Chiang Rai is a sleepy little province in northern Thailand. It’s artsy, it’s quiet, it has famous temples, and in the summer, it feels like walking on the sun.
These guys know what I’m talking about
I took the 3:00 PM bus from Chiang Mai and arrived in Chiang Rai at dusk. I had mostly gotten used to constantly sweating like a morbidly obese person across Asia and Thought I’d seen the worst heat Thailand had to offer. Rai was 3 hours from Mai, it couldn’t be that much hotter.
This city is an affront to God. Why anybody would decide to settle here is beyond me. I imagine some Thai people arrived in the winter and were like “this is pretty nice” started planting crops, built a few temples and were pretty satisfied for a few months.
What baffles me is that when summer rolled around they didn’t run away screaming and warn everybody they encountered about this fiery hellscape.
Kudos to the founders and the current residents for having the fortitude to tolerate this heat. If you combine the dry, scorching nightmare of Arizona with the oppressive humidity of Louisiana you get Chiang Rai.
Have you ever been so hot that you can’t stand still? When you stop it feels like you’re burning to death? That’s life in Chiang Rai. The shade does nothing. The wind does nothing. You slowly melt under the oppressive, soul draining sun.
I was sweating so much that I drank 4.5 liters of water during the first day and didn’t piss once. I didn’t think that was possible. The water had no time make it to my bladder before it came flying back out of my pores. I shit you not, I lost almost 10 lbs. in water weight during my short trip.
The city is famous for their beautiful temples which unsurprisingly lack air conditioning. I was forced to spend most of my time outdoors, sweating across these holy places and praying to Buddha for some wind.
I got lost, I look Ethiopian, and I saw the best temples Thailand has to offer. This is the story along with some travel tips if you decide to go.
Tip #1: Do NOT go in July.
Chiang Rai is it so Hot?
Before I went outside, life was much simpler then
I met some wayward travelers that I had a lot in common with (we were all white) on the bus trip from Chiang Mai. We decided to rent mopeds and do the “Interracial Temple Tour” which included the black and white temples.
The first night we grabbed some dinner and a few beers at the local night market, made a game plan which included renting mopeds and embarking at 11 AM the next day. Everything is going smoothly so far. My hostel’s A/C was very, very cold. I slept great.
My time in Chiang Rai coincided with a Buddhist holiday which meant no alcohol sales whatsoever. They literally put locks and chains on some of the beer coolers. I was unable drink even if I wanted to which was a blessing in disguise since I couldn’t afford to lose 1 drop of precious moisture.
I’m On Fire
I grab breakfast the next morning in the hostel, oblivious to the nightmare that awaits me. I foolishly take a shower (which lasted me all of 25 seconds once I stepped outside), got dressed, threw my day bag together with all the moped essentials (sunscreen, bug spray, headphones) and rented a motorbike from the hostel like I usually do.
The moped rental man arrives to show me the bike at 11 AM. When I stepped outside it was so hot I got mad at Chiang Rai like it had feelings. I was pacing with a furrowed brow and being an asshole to the moped man.
The closest I could describe my attitude was that of “waiting for my table at a restaurant and seeing people who arrived after me get seated before me”. I had that indignant white man energy. REALLY Chiang Rai? That’s how you’re gonna treat me? Unbelievable. Let me speak to the manager.
Leaving around noon was a severe miscalculation. I tried to get my head right before meeting my new friends. I was already a dick to one stranger I didn’t want to burn more bridges before crossing them.
I meet them at their hostel where we pack our stuff and dive headfirst into the flames.
The Black Dick Palace
We get to the black temple at 12 PM and we’re basically sitting in a sauna underneath a heat lamp.
The black temple is less a “temple” and more an “art gallery”. There are some barbaric looking art installations that are straight out of the Lannister’s dining room or a Viking’s kitchenette set.
There was a fat Confucius looking man that made a cameo in all of the art pieces. I assumed he was a famous Thai monk or politician but I asked an employee and learned it was the artist responsible for the installation.
This guy built a shrine…to himself? I know artists are selfish and you’re supposed to “love yourself” but Jesus dude. His inspiration must be looking in the mirror.
Also, he really loved dicks. And vaginas, but mostly dicks. I went to use the public restroom which I dubbed “The Dick Palace”. There were dick door handles, a giant cock lock for the door, a big dick chandelier, and Vagina sculptures lining the room.
In my opinion, it was his best work.
One of the people in our group had the idea to go to the golden triangle, an area where the borders of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet at the confluence of the Ruak and Mekong rivers. Why not? I’m already drenched in sweat.
Detour to the Golden Triangle
Google Maps says the triangle is 90 minutes away via motorbike. Google Maps is a liar.
The trip to the triangle, aside from the aforementioned heat, was insanely fun. The highways in Chiang Rai are mostly empty and void of stoplights so I was redlining this little scooter almost the entire way.
Taking the road less traveled gave me a jolt of excitement and I started to enjoy the trip and ignore the heat.
I have never driven a moped more than 30 minutes at a time so I was unprepared for just how uncomfortable that seat can get. You’re basically leaning forward the entire time and with the legendary swamp ass accumulating between my cheeks things got real chaffey real fast.
Still, the playlist is knocking hard, the traffic is non-existent, I focused on the open road and tried to appreciate how surreal it is that I’m tearing through the Asian countryside.
The 90-minute trip was a very loose estimate by Google Maps. I usually trust Google Maps with my life but in Asia it’s pretty unreliable. What’s usually a flawless navigation app is more like Apple Maps here.
The trip there took over 2 hours. We only stopped twice to give our asscheeks a breather and it still took way longer than Google said it would. I started to get weary from the heat.
After long stretches of gorgeous countryside and rural villages, we start to see signs of civilization. And literal signs for the triangle.
All Gold Everything
The Golden Triangle is a border town with a lot of roadside shops, restaurants, and hotels to refuel and rest.
I’m going to be honest, I was expecting more from this place. I guess after a trip that long I thought we deserved something mind blowing for our troubles. I felt entitled to a better experience, like this town owed me something. I’m an ass.
Eventually we get to the tourist park which is this riverside area that has viewpoints, a temple (of course), and a giant golden buddha. It had really cool views of the river and lots of places to buy souvenirs.
It was cool but you can only spend 10-20 minutes there before you’re bored.
The white temple closes at 5 PM and if we hoped to get it in that day we needed to leave ASAP.
Was the Golden Triangle worth it? Kind of. It’s cool to see 3 countries at once, even though all you can see of those countries are trees. The views across the river on the trip there are pretty spectacular as is trekking through the Chiang Rai countryside.
It’s worth going if you have 2 days in Chiang Rai because you can do all of the temples in half a day. Just lower your expectations and you’ll enjoy it.
Running on Empty
We start off on the way back and my homie on the other moped needs gas. No big deal we’ll stop at the first place we see. So we drive, and drive, and keep driving, and…nothing. He reiterates to me that he is literally on empty, running on fumes, and I’m not sure what to do.
The farther we drive the less civilized things are getting. I’m starting to get anxiety because if he runs out of gas then it’s gonna be all three of us driving on my moped through the country, sweating like savages.
Time is running out. We keep getting farther and farther into the wilderness and the likelihood of finding a gas station is becoming less realistic.
Wait. Was that a gas pump? I slam on the brakes and pull a U-turn without adequately explaining myself which scared my passenger. “Follow me” I yell out. If I’m wrong I may of just wasted the last of his gas.
Behind a pull-down curtain on the outside of a billiards bar is a tiny red gas pump. We pull up as the Thai family stares at us. I’m not even sure the pump is operational. An older Thai man walks over, looks at me, looks at our mopeds, looks at the pump, and says “gas?”. I unclench my butthole and breathe a sigh of relief.
After filling up, we set out with renewed confidence and energy. I’m still not sure how I spotted the pump, neither were the people I was traveling with, you can do some pretty impressive things when you’re laser focused and have the right incentive.
One hiccup in a trip this long is no big deal. It’ll be smooth sailing from here on out.
Oh Fuck, We’re Lost
Remember when I said Google Maps was unreliable in Asia? I should have listened to my own advice. It got us to the Golden Triangle without any incidents so I put all of my trust in it once again.
After the gas debacle, I’m blasting some Travis Scott and following the audio directions in my headphones. This way back is A LOT more country and windy than the way here. That’s fine, there’s more than one route to get back and this is much more scenic.
We get back onto a highway and Google Maps fails to alert me of a turn until I’m about 200 yards past it. We pull over and I’m not panicking since I look at the map and see that this road reconnects back with the main road.
There are some cones blocking off this section of highway but that can’t stop our tiny motorbikes. I see a truck drive through them so based on context I figure the road is open.
We veer to the right and as we go over a hill the freshly paved highway turns into a construction site. An active construction site. There are cranes and excavators and all sorts of heavy machinery moving in every direction. This is a highway in progress.
As the leader of this group, I can’t show signs of being nervous. Also, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, I’ll be damned if I have to backtrack.
We forge ahead and I insist to the group that this is “definitely the right way” despite all of the construction workers staring at us in complete astonishment, their mouths agape, shocked that we’re driving on their half finished road.
I’m going to keep going until somebody tells me to stop. I didn’t realize that in Asia, there are no OSHA laws, no construction safety standards. The company and workers aren’t responsible nor do they care about your safety. If you die, that’s on you.
I had gotten way too used to not having personal responsibility because of America’s “sue everybody for everything”. I figured somebody would stop me if it was too dangerous.
I’m sweating now both from the hellish heat and nervousness of being lost on a partially finished road in northern Thailand. The road is getting more desolate and has turned from gravel into dirt. We’re slipping and sliding on these shitty mopeds but according to Google Maps we’re so close, we can make it. Unless Google is lying again.
Please God let this connect with the main road. I know I’ve doubted your existence and said some awful things about you in the past but please, please let us make it.
Right when I’m ready to lose hope I see an asphalt oasis to my left. It’s the road I was looking for. We made it.
There was a man in a truck parked by the turn. I will never forget the look he gave me. It let me know how stupid it was that we drove through that section of road and also made me laugh so hard I almost crashed. This is the closest thing I could find that resembles it:
The trip is saved, time to sprint back in order to make up for lost time. If we drive way too fast we can still make it.
We couldn’t go inside, but it was still beautiful.
After driving for what seemed like 6 hours, I was exhausted. The motorbike went from being exhilarating and fun to being a goddamn chore. I just want the day to be over.
We make it to the white temple literally right as it closes. We pull up and the loudspeaker is saying, in broken Engrish, “The white temple is now closed for the day”.
I don’t care, at least this day has come to an end. I’m within 15 minutes of my nice, air conditioned room instead of being hopelessly lost.
All I wanted was a beer when I got back but the fucking buddhist holiday made that impossible. I floored it back to the hostel, dangerously ducking in between traffic. I collapsed onto the plastic folding chair in fron of the hostel, angrily smoked a cigarette, then took the most satisfying shower I’ve had in the past 10 years.
One Temple, Two Temple, White Temple, Blue Temple
I had an extra day in Chiang Rai to see the blue temple and white temple (when it was actually open). There’s no great story here so I’ll let the photos do most of the talking.
Stylistically, this was the most modern and sleek of the three temples. Also, you can get in for free if you go in the exit accidentally like I did. My second favorite of the three (black is third).
This is the crown jewel of the three temples. It looks like it’s made out of porcelain and despite being massive it’s immaculate. It will run you about 150 baht ($9).
I will say, out of the hundreds of temples I’ve seen in Thailand, these were by far the most impressive. They make Chiang Rai worth the visit, even with the heat.
If you decide to go, here are some tips:
- I said it once and I’ll say it again, don’t visit during the summer time.
- And if you do, get to the temples before 10 AM to avoid heat stroke and crowds.
- Try the hot pot at the local night market. Of course that’s their signature dish.
- Rent a moped. It’s the best way to get around. This goes for every city in Thailand.
- Don’t look for a good party, you won’t find it.
- Don’t stay more than two days, you’ll be bored out of your mind.
Learning to Embrace Uncertainty
During our brief stint of being lost, I was struggling to truly let go and be OK with our situation There’s a part of me that’s been conditioned to cling desperately to security even though the best adventure comes when you completely untether yourself from it.
When I got back and reflected on the trip, I wish we had been more lost. This was one of the few times I was in the country without a safety net. You can’t rely on your phone, you need to interact with local people to find your way.
Thailand is so used to tourism and providing western comforts for their visitors that it can be tough to find a genuine, unique experience in 2019. I did it twice, once getting lost in the mountains in Chiang Mai, and this time.
Both times I freaked out initially. “Get me back to safety!” my brain screamed at me. I was unable to think clearly, my anxiety amped up and my mind had a singular focus.
Learning to “let go” is a process. My fears, anxieties, and expectations aren’t something I want to hold on to but they’re intertwined into every fiber of my being. Their tendrils dug deep into my brain like roots. I’ve been conditioned to place comfort and security above everything else, it takes time to unlearn that.
Experiences like this start to chip away at those misconceptions. I can extend my comfort level little by little, and sometimes truly be OK with being in the middle of nowhere without a backup plan. People always talk about “letting go” and “being yourself” which is good advice but you can’t just flip a switch and do it. It takes work.
Although I spent half of this blog complaining about the heat, I had an good time in Chiang Rai exploring uncharted territory. It was refreshing, even if I couldn’t fully enjoy it at the time. It allowed me to push my threshold for uncertainty further than it’s ever been before and be more comfortable with things not going according to plan.
Things will always work out, even when you think they won’t.