Janet Myers heads to Northern Thailand and receives a schooling in Buddhist tradition while travelling between the cities of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai…
Half an hour into our 122-mile journey from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai we came across that day’s strangest encounter. From inside the car we began hearing the chants of Buddhist monks, before coming upon the sight of dozens of orange-robed men sat in chairs lining the road – each tied to what looked like a newly built first-floor apartment above them by a length of string. Those strings were all in turn attached to each other, crossing overhead and extending above a similarly seated crowd of onlookers.
It turned out that the monks were blessing a new apartment block, as well as the residents who were would be moving into them. Later in the day, tables would be set up for a grand feast.
There were also a number of monks at our next stop-off, the Chiang Dao cave system. The first things you notice at the entrance is a lake of the most ethereal pale blue, the minerals in the surrounding rocks giving it the appearance of phosphorous. Peering into its depths I saw that it was full of giant, whisker-twirling catfish who seem to have been very well-fed courtesy of the caves’ steady stream of visitors.
At one point I spotted a monk sat in quiet contemplation. When he began to speak I turned round, half-expecting him to be conversing with one of the fish – belief in reincarnation is a core part of Buddism, after all, so could well have been communicating with a deceased relative, but no – he was just answering his mobile phone!
Gushing geysers, boiling springs, smells of sulphur – not the sort of thing we’d expected to find along the Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai route, yet our next stop-off was Doi Pha Hom Pok National Park outside Fang City, which contains some 50 hot springs set within black, rocky terrain.
Meandering past them, it was clear that the water in one of them was hot enough to boil an egg – indeed, there was a net at its edge for that very purpose. With no eggs on us, we tried a pebble instead and found that all it took was one quick dip for it to become too hot to touch!
The Park’s main geyser erupts around every 25 minutes, each eruption lasting almost 10 minutes at a time, against a backfrop of trees with spectacular root systems – similar in ways to some of the temples you might see in Cambodia
Just outside Chiang Rai is the amazing (and still under construction) White Temple, every part of which seems to glisten and twinkle. Its creator is the contemporary visual artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, who sees the White Temple as his life’s work – so much so that he has deliberately turned down offers of government and charitable towards its completion, believing that these would compromise his artistic.
To get to the entrance, visitors first have to cross a ‘moat’ filled with outstretched arms. The main shrine itself is calm and serene, with a simple golden Buddha adorning the facing wall. Further murals adorn the other walls, but on closer inspection you notice the odd inclusion of modern fictional heroes, including Batman and Flash Gordon, alongside aliens and mythical creatures.
The complex takes in several buildings, some finished in the same glistening white as the main shrine and others in gold, lending the place a sense of great opulence – even the loo is housed a grand golden building. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you’re then greeted by a collection of grotesque, gothic-stylised decapitated heads hanging from the trees outside. It’s certainly a place like no other.
As dusk began to fall, we made our Chiang Rai, where celebrations for the northern Thai festival of Yi Peng (‘two full moon day’) were already underway, during which paper lanterns are from buildings, carried around on sticks and launched into the air. In our efforts to get close to the action we ventured down a narrow street lined with dozens of parked cars and motorbikes either side. Even with our wing mirrors closed we missed them by a hair’s breadth.
Unable to round, we were eventually unable to go forward either, when our route became completely blocked. A number of people from the surrounding crowds came to our rescue, however, and with some of bikes removed, we were finally able to exit out onto a main road – only to find ourselves in the main procession!
Yi Peng coincides with Thailand’s national Loi Kratong (‘floating baskets’) future, which in northern cities like Chiang Rai makes for some spectacular sights. Joining the crowds thronging a nearby river bank, we watched our own sky lanterns as they drifted aloft along with thousands of others. Looking down, we saw an endless stream of brightly lit decorative baskets float downstream. We took ours – an orchid-adorned creation with an incense burner, candle and sparkler – to a set of steps, where the offerings were being taken by devotees who waded out into the water and set them on their way.
As music filled the air and fireworks exploded above us, I reflected on how this party atmosphere wasn’t just a great way to end the trip – it also gave as a great sense of connection and empathy for the people around us.
Make it Happen
– Average flight times from London to Chiang Mai via Thai Airways is 14 hours. Cheaper flights are available, though they’ll typically involve changing at Bangkok Airport. British visitors don’t need to hold a visa, but you will need to make sure your immunisation record up to date.
– The months between November and March tend to be a good time to visit – it will still be hot, but less humid and monsoon season will have passed.
– Getting around often isn’t easy, so hiring a car is recommended. Budget Thailand offers wheelchair accessible transport and trained chauffeurs who can be on-call 24/7; for more details, contact +66 0 2203 9222 or email email@example.com
– Chiang Mai has well-equipped hospitals with modern facilities and highly skilled medical staff. In the event of any health problems, you can call the country’s tourist police by dialling 1155
– Given Thailand’s strict drug policy, visitors taking regular medication should bring a letter from their doctor and a copy of their prescription
– The annual three-day Yi Peng festival is held on the full moon of the 12th month in the Thai Lunar Calendar – which this year falls on Wednesday 25th November