Dazzling White Temple and fascinating hiltribes of Chiang Rai…

Our second day in Chiang Rai began with a trip to the White Temple, around 13 kms outside of town. We went there by tuk tuk, having decided to bypass the tour companies the previous day, and the driver charged us 280 BHT for the round trip. As soon as we approached the temple we could tell that it was going to be jaw-dropping. Up close, it didn’t disappoint and the ornate towers and roof tops literally sparkled in brilliant white, from the thousands of tiny mirrors that took up most of it’s surface. The whole thing looked like it belonged in some sort of snowy fairyland and we could tell that every inch of it had been painstakingly designed and put together.

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The surroundings of the temple were just as spectacular – perfectly trimmed gardens, fountains and ponds with white Koi Carp swimming around in them. We took photos from every angle we could before going inside to the sacred part of the temple. No photos are allowed in this bit of course, but to be honest, the inside was so tiny that there wasn’t really anything to photograph! Afterwards we went into the onsite art gallery to have a look at the paintings created by the White Temple’s designer,  Mr. Chalermchai Kositpipat, one of Thailand’s most renowned arists. His paintings are controversial, modern, Buddhist art and I was quite tempted by some of the striking dragon paintings that were on display!

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Once we’d gauped at the temple for long enough we got back into the tuk tuk where we agreed a price to go to the Hilltribe Villages complex – 12kms north of Chiang Rai. This is a complex of 5 hilltribe villages – four of which we had learnt about at the Hilltribe Museum the day before – the Akha, Yao, Lahu and Karen ‘Long Neck’ tribes. To be perfectly honest, the whole complex is pretty much set up for tourists, but unfortunately is one of the only opportunities for visitors to Thailand to witness tribespeople in the flesh. Many of them do not originate from Thailand but instead hail from neighbouring countries such as Burma or Tibet. The Karen ‘Long Neck’ tribe (so called because of the gold rings they wear to elongate their necks) originally fled from Burma and instead of living as refugees, chose to live in peace in Thailand, allowing visitors to visit their villages for a price. No doubt it’s the Thai Government that benefit most from the 300BHT entrance fee, but we felt that we couldn’t leave Chiang Rai without getting a glimpse at these, albeit contrived, villages.

Once we arrived at the entrance to the villages, we paid our fee and then headed down the pathway towards the Akha village. The first thing we came across here was the ‘Spirit Gate’ – the Akha people believe that spirits live in the forests outside their villages and in order to keep the village and its people free of the spirits, they need to walk through the Gate which separates the human and spirit realms. Next to the gate was a rather disturbing wooden sculpture of a man and a woman in a ‘compromising position’ – not too sure what that’s about!

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As expected, once through the gate we were faced with more of a ‘shopping village’ than a traditional tribal village, where the local people dressed in their colourful Akha clothing, promptly stood by makeshift stalls selling handicrafts, urging us to buy from them. We felt extremely awkward wandering around there, particularly as we were the only visitors in the entire complex, so quickly found our way out and towards the Yao village.

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The Yao village really only consisted of about 4 houses, two of which had handicraft stalls out the front, but one of the ladies we met there was very smiley!

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After Yao, we walked up to the Lahu village and were amazed to see them all sat around watching TV! They offered to do a traditional dance for us but we declined, again feeling slightly awkward, and I think they were slightly relived to be able to return to their television. We did manage to have a good wander around the Lahu village however, and saw many of the items we saw on display at the hilltribe museum, such as bamboo baskets, houses on stilts and wood rice-milling instruments.

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The last village we came across was the Karen ‘Long Neck’ village and it was here that we met the most friendly people! They didn’t try to sell us anything, just allowed us to look around, showed us how they weaved the scarfs they had on display and let us take a peak at the local school, where the most adorable children were all lined up asleep!

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Visiting the Karen village, whilst we knew that they were only there in order to escape persecution in Burma and probably didn’t really want to have to live out their lives in front of tourists, really made the trip there worthwhile. We did feel sorry for them and felt like they were perhaps just pawns for Thai businessmen and the Government – we don’t know how much of the entrance fee actually goes to the villages, but we suspect that it isn’t much.

Once we got back to Chiang Rai we had a very late lunch before booking our next hostel in Chiang Mai. Later that night we went to pay our last visit to the Night Bazaar, sampling some local Thai cuisine, before heading to bed!

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