Cultured Chiang Rai
The northernmost province of Thailand offers heaps of art and heritage.
Chiang Rai’s status as a hot tourist destination has always been iffy—unless you love jungle treks. Still, it has a lot of draw for culture buffs. Being the birthplace of the Royal Projects and home to royal palaces, Chiang Rai was once the largest city in Thailand. It houses numerous temples with authentic Lanna architecture, as well as museums displaying precious relics once belonging to royal families and nobles. Navigate Chiang Rai’s ancient heritage with our roundup of temples and museums.
Wat Phra Kaew
19 Moo 1, Wiang, 053-711-385. Open daily 7am-6pm, museum daily 9am-5pm. www.watphrakaew-chiangrai.com
Probably the most sacred Lanna temple in Chiang Rai, the former Wat Pa Yiah was where the Emerald Buddha was discovered after a strong lightning bolt cracked open a chedi in 1434. The Emerald Buddha was later moved to Lampang, Chiang Mai, Luang Prabang, Vientiane and then Bangkok, where it now resides. In 1990, a new Buddha image was made from jade to replace the old one to commemorate the 90th birthday of the Princess Mother. The temple itself is carved in traditional Lanna style and is also home to Hongluang Saengkaew Museum where precious ancient Buddhist items are displayed.
Wat Rong Khun
Pa Or Donchai, 053-673-579. Open daily 6:30am-6pm. Free.
Also known as The White Temple, Wat Rong Khun is regarded as one of the most beautiful temples built in this century. A masterpiece of artist Chalarmchai Kositpipat, famed for his extravagant and unique Buddhism-related paintings, Wat Rong Khun reflects the artist’s grand visions of heaven, hell and Nirvana. The main assembly hall and adjacent area are carved in white with glass mosaics. The construction started in 1997 and even the assembly hall is not yet completed: only two walls have been painted with a depiction of heaven and hell. Look closely and you’ll see pictures of international heroes like Spiderman, Sailor Moon and even Ben 10 hidden in the murals. When it’s completed (it could take 50 years), the temple will have nine buildings. Donations are welcome but should not exceed B10,000 as Chalermchai doesn’t want to be under the influence of big donors, even though he’s spent more than B40 million of his own cash.
414 Moo 13, Nang Lae, 053-705-834. Open daily 8:30am-noon, 1:30-4pm. Free. www.tawan-duchanee.com
Started 35 years ago, Baandum Museum (aka The Black House) belongs to the national artist Thawan Dachanee who is celebrated for his eerie sculptures made from horns and bones, reptile skins, traditional African sculptures, old boats, Lanna-style woodcrafts and art installations housed across 32 buildings, most of which are Lanna-style pavilions made from black wood. If you’re lucky enough you’ll be able to see Tawan himself painting quietly in a corner of the museum. Don’t forget to stop at the gallery at the entrance to see Tawan’s own paintings, priced at B20 million each, all of which have technically been sold, but which are still exhibited here.
Mae Fah Luang Art & Cultural Park
313 Moo 7, Baan Pa Ngiew, Robwiang, 053-716-605/-7, 053-601-013. Open Tue-Sun 8:30am-4:30pm. Entry fee B100 for Thai, B200 for foreigners. www.maefahluang.org
The Mae Fah Luang Art and Cultural Park was established in 1977 as Rai Mae Fah Luang, by the Princess Mother, as a training camp for hilltribe youths appointed to lead their communities in royal development projects. The training camp was turned into an art and culture park three years ago to house collections of Lanna art. There are three main buildings: Haw Kham (Golden Pavilion) displays ancient Lanna teak artifacts; Haw Kham Noi has 19-century ancient mural paintings and Haw Kaew features permanent and rotating exhibitions utilizing teak wood.
Doy Din Daeng Pottery
49 Moo 6, Nanglae, 053-705-291. Open Mon-Sat 8am-5pm. www.dddpottery.com
After years of Japanese-style pottery training with pottery master Nakazato Tarouemon, artist Somluk Pantibun returned home to set up his own studio in the middle of a forest in 1991. Doy Din Daeng Pottery features interesting ceramics in natural colors and asymmetrical shapes. All products are handmade so prices can be from a few hundred baht for a dish to thousands for large-size ceramics.
81/1 Na Khai Rd., Rob Wiang, 053-713-349, 081-992-0342. Open daily 8am-5pm. Entry fee B200 for Thai, B300 for foreigners. www.oubkhammuseum.com
Though less popular with tourists than other cultural destinations, this museum offers a comprehensive thousand-year history of the Tai people and Lanna culture. It does so through private collections of ancient artifacts, textiles, Buddha images and everyday items belonging to Julasak Suriyachai, who is descended from an old Lanna royal family. The highlight is the 400-year-old golden throne of Tai Yai royals from the Shan State in Myanmar, which is regarded as the only one of its kind left in the world.
Plane: THAI Airways and AirAsia fly daily from Bangkok to Chiang Rai. A roundtrip ticket is from B5,640 and B3,500, respectively.
Bus: Take a Bangkok-Chiang Rai bus from Mo Chit Bus Terminal (02-936-2852/-66, www.transport.co.th). A one-way ticket is B452-904, depending on the class. It takes around 11 hours.
Where to stay
High-end: Opened last year, Le Méridien Chiang Rai Resort (221/2 Moo 20, Kwaewai Rd., Robwiang, Muang, Chiang Rai, 053-603-333, www.lemeridien.com/chiangrai) is Chiang Rai’s only international brand accommodation. The buildings of this 158-room hug two 100-year-old trees on the quiet banks of the Kok River. White walls and charcoal-colored wood furniture are spiced up with red cushions, glittering mirror mosaics, and small Lanna details. Hotel guests can access Mar Fah Luang Art and Cultural Park for free with their key cards. The hotel is currently teaming up with AirAsiaGo (www.airasiago.com) to offer a two-night deal starting from B4,999 per person through 31 Oct, 2011.
Budget-modern: B2 Chiang Rai (053-713-666, www.b2hotel.com) is the newest property of the Chiang Mai-based budget hotel chain. B2 Chiang Rai features 89 simple-design rooms decked out with clean-cut woods and raw cement, located not far from the clock tower and the walking street. Rates are from B490 per room.
Budget-vintage: Baan Rub Aroon (65 Ngam-Muang Rd., Muang, Chiang Rai, 053-711-827/234, www.baanrubaroon.net) has been a backpackers’ favorite for years, thanks to its prime location in town, a charming colonial-style building and a friendly owner. Rates are B300 per bed for a dorm room and B550-750 for a private room with shared bathroom.
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