Wowed by Chiang Rai

Friend’s tell me it’s the food, beaches, shopping, architecture, smiles, culture and value-for-money, as well as a warm welcoming attitude towards LGBTQ travelers that keeps them returning to Thailand again and again. Sounds like a pretty awesome mix right? However there’s one thing they’ve left out… the unique experiences. This time, mine were in the Northern Province of Chiang Rai.

Known for mountainous terrain and remote hill tribes, stunning temples, ancient ruins and limestone caves, it’s also possible to cross into Myanmar (Burma) with a day pass at Mae Sot. Further along the Mekong, the infamous Golden Triangle has a surprisingly interesting Opium Museum at Sop Ruak. Sleepy but pretty Chiang Saen hosts beautiful ruins and Chiang Rai town has a small night market.

A friend and I were travelling to Chiang Rai with a single purpose – to eat! We were joining the annual gourmet weekend held at Phu Chaisai Mountain Resort, a veritable Garden of Eden nestled into a mountain ridge with glorious views across river valleys and mountains. We breakfasted on hay bales in the organic farm while surrounded by morning mist, devoured a luscious lunch of local delicacies while a modern Thai dance performance took place in (yes, in) the river beside us, and enjoyed sublime dinners in the crisp mountain air.

Of course there were many “wows” as well as a few “oohs” and “ahs”, perhaps even a couple of squeals of delight. But that was to be expected at this very special event. One morning while the other guests enjoyed a bamboo rafting trip along the river, we decided to take a motorbike tour of the surrounding area.

There’s nothing more relaxing than cruising empty mountain roads. Every other corner reveals a breathtaking view, or better.   We rounded one bend to find a young man perched on the back of a water buffalo, leading the herd down the mountain.

Over another rise and we were suddenly surrounded by 30 adorably cute hill tribe children who had gathered to stare at some soldiers patrolling the area.   Both my friend and the soldiers had Thai traditional tattoos and it didn’t take much encouragement for the shirts to come off for a comparison. Er….wow!

On the return trip we passed a small sign pointing along a dirt track – “Cave Jaju Maha Prom 1.5km”. How could we resist? A few quick turns and the forest opened to reveal a small pagoda tended by a lone monk named Piak. Piak happily agreed to show us the cave, leading us along a forest path while warning of the giant king cobra snake which lives near the cave entrance.

Upon arriving at a small locked door in a rock face, Piak magically produced a key and several headlamps from the folds of his robes, told us that the cave was 500m long and dangerous, and disappeared into the darkness. “Cobra”…”danger”… was this some sort of monk mind game? I gingerly stepped into the abyss.

Surrounded by creepy shadows, sparkling walls of calcite crystals and swooping bats, we edged our way through the cave until we reached a small meditation platform. Piak, a big fan of cave meditation, encouraged us to try. I had difficulty finding inner calm – perhaps it was the bats. We finally emerged above ground, a little dirty and sweaty, but thrilled with our impromptu adventure.

And there you have it! What started as a quiet drive in the countryside morphed into a meditation lesson in a giant crystal bat cave. Wow! Once again, Thailand delivers. So go forth, explore Thailand, enjoy the adventure and no doubt you’ll collect plenty of “wows” along the way.