For me, first impressions really count and I often know within minutes of arriving in a new place whether I’m going to love or hate it. Take Melbourne for instance, Sagada or Luang Prabang – I fell for them all instantly, whereas I had an immediate and profound dislike for Jakarta. Usually it’s hard to shake my initial feelings about a place so after a wobbly start I was surprised to find that Chiang Rai in Thailand really grew on me.
Our First Impressions of Chiang Rai
After our week in Koh Samui we returned to Chiang Mai with a few days to spare before our volunteering stint at the Elephant Nature Park. Since we’d already spent a month living in Chiang Mai we decided to take advantage of the gap in our schedule to explore somewhere new; Chiang Rai seemed like the perfect place given that it was only a three-hour bus journey away.
We arrived in Chiang Rai in the late afternoon to grey skies and immediately noticed the drop in temperature; the city is located in the very north of Thailand close to the Laos border and has a much cooler mountain climate than Chiang Mai. As we set out to explore that evening we found ourselves caught up in seedy side-streets lined with ‘bars’ which looked like strip clubs or brothels. We also came across the slightly bizarre clock tower, which lit-up in different colours and blasted music at intervals throughout the evening.
We found a small café to have an unappetising dinner and began lamenting about how we could have been eating a delicious meal back in one of our favourite Chiang Mai restaurants. Depressed at the thought of spending a couple of days in this new, underwhelming city we even considered leaving the next morning and heading back to Pai, one of our favourite places in Thailand.
We just weren’t feeling Chiang Rai.
The Hidden Gems of Chiang Rai Thailand
The next day, despite the rain and our negative first impressions, we decided to persevere and make the most of our stay. On first glance it seems like there aren’t many things to do in Chiang Rai, however after some research we found out about a couple of interesting sites that actually turned out to be pretty amazing.
The Black House
The first place we visited was The Black House; a quirky art project set outside the city. To get there we found that renting a motorbike (which we try to avoid) was the only reasonably-priced option. Despite looking up directions online beforehand and collecting a map from the visitor centre we still managed to get hopelessly lost and arrived at the Black House only half an hour before closing, which was a shame because there was much to explore at the strangely beautiful place.
Outwardly the Black House gives the impression of a traditional Buddhist temple, but on closer inspection it’s anything but. Instead of colourful tiles that sparkle in the sunlight and gold-leaf decorated statues, this temple is painted black and filled with bizarre and creepy artifacts; chairs made of animal bones, long snake skins trailing across tables and ugly stone gargoyles guarding the entrance. The place feels distinctly like a set from a Tim Burton movie.
Outside in the garden the macabre theme continued as we walked past live snakes in a pen, weird black buildings decorated with more dead animals and a strange dog-whale statue. We couldn’t stop taking pictures and didn’t have nearly enough time to explore this unique place before we were kicked out at closing time.
The White Temple
In complete contrast to the Black House we also visited the far more famous White Temple just outside of Chiang Rai. This place was as white and sparkly as the black house was gothic and menacing; like a fairytale castle fit for a snow queen. We joined the crowds of tourists taking pictures of the building, which glittered against a backdrop of blue sky, its unblemished reflection gazing up at us from the surrounding lakes.
Not unlike the Black House, however, there was a strange surrealist twist to the White Temple; heads hung from nearby trees and weird alien creatures burst through the lawns. Unfortunately the temple was closed for the day so we were unable to explore more of the inside but we hope to visit again when we’re back in Thailand next year.
As for the centre of Chiang Rai, our opinion of it increased significantly when we discovered the night market. I found there was a much more laid-back feel to this market in comparison to ones in Chiang Mai and Bangkok and we were able to browse without being hassled; which actually encouraged us to buy a few things rather than rush through as fast as we could. We even found ourselves purchasing a head massager – definitely the strangest addition to our packing list so far.
By the time we left Chiang Rai we had discovered there was definitely more to the city than first meets the eye; in fact, I’m sure we’ll go back there when we’re next in Thailand.
Have you been to Chiang Rai? What do you think of it?