Saturday, July 23, 2011

A Trip to the Golden Triangle

I'm not much of a pray-er, but after visiting the White Temple near Chiang Rai, I issued a silent plea.
Dear Buddha, please be a kind patron and let the gift shop sell postcards of that no-photos interior, with its images of Spider-Man, Batman, Avatar, Matrix, the World Trade Center, and Michael Jackson.
I'd dragged myself out of bed between five and six for the long day's excursion to sightsee in the Thailand's "Golden Triangle" region—that's where Thailand, Burma, and Laos meet. I'd been last to be picked up and so got a good seat in the first row of the van full of tourists. A 27-year-old Chinese backpacker from Shanghai sat behind me, a Dutch couple next to me, and a Kiwi living in Laos was in the shotgun seat by the driver.

We got gas on the way out of town and then headed to Chiang Rai, stopping a half-hour or so shy to visit a rest stop with toilets, snack bars (mmm, morning espresso), fish pedicures, and some hot springs where the Chinese backpacker purchased a quail egg that had been boiled in the hot springs. Then it was time to move on to the reason I was here. The White Temple. Wat Rong Khung.

"There a surprise in the White Temple for you," Toby had said. But he wouldn't tell me what. "Just look inside. Look at the mural."

I didn't have to get inside the temple before I was amazed. I barely had to get out of the van.

Wow. The White Temple is amazing.

A famous Thai artist named Ajarn Chalermchai Kositpitpat and 60 of his helpers are building this temple, which is nowhere near complete yet. When I saw the unfinished walls at the back, I couldn't help but think of Gaudi and the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. In the book I bought in the White Temple gift shop, the artist was quoted as saying that the project will be completed 60 to 90 years after his death.

The temple entrance is one-way, and a guard sits in front with a megaphone reminding us of that. You enter at a creepy moat of grasping, scary human arms and hands, then you rise above this to the one-way bridge to...enlightenment? I don't know. A non-scary part.

I crossed the bridge, wondering what my Easter egg might be inside the temple.

I wondered if maybe Snow Miser might come out and do a dance.

I was inside now, looking for the secret treat within. Damn, no photos!

I turned around and faced the back wall.

My face brook into a grin.

I wasn't able to take any photos, but the gift shop book had a few samples of bits of the mural.

We moved on from the White Temple up to Chiang Saen. The group went to Laos on a little boat, while the Kiwi and I checked out a Buddha statue and some wooden elephants, then raced up to the new Hall of Opium. This is an excellent museum with thoughtful commentary and historic exhibits. We had to hurry back to the van, though. The Kiwi and I had to flag down a passing truck and jump in the back--there was no time to wait for public transport back to town.

Next was a buffet lunch and then a stop at the Burma border at Mae Sae.

The skies opened up and we were monsooned on at the Burma border. Our final stop for the day was a "long-neck village," that is, a home to Burmese refugees. The women wear lengthening rings around their necks.

Most of the "long-necks" appeared to be between 12 and 16 years old. I was creeped out—were these little girls forced to wear the golden rings for us, the tourists?

Were they unhappy that their parents were making them commodities? Or were they just glad to not still be living in Burma?

I dug around when I got back to the hotel. There were arguments on both sides. Most writers had concluded that the refugees actually did need the money, but that most of the tourist money was going to the Thai government and that what we all should have done was buy the souvenirs the "long-necks" were selling. That money goes right to them while our payment to the tour operator does not.

I am still uncomfortable with the "long-neck" aspect, but I can see clearly that I was wrong here. I should have bought a few scarves from the women of the village. And I should have gone independently, paying them on-site.

If I went at all. That's still up for debate.

We left the village and drove back to Chiang Mai, three-and-a-half hours, arriving after nine.

The travel agent had been right. That was a LONG day. But aside from the long-neck visit, a satisfying day.

*More photos of the Golden Triangle day tour are here.

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