Today’s lunchtime break is a buffet in one of the hotels which our guide is very enthusiastic about. There’s certainly quite a crowd in the restaurant which has a wide variety of food – though as is usual in Thailand there’s no beef to be found and it’s mostly sea food on offer. Cha is taking part in the buffet, so he sits apart from us until he’s finished. I’m still trying to figure out the etiquette surrounding this. Jon doesn’t seem to have got an invitation to this particular ball. Seeing plates piled high with bright coloured desserts we decide to sample some of the unappealing blocks. We find they taste even worse than they look. Chunks of multi-coloured gelatin, the pink one being so bad that I have to make hasty use of a napkin. There’s a good reason Thai restaurants aren’t known for their desserts. I can’t manage to distinguish much difference in taste between the different pieces, just texture. I won’t be repeating this experiment again.
After lunch we visit the famous white temple Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai. The temple is being built by the Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat. He grew up in the nearby village and began this lifetime of work in 1997. His followers and the many donations for the temple will ensure the work continues after his death. The temple is constructed out of white stone and glass mirrors which add a sparkling effect in the sunlight. While still under construction, it’s an impressive sight and is the temple I was most looking forward to seeing in Thailand. A gallery of the artist’s work shows surreal pictures somewhat reminiscent of Salvador Dali. The temple is a different flavour of the same kind of mix – unique among the multitude of temples already in Thailand. What start out as plain stone buildings with simple clear lines are being slowly embroidered with a wealth of fine details.
At the bridge into the main temple you cross over a depiction of some kind of hell, with hordes of twisted arms and skulls reaching up to grasp at you. Two large figures stand guard at each side of the bridge which takes you over a pond populated with silver fish and fountains spraying water high into the air. The outside of the temple has elaborate designs on every inch. Inside the temple the walls are painted a golden colour, rich and warm in contrast to the uniform white outside. It’s the murals inside that go in a completely different direction from the more traditional exterior. There’s a bizarre mix of imagery depicting different cultures. On the entrance wall are the unflattering western elements ranging from Batman and other commercial figures to the New York twin towers being destroyed while oil is pumped into the country. Bin Laden’s face peers out from a circle above. On the side walls individuals and families seem to float on lotus leaves towards Buddha (and presumably enlightenment) at the rear end. It’s a strange surreal mix of imagery and commentary on the world that’s quite blunt in meaning. Regardless of your opinion of what’s depicted at the temple, it’s impossible not to be impressed at the scope and vision of the project. It’s an unforgettable temple in a country where there are countless ones to choose from.
As we head back to Chiang Mai we make a stop to sample the pies at Charin Rose Garden. The last temple we’re to visit is at Mae Ka Chan, secluded in a valley hidden away from most of civilisation. We jolt along the dirt road. Once more the charms Jon has hung up in the van for good luck start jangling and bouncing around. Being superstitious, he drives one-handed trying to avoid incurring bad luck by not treating them with reverence. We arrive at the temple to find a large lake surrounded by serene countryside. Fish have been left to breed without any predators for years here and there are thousands of fish below the surface as a result. Armed with a bag of fish feed each, we create a crazy feeding frenzy below us as fish leap out of the water, batting each other out of the way. Hundreds of mouths gape open below, their open maws searching for food. Once anything lands in the water fish start climbing and piling on top of each other to reach higher towards the source of the food, paying no heed to how far out of the water their efforts take them.
The final stop of the trip is to a hot spring at the side of the road. We lower our legs into steaming hot water. We then watch our skin slowly turn an angry shade of red while discussing the irony of Thai people trying to bleach their skin white to be more attractive, while Westerners spend a fortune trying to get the brown shades that come naturally to Thai people. Suitably refreshed we make our way back into Chiang Mai with just one more toilet stop for Cha at a Cabbage and Condom Restaurant. The idea behind the name is to promote condoms to be as common as cabbages. I don’t know how successful it is at promoting population control, but with a name like that it’s bound to have a brisk tourist trade. Leaving it behind us we finally return back to our accommodation and the ebullient welcome of Arnie, feeling like we’ve been away for a lot longer than 2 days. There’s just enough time for us to visit the Sunday Night Bazaar that spills out along many of the streets nearby. Crowds of people on the roads give a carnival atmosphere. Rows of padded chairs are lined up against walls where people can sit back and enjoy a Thai massage at the end of the day. Paintings and ornaments of every description are laid out at the sides of the roads and often in the middle on coloured materials.
Worn out with the exertions of the tour, we take it easy for the remainder of our time in Chiang Mai. We see temples of every size and description along the roads until we’re practically immune to noticing them. We return to Huen Phen, but this time is a big disappointment. For some reason the restaurant has queues out the door and the service is abysmal. We wait over 30 minutes to get any food at all during which time another party gives up and just walks out. We also visit the normal night market outside the old city walls, but it doesn’t have the atmosphere that was present at the big Sunday night one near our hotel. This one is purely for the tourists. The stalls are packed onto the pavements and it’s a struggle to make any headway along the streets. It doesn’t take long for us to decide to return to our accommodation and make more use of the pool table. It’s free to use and we usually have it to ourselves as the pub downstairs is generally deserted in the evenings at this time of the year.