Golden Triangle, Long Neck, White Temple

Chiang Rai White Temple

Many people view Chiang Rai, the northern most province in Thailand, as a good base for booking a trek or tour in the Golden Triangle but there is much more to do and see.  Chiang Rai is the perfect destination if you are seeking out a bit of everything: trekking, HIll Tribe culture, Lanna Architecture, and Buddhist Temples.

Thirteen kilometers south of Chiang Rai is Wat Rong Khun also more famously known as the White Temple. Though not as old or as historical as other Buddhist temples, the White Temple is probably the most visited temple in Chiang Rai since it is unlike any other Buddhist temple you will have seen.  Built from white and glass mosaic, Thai artist Primchai Kositpipat started building the spectacular looking White Temple in 1997. There is still on-going construction such as the murals of contemporary scenes representing rebirth and delusion. Images include a plane crashing into the Twin Towers and Keanu Reeves as Neo from The Matrix.

A much older temple than the White Temple is Wat Phra Kaew which is the most sacred Lanna temple in Chiang Rai. Formerly known as Wat Pa Yai (Bamboo Forest Monastery), this temple was where the Emerald Buddha was discovered after a strong lightning bolt cracked open a chedi in 1434. The Emerald Buddha was later moved to Bangkok, where it now resides in its own temple on the grounds of the Grand Palace.

Another example of Lanna architecture is the Baandum Museum which is also known as The Black House. This is actually an estate owned by the Thai national artist Thawan Dachanee that consists of 32 buildings, most of which are Lanna-style pavilions made from black wood.  Inside the building you can see displays of Dachanee’s unusual sculptures made from horns and bones, reptile skins, traditional African sculptures, old boats, Lanna-style woodcrafts and art installations. There is also a gallery of his paintings at the entrance.

If you are planning on visiting a Hill Tribe village, the Hill Tribe Museum and Education Center is a great source of information . For only a 50 Baht admission fee which also includes a free coffee or tea, you can watch an interesting slide show and a short but comprehensive video about the different Hill Tribes in northern Thailand, such as the Akha, the Long Neck and the Hmong.

The Golden Triangle refers to the opium growing region where the three countries, Thailand, Burma and Laos meet. In the past, many Hill Tribes such as the Long Neck grew opium as a cash crop but opium production has been illegal in Thailand since 1959. Thanks to a highly successful crop substitution program undertaken by the Royal Projects Foundation established by the current King of Thailand, opium production has largely been eliminated in Thailand. If you want to know more about the illicit past of the Golden Triangle, you can visit the instructive museum, the House of Opium. The Thai area of the former triangle is full of small quiet villages, beautiful natural scenery and ancient temples. For the best view of the Golden Triangle, go to the small village of Sop Ruak which is the official center of The Golden Triangle that overlooks the confluence of the Nan Ruak and Mekong Rivers.

Northwest of Chiang Rai is Mae Salong, a small village among the hills that is more Chinese than Thai.  It was settled by the Kuomintang (KMT), which fled to Myanmar from China after the 1949 Chinese revolution. Similar to China’s Yunnan Province there is an abundance of Hill Tribes and tea plantations. You can relax in the cooler climate and enjoy a cup of tea in one one the many tea shops while people watching the diverse population of locals.

If tea is really not your thing, one of the best things to enjoy in Chiang Rai is cup of freshly brewed coffee made from local beans. For such a small town there are surprising amount of western-style coffee shops. But the rich fertile soil, high elevations and ample rainfall make Chiang Rai of the premium coffee growing regions of the world. There are many different coffee brands that support different Hill Tribe communities.

Chiang Rai, the most ethnically diverse province in Thailand, has much to offer from the White Temple to Hill Tribe Villages to the Golden Triangle. When you come to Chiang Mai, be sure to visit Chiang Rai.