, with the temple’s reflection glistening in a pond in the foreground. If it had been a clear day like all the photos I had seen, it would have been a fantastic photo.
The rest of the White Temple contained lots of small details to scrutinise, but I found I walked through here quite quickly. I probably should have been more absorbed into what I'm sure is an important monument in Buddhist culture.
For me, the highlight of the complex, situated outside the paid area, was one of the most ornate public toilets I have ever seen. I thought I was passing just another temple, until I saw the male/female sign on the exterior. Was it originally a temple that was converted into a toilet, or was the toilet built to fit in with the surrounding architecture? I never found out.
After leaving the White Temple I ventured past Singha Park, mainly to glimpse a view of the famed Singha lion statue (If you have ever drunk Singha beer or their water, you know what I mean). I decided while I was there, I may as well take a look around the park. I drove along the main road for a while, underwhelmed, until I randomly turned onto a road that led gently uphill. At the top was a modern cafe with views over a series of manicured hedges and a small lake in the distance. It felt like the equivalent of a scenic winery in Australia, where I would be sitting back with a glass of wine while savouring the vineyard view. In Thailand, wine was replaced with coffee. Not being a coffee drinker, I stayed for five minutes before jumping back on the bike.
My last destination was supposed to be Khun Korn Waterfall, but four kilometres from the entrance I hit a boom gate, blocking me from travelling any further along the road. There was a sign on the gate written entirely in Thai, but I could work out that the road was closed for at least one month (logic would tell me it was this month). With not much more I could do, I turned around and drove back to Chiang Rai.