How better to start a week away than with a lengthy trek? Apart from this one was around an airport, in search of Piri Piri chicken. Matt had a reliable tip off we could find this mythical chicken in Don Muang’s departure lounge. But after a number of laps (must have walked at least 10k) we were disappointed, left wondering if there was a Being John Malkovich-style secret chicken level somewhere, forever closed to the likes of us.
Thankfully this disappointment was not a taste of things to come, as we ventured to Northern Thailand in search of cooler climes, adventure, and crispy noodles.
Scaring the locals (again)
It was a very quick flight from Bangkok to Chiang Rai (with Air Asia), which I think was a relief to the Thai woman sat beside me. My ears were in acute pain from the air pressure in the tiny plane and my genius solution was to suck on what were meant to be chewy sweets. I had been rendered pretty much deaf, and from the looks she was giving me I fear I was making some quite loud and inappropriate noises. The seat belt lights pinged off and she vanished road-runner style, perhaps worried, having finished my packet of mentos, I’d make a start on one of her fingers.
In an (almost) English country garden
The difference in pace from Bangkok was immediately noticeable. Outside the small but perfectly formed airport we found a Jeep taxi, driver propped up on the side and in no rush to get anywhere. He examined our hotel details at length, called them for a chat. Then slowly rumbled into town, singing to himself quietly every so often.
Our baby blue painted B&B (Nai Suan, 1,100 THB per night) was tucked down the side street of a side street. We entered through the café, a charming space with wooden floors and shelves stacked up with antique china. Cups and saucers clinked, and the staff handed us each an icy roselle juice welcome drink. Out the back butterflies bobbed lazily around a quiet garden with a fountain and bench swing. The air was cool. I could almost feel the molecules in my body start to lose some of their Bangkok momentum.
The elderly Thai man tending these gardens was rangy and muscular with a voluminous smile. He clearly lavished the gardens with attention, following us down the drive to show us his young coffee plants, stroking the leaves proudly. His smile and warmth was such that I felt I’d like to take him back to Bangkok to look after our balcony and we could drink cups of tea together.
Takin’ it slow
Chiang Rai is a low rise town, most houses have gardens, most streets have pavements – perhaps this sounds unremarkable, but it’s a marked difference to Bangkok, as is the relatively low number of people and vehicles.
We headed to the Night Bazaar which is a great place to wander. A four man band played traditional Thai instruments on a stage. All around were stalls filled with clothes and trinkets. The food section was largely made up of Thai hotpots, or plates of loads of deep fried stuff. We had deep fried stuff, and immediately regretted it.
We went in search of somewhere to eat, having to cross a busy main road. Matt reached back and took the hand of the person standing behind him, thinking it was me. It was in fact a middle aged Thai man in a cap and a tight t-shirt who had got in front of me. He looked bemused but did not immediately withdraw. I laughed a lot. On reflection his benign attitude seemed to personify Chiang Rai for me.
Buddha and Batman
Come the morning we were chugging to Wat Rong Khun, ‘The White Temple’, on the back of a tuk tuk driven by Thailand’s answer to a Hell’s Angel. At some traffic lights another motorbike pulled up beside us. The driver – France’s answer to a Hell’s Angel – chatted to our driver in Thai. He gestured towards us and made a crying gesture. They both chuckled. This is karma, I thought. For the time I laughed at Debbie when she did the spectacular falling over getting off the fairground ride in Yarmouth. I knew it was coming.
Wat Rong Khun is the vision of artist and devout Buddhist Chalermchai Kositpipat, who has used his fortune to build the temple as an offering to Buddha. Its stark white colour is almost oppressive in the blazing sun, and the entrance is marked by a pit of grasping stone hands. It is a visually stunning structure though, and one of the few examples I have seen of a modern religious monument. Batman clings to the burning Twin Towers on a mural inside the temple, a stone cast of Gollum’s head hangs from a tree outside. It’s an eerie juxtaposition of popular culture and modern catastrophe with the purity of spiritual enlightenment.
Back in town we visited Barrab restaurant for some traditional Northern Thai food – khao soi gai. This is a cross between a curry and a soup, creamed up with coconut milk and topped with fried noodles. Utterly delicious.
I could definitely have spent a bit more time in sleepy old Chiang Rai. But we had places to be. Next stop: Laos.