During my second week in Chiang Rai city, I explored more of its namesake province… on the back of a scooter!

Remember that couple from Luxembourg I met in Kalaw? The husband, Harold, stayed in touch with me by email as he realized that we would both be in Northern Thailand at the same time. After his wife returned to Europe, he made his way to Chiang Mai, rented a scooter and arrived in Chiang Rai last Tuesday.

Since then we’ve gone on three excursions. I was a bit apprehensive at first since I haven’t been on a motorcycle in years, and never in Asia. However he convinced me that he had quite a bit of experience driving a scooter in Asia and wouldn’t be going much faster than 60 kms/hour.

When we first set out on Wednesday morning, it felt strange at first to be so “exposed”. Harold had brought an extra helmet, but it was too big for me and I didn’t think it would offer much protection in the case of an accident. So I hoped for the best.

The Golden Triangle and the Hall of Opium

Our first destination was the Golden Triangle, the location where Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet. Standing on the Thai side, you can see both Laos across the Mekong river, and Myanmar, at the confluence of the Ruak and Mekong rivers. A few monuments mark the spot, including of course a giant golden Buddha.

This used to be the area where hill tribes cultivated poppies to produce opium. It is an easy and lucrative crop to grow. Since 1959, opium has been illegal in Thailand, and has been gradually replaced by other crops: rice, corn, coffee, macadamia nuts, etc.

Quite appropriately, one kilometre up the road from the Golden Triangle, is the Hall of Opium, a new state-of-the-art museum about the history and production of opium, as well as the terrible effects of opium addiction on local populations. We spent a few hours in there, as it was quite interesting.

We had a late lunch at a small restaurant along the road, and then drove back through many small roads, avoiding the highway. We had to ask several times along the way to make sure we were headed in the right direction. It was pleasant at first, as the traffic was minimal and we passed rice fields and villages, basking in the golden light and warm air of the late afternoon. However the drive took a lot longer than expected and it was dark by the time we arrived in town. My bum and neck were sore, I was tired, and cold. Harold agreed that this had been a bit too much driving for one day, a total of about 180 kms.

The Doi Tung Royal Villa and Mae Fah Luang Gardens

Two days later I was re-installing my bum on the back of the scooter for another excursion, this time about 65 kms due north, to the Doi Tung Royal Villa and its gardens. This is a popular attraction, especially among Thais, as it is a retreat for the Royal family who is truly revered in Thailand.

The emphasis here was mostly on the Princess Mother (mother of the current king; she died in 1995) and her work to improve the lives of the hill tribes in the Doi Tung area. The area was reforested, and the farmers established flower nurseries (to provide flowers for all those gardens) instead of growing opium.

On the way there we stopped for cappuccinos at Rabbita Coffee, a kitsch-looking coffee shop that we noticed about half-an-hour after leaving town. The name is not random. There are actually rabbits, a lot of rabbits, living here!

It was almost another hour of driving, the last part climbing a zip-zagging road, before we arrived at our destination. We passed the flower nurseries as we drove up.

First we visited the gardens, spread onto gently rolling slopes, and bursting with colourful flowers not commonly seen in Thailand. The Princess Mother lived in Switzerland for a while, and realized that flowers from her adopted land could grow here in the mountains of Northern Thailand. Thus she decided to plant this garden and show the Thais plants that they normally wouldn’t encounter at home. It was a very pretty garden. For a while, you could almost forget that you were in Asia.

After a quick lunch, we visited the Royal Villa, built in the style of a (large) alpine chalet combined with elements of local tribal architecture. You are asked to take off your shoes and given an audio guide (in the language of your choice) before stepping in. The building is airy and elegant, yet remains very simple in its ornamentation and furnishings. Interesting decorative elements include carvings of fruits and animals on the balustrades of the balconies, and carvings of constellations on the ceiling of the Meeting Hall.

Details from the Princess Mother’s hobbies and work ethic were highlighted. She appeared to be a very generous, down-to-earth person.

The third site on our tickets was The Hall of Inspiration which consisted of an underground display of enlarged photos and article clippings about the life of the Royals, mostly spanning the lifetime of the current king .

We managed to get back into town before sunset this time, but we spent most of the time on a busy road full of rush-hour traffic. Not fun. I told Harold I had my fill of highways and traffic. I think he did too. The ride down the curvy mountain road was great though.

The Khum Kun waterfall and the White Temple (revisited)

Sunday, we set out for a much shorter trip. The plan was to drive 25 kms, then hike for about half-an-hour to a waterfall. Harold had been here on his own earlier in the week. The traffic was quite light, probably because it was Sunday morning. From the main road we took a smaller road, and then an even narrower road, until we got to what looked like some sort of National Park. There were guards and an information booth, but no fees to pay.

The first part of our hike was across several bamboo bridges, in the middle of a bamboo forest, a “secret” way that Harold had discovered by following some scouts on his previous outing. After 10 minutes or so, this trail joined the main path, and after 15-20 minutes of climbing up and down a narrow dirt path, we arrived at a tall and skinny waterfall.

On the way back, Harold wanted to stop at the White Temple again. I didn’t mind as I had missed a few things the first time. After reading that the inside of the temple had a mural depicting the Twin Towers in flames, I had to find it.

It turns out that I had missed it on my first visit because it is located on the back wall, hence behind me as I walked in. The entire back wall was in fact painted as a giant monster’s head, its mouth filled with not only the burning World Trade Center, but also small figures of Spiderman, Superman, Michael Jackson, Jack Sparrow (from the Pirate of the Caribbeans movies), Neo (from the Matrix movies) and tons of other stuff. I kid you not. And yes, this is a Buddhist Temple! Unfortunately, no photos are allowed inside.

On the way back, we made a late lunch stop at Central Plaza, a big modern shopping mall along the highway. Harold had discovered a branch of an Australian restaurant chain called Sizzler’s. There was an all-you-can-eat salad bar in this air-conditioned restaurant. Sure, the 189 Bahts price ($6) seemed a bit stiff in a country where you can often eat for less than $3, but it felt really good to eat all those fresh salad fixings and get all this fibre. I think I really needed that. You could also get soup, fruits, and chocolate mousse or jello.

The food saga continues

Beside the markets, where you can find a lot of cheap food and eat to your heart’s content, I still haven’t discovered many cheap places with filling foods. I tried a restaurant called Destiny where I had a very un-Thai (but delicious) breakfast burrito for a bit over $4.

However I think my best discovery has been this little hole-in-the-wall restaurant near my hotel which doesn’t seem to have a name other than “Food & Drink”. Besides fancy cocktails, they offer a short menu of mostly pork dishes, and best of all, the portions are of normal size. I had a dish of wide noodles, pork, and greens, which costs only 45 Bahts ($1.50). The place has about four tables, and there is rarely anybody there except for friends of the owner, and a couple of orange cats, but who cares!

I have also become a regular at a small coffee shop called Nangnon. A cappuccino (in the proper Italian style) is only 40 Bahts ($1.30) and they make nice chocolatey brownies. The barista knows me by sight (and now by name) and asked to take a picture of me the other day. I’m not too sure what that was for…

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