Chiang Rai - Getting lost, stranded, a snake and some light and dark.

White Temple

Chiang Rai and I got off to a rough start. I got lost with my pack for an hour after I made a silly mistake with the directions. I am still not sure how I ended up where I did. I had a quick two nights in Chiang Rai and I knew I wanted to go to at least the “White Temple” and if I had time the “Black House (Temple).” I had heard things about both and in my research I found much more on the White Temple. There are plenty of other things to do in Chiang Rai, but these are the standouts and all I really had time for. Trying to catch the slow boat to Laos was really cramping my slow travel plans.

I was surprised at how much getting lost with my pack demoralized me for the next day. I guess it took more out of me than I thought and I probably needed a recovery period. As usual though I pushed through, not wanting to waste a minute of the precious time and breaths given to me in this place (or any other place for that matter).  The next day, I walked back to the bus station, the correct way, from my hostel. I had heard there were buses for quite cheap, 20 baht to each of these places.

I decided to visit the White Temple first because of one very specific reason, snakes. The night of my arrival, a girl in my hostel room and I chatted about her time in Chiang Rai. Through the course of the conversation she mentioned snakes and buying a bottle of booze with a snake in it when she went to the hill tribe area. (Visits to “hill tribe people” are a common excursion from Chiang Rai.) She offered to show it to me at which point I had to confess my snake fear.  She said it’s just small and I said, “No really, I don’t want to see it.”(Even though this thing was dead in a bottle of liquor, it still freaked me out that it would be in the same room with me overnight.) Due to this little exchange, she warned me that if I was afraid of snakes I might want to skip the Black Temple. I inquired further and found out that they let very large snakes roam about at the Black Temple. I asked her how large, “about 3 meters.” Folks, that’s about 9 feet long. I immediately started to reconsider, in my head, if going there was even a possibility for me. She continued, “Don’t worry though, they are easy to avoid. There will be large groups of people standing around them taking pictures, touching them and trying to hold them.” I shuddered. I asked how many there were and she said she saw two. Okay, I thought, I can potentially avoid two large snakes with a mass of people around them, but I knew it was more complicated than that. I thought about it the whole night and into the next day. I thought about it at the White Temple, as I was riding on a local bus to the Black Temple and when I arrived there. Even as I arrived there, I considered turning around. In the end I did walk in and I did see the snake. I challenged myself to face a small nugget of my fear. I even looked at it, as I felt myself crawling out of my own skin (ironic, I know).  But I did it. I even looked a second time on the way out.

The White Temple

Back to the White Temple, I decided not to wait an hour for the bus and haggled with a tuk tuk driver to take me out the temple and back. It was about a half hour away by tuk tuk. When we arrived I saw a swarm of buses, tuk tuks, scooters, and mini songthews (pick up trucks with seats in the back), basically every form of transportation available in the area could be found. It appeared that some people had even come on bicycles. In short, it was mobbed. It was still fairly early in the morning so I was surprised to see so many vehicles. Upon entry I was overwhelmed by the masses. There were tourists sure, but there also seemed to be a lot of locals or Thais on holiday. I immediately found a hole with no people and went for it. I walked all the way down the left side of the temple and then back, getting a full overview before I gathered my strength to enter with the rest of the crazy people there.

The Temple itself is a mixture of Gaudi influence, Buddhism, and the mind of someone who has clearly taken acid. It glistens white in the sun and small mosaics of broken mirror add an element of sparkle. When you are actually there it almost doesn’t look real. It reflects in a still lake while everyone tries to get the perfect photograph of it. I was yelled at a number of times when people thought I had walked into their shot. (Being a photography enthusiast, I’m extra careful about this and regularly stop and wait for people to take pictures until I walk by.) But honestly, even if those people had the widest angle lens possible I still would not have been in their shot. I was less than pleased about those interactions. There is no need for such things, just wait a half second until someone walks through if they are indeed in your shot. You do not have a monopoly on the standing area of a tourist attraction.  People can be so rude when they are on holiday and trying to portray their holiday as perfect on social media. I digress.

Once I did walk towards the temple, I was swallowed whole by the paparazzi of this site. I took a few pictures but a man with a microphone was yelling at everyone to keep moving and was pretty forceful about it. I eventually got inside the actual temple, where I had a hard time figuring out if the monk inside was real or a statue, still no definite answer on that one, but I’m going to go with wax figure.  The inside murals were…modern. A number of characters from movies could be seen woven into the more traditional Buddhist art work. During my quick visit in there, I saw a “Despicable Me” character, Batman, Superman and several other unusual additions. I nearly laughed out loud when I noticed them. I’m pretty sure most of the people who walk in and out of there don’t even see the murals. They look at the altar and the monk and then try to flee from the other people encroaching into their personal space.

Once you exit the actual temple you are shuffled out a back/side entrance. I spent some time walking around the side afterwards and looked at the further construction projects. They say the full project will not be completed for another 20 years. I enjoyed my visit here but I didn’t find it peaceful at all. I was hoping for a little peace. It was free though so I guess that counts for something.

The Black Houses (Temple)

I did take the public bus to the Black Temple which was a mistake for me. They let you off on the side of the road and point to another small road. It looks like there can’t possibly be anything of interest down there. I walked down, a bit skittish because of all of the stray dogs; you know rabies concerns and all. I came upon a little stand where the ladies nicely told me that I was going the right way. After a few more minutes a few mini buses passed me full of tourists. I continued on behind them. When I arrived at the actual place I was discouraged to see no taxis, tuk tuks or songthews waiting to take people back. I thought I would try to get the bus back, but in the event I couldn’t, I would take the other means of transportation that are available in practically everywhere in Thailand…except there.

I walked through, saw the aforementioned snake and browsed the complex. Part of it was closed off and a lot of the buildings you couldn’t actually go in. The ones I was able to peer in had many skulls and skins of animals. The main building (the first one you see), had dead, skinned snakes with the heads still on, laid across a massive banquet style tables. I liked this temple significantly less. It just felt like a temple to dead animals to me. The concept is to exhibit the light and dark of life, and heaven and hell but this place just didn’t do much for me. The actual construction of the buildings was interesting but that was about it.

This place was further marred for me when I couldn’t get a ride back to the bus station. A few tuk tuks and taxis had showed up but no one would take me. The taxis were all hired for return fares already, people had bought a round trip. I walked back to the main road, crossed a super busy street, and started walking down the other side. The sun began to scorch me about 10 minutes into the walk. I was waving at every transportation vehicle that went by as I walked. No one would stop. A few buses went by and they didn’t stop either. I started to get worried. The bus ride had taken nearly 45 minutes on the way out there. It was about 3pm. I started doing the math in my head, how long is it before dark, how long do I think the walk would be, do I know the way? I continued to walk. I continued to try to flag everyone down (I know this sounds horribly sketchy to anyone who has never been to SE Asia). Eventually I came upon a place that looked like a sort of market. I decided to stand in one place and try. Two Thai girls also came out and started doing the same. After about 45 minutes from the time I started to walk, a mini songthew finally stopped.  He didn’t even try to over-charge me. I was overjoyed and sat in gratitude all the way back to the bus station. It was one of those situations that could have gone very bad, very fast, but it didn’t.

Tips –

My recommendation is to go to the Black Temple in an organized tour, or hire a taxi to take you there and back. The White Temple can be seen much easier by local bus than the Black Temple. There are a lot of package tours that will do both together though, which is probably the easiest. My hostel ran some but I had elected to do it on my own. Not saving me much time or money in the end. Both sites are free to visit, costs are associated with a guide and transportation as neither is actually “in” the city.