Like most Thai provincial towns, Chiang Rai doesn’t look like much at first sight, but once I’d ventured out of the night bazaar and my Wangcomely confines to the local restaurants and markets I’d started to appreciate it a little more. With my flight at midday, I had a few hours to kill in the morning, so I decided to skip the execrable hotel buffet and head out on a walking tour.
First stop was Po Sai, apparently one of Chiang Rai’s best-known khao soi noodle joints and conveniently located right next to the Wang Come. A dish rarely seen outside northern Thailand, khao soi consists of noodles in thin chicken curry, topped with lime, shallots and pickled cabbage — and while this may not sound like a recipe for culinary nirvana, when done right it’s absolutely fantastic, and Po Sai’s is the best I’ve tried yet.
And then I set off on my temple tour. Wat Klang Wiang is your standard-issue northern Thai temple, deserted early in the morning, with some gorgeous statuary and a handy “No Killing Area” sign. Wat Ming Meuang impressed with a squat but stately wiharn and an intricately carved sign written in the ancient (and long-dead) Lanna script. But Chiang Rai’s top attraction is Wat Phra Singha (“Temple of the Holy Lion”). According to legend, this was just a fairly ordinary temple until one day in 1434, a bolt of lighting struck one of the chedis (stupas), splitting it open and revealing the Emerald Buddha, said by legend to date back to 43 BC in India (although archaeologists note that it looks suspiciously like 15th-century Lanna style). Adventures worthy of a comic book followed, with the statue moving to Lampang, Chiang Mai, captured by a Lao prince and taken to Luang Prabang and then Vientiane. Vientiane was sacked by the Thais in 1779, who brought it back. King Rama I finally built Bangkok’s famous Temple of the Emerald Buddha in 1784, and that’s where it’s stayed ever since.
Today’s Wat Phra Singha is royally supported and thus well funded temple overflowing with well-tended greenery and an excellent if compact two-story airconditioned museum, where a bored but amiable old monk likes to quiz visitors about Thailand. The museum contains a near-exact replica of the Emerald Buddha, although it was intentionally made 0.1 cm shorter than the real thing! The once-cracked (but long since repaired) chedi is in the middle and tucked away towards the back is the hall where real Emerald Buddha was once kept.