Chiang Mai & Chiang Rai

Thailand is the next destination, and I start to explore the country from the north. Chiang Mai is the largest city in northern Thailand and located 700 km (435 mi) north of Bangkok. It is surrounded by high mountains and lush countryside. The city's importance comes from its close proximity to the Ping River and major trading routes. Until the 1920s, the city could only be reached by a long river journey or elephant trek; this isolation helped keep the city's distinctive charm intact. However, in recent years, Chiang Mai has become an increasingly modern city attracting over five million visitors each year as well as people who want to escape polluted Bangkok. I really liked the laid-back atmosphere, easy-going people, cooler temperatures and green surrounding of the city.

There are more than 300 temples in Chiang Mai and its outskirts, and of course, I visited some of them. But I also have to admit that temple sightseeing becomes less and less attractive. I have seen so many temples in the last three months, and at the end, they are usually not completely different. Therefore, temples don't really surprise me anymore, and I start to feel signs of fatigues in terms of seeing them. I guess someone from Asia would feel the same after seeing dozens of churches in Europe. Nonetheless, I still go to the main ones in a city.

Thailand is a richer country compared to its neighbors Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. This is immediately felt. The country has a much better infrastructure, less pushy sales people crowding the streets, and regular taxis replace many of the Tuk Tuks (although they are still around). It is also a magnet for travelers from all over the world. Thailand is an exotic yet safe place, and it provides vacation opportunities for every budget. Hence, tourism is a significant factor in the economy; approximately 25 million people visit Thailand each year, and counting.

The area around Chiang Mai is well-known for elephant camps. Forests once completely covered the Northern Thailand landscape (unfortunately not anymore), and elephants were used to drag felled trees away for processing. However, those times are over since the banning of tree logging, and camps have been established to help protect the numerous elephants in the area. These camps mainly rely on donations and tourist dollars to keep running. I have experienced many times on my trip how badly animals are often treated in developing countries; therefore, I did some research to find a camp that doesn't fall in this category. I had a good feeling about his camp, but I have to be honest, one never knows what happens after the tourists are gone.

Chiang Rai is the northernmost large city, and it is the main commercial centre serving the Golden Triangle border region of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos. Chiang Rai is a good base for anyone who wants to hike in the area or visit one of the various hill tribes. The main purpose of my trip to Chiang Rai was a different one, and I will write about it in the next blog post. Nevertheless, I have visited again a temple :), but this one was quite different. The White Temple is a unique modern temple that was designed and built by artist Chaloemchai Khositphiphat starting in 1998 (it is still far from completion). It looks different not only from the outside, but also the inside. The paintings show characters such as Superman, Spiderman or Michael Jackson as well as the burning twin towers in New York City illustrating the evil in the world. Very fascinating. Unfortunately, it was not allowed to take photos inside the temple.