On Friday 14 December we took a ferry across the Mekong from Laos to Thailand, the last of the four countries on our SE Asia itinerary. One difference we noticed immediately was that Thailand – in contrast to Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos – drives on the left. The composition of the traffic is also different, with a much higher percentage of (mainly smart) cars. There are motor bikes too, of course, but in Thailand they form a much smaller proportion of the traffic.
Thailand is also by far the most westernised of the countries we visited. Tourism is longer established, and there are more western-style shops. We saw many familiar names: not just multinationals like Starbucks and MacDonald’s, but also UK chains such as Tesco (here called Tesco Lotus) and Boots. 7 Eleven stores are everywhere.
Our first stop in Thailand was the city of Chiang Rai. At first sight, we were disappointed. Despite the smart cars and western shops, the city looked pretty scruffy. An afternoon stroll, focussing on some temples, did not impress. However, our view changed somewhat when we went out in the evening. We have seen a number of night markets, but the one in Chiang Rai was particularly interesting and attractive. And on the way back to our guesthouse we saw the extremely ornate clock tower, looking splendid when floodlit.
The White Temple
The next morning we took a trip outside the city to see Wat Rong Koom, the so-called ‘White Temple’. This was amazing, and made our visit to Chiang Rai well worthwhile. To quote the Rough Guide: A zealous, renowned local artist has dedicated his life to building a new, dazzling, all-white stucco temple with fragments of reflective glass that sparkle in the sun. The temple is not yet finished, but it is hoped to be completed by 2070 (shades of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia). Over 3D images of hell (some reminiscent of Terry Pratchett figures) you cross a bridge to the temple itself, which represents heaven and looks like a cross between a Disney palace and a wedding cake. It is hard to find words adequate to describe the impact. We tried completely mad, beautiful, wildly OTT, stunning, joyfully exuberant, great fun – but none of these really do it justice. It truly has to be seen to be believed.
Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand, after Bangkok. We found it an attractive place, and stayed longer than we intended. The old city is surrounded by a moat, and contains many beautiful temples well worth a visit (not to mention bookshops, and vegetarian restaurants – you can understand why we enjoyed being there!).
There are temples outside the city too, including one situated on Doi Suthep, a mountain just west of Chiang Mai. A large gold-plated stupa is surrounded by beautiful filigree parasols and other gleaming ornamentation. It is the north’s holiest shrine, and we saw many worshippers circulating the stupa, bearing flowers.
From Chiang Mai we did a full-day guided trip to the Doi Inthanon National Park. The highlight of this was a two-mile nature trek, which offered splendid views of the surrounding hills, as well as close-ups of the red rhodedendrons, unique to this part of Thailand. We also saw the King’s Garden, where people now grow orchids instead of opium, and the stupas of the king and queen where they will eventually be buried. The king of Thailand recently celebrated his 85th birthday, and posters all over the country made it clear that he is well loved by the people.
From Chang Mai we took a 12-hour overnight bus journey south, to the city of Nakhon Ratchasima (aka Khorat – don’t ask why, but it’s easier to pronounce). From there we were able to get a local bus to visit the (ruined but partially restored) Khmer temple complex at Phimai. This is thought to have been the blueprint of Angkor Wat, and having visited the latter last month, it was interesting to spot the similarities and differences. Phimai is much smaller, of course, but in some ways more attractive, as it is built mainly of pink and grey-white sandstone, in contrast with the rather grim dark appearance of Angkor Wat.
The very last stop on our tour was Khao Yai National Park. We did two guided tours (one afternoon, one full day). On the afternoon tour we had close encounters with a number of creepy crawlies, including a whip snake, a large centipede and a scorpion spider. The highlight however was seeing 2,000,000 bats fly out of their cave at sunset – not quite Carlsbad Caverns, but an amazing sight.
On the full-day tour we were provided with ‘leech socks’ to wear while trekking through the jungle. We saw two waterfalls, and had two wildlife sightings which made the day very worthwhile. In the morning we watched – and listened to – white-handed gibbons as they swung through the trees: an unforgettable experience. And on our way back to the accommodation at dusk, we were lucky enough to see no fewer than five wild Indian elephants. Unfortunately Sandie’s telephoto lens chose that day of all days to malfunction, so her pictures were disappointing.
There were many other places in Thailand we would have liked to explore, but our time ran out, so they will have to wait for another visit. We needed to head for Bangkok airport, for our flight back to the UK!