Mark & I came to Chiang Rai once before, back in 2009, but we really didn’t get to experience Chiang Rai itself or why people get so excited about it. On that trip we stayed at a fancy resort some 40 miles northeast of the city, right where Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar come together. This time we stayed just a mile or so outside the city on the lovely Kok River (yeah, that’s really the name) so we could experience the city more fully. Sadly, we still don’t quite see why people get so excited about it.
First, Chiang Rai is a city of about 200,000 people some 530 miles north of Bangkok; it is the most northerly large city in the country. Lonely Planet describes it as “delightful” with great local food. As we looked around town we saw a lot of cheap backpacker food and knock-off western place, but not a lot else.
With that said, we still had a pretty nice time. As I said, we stayed at a nice place just out of town that was quiet and pretty. We had lunch there pretty much every day and – in contrast to most resorts – the food was good and not that expensive. There was a nice pool and pleasant walks into town when you wanted to.
For me the highlight was a big hike out into the hills a maybe 20 or 30 miles west of Chiang Rai. The best time of year to do that hike would be November or December, after the rainy season is over but while things are still green and lush. February wasn’t bad, though, and we had some nice views and one very refreshing waterfall. I was annoyed when the guide told the group that we were going to split up at one point, that whoever wanted to tackle going up and over the big hill in front of us would go with one guide, while others would go around it with him. He explicitly turned to the oldest guy on the hike, a 68-year-old from New Jersey, and said “You’re coming with me.” Mr. New Jersey took that as a challenge and said he was going up and over. Everyone else except me was going to take the less challenging route so up the two of us went with our guide. Except that it was a genuinely challenging climb and we had to stop a lot – sometimes every 25 yards or so – for Mr. New Jersey to rest and catch his breath. Ultimately he made it, but what was supposed to be an hour-long hike took us well over an hour-and-a-half. Grrrr…
One big surprise on the hike was a great lunch. On a lot of these hikes lunch will be rice with maybe a little chicken or egg mixed in, but these guys did it right. They had hollow bamboo sections and filled one with raw eggs and veggies, another with marinated chicken pieces, and another with mixed vegetables. They stuffed leaves in the open end and then set them over a little fire they’d made. When the stuff was cooked it was absolutely incredibly delicious. Enough to make me want to try it at home. If I had large bamboo pieces. And a home.
Mark, you might note, wasn’t able to make the hike. He was a little under the weather recovering (we hope) from what turned out to be a case of bacterial folliculitis, and infection he got back in Sri Lanka. After weeks of hoping it would go away, and then getting some creams from both a pharmacist and later from a dermatologist we met in the Maldives, he finally went to the hospital in Chiang Mai where the doctor asked him a few questions, made the diagnosis, and gave him a prescription. Total cost of the whole thing, including the prescription? $25.13. It’s as though you can’t afford not to get sick in Thailand.
Mostly, though, it was an uneventful five days. There was a nice place for dinner just up the river (the Kok River, did I mention that?) from our hotel where we ate every night, a place called De Lanna. And the ride out of town was interesting. We hired a car through the hotel to get to Chiang Mai, our next destination, with the driver scheduled to stop at a couple of temples. The first was the White Temple, a modern Buddhist temple just a little out of Chiang Rai that can only be described as trippy. Lots of bright white paint and mirror chips and fantastical ornaments. Inside, instead of the stately pictures of the Buddha the architect painted one wall with crazy contemporary scenes including, among others, Superman, Keanu Reeves from The Matrix, planes crashing into the Twin Towers … just lots of crazy stuff. And then several miles further on we stopped at the more traditional but still big and gaudy Saeng Kaeo Temple.
All in all then Chiang Rai was perfectly pleasant and all that but ultimately I don’t suspect it’s a place I’m likely to return to. Unless we happen to be in the neighborhood in November or December and I want one more try at a hike in the lush Thai hills.