Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai have always been on my radar for some reason. I found a metered taxi at the airport and settled in for the short ride to the Sook Jai guest house. A hippy wanna be place at $10 a night. I remembered when I booked the room using Booking.com the notice came up saying "only 1 more room available". That is never the case but I arrived to find I was the only guest. There were 3 dorms with 9 beds each, 6 cabins and 6 single rooms but Booking wanted to make sure I got the last room. Shit heads!
It is off season and the town was eerily quiet. After the oppressive heat of Bangkok I welcomed the rain for the first two days I was there. Shooting photos of the town was difficult but walking in the drizzle was refreshing. There are coffee shops everywhere and like most of where I have been the coffee is terrific. I also found my "go to" snack stop 5 minutes from my hostel. A small street shop serving up fresh to order Pad Thai for 35 bant, about C$1.20. I discovered that Pad Thai for breakfast is quite delicious.
The centre of town is marked by an elaborate clock tower. During the evenings with it's gold in marked contrast against the black and grey sky, there is a little light and music show that creates a quaint small town feel. I am sure there is some special meaning behind it but I really did not care.
It was here that I read about The boys that are/were stuck in the cave while hiking. They are located about hour north of Chiang Rai near the Laos border directly down the main highway. I did find an expats bar, as I do, and Steve the owner and some of his friends were heading up there to drop off blankets, boots, food and other supplies the day I arrived. These are people I wanted to spend time getting to know. They are a motorcycle club and I would have joined them but no motorcycle for me plus I can not drive one. Scooter yes, motorcycle no. I have just never taken the time to learn. The bar is called Hangover Corner and it is off the main bar street tucked away on a side road plaza. Find it, say hello to Steve and you will be welcomed. These are good people to be friends with.
There are a couple of great markets where I bought fresh fruit every day. The pineapple, mango, dragon fruit, bananas and leches were all sweet and cheap. It is the Sunday Night Market that gets everyone's attention. They close down a 4 block area of a main street and everyone sets up shop. No cars allowed. It was at the night market I discovered Khao Soi. A curry noodle dish with chicken, veggies and crispy noodles on top. Holy crap, amazing.
Ultimately Chiang Rai is all about temples or Wats. The Black Temple (Baan Dam), Blue Temple and The White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) being the main attractions. However there are over 20 Wats in Chiang Rai worth exploring and most can be visited by grabbing a city map and hitting the streets. A few are a bit far to walk but can easily be reached by Tuk Tuk. The driver will wait for you if you ask.
As for the main attraction, Wat Rong Khun, The White Temple. It is about 12 KM outside the main town so you can rent a scooter (200 Baht), hire a Tuk Tuk (300 Baht), hire a taxi (500 Baht), walk (that would be dumb) or take a local bus (20 Bant). The local bus is an easy option so do not be afraid to chose it.
Head to Bus Terminal 1, inside the night market. There you will find a row a 8 or 9 local buses heading in various directions. They are easy to spot as they are old, beat up and exactly what you would want in a local bus. The bus to the White Temple was parked on gate 8 with a large enough "white temple" sign on both the bus windscreen and the board in front of the bus itself. You pay when the bus gets going and have the correct change, it just makes everyone's life easier. Don't fret about getting off because they will let you know. It's obvious where you and all the other wide eyed Farang and heading.
After 30 minutes the bus will pull over past a stop light. The driver or money taker will point in the direction you need to go, again its obvious as you can see the top of the temple across the highway and there is only one street heading in that direction. Walk back the 25 metres and cross at the light for shit sake. Do not be "those tourists" who j-walk across a highway laughing and giggling that they almost get killed by a car.
The Temple is beautiful however was built only 100 years ago. Not a terrible thing but considering most are hundreds of years old you can feel the newness of it. That being said it was beautiful and the grounds around it were peaceful. It was only 50 Baht (C$2) to enter the temple itself but if your brutally cheap you can walk around and take pictures from the outside. Don't be brutally cheap. I had a good day as the dark clouds created a nice contrast against the pure white surroundings.
Getting back to Chiang Rai is as easy as getting to the temple. Naturally there are lots of smiling taxi drivers yelling "metered taxi, lets go". Before heading back I grabbed lunch at one of the many shops lining the street then walked back to the highway. Turn right and walk about 50 metres and past the police station. There you will find a wooden pagoda/kiosk where you can chill and wait for the next bus. I was fortunate, as I suspect most people are that wait here, because after 10 minutes a songthaew came by, I told the driver I was going back to the bus terminal and jumped in. Thirty minutes and 20 Baht later I was back where I started. I do not know why I did not take any photos of the bus terminal because it was an interesting place. Regardless the trip was easy, the temple was impressive and it was a great way to spend an morning.
As for the songthaew that is the way to roll when you are traveling around a place. Sure Tuk Tuks have their place but the songthaew is just freaking cool. You can go anywhere for 20 Baht but if you are a dummy and ask the price they will quote you 50 Baht. Don't be a dummy. Just let them know where you want to go, if he is going that way jump in, if not just wait for the next one.
Chiang Rai was an interesting and fun stop. The food was delicious and incredibly inexpensive. My hostel was great and the guys running the hostel were always cooking something and invited me to join them. Hangover Corner was a fun Expat pub and Bar street had everything you need (keep away from the lady boy filled Paradise Bar unless that's what your after). There were clubs with really good live music, others had large screen TV's to watch the World Cup and yet others were just chill and read a book/drink a beer type places. The Temples were all beautiful in their own way and worth the effort. I did hear quite a few people say they were "templed out". It's funny how you can turn a noun into a verb without realizing it. Well, funny if your a nerdy English teacher.