We were met at Chiang Rai by a driver in a modern mini van. Adisak had booked the VIP bus tickets from Chiang Mai for us and advised us to get off at the first bus stop / terminal in Chiang Rai (quick word about the VIP bus – all I can say is that I wish airline travel was as luxurious and comfortable). The slap of the hot sun after that cool transfer stung my Melbourne-winter-white skin. Our driver (sorry – can’t recall his name) was looking out for us so we didn’t have to suffer the hot smart of sun for very long. Though he didn’t speak much English, he was courteous and helpful, carrying our bags and ushering us into the cool air-conditioning of the van. He opened a little esky (to all you non-aussies, a coolie bin or ice box) and motioned for us to help ourselves to a cold drink. As we sipped our drinks, I noticed he was on the phone. Next thing, he’s handing the phone to me. ‘Adisak’, he nodded, handing the phone over his shoulder to me.
“Hello Miss K how was your bus trip?” He chatted to me for a few minutes about the weather, the boat arrangements, and where his driver was going to take us. It was a great relief to know everything was under control. First stop was the White Temple. I had glimpsed it a few kilometres out of Chiang Rai, with its crowded car park full of big buses, and mirrored mosaics. Looked amazing...
At the start of the bridge was a mass of sculptured hands; wretched and grasping, reaching up from the dark realms, symbolising hell. You must go through the hells of samsara before finding the ‘heaven’ of enlightenment. Along the whole length of the bright white bridge, tiny mirror tiles cast blinding rays, challenging the tint of my sunglasses. At the end, the dazzling luminous temple with its multi-layered gables, sculptured and ornate, beckoned.
Quickly slipping off my thongs (flip flops to the non-aussies), I stepped in to the slightly cooler interior and was surprised. Not by the modest white Buddha statue surrounded by a gold-gilded Buddha painting at the alter (well, in comparison to the many huge, gold, bejewelled, Buddhas often found in Thai temples). But by the murals. Initially, I didn’t know whether to be offended or not. But the more I looked, the more I found myself in absolute awe of how wonderfully the artists had captured samsara in all its guises: The massive Yama (lord of death) painted around the entrance doorway; 9/11 towers – one flaming and covered in smoke with a jet about to impact the second, satellites and spaceships, aliens and cyborg clones, Mr. Anderson 'al la' Matrix and 'The Terminator', ex-President Bush riding a rocket with Osama Bin Laden riding pillion; galaxies swirling, space shuttles launching, while gods, mythical beasts and asuras look on keeping company of comic book heros and modern day superstars.After many minutes examining the murals (with so many little details you really have to search for), I walked through to the rear buildings and around to the exit. Though I took a hundred photos, I was amazed and appalled by an ordained monk, taking photos of ‘the gold toilet’, which as far as I could tell -was the ladies toilet with some decoration (sorry I didn’t see the big deal – maybe I missed something). It looked a little – well – wrong; swathed in saffron robes, pointing the lens towards the women’s amenities, as ladies washed their hands... I should have taken a photo of him!
We probably spent over an hour there.
After the temple, I took a few dozen more photos, used the afore mentioned golden toilet (which was clean and free with paper – but apparently the ones near the car park were not), and explored the few little shops and ‘cafes’. I bought a few postcards, the obligatory fridge magnet (and if you saw my fridge you’d know what I mean), and an iced tea. There are a few touristy souvenirs shops and places to eat. Our friendly driver was waiting with the cool, air conditioned van.
Next, we drove to Chiang Saen, or through Chiang Saen, to Sob Ruak – the Golden Triangle. It took maybe an hour from the White Temple. That first glimpse of the Mekong as you turn left at the intersection heading north-west-ish was so exciting. Within twenty minutes along a badly maintained road with a washed out bridge from the earlier seasonal floods, we were there. Yeap. Here we are. Another car park. A row of shops all selling the same tourist tee-shirts with that good old catch cry of the stall-holders, “Madam, look my shop”.
So after buying the obligatory tee shirt (still unworn in my bottom drawer), we drove back to Chiang Saen. Though our smiling driver didn’t speak much English, I managed just enough broken Thai and sign language to indicate that I wanted to see Wat Phra That Chedi Luang – a 13th century UNSECO heritage world heritage site with a 58 metre chedi (or stupa). Our driver parked beside the crumbling wall of the ancient temple. By now it was mid afternoon and the shade of the large trees was very welcome. The humidity was relentless despite the respite from the scorching sun. No other farangs (foreigners) were there. It felt a little ‘Indiana Jones’ exploring an ancient city.
Arriving in Chiang Khong was almost an anti-climax. Here was my dusty frontier town. A main road running parallel to the mighty flow of the Mekong, dotted with guest houses and shops. I eagerly looked out, thinking that a Thai Clint Eastwood, resplendent in spurs and poncho, would appear out of the shadows, as small children ran quickly indoors to their worried mothers, with the ethereal whistle from ‘The good, the bad and the ugly’ eching in the background. I loved it immediately. This border town. I had no doubt that stuff happened here that was beyond ‘Border patrol’.
We stayed at the Namkhong Riverside guesthouse (review already posted on Tripadvisor.com with photos http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g1015984-d1201867-r120215468-Namkhong_Riverside_Hotel-Chiang_Khong_Chiang_Rai_Province.html) which was fine. Ok, maybe not so fine. We arrived, a little tired, ready for a relaxing beer to watch the sun set, only be told that the entire restaurant was booked out by a number of large parties, and we could not eat or drink at their restaurant (which – by the way – had a great vista of the river and sunset). Not even buy a beer or soft drink from the bar – nothing. Not to worry.