What do you get when you take the hustle and bustle, and the gridlock and skyscrapers, out of Bangkok?
Equally magnificent in its own natural setting (in fact, even more so with the tranquil atmosphere), Chiang Rai, the northernmost province of Thailand, has one of the most picturesque views to offer. The calm surroundings allows your mind to forget about the everyday pressures of city life.
It’s also great for social media fans who love sharing their holiday pictures online as this place is very Instagram-worthy.
If you are into sightseeing, cafe-hopping or exploring nature, Chiang Rai is a good place to visit. It is also just a three-hour flight away from Kuala Lumpur.
Fancy re-enacting the iconic scene in Disney’s Lion King where the wise Rafiki holds up newborn lion Simba at Pride Rock? Then head to Phu Chi Fa forest park to do just that.
Better yet, get up as early as 3am to catch the sunrise there – Phu Chi Fa is one of the best places in Chiang Rai to do this. We took a van from town up to the mountainside, which was about two hours away. We got off at the parking area and hiked up another 750m to the peak (1,628m above sea level).
Still sleepy when we got there, I perked up when I caught the cold breeze in my face and saw the vibrant colours of the morning. The panoramic view of lush greenery overlooking Laos, the blue sky, the sea of clouds and bright orange sun more than made up for the fact that we had to wake up at an ungodly hour and then (sort of) climb a mountain. The beautiful sight was truly worth every second of sleep I had sacrificed.
Fair warning though, the urge to sing Circle of Life is strong when you are at the peak.
Next on our list was to catch the sunset at Wat Huay Pla Kang, a nine-storey pagoda that looks like it glows whenever the golden sun hits it at dusk.
Expect to spend at least an hour at this place as you can do a three-in-one visit by including two other spectacular-looking temples in the vicinity.
The first thing that will catch your eye for sure is the gigantic statue of the Goddess of Mercy (Guan Yin) sitting on a lotus flower, “looking” over at Chiang Rai town. She is also guarded by six majestic white dragons.
It is a steep, tiring climb to Wat Huay Pla Kang – but not as intense as Batu Caves – where you can get a good view of the grounds from a high angle.
The pagoda is also dedicated to Guan Yin and you will find an intricately carved large statue of the goddess there. The temple in between the giant statue and pagoda is dubbed “mini white temple”, which is dedicated to the Lord Buddha.
Speaking of temples, the most outstanding ones in Chiang Rai would have to be the Wat Rong Khun (White Temple) and Wat Rong Suea Ten (Blue Temple).
I found myself just standing under the scorching sun admiring every little detail of the White Temple, especially the Naga serpents on the building.
The purity of the temple’s white colour and the flickering lights from the tiny mirrors decorating the exterior exude a feeling of calm and peace as you observe it from afar. However, as you get closer to the temple, things start to get a little “creepy”. Sculptures of deformed heads and outreaching hands (symbolising the cycle of rebirth), greet you when you walk past the bridge towards the ubosot, or the prayer and ordination hall.
The hands are said to represent greed, temptation, desire, lust and evil deeds while the bridge, guarded by deities Rahu and Death, is meant for those who have overcome those temptations.
After walking out of the temple, devotees are supposed to feel like they’ve left their demons behind and rid themselves of any evil spirit. By this time, they are heading towards “lokutharadhamma”, which is the highest level of dhamma where people will no longer be reborn into the living world.
The temple’s design is the brainchild of Thailand’s renowned artist Chalermchai Kositpipat who said that he chose white because he believed gold represents a lust for evil deeds.
Meanwhile, the Blue Temple, as the name suggests, is blue with some golden accents. The name Rong Suea Ten literally translates to “dancing tiger house”.
Legend has it that the current temple site was an abandoned temple about a century ago where tigers used to roam. This is why there are tiger motifs at the entrance.
It was only in 1996 that villagers began discussing ways to rebuild the temple; it was fully completed in 2016.
Interestingly, the artist who designed the temple is said to be Phuttha Kabkaew, a protege of Kositpipat.
Both the White Temple and Blue Temple were packed with tourists when we were there.
There are quite a number of temples you can visit in Chiang Rai as Buddhism is a major religion in Thailand. Each temple bears a significance to either the community, area or region, and has interesting backgrounds. This is one of the reasons why temples and many other places of worship are such popular tourist attractions.
Do be respectful when you visit, and dress accordingly. Preferably, don’t wear any sleeveless tops (you can cover up with a shawl or scarf) and remove your shoes before entering any temple.
Of course, put your mobile phones on silent and do not use them in the ordination hall, especially when the monks are there performing their duties.
Apart from temples, Chiang Rai has other interesting places to visit too. There’s the Choui Fong Tea Plantation and Singha Park, also known as Boon Rawd Farm.
The park has a statue of a golden Singha lion, which our tour guide Weerapol Chaiyo claimed was a “kathoey” or ladyboy lion.
“Do you know why? Because in Thai greetings, men say sawatdikhrap, women say sawatdikha and ladyboys say sawatdiha. So the Singha lion is a ladyboy,” he quipped.
A visit to the Union of Hill Tribe Villages proved to be quite an eye-opening experience for some of us. Nine hill tribes live in the area. They are the Karen “long neck”, Hmong, Lahu, Akha, Yao, Htin, Lisu, Lua and Khamu tribes.
The Akha tribe welcomes visitors with a short performance, chanting good blessings and beating bamboos to create music.
The women of the Karen tribe wear thick brass neck rings, some of which weigh up to 5kg. These rings may never be removed, unless when the women are pregnant.
Some also wear similar rings on their legs, which have caused them to be slightly deformed. It was such an amazing thing to witness.
The women are also very skilled in weaving and you can see them working on a few pieces at the village. Most of them don’t mind having their pictures taken, but do try to ask for permission first.
AirAsia operates four times weekly from Kuala Lumpur to Chiang Rai (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday) and three times weekly from Singapore. There are also direct flights from Macau and Phuket to Chiang Rai, AirAsia’s seventh and latest hub in Thailand.