Some 13 km (8 miles) south of the city, you’ll find Wat Rong Khun, which offers a totally different temple experience. A blindingly white complex of buildings, it glitters in the sunlight thanks to millions of tiny mirrors. It’s a contemporary temple-cum-art-installation, designed and built by artist Chalermchai Kositpipat. He considers the ongoing construction to be an offering to the Buddha.
The architecture here is laden with symbolism, from an eerie sea of grasping, disembodied hands as you enter the wat to a surreal interior mural that depicts flame-wreathed demons, George Bush and Hello Kitty. The monochromatic exterior paint scheme has only one exception — the gold-painted buildings that contain the restrooms.
If you plan to visit the hill-tribe villages, it’s a good idea to first drop by the museum and get familiarised with their culture. Part of a local NGO group, PDA Chiang Rai, which is the brainchild of former senator Meechai Weera-waithaya and Thailand’s most outspoken advocate for safe sex, the museum aims to build awareness for responsible tourism by educating visitors about Thailand’s ethnic hill-tribe communities and local etiquettes that they should observe when visiting the hill-tribe villages.
If you are short on time but would like to get an over-arching introduction to Chiang Rai’s past and immediate history as well as its cultural heritage, then head over to Mae Fah Luang Art & Cultural Park (about 5km west of the city centre). Set in a lovely landscaped lake garden is a cluster of teak structures, constructed in the styles of traditional Lanna and Tai hill-tribes. Learn about the kingdom’s 400-year history, as you browse the museum’s fascinating collection of secular and religious art and artifacts.
If you prefer to delve deeper into Lanna history, art and cultural heritage, the splendid collection at Oub Kham Museum is a must-see. Witness all the different strands that come together, woven into the beautiful tapestry that is the Lanna Kingdom, from royal regalia and costumes to an assortment of rare antiques, pottery, ancient Buddha images, artifacts and tribal costumes. The collections are housed inside five exhibition rooms and a man-made cave. Don’t miss the magnificent centerpiece: the golden throne of Chiang Tung, fashioned from nine pieces of ornately carved teakwood, gilded with gold.
Visit the Hall of Opium, which chronicles the long history of opium production and trade in the Golden Triangle.
The exhibition was designed to be fun and captivating, entertaining while providing information, what we call edutainment. Covering an area of 5,600 square meters, the exhibition in the Hall of Opium is the result of almost 10 years of research. Here visitors learn about the 5,000-year history of opium: how it was a drug to treat illnesses, how its use spread throughout the world, how imperialist expansion used opium in the economic colonization and control of China, and how it eventually came to dominate in the Golden Triangle as well as other parts of the world, such as Afghanistan.
Drive 1.5 hours to the beautiful mountaintop village of Doi Mae Salong, home to indigenous hill-tribe peoples and Chinese settlers. Once opium country, Doi Mae Salong is now home to Thailand’s premier oolong tea production.