In the year 1262, King Mangrai of Ngoenyang unified the disparate city-states over which he ruled into a single kingdom, birthing the city of Chiang Rai in the process.
Over the next five centuries, Lanna (‘Kingdom of a Million Rice Fields’) became a fierce regional power, but it eventually capitulated to Ayutthaya to the south.
“Make no mistake,” the young man sipping coffee across from me in his family-hometurned- B&B reminds me, interrupting my history lesson. “We are still the people of Lan Na – our language, our food, the places we pray. And we always will be.” Today’s Chiang Rai, a city of around 70,000 people at the heart of a province that occupies more than 11,000km2, is refreshingly tranquil, bearing few conspicuous links to its regal past. As I crawl around the core of the former Lanna capital, however, and travel between the menagerie of villages, spiritual sites and natural wonders that radiate outwards from it, the dull roar of former glory slowly crescendoes.
Black and Blue, Old but New
Strolling along the sleepy back alleys and quiet cross streets of Chiang Rai’s central districts yields the most impressive rewards, architecturally speaking. At dusk I stumble upon 14th century Wat Phra Singh, where the courtyard is empty apart from the fallen frangipani blossoms that carpet it. The temple exists in much the same state it would have during the days of the Lanna Kingdom.
On the way back to my guesthouse I make another detour; this one leads to an audience with the seated Buddha of Wat Jet Yod. I quickly find myself entranced by the astrological murals that transform the ceiling above me into a veritable night sky, but I remember that I have an early start tomorrow.
Morning begins at Wat Rong Khun, more commonly known as the ‘White Temple’, which opened in 1997 and is still not complete. Situated a few kilometres south of the city centre, the temple was designed by Chalermchai Kositpipat, who is probably Chiang Rai’s most famous living visual artist, and is Chiang Rai’s closest thing to a tourist attraction.
Travelling north, I reach Baan Dam, or ‘Black House’, a Lanna-inspired folk art museum built by another famous Chiang Rai visionary, the late Thawan Duchanee. The hellish aesthetic here contrasts with the visions of heaven I walked through at the White Temple. Rounding out the trio of top Chiang Rai-area attractions is Wat Rong Suea Ten, or the Blue Temple, a calming oasis of cerulean, cobalt and gold that sits somewhere between its white and black cousins.
It’s also just a short walk from the quaint Chivit Thamma Da, a small family-run coffee house, where I eat my lunch outdoors on a terrace overlooking the Kok River. Afterwards I get a taxi back to the town centre, heading to Chiang Rai’s Clock Tower at sunset and, once evening fully sets in, the city’s lively Night Bazaar.
Miracle on the Mekong
“To experience Lanna fully,” the words of the young man echo in my head as I approach Chiang Rai’s rough-and-tumble bus station early the next day, “you must leave the capital behind, and go forth into the Kingdom.” I take his advice literally, boarding a retro-model bus with wooden seats and a chrome ceiling that evokes a point in the past slightly more recent than the reign of Mangrai.
I’m bound for Mae Sai, a town recently made infamous as the home of the Wild Boars football team, who were trapped inside a nearby cave. To the uninformed explorer, however, this border town (you can walk to Myanmar from here) is simply where day trips to the Golden Triangle region that surrounds Chiang Rai begin.
Like Chiang Rai itself, Mae Sai’s identity is multifaceted – the town boasts a Thai name, but a Burmese aesthetic. This is particularly the case at Wat Phra That Doi Wao temple, where I enjoy a panoramic view of Myanmar’s Tachileik city. As enjoyable as Mae Sai is, neither it nor Chiang Saen, which sits across the Mekong from Laos at the eastern flank of the Golden Triangle, can claim to be the region’s centre of gravity.
For that, I needed to hire a songthaew pick-up truck and travel to the physical ‘triangle’ after which the area is named: the point where the three countries of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand meet.
The driver drops me off where Thailand’s government has erected a massive bejewelled sailing vessel with a golden Buddha atop it. This monument honours not only the unique geographical convergence at which it sits, but the long-running Royal Project that transitioned the local economy towards coffee.
Twenty-four hours later, I’m one of only a few people inside the café of Doi Chaang Coffee Farm, where the scent of roasting beans wafts through the air as I sip an Americano made from their grounds.
Here, more than 1,000m up in the lush mountains that sit to the southwest of Chiang Rai, the sightseeing boats of the Mekong and the tourist buses shuffling between the white, black and blue temples seem far away. They’re as distant as the day the bruised and battered Lanna Kingdom fell to Ayutthaya in the late 18th century.
After a brief trek through the hillside farm where the coffee I sucked down had been grown, I head to an unassuming trail head. A barely trodden path leads me through the jungle for more than an hour, until I hear the roar of water. By the time the magnificent Khun Korn Waterfall has entered my field of vision, I’m being sprayed to my sweaty body’s delight by droplets that ricochet off the rocky landing beneath it.
On my way back to town I make one final stop: at the much-celebrated Singha Park, whose well-manicured oolong tea fields are more impressive than its association with Thailand’s most ubiquitous beverage.
Evening with the Goddess
“That’s Wat Huai Pla Kung,” the young man I’ve come to see as a friend says, about the monument I’d spotted as my plane landed days earlier. “There, Guan Yin (the Chinese Goddess of Mercy) looks out over our city.” Guan Yin herself isn’t there of course, though the 80m image of her seated atop a lotus blossom is a fitting stand-in. I’m here for sunset, though the sky (it’s the rainy season now, at least ostensibly) isn’t putting on much of a show.
The pale powder-blue of the afternoon slowly softens to a purple periwinkle, fading to indigo, then navy and, suddenly, pitch black, at which point the lit-up female bodhisattva appears to be floating in the darkness. Were it not for the marble floor beneath my feet, I too might’ve been totally disconnected from the waking world.
When I return to the house that’s been my home this long weekend in Chiang Rai, my proverbial host-brother and the rest of his family are asleep. As I doze off, the spirit of the Lanna Kingdom and of the proud, yet humble Lanna people is wide awake inside me. It buzzes almost imperceptibly, like the power line that hangs outside my window.