Chiang Rai: We should have done our research

Preface

This post is different because it talks about something that we didn’t enjoy very much, which is unusual for us. We signed up for a tour to Chiang Rai because it was on our ideas list for our time in Chiang Mai (likely because I had seen it recommended somewhere). We signed up for this particular tour based on recommendations about the tour company on what has been an immensely helpful facebook group (Thailand Advice & Travel Tips).

Before you read it, know that:

  • We accept responsibility for not doing our homework. We typically avoid tours but, for several reasons, thought that this one might be a good idea.
  • We have no interest in shopping, regardless of where we are in the world.
  • Since tours here aren’t that expensive (this one was 1,150 baht or $50 CAD per person including lunch), we still had a day out and were able to see a lot more of Northern Thailand than we would have if we hadn’t gone. Though not an entirely positive experience, it also wasn’t a completely negative one.

The tour company

On the Thailand Advice & Travel Tips Facebook group, many people referred to tours taken with Fluke Kumpee. We connected with Fluke and asked about a tour to Chiang Rai. Fluke provided a tour description and price. We selected a date and arranged for payment. 

We were picked up at the correct time and then taken by van to a larger van bearing the name of a tour company we had never seen before, so we’re not actually sure who was running our tour.

The tour

After several comments from the tour guide, we figured out that the people in the van had purchased different variations of the tour. For example, our tour did not mention anything about a visit to the Hilltop Tribe Village, something we would not have signed up for. However, we were going to make a stop at this village, and those who hadn’t paid for it (5 of us) could either wait around for 30 minutes while the others went into the village, or we could pay an additional fee of 300 baht (about $12 CAD) to participate.

A similar situation occurred for a boat ride that was on our tour, but not on some of the others, only in this case those who weren’t participating had to wait around for the rest of us for 1 1/2 hours. I don’t know what the upsell cost was to add on the boat trip.

The tour description listed water (drink along the trip) as an included item, so we hadn’t packed our own. We could see the water bottles in the van, but were told that they would be offered, one per person, after the Golden Triangle, which turned out to be at about 4:30 p.m.

The stops

Hot springs

Since the tour plan showed a stop at a hotsprings, we packed our swimsuits and towels. But this stop was a bathroom break only, with markets set up all around for the hundreds of passengers on the dozens of vans and buses in the parking lot to purchase goods and snacks. 

For something unusual, you could purchase eggs coddled in a small hot pool. We passed on these.

We used the facilities, Ken dunked his feet in the water, and off we drove to the next stop.

White Temple

Having done zero research on this myself, I was surprised when Ken mentioned that this temple had been built recently. So, instead of seeing an important historic sacred temple, it seemed that we were visiting the garish creation of a wealthy Thai artist. 

Doing a little post-tour research, I learned that the site had previously housed a historic temple that needed a lot of repairs. Rather than restore the existing temple, the artist rebuilt it with his own money, considering his contribution to be an offering to Lord Buddha that would result in immortality. Work is ongoing and not expected to be completed for another 50 years when several more buildings will share the site and will include areas for meditation and education.

Inside the main temple (no photos allowed inside) is a surprisingly plain, small plastered temple sporting the artist’s painting.

Photo: Ken

As we entered the temple area, every person was handed a brand new plastic bag to put our shoes in. A few minutes later, on the other side of the temple, all of these bags were deposited into a big barrel and a man was tamping down the refuse with a stick. A visitor asked where the bags would go. “Recycle,” he was told. “So, to the ocean?” asked the visitor. The man with the stick nodded. I don’t know where these one-time-use bags are going, but all of the other temples we have visited have shelves and benches to store your shoes, which must be removed before entering. At the very least, we could have just carried them in our hands rather than use a bag for 5 or 10 minutes and then discard it.

Though we were turned off by the bedazzled kitchiness, it was fully appreciated by hordes of tourists posing for photos at every turn. The temple must also do a roaring business in those seeking luck as thousands of beaded metal hearts, each bearing the donor’s name, are grouped into shade structures and ornamental trees.

One building (also no photos allowed) seems to be an art gallery filled with paintings, and there are odd bits of art everywhere.

The elaborate golden building behind these sculptures is the bathroom. Photo: Ken
Photo: Ken
This fellow looks like he belongs in an entertainment complex, but we were told by our guide (perhaps tongue-in-cheek?) that he is there to guard the temple

Hilltop Tribe village

Not part of our tour, most of the other van passengers went into the village for 30 minutes while we hung around outside. Though it would have been interesting to see the long-neck women, we are not that comfortable going into these real-life-for-tourists situations, so we were quite happy that visiting the village wasn’t part of our package. We had two choices for waiting: the marketplace or the parking lot. From the parking lot, we were able to look across a canal or river to see this fellow stripping palm leaves from their stems. Otherwise, we just hung out with the drivers and meandering dogs and chickens until the rest of our group returned.

Golden Triangle

The geography of the Golden Triangle is really interesting. It’s the point at which three countries (Myanmar, Laos, Thailand) and two rivers (Mekong, Ruak) meet. With the mountains in the background, it’s a scenic spot.

It has a long history of involvement in the drug trade with Myanmar (previously Burma) being the second largest producer of illegal opium. Until Afghanistan took over, the Golden Triangle (a term coined by the CIA) was the source of most of the world’s heroin.

Photo: Ken. Heading down to our boat to cross over to Myanmar and Laos.

Now, it’s a tourist draw with boats making a tiny circle to point out Myanmar (or stop at a market there), stop at a market in Laos, and return back to Thailand. Our passports were retrieved before the boat trip and returned to us at the end, apparently a requirement to avoid defections. At the end of the trip we received a paper with all three country stamps on it (our passports were not stamped).

The tour guide pointed out two huge casinos (one being added onto) that are popular with Thais because there are no casinos in Thailand.

The market stop on the other side was a tacky display of consumerism. Other than the snakes in bottles of alcohol, which seemed to be very popular for photo ops, we could have been anywhere, at any market.

We found a shady spot to wait out our time in Laos, but then Ken succumbed to the purchasing frenzy and bought himself a beer.

While waiting on the dock for our boat, a few of our fellow passengers commiserated that they wanted more shopping time as it was too quick to check things out and make purchasing decisions. (They did come back to the boat with packages of Laos cigarettes, however.) We know that our view on these shopping stops is not universal.

After returning to the port (and waiting our turn to dock amid thick, headache-inducing boat exhaust), we took a 5-minute ride up the hill for a lovely view of the Golden Triangle, another bathroom break, and the opportunity to buy more merchandise.

Overlooking the Golden Triangle

Chiang Rai City

I don’t think we actually ever got to Chiang Rai city, which is where we were hoping to go. Who knows, though, maybe the recommendations that we read were about going to Chiang Rai (province) to see the beautiful white temple. Maybe there isn’t anything to see in Chiang Rai (city). Our recommendation, though, is that, if you do want to go to Chiang Rai, get there a different way and plan to stay a night or two so you can visit places of interest in the area.

The return trip

From the Golden Triangle viewpoint, we drove straight back to Chiang Mai, a 4 1/2 hour drive with just one break at a 7-Eleven plaza (popular here for quick snacks) for a bathroom and to allow us to pick up snacks since we weren’t due to return to our hotels until around 9:30.

Epilogue

It was a long and tiring day with some pretty scenery, odd sites, and far too many shopping stops. But it was also a good reminder not to be complacent and to put in the research before committing. 

If you have taken a similar tour and enjoyed it, that’s great. This missive is just how we felt and is not intended to warn anyone away. At every stop, many people appeared to be happily taking it all in. 

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