Part 3 – White Temple, Golden Triangle & Karen Long Neck Villages and More
Ever thought about being an elephant owner for a day, see the Karen Long Neck Villages or go to the Golden Triangle and visit 3 countries in a matter of minutes? You can do so from Chiang Mai, Thailand! In fact, the two former have been on my bucket list since its inception.
Short Trip to Chiang Mai:
First day: Chiang Mai
Second day: Elephant Owners for Day
Third day: Visit the White Temple, Karen Long Neck Villages and the Golden Triangle ++
A Surprisingly Discovery About Our Day Trip
This was going to be a long day trip. Starting from around 7 am in the morning until 9 pm, packed with cool things. But to be honest, when we bought the tickets the day before we actually thought it only involved the White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) and the Karen Long Neck Village. So when our guide asked us to bring our passports we were puzzled, and only an hour into the trip did we figure out that we were going to the Golden Triangle and into Laos! Haha. A delightful surprise. This is essentially the same booking as we had, it includes all the same activities at the same price as ours, except for that one in the link also includes visits to Yao hill tribe village and Akha hill tribe village.
As the alarm clock rang early in the morning, it was tempting to linger in bed after a fun and exhaustive day with elephants the day before, but my search for the Karen Long Neck Villages would next take me deep into the countryside of northern Thailand.
So yeah, too early for my taste to be driving off, but then again totally worth it for such cool experiences that were scheduled for the day. We got teamed up with some other tourists in a large mini-bus and went off towards the White Temple. Then, after around a 40 minutes drive in, we had our first stop at Mae Khachan Hot Spring.
But yeah, as mentioned, we didn’t even know about this place nor did we know that we were going to stop here – so it was merely a “bonus” to us.
The place had a hybrid “natural/artificial” geyser in front of a 7/11 store, some nice trees, and some areas where you could dip your toes in the natural hot water. I’m sure there might be more to this place than what we experienced, but I’m half Icelandic and having been several times to Iceland – known for its great geysers (as well as to Rotorua in New Zealand and the hot springs near Mt. Fuji in Japan), this did not impress me at all.
Nevertheless, it would be an okay place to briefly soak your feet and perhaps boil some eggs in those thermal pools! Just don’t do the opposite!
Generally, pay attention to markings about where you can do either. And yes, they do sell plenty of eggs for you to boil.
Anyways, if you want a more full-on hot spring experience in the area then you ought to check out the hot springs in San Kamphaeng instead.
A Day Trip to San Kamphaeng Hot Springs | The Blond Travels
San Kamphaeng – Chiang Mai | Different Doors
White Temple (Wat Rong Khun)
One and half hour later, we reached the Chiang Rai province, and the famous White Temple, also known as Wat Rong Khun.
Let me first start off by saying that anywhere you go in Thailand you’re always surrounded by temples, and it is easy to stop noticing them after a while. There are so many for a few reasons:
- They were old schools usually attended by men.
- They were hospitals.
- They were used to store herbs and spices
- They were used as a meeting point for villagers
- They were used for the King or ruler of the area to show his power.
However, the White Temple is definitely one of a kind, as I will tell you more about below. It is a beautiful contemporary and unconventional art exhibition in the style of a Buddhist temple, unlike anything you’ve seen before!
The main building at the white temple, the Ubosot, is reached by crossing a bridge over a small lake. In front of the bridge are hundreds of outreaching hands that symbolize unrestrained desire. The bridge proclaims that the way to happiness is by foregoing temptation and greed.
On the backside of the main building was yet another impressive structure. However, it was closed due to an earthquake some time ago. I was just really impressed by how incredibly white and simple, yet beautiful, the building was. Imagine having something like that in your garden – albeit much, much smaller!
Now let’s talk about the Ubosot and what’s inside of it the building.
You’ll probably never guess what the inside contains. But before I carry on, give it a go – guess.
Unfortunately for the Ubosot you’re not allowed to take pictures so you’ll have to use your imagination (and a partial photo I found of it on Flickr, below). You walk into the room and in front of you is a monk wax figure meditating (worthy of Madame Tussaud’s!) On the four walls of the room only one is painted, one currently being painted and the other two bare, for now, that is.
The wall that is complete is quite hard to explain. It’s a reflection of the world with hundreds of different scenes. All around are effects of global warming and pollution, with superheroes scattered everywhere. The likes of Superman, Spiderman, Ben 10 (haha), Tomb raider, Michael Jackson, Star War – you name it! These are to show that whilst we might like the thought of these, in real life, there are no otherworldly superheroes — just us.
You then move over to the twin towers and the plane that crashed into it. Falling from the sky is what first appears to be rain, but actually is thousands of missiles and bombs – signifying the wars going on in the world. Above that, you’ll see two eyes looking down on you, and if you look closely there’s a person in each eye. One eye with George Bush and the other with Osama Bin Laden, which in a sense is meant to represent the war on terror.Then look at the very top and you’ll see the Buddha image restoring peace.
Phew, you might have a slight idea of it all now, but like I said… very hard to explain!
I guess for many, though, most religious consideration vanish and they rather conceive it as a massive art project, disguised as a temple. No wonder when you got Neo from The Matrix, Optimus Prime, Alien and Predator, and many, many, more combined in a surreal mix on the paintings inside the hall and beyond.
Was your educated guess anywhere near?!
And while we are on it. There were plenty of other weird artefacts outside as well. Ranging from head sculptures depicting all kinds of random superstars – and even Gollum from Lord of the Rings. I’m sure they’ll one day include the “winner” of Game of Thrones – once that’s figured out.
Other worthy things to mention are the wishing trees where one might hang up its own prayers (“a tree of messages”), the cool toilet building made of “gold”, and the nice wishing well.
All in all, it seems like a place that kind of tries to accommodate for everybody, blending various religions, cultures and traditions.
Even for people who have already been ‘templed out’ during their time in Thailand, the White Temple is worth going to. It’s unlike anything you will ever see anywhere else.
The White Temple in Chiang Rai is located about 15 minutes outside of the city centre. It’s open every day from 6:30 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. (although it closed a little later when I was there). Entrance is free of charge, and it is open all year round.
Try getting to the temple grounds early, or plan your trip so you’re still there when the temple closes – there won’t be anyone standing in front of the temple allowing you to get some people-free views and photos.
Be sure to check out the art gallery showcasing some of Kositpipat’s other paintings and sculptures. While his acrylic paintings take on an impressive New Age-y, ethereal feel, I preferred the intricate pen and pencil sketches.
Hire a driver. You might consider hiring a driver for the day to make various stops – especially convenient if you’re tight on time. Most hostels, hotels etc. should be able to help you find one.
Local bus. Local buses heading toward Chiang Mai or Phayao (from Chiang Rai) leave regularly and should cost around 20 baht, and should take around 30 minutes. To get back then just on the opposite side of the road for the buses going back. Whereas if you’re taking a bus from Chiang Mai then expect about 3.5 hours, and 11-12 hours from Bangkok.
Train. There’s a train to Chiang Mai from Bangkok but it does not go to Chiang Rai, so you’ll need to take the aforementioned bus from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai.
Tour. You could also book a tour from Chiang Mai to the White Temple for about 500-700 baht – which is essentially what we did but combined with other stops and excursions. Just be warned that it apparently gets quite crowded as a lot of the buses seem to arrive at the same time.
Drive. Lastly, you could just hire a motorbike and ride to the White Temple yourself if you are touring North Thailand. The roads are good and most traffic signs are in English and Thai. Do carry some form of GPS and/or map though, just in case.
First of all, my photos doesn’t do this beauty justice at all. So I urge you to check some of these out to better grasp its beauty.
White Temple – Wat Rong Khun | Thailand for Children
Wat Rong Khun | Wikipedia
Wat Rong Khun: A Buddhist Temple Inspired by Sci-Fi Movies | Amusing Planet
The White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) | This Girl Abroad
After the delights of the Wat Rong Khun temple, we got back on the bus and headed to Chiang Saen and the Golden Triangle.
An hour later, we were in the border town of Chiang Saen.
Once there, our guide gave us the lowdown on Mekong River and its importance to every nation the river passes through. According to her, the river delta derives its name from illegal trade being conducted on a minor island between the three nations (Thailand, Myanmar & Laos), particularly drugs. And because they all lacked a common currency, drugs were traded for gold – hence the name “the Golden Triangle”.
We took a long boat out into the water and watched the Golden Buddha of Thailand shrink into the distance. In a matter of minutes, if not seconds, we could see the three nations and their distinct architecture. To our left was Burma (or Myanmar), to our right was Laos and behind us Thailand. We passed no mans land which was now really just over grown grass but which was once a hub of activity. We passed Win&Win Casino on the Burmese side then “Laos-Vegas” on the other side. We could easily tell that there were plenty of casinos in Laos and Myanmar. And I’m sure the reason is that gambling is illegal in both China and Thailand, so those who are really eager to play some good old Baccarat or whatever, they travel overseas to these places in order to do so – in a similar vein as Macau is to China and Hong Kong.
Fun fact. There are 12 of these “triangles” in the world, where 3 countries meet at one point.
We then went off on the Laos side, at a place that essentially was just a touristy small market choc full of small shops.
Our guide took us to a store selling “special” whisky — with various “weird” things in them, ranging from scorpion-based whiskey to snake, lizard and even tiger penis!
We actually all received a free taste, of which some obviously gently refused. I gave it a go though, but I refused to buy anything purely on moral grounds that I did not want to endorse such a practice.
Needless to say, this was no vintage Jack Daniels. It was pure spirit and quite tasteless. Another reason not to buy it.
Besides interesting whiskies, there were heaps of fake or semi-fake brand merchandise, a monkey, and a dog. That was about it. To say that you don’t do Laos justice by simply visiting this place is an understatement. Yes, you may have a chop in your passport that says you’ve been to the country, but you have yet to actually experience and embrace the nation. I totally get that myself, which is a why a more extensive trip to this beautiful country is in plans for next year.
Then we were off on the boat again, back to Thailand. A fun moment occurred when the tour guide said that the last man on board had to sing karaoke, and it all basically transpired into a karaoke event, with plenty of the tourists willingly singing random songs in turn. Weird and cool. Perhaps the whiskey shots in Laos had emboldened everyone?
Next stop on the tour was Mae Sai, the town bordering Myanmar (also known as Burma). From here, you can officially enter Myanmar (if you have the rights to).
Burmese can enter Thailand freely for 24 hours, but if they need to stay beyond that, they need a visa. So a lot of traders sell goods by day and return in the evening.
Unfortunately, our trip did not include a visit to Myanmar. So this was basically just a tease. So close, yet so far away from entering.
When you cross the bridge at the border, you will not just go from one side of the bridge to the other (Thailand to Myanmar) but also from the left side of the road to the right. Thais drive on the left-hand side, but in Myanmar one keeps to the right. I’m sure that has led to some interesting traffic incidents throughout time.
Besides that, the town had little to offer. It was the third time we had been to markets now, and we had bought everything that we would ever want and need. So we simply strolled around and grabbed a snack as we were about to leave for my favourite part of the day – the Karen Long Neck Village.
Mae Sai | WikiTravel
Karen Long Neck Village
Finally off to the Long Neck villages!
I’ve always been amazed by this Long Neck Village tribe and have been wanting to learn more about them and see them up close for myself, and it has been an item on my bucket list for years!
Visiting one of the numerous Karen Long Neck villages in Thailand is one of the most exotic experiences on the planet. The mystery and beauty that sound the tradition of using brass rings for exaggerated jewellery is something better seen in person than in a book. We had ethical questions on if it these hill tribe villages would feel like human zoos, but thankfully we decided to visit anyway.
The women wear the rings (which is actually a big coil) to protect their necks from the mythical tiger which bit the women on the neck killing them. No women= no babies= no tribe! They start to get their rings from age 5 and get them changed every few years adding on one or two each time. The coils are very heavy and instead of making the neck longer it actually pushes the shoulders down giving the illusion of a longer neck.
We were told that the women never take these rings off except for at certain times in their life:
- Pregnancy (but only in the last 2 weeks before birth)
- To get them changed
- To punish the women – rings get taken off to make them an outcast within the community.
There are still around 40,000 Karen members today, but thousands have had to flee Myanmar over the decades due to political unrest. Fleeing to Thailand was a very safe choice for many, but the ones that came are largely illegal immigrants and do not have options for gaining Thai citizenship. While things are much better for the Karen that have fled from Myanmar, the lack of opportunity for the Long Necks has confined the groups to small pockets separate from most of modern Thailand.
On one hand, it is beautiful they have been able to keep their traditions alive while on the other it is a struggle to balance the new world with the old.
As mentioned, a visit to a Karen tribal village as a tourist isn’t without its own ethical questions (which I’ll touch on below), but in the end, we are very glad we made our visit as it was an experience straight out of National Geographic.
I’m not just an ignorant tourist only there for a quick photo though. No, I seek to learn and know more about the these people’s situation. Because all is not simply bliss, unique and great about these villages.
First of all, I’m a healthy sceptic, so I do question their use of the rings. According to my prior research, there are several theories on the actual use of them – ranging from suppression of the women to the fact that it fends of tigers and evil spirits, to that rings are deemed as beautiful among the tribes. Unfortunately, after the visit, I’m no wiser on what best accurately depicts the situation.
When we first arrived each woman was stationed by her own hut ferociously working on knitting looms and it initially felt a little bit like a staged atmosphere. Things changed in a hurry the second we set our cameras down and started directly interacting with the Karen women. It was amazing how quickly it transformed from feeling like we were gawking to actually being able to connect with the locals. The woman really came to life the second we broke the ice and as we later found out it was because most tourists just snap some photos, buy a couple things and leave.
In short, it will only feel like a human zoo if you make it feel like one.
Talk to the women and ask about the goods they are selling, because the second you are able to overcome gawker mode you’ll start to feel really happy you made the visit.
If you really want to feel truly comfortable with visiting the Karen Long Necks, an hour of walking through the village won’t cut it and you really should consider staying overnight. The ultimate experience is to book with a company that lets you stay overnight in an authentic village instead of just stopping by the staged marketplace village.
Kayan People | Wikipedia
Be a responsible tourist. No matter what kind of activity or adventure you’re doing try to do some proper research on its practices. E.g., be aware of commercial abuse of animals and/or tribes.
Mosquito spray and sun block. Are your friends.
Will be updating the takeaway section here with more content.