Chiang Rai – Temples & Caves – Days 237-241

Smiling children in front of white temple

Having finalized our decision to take a “slow boat” to Laos, we made our way closer to the border in Northern Thailand. Chiang Rai would be our home for the next four days, and we kept things simple. Our only agenda item was to visit some famous temples. We stayed at a decent hotel with breakfast, a pool and a large lobby that we made our own. We passed the time playing board games, reading and catching up on school. Isabella was not pleased with the amount of schoolwork she had to get through! Julie was not impressed with the number of postcards we ended up writing!

At first, Chiang Rai seemed to be a place for things we would not do. Unlike Chiang Mai, which appeared to be full of digital nomads living and working in the city, Chiang Rai seemed to have two distinct groups of travellers. First were backpackers making their way through northern Thailand and older people making the “Golden Triangle” loop. The backpackers were often making their way west to the “trending” town of Pai while others were heading off trekking. We would do neither of these things. We weren’t cool enough for Pai, and trekking went against Julie’s anti-walking stance she had recently adopted. As for Myanmar (part of the Golden Triangle loop), that was a non-starter as our insurance would have been voided (Canada has a travel advisory for Myanmar).

Children spray painting temple wall blue

So we did the main tourist activity of temple visiting. We booked a “private tour” to take us to the ‘blue’ and ‘white’ temples and give us a full day with a car. When booking, language must have got crossed as the “tour” we received wasn’t what we thought it would be. It ended up being a private driver who spoke some English. We had wanted an entire morning in the two temples with someone teaching the children about Buddhism, but that fell flat. Our first stop was Wat Rong Suea Ten (the blue temple), and the guide waited in the car until we told him to show us around. So fun fact, the two “famous temples” in Chiang Rai are relatively recent construction and are still being worked on. Upon arrival, they were painting the drab concrete on the secondary buildings the vivid blue the temple is known for. Isabella grabbed the air sprayer and got to work. So in the future, whenever we see a picture of Wat Rong Suea Ten, Isabella can say she helped in its construction.

Despite being outside the city centre and being absolutely slammed with tourists, Wat Rong Kun (the white temple) is worth the small fee. After paying, we queued with the tourist horde to cross a bridge to the main temple building. The delay gave us time to appreciate the eerie sculpture of hell with hands reaching up to the heavens. Julie was keen to hurry along and enjoy the millions of mirror mosaics attached to all surfaces of the main temple, causing it to sparkle in the bright sun. Heed the tour guide’s advice and don’t brush up against any edges as most have sharp spikes. In the desire to take Instagram-able photos, tourists have brushed up against these tips and inadvertently snapped them off. It was sad to see so many tips broken off. The outlying buildings and grounds are also worth some time. Similar to the blue temple, it is also a work in progress, and you can see the different stages of decoration throughout the temple grounds. Some walls don’t have the ornate ornamentation added, while others don’t have mirrored mosaics affixed. The complex is so expansive that it will take decades to complete everything they have in scope.

Tham Luang–Khun Nam Nang Non Forest Park gained worldwide attention when a young Thai soccer team was rescued from a cave system in 2018. Since then the caves have become a tourist attraction of sorts. I remember watching the updates back in Canada and had no idea Chiang Rai was less than 100km from the site. When I asked the driver if he would take us there, he said sure and told us that he had already been there 3 times this month. I was super excited as we rode the one hour up the road with signs pointing to the Myanmar border. But before we could contemplate an additional silly idea, we pulled off and were at the national park.

Tourist infrastructure is popping up at the park with a makeshift parking lot for cars where you park and then take a “local” songthaew the 750m to the park entrance. You then switch to an electric tram to travel the last 500m to the cave entrance. It all seemed silly, but there were barely any people, so we just smiled and let the locals make a couple dollars off of us. Unfortunately, it was another hazy day in the area so we didn’t really get to appreciate the beauty of the surrounding area with the hills and jungle. We jumped off the tram, raced up a handful of steps and were then smiling at the cave entrance.

Sunlight filtering into a cave

You need to understand I’m terrified of caves, probably more so than my fear of heights. My wife Paigey is also scared of caves. But the cave section we could visit was quite open, calming our nerves. So off we went into the cave system as far as we could go. They let you go about 200m into the cave, and then the way is blocked off to keep hooligans away. But in all honesty, there was no security. The “gate” was about 2 feet high and I could have just walked around it (but that would have been idiotic). The kids came down, we got some pictures and then made our way back to the tram stop. We stopped to make a donation and then walked through an exhibit that highlighted the efforts of the rescue team and the worldwide community . The children had a bazillion questions, and after our answers, I don’t think we have any cave divers in our future.

So Chiang Rai worked for us. We got in one fantastic day of sightseeing sandwiched between amazing food and tonnes of school work.

Up next is our slow multi-day journey overland by boat to Luang Prabang.

Where we stayed:

By the numbers:

  • Desserts eaten at the breakfast buffet: 15 – Julie 1 per day, Paige & Mike 2 each per day
  • Desserts eaten at other points in town: 8 – doughnuts, ice cream, street market pastries
  • Discount we got versus agoda when we extended our stay 1 day: 10% – agoda has had amazing prices for us vs the rest but actually speaking to the hotel seems to do better in Asia
  • Distance we could actually go into the cave: about 200m
  • Distance the boys were stuck: about 4km

Ciao for now


Family with heads in ornate mystical cutout

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