Sleeping on busses is the closest you can get to teleportation. You close your eyes, and when you awake, you’re in a brand new place. It’s magic.
On this particular teleportation occasion, I fell asleep in the outskirts of Chiang Mai, and awoke in Chiang Rai, about four hours north, near the borders of Myanmar and Laos. Departing the bus, I wrestled my way through a throng of pushy tuk tuk drivers, and into the night market for much needed sustenance. Dinner came in the form of a beautiful, massive pile of fried everything purchased for 50THB. The night market in Chiang Rai is a seething mass of tourists happily devouring deep fried food and purchasing trinkets, absurd pants, and elephant-print shirts from hill tribesmen at outrageously inflated prices. In short, it’s just like every other night market in Thailand. If you’ve been to one, you know what to expect from the rest.
A short walk from the market, I found my hostel, which I chose on the basis that they had a pool table in their photo on Hostelworld. The pool table turned out to be tiny, uneven, poorly felted, lacking a rack, and light enough to move with a finger. In short, it was almost entirely unusable. The rest of the hostel was exactly the opposite. The common area was massive, well furnished, clean, and included a large courtyard with a reflecting pool. The rooms had massive lockers, comfortable beds, and wonderfully cold a/c. It was the best hostel I’d stayed at to that point.
I stayed at the hostel one night, then rented a scooter for a week, and headed out of town. Chiang Rai itself is not the most interesting city in Thailand, and the major landmarks can all be visited in a day. The landmarks are, however, amazing. The two major spots to see are Black House (Baan Dam) and the White Temple (Wat Rong Khun), each a museum of sorts for two of Thailand’s most famous artists, Thawan Duchanee and Chalermchai Kositpipat (respectively). I didn’t stop by Black House, but on my way out of town, I went to see the White Temple, a place I’ve wanted to see for years.
Wat Rong Khun is one of the most beautiful structures I’ve ever seen in my life. Even after feeling like I’d seen every kind of wat possible in Chiang Mai, this magnificent building too my breath away. From a distance, the white walls and silver mirrors glitter dazzlingly in the sun. A bridge over the reflecting pond in front of the wat, stocked with white koi, leads to a depiction of hell as imagined by the artist. White hands reach with yearning toward goals they will never achieve, as a ring of demons stands guard: a warning about the danger of unmitigated desire. You pass over this hell, and continue to the “Gate of Heaven” where you are greeted by a statues representing death and Rahu, a being who judges the dead. Finally, you enter the main structure, the Ubosot, where you are, unfortunately, unable to take pictures.
(Click to enlarge)
Entering the Ubosot transports you to another world. The white exterior of the temple gives way to one of the most colorful rooms you’ll ever see. Above the door, Buddha perches on a flaming skull, while underneath, a battle for the universe rages endlessly. Characters from Star Wars, Spiderman, Batman, Superman, Minions, the Terminator, Hellraiser, the guy from Saw, and countless other pop-culture characters populate the walls inside the temple, surrounded by nuclear war. It’s surreal in the extreme. I spent ages just staring at the artwork in wonder and disbelief.
But Wat Rong Khun isn’t complete. Construction isn’t even scheduled for completion until 2070. The complex is massive, and most of the structures are quite unadorned as of yet. If you’re lucky, you might see Chalermchai working on the still-unfinished painting within the Ubosot. But once you leave that main building, the rest of the area isn’t worth much of a look about. However, there is a gallery of Chalermchai’s work on the premises, and that is definitely worth a walk through.
As a note, the name "White Temple" is a bit misleading, as the complex doesn't act as a temple. It's more of a private exhibition of Chalermchai's work. There is only one monk on staff at the moment, though Chalermchai purportedly intends to leave the complex in the hands of monks after his death.
I left the White Temple after a few hours, fully fed up with Chinese tourists who were more interested in taking my picture than enjoying the beautiful art around them. At Mercy Hostel I read about a few national parks along the Thai/Laos border, and began heading east in search of mountains and waterfalls.
After a few hours of travel, I ran into a group of Canadian girls at a filling station, and asked about their plans. They had an actual destination in mind, and directions to get there, so I asked if I could tag along. The four of us putted along on our scooters, and soon found a mountain road as the sun began to sink below the horizon. The path up to Phu Chi Fa is not direct, and the signage in Thailand is lacking at best, but we finally found the park sometime after eight. The girls headed off to find a homestay, while I tried to sneak into the closed park to camp. As I putted under the gate, a guard I hadn’t seen stopped me in my tracks.
“Camping?” I said innocently, pointing up the road toward the park.
“No,” he replied, and pointed across the road. “Camping there.”
Luckily, he forgave my trespass, and I crossed the road where I found a group of Thai people already camping on the site. Only one of the group spoke much English, but they were happy to let me join and share their snacks, and I spent the rest of the night hanging out with them before retiring to my hammock for a cold night on top of a mountain.
I awoke to the sound of diesel engines early the next morning. I tried to sleep through it, but the combination of cold and noise kept me wide awake despite my desire to rest more. Resigning myself to the idea that sleep would not be possible, I struck camp, and made my way into the park.
The hike up the mountain was a bit strenuous. As the moon had gone some hours past, I stumbled more than once over the boulders that littered the path. About halfway up, I turned a corner to see a young boy dressed in traditional clothing seated on a wooden bench. A flashlight perched on a nearby boulder acted as a spotlight, not for him, but for his tip box. As he saw me, he began to sing. His voice was tinny and shrill, and his voice waivered with cold and the exhaustion we both felt. But the song itself was soulful, almost mourning, and eerily beautiful. It was a strange and surreal scene to stumble upon in the early hours of the day.
As I made it to the top of the mountain, I found that I was not the only person willing to make the walk in the dark. Another couple sat silently on the mountain top, and gazed at the stars. I took a spot a few meters away, and laid back to enjoy the cosmos. Unfortunately, the haze caused by slash-and-burn farming obscured most of the stars. But it was still beautiful.
My enjoyment would not last long. The next group to arrive was a family of Chinese tourists whose shrill voices pierced the silence. Dozens of pictures taken with flash ensued. Their flashlights never dimmed. Once they finally realized that their pictures were not turning out, they sat down and started playing with social media apps on their phones. The peace was gone.
Other groups with similar behavior soon followed including one boy who sat down, flashlight on, to play with his phone. The beam of his flashlight landed directly on my face, ruining any chance I had to see stars. Cranky and coffee-less, I couldn’t put up with such impertinence. Without saying a word, I walked over to him, grabbed his flashlight, turned it off, and handed it back. But it just kept getting worse. More and more tourists flooded the mountain top, babbling and squawking like a flock of seagulls armed with flashlights and smartphones.
Soon, overwhelmed by the crowd, I stood up, and walked on down the path in hopes of finding a quieter place, but the path ended not far from the crowd, though far enough to hide myself from their flashlights. It was from this spot that I watched the sunrise over Laos. Rather, I watched the sky lighten over Laos. The haze was so thick that the sun didn’t reveal itself until nearly half an hour elapsed.
Heading back, there were now dozens of children singing to tourists in exchange for tips. Some sang singly, while others were organized by their parents into groups. I tried catching some shots while they rested, but their training ran too deep, and as soon as any camera was aimed their way, they would smile and throw up peace signs.
I left the mountain late in the morning, and continued south in search of a national park.
Next time, on Misadventures: an unexpected friend.