When time is of the essence and you want to see as many things as you possibly can, an organised tour might just be the answer… or is it? With the whole of northern Thailand at your disposal and just a few days to explore, what’s a girl to do? You guessed it; jump on a tour that promises to take you from Chiang Mai to The Golden Triangle, to include Laos, some natural hot springs, the wondrous White Temple, and even a visit to the Karen Long Neck Hill Tribe. I couldn’t wait to sign up!
The first stop of the day on the Golden Triangle Tour was the Mae Kachan Hot Springs in the Chiang Rai province. The coach pulled up and parked with the multitudes of other buses and cars. “You have 20 minutes” we were told. “Don’t be late back!”
Once I’d got over the shock of having such a short time to explore and my eyes managed to get past the crowds of tourists and makeshift stalls, I found myself engulfed in the steamy vapours of the natural hot springs. It took a few minutes before the shapes around the cobbled-stoned geezers came into focus… and then I saw the women. There they were, standing around the hot springs with colourful cloths wrapped around their faces, clutching bundles of bamboo baskets.
Crammed full of tiny speckled eggs, the baskets were being methodically immersed into the steaming water of the natural springs. Utilising simple suspending/fishing methods, it took just a few minutes for the eggs to be cooked, and in turn, sold on. The option was there to buy a basket of eggs and cook your own, but sadly, time didn’t allow me to take advantage of this.
Back on the road again and it was full steam ahead in a bid to make up for the late start. After many kilometers, and what seems like an eternity on the coach, we eventually arrived at our next destination; Wat Rong Khum in Chiang Rai, or as it’s more commonly known to the foreigners, The White Temple. Now, this was something I’d been desperate to see… I’d seen photos of it and was so excited to see the real thing!
Built in the style of a Buddhist temple, this privately-owned art museum was chockablock with tourists – and being a bank holiday, I couldn’t have chosen a worst day for my visit. The queue to get into the temple was painstakingly long… and yes, you’ve guessed it; “Be back on the coach in 35 minutes…” So, there you have it, the most awe-inspiring, enchanting temple looming in front of you and hardly any time to absorb its marvels.
It’s a Buddhist temple with a difference; it’s mesmerising, it’s quirky and it’s laden with surprises. It’s a place where traditional Buddhist themes rub shoulders with modern themes; it’s both weird and wonderful, wacky and informative. And it’s not just the White Temple to be seen here – there are numerous other fascinating sights and areas to explore and enjoy, but on this tour… well, what more can I say? As for the hands reaching out of the ground, seemingly pleading for help, like the majority of the artwork in and around the temple, they have a symbolic meaning – the hands representing escaping greed and desire. Even the toilets here are a sight to behold! Considered the most ornate toilets in Thailand, the lavish gold building pictured below is well worth paying a visit to.
For more photos from my fleeting visit to the intriguing White Temple, take a look at the photos below. Unfortunately, photography is banned inside the White Temple.
Fast forward a few more relentless hours on the coach and we eventually arrived at our third place for the day; the Karen Long Neck hill tribe village. After being regaled with stories of how the hill tribes had fled from Myanmar (formerly Burma), the traditions of the women’s elongated necks enwrapped in brass rings, and the wondrous crafts they spent their days making – and how they relied on tourists to buy them – we were ready to enter the village. Make of it what you will, but the photo below is the entrance to the Long Neck Village;
On entering the village we were confronted with a glorious blaze of colourful hand-crafted wares. The villagers all looked contented enough working away on their knitting looms, and were most obliging if you wanted to photograph them, but, one couldn’t help wondering… were these hill tribe people merely a human zoo with the tour companies making most of the money, or did their refugee status enable them to keep their traditions alive? I wasn’t sure…
We were told the children start having the heavy traditional brass rings added to their necks from the age of five. I found it hard to comprehend how someone so young could possibly endure this…
There were a few other hill tribes there in the village too – some with enormous rings in their ears and around their legs as you can see in the photos below;
All too soon we had to leave the tribal village and get back onto the coach – this time heading for our final destinations: Laos and The Golden Triangle.
Off the coach and after a refreshing but short boat trip down the River Mekong, we moored up on the Laos side of the river. Our guides then told us about the locally-produced snake whiskey with its unique qualities. Allegedly, ‘a small cup before meals, twice a day’ is all you need to heal Rheumatism, Lumbago and ‘sweat of limbs’. Interesting… Drink some and apparently you’ll be imparted with the strength of the cobra! We were actively encouraged to buy a bottle whilst being told in the same breath that you couldn’t legally take it out of Laos. Hmmm…
Laos, I’d been told, was a small but beautiful country worth spending a little time in and was looking forward to seeing it. However, on this tour, their idea of visiting Laos was to take you somewhere geared solely for tourists, complete with pushy sellers. I stayed all of five minutes before opting to spend the remainder of my precious 20 minutes walking alongside the river Mekong. So much more enjoyable.
Before we knew it, it was time for the last visit of the day. As the sun began to lower over the horizon in all its glory, we were taken to a place known in English as the ‘Golden Triangle’. It’s a place where the waterways of Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand meet – a place referred to by the locals as Sop Ruak and an area known famously for being one of the world’s busiest drug-trafficking regions. The views were stunning.
Finally, after more than 180 kilometers of coach travel and five different destinations, it was time to drive yet another 180 kilometers back to Chiang Mai. A long old day… but, was it worth it?
Yes, we saw some intriguing places and events, traveled with a great bunch of people and the stress factor of finding these sights was certainly removed, but, was it worth spending over 12 hours traveling to see maybe 2.5 hours worth of north Thailand? Was it worth having these remarkable landmarks in front of you and unable to fully explore them? Would I go again on an organised coach tour if I had the chance to do so? For me, it’s a resounding NO!!
If there’s ever a next time, I’d venture out in the hills further and find one of the more authentic hill tribe villages. I’d choose the back of a motorbike as a means of travel and I’d visit places like the White Temple when the sun is at its lowest and tourists are minimal. Why they call this tour ‘The Golden Triangle Tour’ is beyond me as the time you spend in the Golden Triangle constitutes such a small part of the day. Maybe it’s just to make the tour sound more intriguing? Who knows?