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Chiang Rai

Chiang Rai, Thailand
Thursday, April 25, 2013

We fell in love with Thailand when we first visited back in 2008 and have been back on numerous occasions. Whilst we have a list of favourite places that we've visited again and again there are many parts of Thailand that we haven't seen yet and Chiang Rai is one of those places. With a population of 60,000 Chiang Rai is significantly smaller than its touristy bigger brother Chiang Mai where we are heading next. We had planned 3 nights in Chiang Rai and with it being a small city this was enough time to see everything within the city itself but also enough time to venture out of the city and see the surrounding area. As soon as we arrived we noticed the city had a very chilled out atmosphere and by the end of the day we were already loving being back in Thailand and for the first time in ages paying the same prices as the locals.

Day 1 - City Tour

We started off by visiting the Hill Tribe Museum to try and gain a better insight into the different Hill Tribes that still live in the hills in Northern Thailand. The tour of the museum started with a short DVD that explained the different groups and where they originated from. The museum had a wealth of information throughout with lots of original artefacts from some of the Tribal groups including, handmade tools, clothing and children's wooden toys.

Afterwards we enjoyed our free cuppa at the strangely named Cabbages and Condoms restaurant, the only restaurant in the world to offer free condoms instead of mints! Bizarre.

We spent the evening strolling through the night bazaar, sampling the tasty fruit shakes and enjoying live music performed by the locals and best of all paying local prices. We managed to eat out both having 2 courses and drinks for less than £4, it's nice to be back in Thailand!

Day 2 - Golden Triangle Tour

As we are travelling at the start of the 'green season' the time of year with the least amount of tourists, the number of tours on offer were limited but after a bit of hunting around we managed to charter ourselves a car complete with driver for a full day tour for just 2,000B approx. £44.

The first stop was the Tribal village, a slightly strange zoo like village where real tribal families come to live for a short time to be gawped at by tourists before returning to their tribe. It was a simple 'cash cow' for the tribes, but a great way for tourists to see many tribes in one place.

The first and most striking tribe was the Long Neck Karen tribe. Having learnt a little about this tribe yesterday we knew what to expect, however when we met some of these women it was still an astonishing sight.

The tradition is for the women to wear bronze rings around their necks, legs and sometimes their arms. They start wearing 3 rings from the age of five and another ring is added every three years for life, pushing down on the shoulders effectively stretching the neck, hence the name Long Neck Karen. We assumed that the rings were loose and separate to each other to allow extra's ones to be added but apparently each time a new ring is added the whole thing is removed and replaced with a newly made one. Eventually the neck pieces can weigh up to an incredible 4.5kg.

Apparently the rings are worn to pay homage to their gods and is said to make the women more beautiful. The only time when a woman is exempt from wearing them is if she was born on the night of a full moon. If this happens she is said to be blessed by the gods and therefore is beautiful enough not to wear the rings. This may be a strange concept to digest for foreigners (us included) but maybe they look at us in much the same way.

It has to be said that as much as they are proud to wear the neck pieces they are also quite happy to make some money out of it too. Each family we met had a stall with handmade crafts, jewellery, bags, and countless other items to sell. Sonya couldn't resist and ended up buying a bronze bracelet made in a similar style to the rings they wear.

After the Long Neck Karen tribe we passed various other tribal groups, all with different styles. The other most visually striking tribe was the Lahu tribe where they widen their ear lobes with large rings known as ear gauging. Apparently for women this is a means of beautifying themselves whereas for men it offers them greater strength.

This is something that some people in the west have tried to imitate and only a few days ago we were on the slow boat with somebody who ruined their ears in this way. Not to judge (too much) but in our humble opinion it looks ridiculous and we can only guess they are just doing it for fashion's sake, without thinking about where it originates from and why. Some of the lesser known tribes displayed colourful clothing and hats and one group performed a tribal dance for us using instruments made out of bamboo.

Well worth a visit and a great way to see many tribes in one location if a little reminiscent of a zoo.

Next stop was Mae Sai the northern most point of Thailand. Afterwards we had lunch overlooking the Mekong river at the Golden Triangle, where the Mighty Mekong merges with the Ruak river. As we looked out from Thailand we could clearly see Burma and Laos.

After lunch we visited the Hall of Opium, a stark reminder of the history of the area and how it is still used as a trade route by criminal gangs importing opium from Burma. Billed as the largest opium museum in South East Asia it was setup by the Government after the clamp down on the illegal production and trade in opium in the 90's. The museum was setup to try and help hill tribe communities adapt to a new way of life, we are not sure how a museum is supposed to do this but nevertheless it was a fascinating place and we learned loads about the history of opium and its relationship with good old fashioned tea.

However the museum was a bit haphazard and had a slightly strange array of exhibits which weren't particularly well connected so you were often left wondering how they related to both opium and the previous exhibits.

It started off with 2 visual exhibitions before stepping back in time to the industrial revolution and the tea industry in Britain, which was one of the best exhibitions of its type that we have ever seen and it wouldn't have looked out of place in a London museum. We are slightly embarrassed to admit we learnt a lot about British history even though we are in Thailand! We don't think any of this is Thailand's interpretation of our history as a lot of the exhibits were referenced to the British Museum. After learning about how a good old cuppa has an evil connection to opium we continued through the rest of the museum. A great museum, well worth a visit if a little depressing in places and before you ask there were no hands on exhibits!

So that's it Chiang Rai 'ticked' next stop Chiang Mai. We visited Chiang Mai on our very first trip to Thailand in 2008 but haven't been back since, so we are both looking forward to retracing our steps.

Hotel Review

We stayed at the North Hotel in a double private. Arguably the best located hotel we have stayed in so far, no more than 200m from the bus station where we arrived and departed and also 200m from the night bizarre. As the hotel was fairly empty we were given a room with 'the large balcony' An area on the second floor that doubled up as a smoking area for the whole hotel. It was nice to have a large space but equally annoying to have people wandering around outside our window. Probably the only hotel we have ever stayed in that had a front and back door, it was like living at home! Good facilities, amazing location.


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