The Unbrave Girl’s Guide to Chiang Rai

April 25, 2010

I am currently attempting to do my year-long Asian adventure both guidebook and tour-group-free. While this may seem like some virtuous attempt on my behalf to have a more, shall we say, “authentic” travel experience, I assure you there is nothing virtuous about this plan — unless laziness and desire to avoid any undue stress are virtues. In that case, move over, Mother Theresa, because you just got a little competition in the virtue department!

It’s not that I don’t like guidebooks. In fact, I love them. In the way that other girls might impulse buy designer bags or eighty-dollar mascara, I impulse buy guidebooks to countries I have no plans to actually visit. (Well, at least not at the time of guidebook purchase… but, who knows, at any moment I could win a free trip to Bulgaria or Zanzibar and I will be prepared!).

Seven years ago I bought A Rough Guide First-Time Around the World book despite the fact that I had no plan to get off my couch, let alone give up my couch and travel around the world. But here I am traveling around the world (or at least part of the world), and, man, am I prepared! Well, I would be prepared for this trip had I taken it about seven years ago. Printed before social networking sites and Couchsurfing, the book’s tip on finding free accommodation sounds charmingly old-fashioned (not to mention charmingly stalker-ish): “Hang out around the student union and look for a friendly group. Introduce yourself and ask if you can crash on someone’s floor or sofa in exchange for a beer or two…”

Though I have no qualms about parting ways with any other reference books I have purchased on a whim with no plan of actually using (like all those books on financial planning or healthy eating or anything else involving restricting my behavior in some way that’s going to make me cranky), I can’t bring myself to get rid of my guidebooks. So that’s why I now own a seven-year-old, around-the-world guidebook which strongly suggests I leave my walkman at home. (Phew! That’s good because I’m pretty sure I left my walkman in 1998).

Despite my love for guidebooks, the reason why I’ve decided not to use them on this trip is because they stress me out. As much as I like to claim I have the ambition and drive of a boxcar tramp, deep inside my soul resides an overachiever just dying to get out. Once handed a guidebook, my inner-overachiever grabs her highlighter and starts happily underlining any affordable accommodation options, markets selling food on a stick and any sights that include shrunken heads or sculptures made out of scarab beetles. Should you try to dissuade my inner-overachiever from getting too carried away (I mean, really, must every meal be served on a stick?!), she is just as likely to use that highlighter to gouge your eye out.

Then, as soon as I land in my destination, my inner-overachiever starts to freak out. “There’s no way I’m going to be able to fit in all the day markets and all ten of the night markets and the exhibit of Twelfth Century indigenous insect art!” she screams while careening down the streets with her trusty highlighter in one hand and a sausage on a stick in the other. My inner-overachiever even makes me do things that, unless threatened by a highlighter-to-the-eye, I would never do, like wake up early and skip my second breakfast. Luckily, my inner-overachiever can only keep up this breakneck, no-second-breakfast-pace for about two days at which point she and her highlighter-of-doom are overpowered by my outer-boxcar-tramp. I then spend the rest of my trip recovering from such overachiever over-enthusiasm usually in the shade of a dark hotel room, dark bar or, possibly, a dark train boxcar.

In the same way that guidebooks stress me out, so do group tours. Again, it’s not that I have anything against group tours. In fact, I have very fond memories of a group tour I took of the Highlands in Scotland. I can’t actually remember much about the tour itself (I have a few vague memories of rolling hills, castles and possibly a thistle or two), but I do recall that the bus was packed full of hot Australian men… and me.

Unfortunately, my most recent experiences with group tours haven’t been nearly as pleasant. In Australia, I booked two days of group tours which ended up making me feel too rushed and stressed out to enjoy myself. Plus, the funny thing is that hot Australian men do not, as a rule, book tours in Australia. With no hot Australians on the bus, the stress just didn’t seem all that worthwhile. After finishing up my two days of group tour madness, I spent the rest of my Australian vacation affixed to my friend’s couch watching DVDs and drinking beers. Sure, I didn’t travel all the way to Australia to sit on my friend’s couch and watch DVDs…. but I also didn’t travel all the way to Australia to develop an aneurism from group-tour-induced stress!

Plus, there’s the issue of expense. Guidebooks and group tours cost money — money I don’t really have or, more accurately, money I’d rather be spending on donuts. Sure your average Lonely Planet only costs about twenty dollars, but do you know how many donuts I could buy in Thailand with twenty dollars?! (Actually, I don’t… but I’m willing to do the research to find out!).

Even though I’ve sworn off group tours and guidebooks, this doesn’t mean I’ve sworn off sightseeing all together. Since arriving in Chiang Rai in Northern Thailand almost two months ago, I’ve made a point of trying to catch at least one sight every time I go into town. Most of these sights come recommended by the free brochures I’ve picked up at various cafes or restaurants. In fact, I find that brochures tend to offer a refreshing alternative to guidebooks by featuring an array of sights that you might not otherwise find in your average guidebook (Plus, they’re free! Meaning they won’t cost you a single donut!). For example, in the “Zoom in Chiang Rai ‘GUIDEBOOK’” (note it’s not actually a guidebook but a “guidebook,” so that makes it okay), there’s a map that lists such intriguing hot-spots like “The bulges and lantern garden,” “Chiangrai magic school,” and something called “Fly Go Over Sea.”

Brochures also include a number of advertisements for establishments you’d probably be hard pressed to find in your copy of Frommer’s. For example, the “GUIDEBOOK” offers ads for the Wash and Spa car wash, the Highway Massage, and Kawporn Hydrofarm (“insecticide-free lettuce for your health”). Likewise, the glossy (and much better proofread) “Chiang Rai Treasure Map” issued by the Tourism Authority of Thailand offers advertisements for Chiangrai Bowl (“Exercise & Friendship”), Tattoos by Tor (where you can get a new tattoo and buy new tattoo equipment!), and a cafe that has something called “a Teenager zone and music.” See what I would be missing if I was relying on guidebooks for all my pertinent travel needs?! I’d never know where to get my insecticide-free lettuce or new tattoo equipment!

Should you be contemplating your own guidebook and group-tour-free trip to Chiang Rai, you’ll be happy to know that I’ve used my last two months of careful brochure-reading and sightseeing (not to mention donut-eating) to assemble what I’d like to call “Sally’s List of Must-See Sights In Chiang Rai.” Okay, to be honest, I hate the term “must-see.” It’s so pushy, don’t you think? How about if instead I call this list: “Places Sally Went To That Maybe You Should Go To If You’re In Chiang Rai. Or Not. No Pressure.”

All of these sights are within easy walking distance from the city center (unless, otherwise noted and, even then, I walked there from city center, and it wasn’t easy, but I did it for you! Again, no pressure!). You should be able to easily hit all of these sights in one day… or possibly two months. Again, there’s no pressure! It’s up to you!

Or maybe you have no intention of visiting Chiang Rai ever. (Even though I’ve done everything I can to make it sound like pretty much the best place on Earth! I mean, did I not mention all the insecticide-free lettuce? And the tattoo equipment? And the “teenager zone and music”? Sheez! I’ve done what I can, really). Maybe you’re just curious as to what I’ve been up to for these past two months.(Actually, I’m kind of curious about that, too. I mean, two months is a long time and that big to-do list that I made two months ago hasn’t shown much of a change. It’s possible my inner-overachiever has died a horrible death at the hands of my outer-boxcar-tramp). So should you be one of those people who doesn’t want to visit Chiang Rai (even though I’ve tried everything I can to persuade you otherwise) and is just nosy and wants to find out what I’ve been doing all this time, this list is also for you! Let’s call it: “Places Sally Went To That You Don’t Have Any Plan To Go To Even Though She Has Tried Everything She Can To Persuade You Otherwise. No Pressure.”

Either way, there’s no pressure. So, here goes:

Chiang Rai Day Market

The first stop you’ll want to make on your walking tour of Chiang Rai is the downtown day market. According to the “Chiang Rai Treasure Map” brochure, “A greater understanding of the soul of any culture comes from the local markets.” So true, so true…

You know what else you’ll get a greater understanding of when you visit the local market? Donuts! Yep, that’s right, you can buy a whole bag of fresh donuts and an iced coffee for about a dollar in the market. That is, unless you bought a guidebook for Thailand, which means you probably can’t afford any donuts. So I’ll just eat your donuts for you as I’d really hate for them to go to waste…

The King Mengrai, Great Memorial

After eating your fill of donuts at the market, you’re going to want to march yourself over to The King Mengrai, Great Memorial. The Memorial was erected in honor of King Mengrai who ruled the area back in the 1200‘s and was responsible for merging all the Northern city-states into one kingdom called the Lanna Kingdom, meaning “land of a million rice fields.” Now if you weren’t swayed by the insecticide-free lettuce and the free brochures and the donuts, I’m sure now that you know that Chiang Rai is part of the “land of a million rice fields,” you are definitely going to be booking that ticket, right?!

The monument itself is very beautiful and is located in a nice green park. Plus, there’s a kiosk by the monument that has free brochures featuring the “7 Amazing Chiang Rai” sights (again, I’m doing what I can to sway you!), and on the street facing the back of the monument there is a souvenir shop. But the real reason why you’ll want to stop here is because behind the monument you will find this:

As you can see, this sign shows you important information like the time, date and how freaking hot it is out (for you metric peeps, 104 degrees Fahrenheit is equivalent to forty degrees Celsius). Once you know this information, you can continue your day knowing exactly how delusional and near-death you’re going to get.

You might also want to stop at the nearby 7-11 and grab a drink. I’d like to suggest my favorite new beverage: Beauti Drink! Beauti Drink is available in a variety of delightful flavors, including Collagen, Fiber, Chlorophyll and delicious Glutatione and Grape Seed Extract! Because when it’s 104 degrees out we never can have enough Glutatione, right?!

Hill Tribe Museum & Education Centre

On the road between the monument and the day market, you will find the Hill Tribe Museum and Education Center. Described in the city brochure as “small” and “mostly a shop of hilltribe products,” the museum is not exactly a state-of-the-art affair. What the museum lacks in sophistication and size, it makes up for with a certain earnestness and DIY charm seldom seen outside of junior high school science fairs (and I mean this in a good way).

The majority of the museum’s… ummm… “displays” are paper print-outs with information about the various hill-tribes, the ethnic groups living in the mountainous regions of Northern Thailand, Myanmar, China and Laos. The museum also has a display on the history and trade of opium; all printed up on paper poppies which are then tacked on to the wall, making it look like something you’d see in an elementary school classroom…. except for all the talk of heroin.

At the entrance to the museum, there’s a display on the “Dos and Don’ts” required of foreign visitors to the hill tribe villages. Honestly, most of the rules are “Don’ts”; my favorite being: “No kissing, hugging, cuddling! Phaleease!”. In addition to the paper print-outs, there are models of traditional hill tribe housing, some traditional costumes and handicrafts and some other odds and ends, including housewares, musical instruments and a couple random bird nests.

After finishing up at the museum, you can head downstairs to have lunch at the Cabbages and Condoms restaurant on the first floor, which uses its profits to promote family planning and HIV prevention in rural villages. In addition to doing good deeds and serving up hot food, the restaurant has quite a few interesting decorations on display including this Santa mannequin sporting a suit made from contraceptives.

Again, it’s details like this that you’re just not going to get from your average guidebook! And, yes, you’re welcome!

Clock Towers

By now, you’ve been so busy eating donuts and checking out Santa Claus in his condom suit, that you’ve completely lost track of the time! But the day’s not even halfway over and you still have a handful more sights to see (or not… again, no pressure). So to help you keep yourself on track with your time, the fine people of Chiang Rai have erected not one but two clock towers in their fair city (Dear Non-Visitors of Chiang Rai, have you been swayed yet?!).

The fancy-schmancy New Clock Tower was designed by famous Thai architect, Chalermchae Kositpipat, the same guy who designed the amazing White Temple located outside of Chiang Rai. What’s even more fancy-schmancy, is that there are regular light and music shows every evening starting at 7 PM in front of this clock tower. I’ve never actually been in town at night to see this as that’s way past the cat’s dinner hour and they’d get pretty miffed if I didn’t show up on time to serve them their gourmet kitty chow. But, in case you’re one of those tourists who’s all foot-loose and Fancy-Feast-free, then you might want to check it out!

The Old Clock Tower is located a couple blocks away from the New Clock Tower and isn’t nearly as fancy-schmancy, but has an understated air about it. No reported laser light shows with this one… but not everyone has to be such a diva, right?

Wat Phra Kaew

Chiang Rai is not only in the “land of a million rice fields,” but also in the “land of a million temples” (Okay, I made that up. I really have no idea how many temples there are in Chiang Rai, but I bet you there are at least a million! Or maybe like twenty-five… but still, a lot!). Because there are so many temples in Chiang Rai, I’m only going to point out the important ones (and by “important” I mean “the ones I can actually remember visiting before I slipped into a heat-induced coma”).

Wat Phra Kaew, a couple blocks south of the day market, is described as the city’s “most adored temple.” As legend has it, in 1434 a lightning bolt struck the temple’s chedi or stupa, revealing the Emerald Buddha (which was actually made of jade… yeah, I know, it’s all a bit confusing). The original Emerald Buddha has since been moved to Bangkok, but you can see a replica of the Buddha (photo above) in the Wat Phra Kaew temple complex. This buddha was made in 1990 out of Canadian jade and is housed in a building called Ho Phra Yoke.

From the outside Ho Phra Yoke looks like your typical temple. But the inside is a whole different story! The walls of the temple are made out of funky, glowing, green glass blocks giving the temple a very disco feel… well, kind of like a disco-trapped-in-nuclear-waste-feel. Either way, it’s a party! (Again, all you Chiang Rai Non-Believers, have I managed to convince you in any way that you must visit this city?! I mean, come on! This place has green, glowing disco-temples! Again, no pressure.)

Wat Phra Doi Chom Thong

Wat Phra Doi Chom Thong is described in my brochure as “a hillside, northern style temple.” What they fail to tell you is that by “hillside” they mean “on top of a hill and not a hill that’s actually within in walking distance from the city center –especially if it happens to be 104 degrees out.” Since I hadn’t been given fair warning and I was, sadly, born with an inability to gage the difference between “walking distance” and “I’m going to die if I take one step further distance” on a map, I did make the trek out to the temple on foot. In addition to being located quite a fair distance from the city center, the temple is also located at the top of a million steps.

I would not necessarily recommend you attempt to climb these steps after trekking for almost an hour through one-hundred-degree heat after finishing off your last bottle of Beauti Drink about half an hour ago.
The temple itself is rather small and unimposing, but the grounds have a few interesting features. Also, since it is on top of a hill you can take a breather and contemplate the neighboring mountaintops. You can also contemplate your life, pending dehydration-induced death, your lifelong inability to read a map, and why on Earth Santa Claus would deck himself out in a suit made from condoms (and if he’s wearing a condom suit, what in the heck do you suppose the elves are wearing?!).

API Square

After crawling back down the hill and heading back into town, you’re probably going to need another couple donuts. Or, at least, I do. That’s why I always end my walking tour at API Square, a shopping complex a couple blocks away from the King Mengrai Great Memorial. While not exactly a tourist hotspot, API Square is definitely worth a visit as it has a Mr. Donut. Sure, maybe you didn’t come all the way to Thailand, to eat donuts… but I did. While slightly pricier than the donuts available at the day market, Mr. Donut has a larger selection of donut flavors, including donuts shaped like sushi (Luckily, they taste nothing like sushi… although, much like I don’t enjoy salmon roe sushi, I also don’t like donuts shaped like salmon roe sushi… strange).

After eating your fill of sushi-donuts (or regular donuts… really, whatever you’re in the mood for… no pressure), you can head on back to your hotel or home or wherever it is you came from. It’s probably pretty late by now (and, should you be cat-sitting a couple demanding cats, they’re probably wondering where their dinner is). You might want to turn in early so you can get plenty of sleep for your next day of sight-seeing in Chiang Rai. After all, you must go check out the teenager zone and music! Or not. No pressure. But I did hear they have donuts there. (Okay, I made that up — but don’t blame me for trying to persuade the last few Chiang Rai hold-outs!).

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