When I arrived at my guesthouse in Chiang Rai  last Wednesday afternoon, I felt immediately more relaxed. I also felt exhausted. I had been travelling non-stop for 30 hours, ever since I left Mandalay on Tuesday morning.

Plane, train, and bus

First there was the flight to Bangkok, followed by a few hours at Don Muang airport dragging all my bags. I managed to get a second-class A/C sleeper on the night train to Chiang Mai only a few hours in advance. Conveniently, the train stopped at the Don Muang station, just across the road from the airport. Once again I was trying to avoid downtown Bangkok and the continuing anti-government protests.

As I walked down the train platform that evening, I ran into Samira, the young woman I had met in Kalaw two weeks prior. “No way!” we both said with big smiles. This kind of thing does tend to happen to long-term travellers, as we often follow similar itineraries. Samira and I were going in opposite directions when we met in Burma. Now we were both headed together to Chiang Mai, but in different train cars.

The train ride was very civilized. My 2nd class sleeper was along a common aisle, but with privacy curtains. The motion and clanking of the train precluded a full night sleep, but I did manage several hours of uninterrupted shut-eye. Someone came and took both my dinner and breakfast order at my seat, so I didn’t have to trek to the restaurant car. I listened to some music on my iPod, and even managed to do some writing.

The train arrived one hour late in Chiang Rai, around 9:15 am. I didn’t see Samira. I walked straight outside the station and started bargaining with a songtaew driver to take me to the bus terminal. I had decided to push straight through to Chiang Rai, my final destination. Having already visited Chiang Mai in 1997, I figured it would be more developed and even more crowded with tourists than before, since this northern city is pretty much on every Thailand newbie’s itinerary.

At 11:00 AM I boarded my bus for a 3-hour ride on curvy roads. Fortunately, the asphalt was smooth, so I didn’t get motion sick. I tried to lie back and close my eyes part of the way though, which always helps.

Settling down in Chiang Rai

Chiang Rai is a mid-size town (pop. around 70000) in the far north of Thailand. At this time of year, mornings and evenings are cool (around 15C) but the days are sunny and comfortable for walking, cycling, etc.

The plan was to settle down here for several weeks, rest and write. My initial exploration of the city revealed that this could indeed work out very well. The town is full of coffee shops offering cappuccinos – I already have a favourite place, which also makes nice brownies – cheap food, and markets. The traffic is very manageable, except on main roads at rush hour, and just before lunch. The abundance of coffee shops is no doubt due to the fact that northern Thailand grows coffee. In fact, many of the former opium fields in the Golden Triangle have been replanted with arabica coffee trees!

I stayed four nights at my first guesthouse, Baan Baramee. The owner was very friendly and spoke good English. The room was comfortable, and oh so clean (especially after Burma). In fact, the property looked pretty new. Since most people only come through Chiang Rai for a couple of nights, I got a discount for 4 nights and ended up paying 642 bahts ($21) instead of 700 ($23). The guesthouse is located down a quiet lane a few hundred meters from the main road so there is very little car noise. There was a bit of karaoke noise in the evening though. I loved it there, and only left because the room was rather small with no chair and desk to write.

Now I’m up the road at Rinlada House, where I pay $20 for a large new room with writing space. The normal rate is $23 but I told them I wanted to stay two weeks and they gave me a discount. It is always worth asking. Of course this works better in places like Chiang Rai, with many guesthouses and lots of vacancies. I am missing the breakfast from the previous place though (warm Thai rice soup) and the layout that made it easier to meet people. You gain some, you lose some.

While at Baan Baramee I ran into a couple of Quebecois who are also travelling in Asia for 4 months and started around the same time I did. Since the centre of Chiang Rai is not very large, we continuously kept running into each other. We had several good conversations, mainly about the joys and pains of travel!

Early explorations

My slow exploration of the town so far has led me to a day market, a night market (touristy), another night market (non-touristy), a flower garden, a couple of traditional temples, and Wat Rong Kun, an extravagant contemporary Buddhist temple (nicknamed “The White Temple” for obvious reasons).

I love the markets here. They’re clean and fairly easy to walk around. The day market is for locals, and offers food as well as clothes and domestic products. The Night Bazaar is obviously set up for tourists, with tons of handicrafts and souvenir shops, as well as some food stalls. I ate there three nights in a row, getting addicted to buying small servings of food from stalls, then either sitting down at a metal table, or walking with my food and browsing. There are even two stages with musicians and dancers to entertain the visitors. You have to go fairly early though, because by 7:30 PM the tour buses begin arriving.

In contrast, the night market I visited on Sunday is nicknamed “Happy Street”. I think it only happens on Sunday. They close several blocks of a main street to traffic and set up a market with both food and products. OMG! That one was even better than the touristy one. I got almost dizzy from all the food and smells. The only drawback: nobody speaks English and there are no English signs, so often you don’t know what the foods are. But it’s so cheap, you can just try things.

I ate and drank to satiety for about $3. The food ran from fried chicken to sushi. I even ended up buying a few things I needed: a belt, a hairdryer, and a watch, for a total of $7. Incredible! Instead of tourist entertainment here, there was a large area where locals practiced some kind of “line dancing” to the sounds of a local orchestra and singer. It was all so very… Asian. 🙂 Unfortunately I hadn’t brought my camera, but I will be back next Sunday.

I stumbled upon the flower garden by accident, during a random walk. I wasn’t sure what it was at first. It seemed to be mixing themes of flowers, love, music, and ethnic tribes. They were putting up some stages so I think there was a special festival going on. It’s hard to figure things out sometimes because all the signs are written in Thai. Nevertheless, there were some very colourful flower beds in there, including tulips.

Visit to the White Temple

On Monday I rented a bicycle to go visit the White Temple. The rental was 100 Bahts ($3.30) for the whole day and the distance was about 15 kilometres one-way. The bike ride felt long (maybe because I had to stop about six times to ask directions), and not all that pleasant. The first part was through city streets full of traffic and cars parked on the shoulder, then a highway with fast vehicles, then a road with new asphalt that sent splatters of tar all over my pants. The only nice part was the last 4 kilometres or so.

The temple itself though was quite impressive and like nothing I’ve seen before. From a distance it looks like a fairytale ice palace. From close-up, it’s more of a “gates to hell” theme. It’s been designed by Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat. Despite its whimsical appearance and hordes of tourists, this is still very much a place of worship for Buddhists. I hung around there for a couple of hours, including lunch and ice latte before starting on the trip back. I was hoping to beat rush hour, but of course I didn’t. I think this will be the my first and last bike ride around Chiang Rai.

A few more words about food…

One thing that is starting to become the rule more than the exception here, is that I am constantly hungry and constantly snacking. Why? Every time I go to a sit-down restaurant (as opposed to a market stall), the serving is either small and expensive, or extremely small and cheap. They key words here are small serving. Some of those dishes look like appetizers, even though they are not listed as such. My new mission then, is to find restaurants serving generous amounts of food for a good price.

To be continued…

 

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