Chiang Rai & The Golden Triangle – Is It Worth Visiting The Hill Tribes Village In Thailand?
After a relaxing day at the cooking class at Thai Farm Cooking School, we decided to take a trip around Chiang Rai. The program includes: Wat Rong Khun, not without reason called the White Temple, a visit to the village of Long Necks, a boat trip on the Mekong River along the Laotian border, the Golden Triangle and Mae Sai, the northernmost region of Thailand. What tribes live in the north of Thailand? Is it worth visiting the village of hill tribes? Whats in the White Temple? Where to buy cobra whiskey? Among other things, about this in this post.
After a brief discernment, we decided to take a trip from Chiang Mai Marvel Travel office, which cost us 1600 baht per person. The day we started early in the morning, as around 7 am was waiting for us a mini-bus with an English speaking guide. After gathering the whole group, we headed off. The first point on our route was the visit to Roong Aroon Hot Springs, which was actually a short stopover in the parking lot with a couple of hot springs, where everyone wanted to have the picture taken. Of course, we also could not deny this pleasure 🙂
Wat Rong Khun, the White Temple
After visiting the hot springs, we continued north towards Chiang Rai. The guide was trying to make our trip a pleasure by telling stories about the origins of the city. It turned out that Chiang Rai was founded in 1262 by King Mengrai, the creator of Kingdom Lanna. At present, one of its greatest attractions is located five kilometers south Wat Rong Khun complex, known mainly from the White Temple. Wat Rong Khun is the work and property of the local artist Chalermchai Kositpipat. The temple was opened to the public in 1997 and its architecture combines unconventional elements with the spirit of orthodox Buddhism.
The building is full of hidden symbols, and the white color is supposed to embody holiness. To the ubosot (the main chapel) can only be accessed through the narrow bridge of the rebirth cycle, hovering over the hundreds of outstretched hands that represent souls suffering in hell. In the distance near the lake we can see the semi-mythical Kinnary. After crossing the bridge we reached the gate of the heaven, guarded by two creatures of Death and Rahu. Inside we can admire two statues of Buddha located on the background of unusual, colorful paintings. Instead of traditional symbols on the walls reign icons of modern pop culture, such as Michael Jackson, Neo, Freddy Kruger, Terminator, Harry Potter, Superman, and Hello Kitty, reign. Unfortunately, taking pictures inside the temple is forbidden.
At Wat Rong Khun we also visited the golden building, which is probably the most luxurious toilet of the world. The richly decorated building is supposed to represent the body, while the white ubosot constitutes its mind. Walking around the complex we found the other freaks. Demonal faces out of horror, Gollums head from Lord of the Rings, or a gigantic photo-engaging robot are just some of them.
Wat Rong Khun is open daily from 8.00 am to 4.00 pm and the entrance fee is 50 baht. For those who want to get here on their own from the center of Chiang Mai, the best option is the green bus that departs from the Arcade Bus Station. The trip takes about 3 hours and the price is about 300 baht.
Visiting hill tribes
After Chiang Rai we went to a tiny mountain village to meet the tribes who came here hoping for a better life from neighboring Burma and from China. The northern Thailand is home to more than 16 separate ethnic groups, each with a different language and culture. Among them, the seven largest are Akha, Lahu, Karen (Kayan), Miao, Yao, Lisu and Palaung.
One of the tribes that inhabit the village we visited is Yao. This people originates from the mountains of southern China, but the also live in Vietnam and Laos. The Yao people used to work mainly in agriculture. Yao culture is a rich mixture of cult of ancestors, Taoism and spiritual beliefs. According to Yao, souls are stolen by evil spirits, and their loss can cause illness and even death. In order to regain their health, Yao people perform special rituals to convince spirits to return souls. Yao do not have their own written language, and its absence explain the great hunger that forced their ancestors to cook and eat all the books to survive. Yao love to sing, they make songs that fit different occasions, and their songs are passed on from generation to generation. Traditional womens dress consists of leather black blouse, skirt, trousers, embroidered cap, silver jewelery and a distinctive, bright red or pink boa around the neck.
Another tribe that we have the opportunity to see is Akha, which originates from Yunnan province in China, but also living in Burma, Laos and Vietnam. Akha people use the Tibetan-Burmese language. What sets them apart from others is the sophisticated style of dress. Women wear embroidered costumes and distinctive, richly decorated headgear, called u-coes. Most often they are high conical hats, adorned with colorful beads, fringes, silver balls, coins, bells and other wonders, and sometimes even dog fur, beetle wings, or feathers. The religion of the tribe is animism. Akha people believe that all non-human beings and inanimate objects on earth have souls. The life of the tribe is concentrated mainly on the cultivation and harvesting of rice, which is perceived as a mystical force connecting with God and ancestors.
The most interesting group inhabiting the village is the Padaung tribe, a part of the Karenni tribe who came to Thailand from neighboring Myanmar (former Burma). Padaung identify themeselves as Kayan. Their popularity among tourists owes primarily to the brass coils which are worn by women belonging to this people. The word padaung means long neck, and girls with neck coils are called the Long Neck. The traditional dress of the female part of the tribe consists also of colorful turban, leggings, short blue skirt and loose tunics.
Although the tradition of wearing brass coils dates back many generations, it is not known exactly where this custom came from. One theory is that metal ornaments were supposed to protect against kidnapping, another says that they were started to be worn for fear of tiger attacks. When the animals were no longer a real threat, tradition continued to be cultivated, as long-necked women began to look more attractive in mens eyes. The first coils are placed around the neck of girls at the age 5-6 years. As a result of the addition of further rings, the collarbones and the chest become deformed, making the neck appear longer. In reality, this is just an optical illusion.
Trapped in their own tradition
Golden rings that once represented the symbol of wealth, status and beauty today are raising a lot of controversy. It is said that young girls are forced to wear coils just to make money and meet the needs of the tourism industry. Allegedly, the authorities forbade women to leave the village to which they were resettled from refugee camps against their will. Deprived of passports and citizenship, they have no choice but to stay in the reserve, pose for photos and sell the handmade souvenirs. One thing is known for sure - none of the women wants to go back to the Burma regime. In Thailand they have at least guaranteed a permanent source of income and they are not threatened by poverty or hunger. Purchase of coils is considered by the tribe to be a good investment. Parents are very happy when their daughters agree to wear the rings, and men are willing to marry Long Neck because of the profits they bring.
Is it worth visiting the village of hill tribes?
Coming to meet the mountain tribes, tourists generally expect to see a substitute for authentic life. Unfortunately, on the spot, it turns out that these villages with true tribal life have nothing in common, and their main function is to donate wallets of Thai owners. Being there, it is impossible not to get the impression that you are witnessing something like a human zoo. Although the entry itself cost us several hundred baht, we had to pay extra to see the Long Neck. Passing the stalls with smiling ladies, we asked ourselves whether wearing the coils was their own decision and willingness to uphold the tradition, or the sad necessity of securing themeselves and their families a dignified life.
The Long Necked women encouraged us to buy souvenirs from them, and the guide suggested us to do selfie in the coils. We politely declined and went behind the stands to see how truly Kayan lived. It turned out that the whole life of the people takes place in modest, makeshift huts. We could not marvel how it could be, as thousands of people are scattered throughout the village every year. Unfortunately, the entrance fee rarely reaches the residents. They are provided with basic food, utensils and small profits from the sale of handicrafts. Only women wearing brass coils receive extra pay. It may happen that village owners reduce salaries when women complain about their fate in front of visitors or when they use forbidden devices such as cell phones.
Is it worth visiting the village of mountain tribes? You have to answer this question yourself. One thing we know for sure - we will definitely not go back there.
Golden Triangle, in the land of opium
Village of hill tribes we left with mixed feelings. Only the prospect of a Mekong cruise made us feel good. Ahead of us drive to the historic city of Chiang Saen, located just off the Laos border in the so-called Golden Triangle. The area of the Golden Triangle comprises 5 provinces in northern Thailand, a section of eastern Burma and western Laos. The landscape is divided by the Ruak River, which flows into the Mekong River (Mae Khong). These rivers create a natural border between the three countries. In the 19th century, people from China moved to the area to sell opium and later heroin. In times of greatest glory, the Golden Triangle was the largest drug market in the world, providing three quarters of the worlds opium supply.
Cruise on the Mekong River
After arriving we had lunch at a local restaurant serving authentic Burmese dishes. Handmade noodles were specialty. After dinner we boarded a nearby motor boat and headed for a cruise on the picturesque Mekong River. On the way we passed Laotian women during their daily duties. Our goal was the tiny island of Dan Sao, where we had to spend equally 45 minutes. We could not wait to cross the border with Laos. During the cruise, the guide gave us time for contests where the main prize were laotian kips. We volunteered, sang Because all Poles are one family and thus we won 1500 kips, which we kept for souvenir. When we reached the shore, it turned out that there was nothing but big bazaar on the island, which was probably created solely to draw money from naive tourists. Nobody wanted to bargain with us. Even for the magnet we had to pay more. At the bazaar you can buy everything that is marketed in Thailand. The only exception was lao-lao, traditional, high-grade rice whiskey, enriched with the taste of snake, scorpion or tiger penis. Apparently, each of these drinks has different properties, good for various diseases. Prices for 0.25 ml bottle started with a few dollars. Gentlemen proudly presented us their specifics and encouraged us to taste it. Unfortunately, no one dared to try it.
Mae Sai, on the border with Myanmar
The last place we visited with our trip was the northernmost part of Thailand - Mae Sai. The town of Mae Sai itself is an important border crossing between Thailand and Myanmar. Many of the Burmese people daily cross the border because only in Thailand they can find decent jobs. Life at the border is a cultural mix. There are a myriad of stalls where you can buy cheaper products. One of the sellers persuaded us to try a local wine. The wine was so tasty that we quickly walked through all stands and returned for a free refill 🙂 We regret that we did not have enough time to cross the border and stay for a while in Burma. We put Myanmar on our must-visit destinations list and came back to bus. Ahead of us a four-hour trip to Chiang Mai. We arrived at the hotel late in the evening and immediately went to sleep. It was a long and tiring day …