Leaving Chiang Mai was not easy, but we were excited to get to Chiang Rai – the most northern city in Thailand.
Chiang Rai is a sleepy provincial town compared to it’s much more evolved neighbour – Chiang Mai. It has a relaxed and down-to-earth feel and some historical/cultural attractions of its own. Founded in 1262 as the capital of the Mangrai Dynasty, the city retained some of it’s Lanna identity, mostly through its collection of temples, art, language, cuisine and music. But unlike Chiang Mai, the city offers little diversity in all senses of the word, and has a small town feel.
Taking the 3.5 hour bus journey from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai left us shaken and a little stirred – there are mandatory seat belts on this bus for a reason! The VIP Greenline bus is actually quite pleasant. There are reclining leather seats and great air conditioning – even a toilet on board. However walking from the front of the bus to the back as it swayed and barreled through the mountainous jungle byways was an adventure all on it’s own.
Arriving at Le Meridien Chiang Rai was amazing! The resort is located on the beautiful Kok River and is a true oasis for this town. Given our Platinum Elite status with Marriot we were upgraded to a suite with a view of the river and free breakfast, wifi, etc,. Staying for 5 nights through points, the 5th night is automatically free. Marriot is currently offering 75K points for signing up for their Marriot Rewards Premium Plus credit card.
Most people travel to Chiang Rai for one day to visit Wat Rong Khun – the White Temple. This bizarre-looking temple which was built in 1998 is located about five km south of Chiang Rai City and is the brainchild of Chiang Rai-born visual artist and painter Chalermchai Kositpipat who brings an unconventional approach to temple architecture. The temple is filled with Buddhist symbolism, from its layout, architecture, all the way to the ornate reliefs and mirror decorations. You can only enter the main chapel from the front, via a narrow bridge that passes over a pool of upturned, beseeching hands representing suffering souls in hell. From here, there’s no turning back, as the only way out is to ascend through heaven (the main chapel).
The place certainly has a feel of a Buddhist theme park and although this temple has been compared to Barcelona’s Goudi cathedrals I disagree about the comparison. To me it feels more like a modern day Boschian Nightmare! I may be too harsh as the grounds are quite beautiful and it is delightful to see the Buddhist monks having so much fun visiting the complex.
The other attraction in Chiang Rai is the Blue Temple which was built in 1996 on the ruins of a destroyed ancient temple. I must say, this wat has the same Boschian feel as the White Temple – only it is a garish color of blue and the grounds are much smaller.
The best part about visiting the Blue Temple was coming across a lovely cafe on the Kok River called Chivit Thamma Da Coffee House – the French inspired cafe, settled in a beautiful garden had Edith Piaf playing in the background and an early 1900’s feel.
Le Meridien had free shuttle rides to the small downtown core where we enjoyed walking the Night Bazaar and visiting the only vegetarian/vegan restaurant in town (which is open past 2 pm) Oasia Vegetarian. Prior to having dinner we would peek through the windows of the Cut n a Cup Cafe , a place where you can grab a coffee and cuddle with cats. There are 20 plus cats to pet and some of them are even rescued. Cute place, although there are rumors that some of the cats have unfortunately been declawed.
All in all, Chiang Rai is a sleepy town that has much evolving to do before it can grow up to be Chiang Mai. From my perspective if it wasn’t for Le Meridien, the journey would not have been worth it. But if you do find yourself in Chiang Rai, I suggest you partake in one of our guilty pleasures – a massage or two or three at Lanna Massage and Wellness. $8 for an hour + of course a generous tip for the massage therapist. I can live like this!