Travelling random in Chiang Rai: when ‘unhealthy’ air strikes back

Poor air quality forced us to abandon our intended plans for a week in Thailand’s northern Chiang Rai province. Fortunately, what resulted was the very best kind of on-the-fly travel: unplanned, nil expectations, maximum enjoyment.

Our final afternoon in Chiang Rai perfectly summed up how wonderfully random and unexpected our week had been. We had returned from a joyously unplanned three nights on the border of Laos, and intended to cycle north to the third of the city’s mono-coloured temple attractions – the blue temple – and then further on to Artbridge, a contemporary art gallery.

By late afternoon, both ticked off, we had a bit of time to spare. Zooming into Google maps, it dawned on me that the old and now abandoned Chiang Rai airport looked open for exploration. We should check that out.

Speeding down the runway, still stained with the black remnants of jet fuelled-travel, I’m not going to lie: the inner child surfaced, the one that used to zoom around the neighbourhood pretending to be a bus driver or a pilot (I had routes and stops and made the relevant noises). Don’t ask me why, but the child and now the adult has always been fascinated by the crossing paths of mass travel, the intersections of people going places.

It was a singularly unique experience: unplanned, unresearched; pure joy. Hot wind blowing on my face, I was sitting on a wing as the thrust engaged, and the engine roared into life. Off, off and up…

Our original plan was to hang out in Chiang Rai for a few days, soak up the atmosphere of the so-called an arts and culture hub, and then do something like a trek in the hills. Because it is now firmly low season, I put a shout out on a travel forum to see if there were any travellers about who might be thinking the same and wanted to band together.

Within hours, I had local experts asking me if I was crazy, given the heat and appalling air quality currently being experienced. They linked me to a website that showed real-time sharply red ‘dangerously unhealthy’ readings amid temperatures approaching 40C. It was fairly obvious we were going to have to change tact.

(Side observation: I always find it funny how you tend to become removed from the news cycle inside the country you are travelling in. I’m completely connected to news as it’s happening in New Zealand, but know little about events as they might be unfolding on the road. The latest Colmar Brunton political poll – tick; air quality emergencies in SE Asia – I got nothing!)

We spent the first three nights in Chiang Rai as planned, exploring its wonderful and unique quirks. The inner city moves at an alluringly small town pace, and we quickly complied. It’s stuffed with temples and markets spaces, cafes and massage places, and everything is wonderfully walkable and open; perfect for the professional meanders we now are.

Ambling around its atmospheric night market is such a cliché, but so enjoyable when the pace is set to relax and immaculate drag queens in their evening best are providing the floor show. Afterwards, we caught a further show when, wandering passed the already very campy clocktower, it suddenly lit up and started playing music. It is hard to decide which was more gay! Fabulous.

Just out of town is the inland Chiang Rai beach. It’s actually a long line of bamboo structures, lined up along the Kok river, where locals go to relax, eat, and swim. As the river rises and falls so significantly, clearly everything is dismantled and reconstructed every year. It’s emblematic of a way of life developed to be in tune with the rhythms of nature and seasons.

We had hired bikes to explore the surrounding countryside for an afternoon – always a good idea – and were further rewarded for our efforts by coming across a stunning cave temple. It was completely deserted, and so totally ours for just a little bit (well, ours and all the bats…).

Two eccentric artists are responsible for two must-see attractions: the white and black temple complexes. The white temple was at once both familiar and unknown. Its shape, design and embellishments were as we’ve seen elsewhere, yet its scale, flourishes and ambition are quite extraordinary.

Inside the temple – photography banned unfortunately yet understandably – this eccentricity was on full display. Alongside the more standard Buddhist-drenched imagery, representations of pop culture figures, from the Matrix to Harry Potter to MJ in full Beat It mode, were interwoven into a canvas of fantastical elements. Even such a simple concept as a lotus-inspired wishing well was mesmerising, and I stood watching for far too long, entranced by the way the gently rippling waters made the lotus appear shimmering.

I think I actually enjoyed the black temple more. It’s not strictly a temple, but a collection of around forty buildings, many of which are shaped like temples, but also igloo and other weird and wonderful shapes. They’ve all been constructed to house one artist’s insane collection of animal trophies (at least that’s how I read them), phalluses, drums, large furniture and other sculptures.

Although I found the combined energy of it all a tad aggressive, and perhaps thought it bordered on being slightly masterbatory, it was still a wonderful trip into the bizarre and otherworldly mind of a unique vision, carried out with singular determination. And that can always be appreciated.

And then there was the blue temple. Although white is the colour of peace, the white temple was actually quite harsh under the glare of the intense sun. I found the blue temple so much more serene and calming. The inside frescoes were similar to the white temple – stunning – but without the fantastical elements.

These temples are all out of town, the black and white at its northern and southern edges, around 24kms apart. Local buses can get you there, though, and the helpful tourist office at the bus station (indeed any ticket collector) will gladly point you in the right direction. To get back from both, we simply went out to the roadside afterwards and, before too long, shared songtaew trucks came along and scooped us up. I’m guessing flagging down a passing bus would have been possible too. Everything was the same price: 30 baht each. Easy as.

With Chiang Rai covered, we now had some days to fill and any hiking plans were well and truly out of the picture (the haze was bad enough to almost have us buying face masks, almost). So, we turned to the hive mind of the internet and found some information that suggested a trip to one of the small border towns would be worthy.

We decided to take a punt and, thanks to an online fire sale, booked into a resort beside the Mekong River. Off to the bus station we went, and within minutes we were on a bus bound for Chiang Saen. As soon as it was full (or near enough to), we would be off.

To be continued…

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