Down by the River

After a week or so of indulging in city life, we headed to Chiang Rai. Situated at the northern tip of Thailand, it’s popular with backpackers and tourists alike for its proximity to the borders of Myanmar (Burma) and Laos, as well as more remote corners of Thailand. We’re here to catch a slow boat to Laos, but others come to visit mountain tribes, visit the Golden Triangle, and converse in other jungle related activities.

Chiang Mai was wonderful for its mix of city and suburban life while Bangkok was purely an urban experience. Chiang Rai is a smaller, quieter city, and possesses a more relaxed atmosphere. We stayed in a lovely guesthouse that was perfect for the limited time we were there. Not too fancy, but not a hovel either. It was centrally located, a short walk to the main drag and the night bazaar. The bazaar happens every night and consists of hundreds of product vendors, food vendors, live music and entertainment shows.

The view as we walked to the main street.

Since our time was limited here, we opted to visit THE place to visit. Google “Chiang Rai” and it’s one of the first images that pops up.

Chalermchai Kositpipat designed, constructed and opened Wat Kong Kuhn in 1997.

Wat Rong Kuhn aka The White Temple is one of the coolest places to visit. It isn’t a temple in the traditional sense, it’s actually a giant art exhibit built and curated by Chalermchai Kositpipat. I happen to be a big fan of Kostipipat’s work, a mix of traditional Thai art and contemporary pop culture with a dash of LSD. The temple is his baby, his masterpiece, his chef d’oeuvre. The piece is never-ending, with new additions being added every year and a due date set for 2070.

Despite the sheer chaos of it all, every statue and section holds meaning. As a whole, it’s an ode to Buddhist teachings and philosophy. The color white for instance symbolizes Buddha’s purity. The bridge to the entrance crosses over outstretched hands (desire) and demons (hell).

You can take photos to your heart’s content outside, but the inside of the temple, the main attraction, is off limits to the ‘gram. The interior of the temple houses a large floor-to-ceiling mural of epic proportions. Every inch of the walls is painted. The rumors are true, you can find a minion, Batman, Harry Potter and other pop culture references in this mural. The main image is of the demon Phra Rahu eating the sun. The story of Rahu is actually a great bedtime story and serves as an ancient explanation for solar eclipses. Speckled throughout the mural are pop culture references primarily of western descent: Freddy Kruger, Kung Fu Panda, Neo, Darth Vader, the clown from Saw, etc. The explanation as to why these characters are here is unclear. Mark and I had a blast trying to find as many references as possible.

The rest of the complex houses more sculptures and buildings to admire. Once we got past the main temple, the crowds thinned out and we were able to leisurely stroll the grounds. We found more pop culture icons like Captain America, Iron Man and Robocop.

Mark with his best friends: Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo, Donatello, and Splinter.
Even the bathrooms are gold!

The following morning we were picked up and driven to the Laos border to catch our slow-boat. Our driver was a bit of a maniac, driving with no hands while he charged his multiple cell phones, passing cars and bikes alike with no sign of braking. He had rings on all ten fingers and he screamed into his phones when they rang. I’m not talking about dainty silver bands, I mean giant Superbowl, college alma mater sized rings. Just pure gangster, like a Thai Tony Soprano.

Breath a sigh of relief because we made it to immigration safely, got our visa, and boarded our slow-boat with some other passengers. We were the youngest passengers by at least 20 years, the rest being older Europeans. Despite the new surroundings, we settled right in. Each day consisted of about 7-8 hours on the water, with a few stops along the way. Thank goodness for headphones and Kindles.

Slow-boats parked on the shore. Each one varies slightly in size and seating.
Inside our humble abode.

It’s funny how easily your idea of home changes as you travel. Since we spent a significant amount of time on this vessel, I considered it to be our home for the foreseeable future. As we drove past other slow-boats or pulled up beside them at destinations, I found myself internally boasting about our ship. Our seats are better, we have blankets, our driver looks cooler. We all found our spot on the boat and silently took turns sleeping at the front (the most comfortable spots to lounge).

Despite the muddy color, the Mekong is actually a beautiful river to travel down. Similar to the Ganges River, the Mekong is vital to the surrounding communities. It serves as a means for transportation, provides food, and allows families to earn a living, like the family that drove our boat. The scenery is stunning — lush, green jungles silhouetted by rolling beaches and small villages. Occasionally you would spot young children frolicking on the sandy hills while their parent fished or farmed nearby.

At one point in the journey, our driver suddenly slowed the boat down. Our guide, just a wee panicked, asked what the issue was. Turns out, we had passed a cousin in another boat and the driver wanted to buy a fish from him. We slowed as the cousin caught up and the fish was delivered from one boat to the next via the wives in the back. I’m pretty sure we ate that same fish for lunch, in a traditional dish known as mok pa.

In the late afternoon, we arrived at Pakbeng, our midpoint destination and home for the night. This tiny town exists purely to house and feed travelers as they move between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang. It has guesthouses, restaurants and two bars. Mark and I joined our guide and some Brits at one of the bars, High Bar, for a drink. Yes, Isabel socialized with strangers! Kids served us complimentary banana whiskey shots as we meandered upstairs to sit and conversed. It’s interesting what information you choose to trade as one traveler to the next: what medicine to take for a stomach ache, how to ask for eggs in multiple languages, or a comment about the weather back home (it’s cold everywhere right now, I get it).

Our lodging for the evening is a quaint bungalow overlooking the river. We slept with our first mosquito net and awoke early in the morning to the trumpeting sounds of elephants walking down to the river from the Mekong Elephant Sanctuary, situated just across the water.

The view from our balcony.

We got an early start in the morning because we had two stops planned for the day. The Mekong in the early morning is quite different than the afternoon. My fleece finally came in handy as the fog rolled in and the temperature dropped.

Our temporary homes docked under the morning fog.

Our first stop was to a handicraft village. I don’t like these visits for many reasons, but it’s part of the package so we played the part for the twenty minutes we were there. There were some highlights, like sampling distilled sticky rice whiskey. It tasted fine but it burned, like a slap in the face. We also tasted peanuts fresh from the ground and green tamarind. Our guide walked us out to the perimeter of the village where we ran into some boys climbing a large tamarind tree. He called up to the top and had one of the boys throw down some of the green tamarinds.

Our second stop was to visit the Pak Ou Caves, famous for the hundreds of Buddhas nestled in the caves. The sight of so many Buddhas is always a sight for sore eyes, even if you have to trek uphill for them. I’m not a fan of caves so I won’t rave about those, but the views from the top are beautiful.

The low-key, relaxing cruise was the perfect introduction to our next town: Luang Prabang. The sleepiest of sleepy river towns, Luang Prabang is the perfect place to spend five mellow days. See you on the other side.

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