Sometimes it’s possible to visit a place without actually going to the place itself. If that makes sense? This happened on our trip to northern Thailand. We had spent some time in Bangkok and Chiang Mai before heading towards the city of Chiang Rai. But somehow we didn’t quite manage to visit the city itself. Having driven up from Chiang Mai, our first stop was a famous Chiang Rai temple – The White Temple – followed by a lovely couple of days exploring the local countryside.
Chiang Rai Temple – The White Temple
It’s located about 13 kilometres south of Chiang Rai city and we can honestly say it’s one of the most bizarre buildings we have ever visited.
The temple itself was conceived and designed by Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat and built on an enormous scale, designed in the style of a Buddhist temple. Kositpipat also supervised the construction of this remarkable building. Although it bears a strong resemblance to ancient temples of the region, it is a modern structure which opened in 1997.
The building also has ornate naga serpents, supernatural creatures that are part human, part snake, which typically decorate Buddhist temples and are revered throughout the region.
You cross the Bridge of the Cycle of Rebirth…
…passing by the fearsome guardians…
…over the lake of the damned souls…
…in order to reach heaven.
It is possible to go inside the temple, known as the ubosot, but, sadly, you are not allowed to take photos in there. We absolutely respected this, but it’s a shame because it contains the most astonishing bright and colourful murals. They combine Buddhist imagery with all sorts of modern historical and cultural icons – everything from Spider-man to Doraemon and Hello Kitty! The theme that pervades the White Temple is the conflict between good and evil in the world. You could spend hours enjoying the details, spotting all sorts of characters.
Chiang Rai’s White Temple Grounds
The temple itself was designed to be white to represent purity; a conscious choice to contrast with the temples throughout Thailand which are typically decorated in gold. Kositpipat apparently considered gold to be a colour for people who coveted evil thoughts and deeds. So it is the bathrooms that are decorated in a gorgeous gleaming gold. Possibly the most ostentatious toilets in the world!
Even the traffic cones and trees are bizarrely decorated!
Kositpipat didn’t want money to be a consideration for visitors, so when we visited entrance was free. However, these days there is a nominal charge that is used towards maintaining the temple and gardens. Which is fair enough.
A Rural Retreat
Having visited the Chiang Rai temple we then headed out towards the hills.
We were staying at the delightful Bamboo Nest, a rural retreat in the countryside. When you hear the phrase ‘rural retreat’ it often recalls images of luxury spas in pristine grounds but this was the opposite – a retreat much more suited to our tastes.
We stayed in a simple bamboo hut with thatched roof, which had no electricity and a wonderful view.
Dining was in a communal area where we enjoyed freshly cooked local meals with other guests. There was electricity available via a generator in this area which enabled the charging of phones and cameras and it also powered a fridge which conveniently contained cold soft drinks and beer, which you could purchase on an honesty basis. It was incredibly quiet and peaceful and a complete contrast to the hubbub of Thailand’s cities.
The Bamboo Nest team arranged our transportation to this remote site and will organise pickups if needed. Just get in touch directly to make a booking. We met Nok outside the White Temple and climbed into her 4WD, a vehicle that was most definitely essential for the area which we discovered as the car climbed higher and higher up the mountainside. The final leg of the journey was incredibly steep, muddy and occasionally slippery – a challenge even for a sturdy 4WD.
A Hike to the Hill Tribes
The main purpose of our visit was to enjoy some hiking in the area and to meet the local hill tribes. The hosts at Bamboo Nest can arrange a variety of excursions, either on a guided or self-guided basis, and we enjoyed a lovely long walk with Noi. It was initially a little disconcerting when he picked up a machete just before we headed out, but the walk was to take us through the mountainside forest and at times we would need to cut our own path. The treks offered are truly off the beaten track.
Thailand is hot and humid and occasionally rainy, so we had some slippery moments, particularly descending some of the steeper hills. It’s worth making sure you have good shoes and waterproofs as well as a change of clothing, just in case it rains and gets muddy.
The Chiang Rai area is home to a number of hill tribes, including the Akha and Lahu peoples. Hill tribes are ethnic minority groups who have settled in the region, living in a plethora of villages that are scattered across the mountains. The communities can be quite large or may comprise just a few families living together. Some of the villages are set up to receive tourists but Noi and Nok know the local people well, so we were able to visit a non-tourist village which gave us a much more personal and insightful experience.
After a couple of hours hiking we arrived at one of the villages of the Lahu tribe. The homes are constructed on stilts and have adjacent buildings where the farm animals reside.
We were invited into a house to join a family where we helped prepare lunch.
The houses have an open fire inside the main living area. River fish was ponassed onto sticks and cooked directly over the fire.
Bamboo stalks are segmented and hollow, so another part of meal was actually cooked inside these: Add sticky rice and water to a bamboo stalk, place it over a fire for a few minutes and… yummy sticky rice!
Pour some water into a stem, add a teabag, place over the fire and a few minutes later… a ‘pot’ of tea! Best of all was the egg – crack a couple of eggs, add some herbs, pour the mixture into the bamboo stalk, shake a bit, place over a fire (you guessed it) and a few minutes later… delicious cylindrical omelette.
We then enjoyed a longboat ride along the Mae Kok river to visit the hot springs.
Some of the land in the area has been given over to commercial agriculture so it was also possible to walk to visit the local plantations. We could see bananas…
There were also some lovely waterfalls in the area.
Each night a bonfire would be lit at Bamboo Nest and we could chat with the other guests and watch the glow of the fireflies flitting through the forest.
From the ostentation of the Chiang Rai temple to the simplicity of the remote hills of the Mae Bok basin, we couldn’t have had a more contrasting experience in this region of northern Thailand.
We just didn’t have time to visit Chiang Rai itself!
Clever and simple use of the bamboo sticks to also cook additional components of the meal. Loved reading about this! I can appreciate the craftsmanship that has gone into the temple, but it’s quite the epitome of kitsch.
Carolin | Solo Travel Story
Thank you so much for your comment! We loved cooking rice and eggs in the bamboo – such a clever use of a versatile plant. You’re right, the White Temple is probably the most ostentatious, and yet fascinating, place we have visited.
I’ve heard so much about the White Temple and even though I’ve visited Thailand many years ago I never got to Chiang Rai. The temple is just a photographers delight and I’d come away with hundreds of pics. Interesting that gold was deemed evil and used for the toilet block colour.
The countryside retreat looks adorable and the lack of electricity (or restricted) would be a shock to my system. However I know I need a social media break every now and again so I’d appreciate it that way.
I’ve never seen pineapples growing and never thought they grow as if on a stick – amazing.
You’re absolutely right about the White Temple being a photographer’s delight. It really is the most astonishing place. It is a shame that you are not allowed to take photos inside the temple itself because that is as bizarre and beautiful – in a very different way – to the exterior. Bamboo Nest was a great place to get away from it all for a couple of days. And yes, pineapples the pineapple’s stem is very pronounced amidst the leaves!
Colin and Mitch, what eye-popping pictures. Brilliant job here. The rural retreat sounds inspired. A few of my expat buddies in Chiang Mai made it out to more remote areas to experience it; you guys look like you had a bunch of fun out there. Good deal too on having a generator to keep some creature comforts. Thailand will always be one of my favorite countries.
Thank you so much Ryan! We really did have a bunch of fun in Chiang Rai. The rural retreat was a lovely place to stay after lots of hectic sightseeing. So pleased that you love Thailand – we think it’s a wonderful country too.
Wow, that white temple looks out of this world! The country retreat looks beautiful although a bit rustic. The pineapples look so cute. It’s hard to believe how long they grow for.
The White Temple was one of the oddest places we have visited. Bamboo Lodge was lovely but it was basic – and we loved getting away from it all for a couple of days.
What a contrast in experiences! The White Temple is so ornate – every time I see pictures of it, I am astounded at the detail. It must be truly incredible to see in person. The rural retreat seems like an amazing experience.
Thank you. The White Temple really has to be seen in its full glory – the inside is just as awesome but in a different way. We loved the rural retreat – a real countryside getaway.