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

Our week in Chiang Rai, Thailand’s northernmost province, got off to a rocky start, with ‘dangerously unhealthy’ levels of air pollution (and extreme heat) scuppering our plans for hill trekking. With the flexibility of gymnasts, we changed tact and instead found ourselves on a bus to Chiang Saen, a riverside town on the border with Laos.

Fortunately, we needed to fill a weekend; and this, the hive mind told us, was when Chiang Saen would come alive with markets-a-plenty, as people from surrounding hill tribes/villages and neighbouring Laos come to town to trade and do the weekly shop. Sounded good.

The Saturday night market was definitely a lively affair, with all manner of food options available and entertainment via music and dance on one stage, and a more poppy DJ affair for the kids. We strolled along the riverfront – where we would eat all three nights – settled on a few essentially random options (local grilled sausages, chicken curry and rice, papaya salad, and baby pineapples), and joined the families eating on tiny chairs and tables in front of the stage. It was very convivial.

She burns bright and fast though as, wandering back just after 8pm, the majority of the stalls were shutting up shop. Delightfully small town.

The Sunday markets were even more elaborate, snaking outwards along streets off the main road, and featuring everything from bright Island-style print shirts, to electronic gadgets, prepared food, fresh food, and even live chickens (including those bred for cockfighting). Just as the hive mind told us, there was busy traffic across the Mekong, with boatloads of people returning to Laos with boatloads of goods.

Otherwise, though, we spent the first day and a half relaxing, reading, swimming in our resort’s pool, and looking at the Mekong. It was pretty glorious, and we quickly decided to extend our stay for a third night. If Chiang Rai was appealingly laidback, then Chiang Saen was gloriously glacial, and we had felt its charm immediately.

By Monday, though, we were ready to return to something more adventurous, so hired bikes and set off to explore the countryside. We started by cycling 12km north to the Golden Triangle, where the borders of Laos, Myanmar and Thailand meet, and now a pretty gaudy tourist zone (yes it was steaming hot, only fools…etc., although the area is completely flat).

With China just a little way up the river, busloads of tourists were piling out at any one of many ‘golden triangle’ photo opportunities. A group of Australian teenagers provided a counterbalance (of what I’m not too sure). I actually quite liked it, it was all rather Buddhist kitsch.

Across the river in Laos, though, there’s a challenger on the rise: the Chinese government has taken a 99-year lease on some land and is building a city clearly intended to become a tourist-magnet; think hotels and casinos and all that comes with. I’m pretty sure the Thai side of the GT will have a gaudy rival fairly soon. Battle of the tack is on.

My feeling was that the GT was one of those places without history (i.e. an historic reason for existing) and, in my experience, this always creates places that are just a bit odd, a bit rootless, transient and wild-westy.

This is somewhat true; the area in fact was named the Golden Triangle because it was historically the world’s main source of opium and then heroin; hardly a ringing endorsement for stable community. However, just a few streets off the trail, there is evidence of a much older history.

The Phra That Doi Pu Khao wat complex sits atop a hill – where there is another Golden Triangle sign photo op; oi vey – and possibly dates back to the 8th century.  The current series of buildings dates to the 14th century and were being rebuilt as we visited; a pretty fascinating display of how temple reconstructions can take place. It was also, at one time, under Burmese control, showing just how much borders and power have waxed and waned here over the centuries (millenia, probably).

Further down the road, Wat Sob Ruak has been completely renovated and now, in my estimation anyway, is a temple to rival Chiang Rai’s famous white temple (not nearly as elaborate in ambition and scale, but a more serene experience overall). Both temples were a lovely meander, and a pleasant way to get off the beaten path.

Back in Chiang Saen, we spent the rest of the afternoon using an hilarious hobomap as a basis to explore the town, which has a long and fascinating history way back into antiquity. Later, it became an important city of the Lanna kingdom, from 1325, but was later captured and ruled by the Burmese (16th century). Because of this, King Rama I completely sacked the city at the start of the 19th century, and it was abandoned for a hundred years. It was only repopulated after 1900.

Because of this, it’s a fascinating hodge podge. There are ruined wats everywhere, a few that survived and deserve visiting, a small and charming town on a grid plan, and most of it still encased within the old double city walls, which are largely still in-tact but have groovy trees growing out of them. Outside the walls, on a hill overlooking the city and Mekong, the Wat Phra That Chom Kitti provides the perfect and peaceful finishing point.

What definitely added to the small town charm was that we were there in the days leading up to Songkran, the Thai New Year. Most well-known outside of Thailand for the water gun-heavy water fights that break out in major cities and tourist areas, here this was something completely different.

For each of our three nights, we watched as the town’s central wat, the riverfront, and the other main road that intersects its middle, were all being transformed in preparation for the country’s preeminent festival. And as it did, you could feel the anticipation and revelry start to ignite.

Around the temple and along the riverfront, festive lights were being strewn and turned on, and amusement rides set up and started in earnest. Further down and around the corner, stalls started to eck out their spots, and, finally, the fairground-type games came alive.

It provided us a real glimpse of Songkran small-town style, and, as we geared up for massed water carnage in Chiang Mai, I couldn’t help but feel a tinge that we weren’t still wandering along that gorgeous riverfront in that charming wee place instead.

Maybe next time.

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