Most people who come to Northern Thailand usually don’t make it up to Chiang Rai unless they’re going to Laos. Between the sights of Chiang Mai and the ability to lose ones self in Pai there isn’t a whole lot of time for much else, but if you’re good at budgeting time and are willing to make the trip to Chiang Rai you’ll be rewarded with some of Northern Thailand’s more bizarre and obscure sights.
After getting our bearings upon arrival, we headed to the Baan Bua Guesthouse on Jedyod Street which has basic rooms and a nice garden and patio. Like every other city in Thailand on a Friday and Saturday night, there is a huge night market set up with people selling food, clothes, souvenirs, electronics, and just about anything else you could imagine and then some. This one stretches close to 6 blocks and then branches down every side street. It supplied us with two very filling dinners. Alternately, there is the more touristic night market every night of the week which also has some nice and cheap dining options.
Chiang Rai also has a lively bar scene on Jedyod Street which attracts a lot of foreigners after dark. Live music is a regular event but good music seems to be rare. To make up for this there is free pool at most bars and if they don’t have a band you’re free to pick the music on YouTube which they play over the TV. Some foreigners have so much fun at the bars in Chiang Rai we would see them sleeping in the street the next morning. I prefer my bed.
While in Chiang Rai, we also went to the Hilltribe Museum and learned about the different people that live in northern Thailand. There’s a 20 minute video to watch, mannequins dressed up as hilltribe people, examples of tools and hunting weapons they used, and an extensive display on their part in the opium trade over the years. This was the main source of income for these rural and hilltribe people for centuries and this region they live in is referred to as the Golden Triangle. The opium trade wasn’t really curbed until the late 1990s though some is surely produced in the remote regions today. The Thai and Laos governments are now trying to get the hilltribe people hooked on tourism instead, with multi day treks available throughout northern Thailand and Laos.
Chiang Rai also boasts quite possibly one of the strangest and most bizarre temples in all of Thailand. Known as Rong Khun, or White Temple, it showcases pop culture references from around the world in its murals and designs and is the artistic masterpiece of a local monk. The temple is completely white with a moat around it. Before going over the bridge are arms reaching up and demonic faces to symbolize desire, or samsara. Inside the temple are murals painted on the walls depicting Harry Potter, Pikachu, characters from Stars Wars and the Matrix, and even the twin towers collapsing while being circled by a gas pump. There’s also a wax monk inside to greet praying pilgrims, although there was much debate as to whether or not he was real.
On the opposite end of Chiang Rai from Rong Khun is another strange art museum called Baan Dam, or Black House. There are actually several black houses on the property and they all contain quite possibly the largest collection of dead animal parts I’ve ever seen. The artist used cow horns to make chairs and python skins as table runners. There were hides of many different animals on display, several of which I’m sure are endangered, but no signs telling you what they’re from. The whole place is designed as an estate with a dining hall, master bed room, study, and even guest quarters, though I couldn’t imagine staying in such a place. The artist is quite popular in Thailand and is still alive and producing art. The gift shop sells his most current pieces which are a little more tasteful than his choice of decorations for the Black House.
But perhaps the most bizarre place we really came across, and by far Rachel’s favorite, was Cat ‘N’ A Cup, a cafe/cat petting zoo. There are over 20 cats in this cafe that lounge around and watch people eat and drink coffee. They have a cat jungle gym, toys, and loads of people coming though all day to pet them. I can’t say I’ve ever seen anything like it before. It really was the cats meow of our stay in Chiang Rai.