Serpent Across the Mekong: Flight of the Thai Air Asia FD3255 B737-300 Seat 19E

Chiang Rai-Bangkok

Like most Thai airports bearing the tag, Chiang Rai’s “international” airport does not actually serve any international flights, and it feels rather too large for its modest volume of flights to Bangkok, Bangkok and more Bangkok (plus a daily hop to Chiang Mai).

As for Air Asia, it does what it says on the box. They’ve got a winning formula and they stick to it, so see this old trip report for the full scoop on the FD experience. Today’s flight was on one of the slowly-being-phased-out 737s, but still in perfectly serviceable condition with leather seats and tolerable pitch, and our flight departed and arrived precisely on time and in one piece.

Serpent Across the Mekong: Day of the No Killing Zone

Chiang Rai

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.

Serpent Across the Mekong: Morning of the Special Transport For You My Friend

Luang Namtha to Chiang Rai via Huay Xai/Chiang Khong

Next morning, the daily haze was augmented with mist so dense you could barely see across the road, and even with a jacket on I shivered while shoveling down my breakfast of eggs and toast, regretting not going for the little noodle shop two doors down. I’d booked a seat on a public bus through a little travel agency, but I was in luck: a plush Japanese-made 8-seater minivan was on its way to Huay Xai, and since they had seats to spare I was promoted on board.

Until fairly recently, this crossing would have involved a full day of bumping about potholed dirt roads in the back of a Soviet-made truck with a few Kalashnikov-toting guards keeping an eye out for bandits, but with Chinese money the entire highway is now paved and is now one of the best roads in Laos, two lanes and paved all the way. The van sliced through the mist and down the highway, twisting and turning its way up and down valleys, neatly bisecting little villages along the way. I’d been hoping to reach Thailand before the border closed at sunset, but we made it to Huay Xai in just over three hours, meaning it was still high noon when the van dropped me off at the Mekong pier over to Thailand. I celebrated with a plate of Thai-Hainenese chicken rice and my last Beerlao, then made my way to the Lao exit immigration hut and got my passport stamped. Au revoir, Lao!

Longtail boats were waiting by the riverside and I clambered on board, followed by a Thai guy from the van who was continuing all the way to Bangkok by overnight bus and a random bunch of vegetable-toting locals. After a journey of all of 5 minutes (you could probably swim it if you’re not in a hurry), we docked in Chiang Khong.

This is where things became complicated. I’d planned to hear over to the ancient walled city of Chiang Saen, some 30 km to the north of Chiang Khong, but to my surprise there was apparently no regular public transport there. Unless I wanted to take my chances on waiting for an indeterminate time for a songthaew that may or may not exist to appear, my only choice was to head to provincial capital Chiang Rai, a good 2.5 hrs away, and then backtrack from there to Chiang Saen, which would take another 2 hours. Neither option sounded very promising, so I improvised Plan C: forget about Chiang Saen and make Chiang Rai my base.

An hour later, I was aboard a rattletrap 3rd-class Baw Kaw Saw (“The Transport Company, Ltd”) non-aircon bus, poking its way towards Chiang Rai the long way at approximately 30 km/h through minor rural roads that were in considerably poorer shape than the morning’s Laotian highway. Unlike Laos, the terrain on this side of the Mekong was mostly flat, which proved a blessing as the bus had serious trouble grinding its way up the solitary (and not very impressive) hill we did encounter. Instead, the dominant scene was one which I was to see repeated again and again in the next few days: a vista of flourescent green rice irrigated paddies, framed by dried trees and scorched, sometimes still-smoldering vegetation, fading off to the hazy horizon in gradations of brownish gray.

Around 5 PM, we finally pulled into Chiang Rai’s bus station, which fortuitously (and quite unlike most Thai cities) is located smack dab in the city center, and it was time to make a decision. I could stomp about the city center in the lingering late afternoon heat (which seemed so much worse now after the brief respite of Laotian highlands), looking for a place to stay for two nights before I checked into the fancy hotel I’d booked for Thursday night… or I could head to the fancy hotel right away and try to cut a deal there.

Like most Flyertalkers, I’m quite particular about my hotels, but instead of worrying about brand affiliation, elite levels or even price, I pick mine based on the establishment’s most prominent feature: its name. With my attention already piqued by the Porn Ping Hotel of Chiang Mai, followed by Korean-style action in the Dong Bang Hotel of Jinju, it was time to complete the Holy Trinity, a climax for the journey if you will, and stay at the Wang Come Hotel, the finest place of lodging in all Chiang Rai (when it was first built at some time in the 1970s, that is). After all, there are plenty of massage parlours in Thailand that offer their clients the “Wang Come” experience, but this is the only hotel named for it, and they’ve got not one, but two mottos to describe how good it feels: you can pick from “Wang Come Hotel — The Centre of the Action”, or “Wang Come Hotel: The Ultimate Pleasure of Staying”.

After a little negotiation at the front desk, I got the price for two extra nights down to a tolerable range and settled into my overly air-conditioned but surprisingly plush room: the “Wanker”, as I’d already lovingly dubbed the place, has evidently gotten a nice interior renovation sometime in the last few years. The location within easy walking distance of everything was also convenient, but all things considered, that’s about the last positive I can give for the place. The depressing pool is surrounded by concrete on all sides and in the shade throughout the day, while the breakfast buffet was terrible in that special way that only bad hotel buffets can be — everything tasteless, overcooked, slimy or otherwise ersatz.

More ersatz, tasteless, overcooked and slimy surprises awaited at the Chiang Rai Night Bazaar, whose outdoor food garden looks quite inviting at first glance, but on closer inspection consists mostly of stalls hawking reheated deep-fried crap. Experimenting with the limited other options, I had the worst pad thai (fried noodles) I’ve tried in Thailand yet, some distinctly mediocre som tum (papaya salad), ultra-fatty muu yang (grilled pork) and rice that was more mushy than sticky. Gah: time to go to bed.

Serpent Across the Mekong: Morning of the Suppression of Terrorist Bands In Mountain Areas and Villagers and School Children Shouting In Delight

Bright if not so early the next morning I set off towards the village of Mae Salong, about 50 klicks northwest of Chiang Rai near the Burmese border. This pipsqueak of a village has a more interesting story than most: after the Commies under Mao established their rule over China in the 1950s, one fragment of the losing Nationalist (Kuomintang/KMT) army made its way over to exile in Thailand. There the KMT trained its army for the day of return that was one day to come, and financed itself by growing opium and dealing in heroin, with notorious warlord Khun Sa living just around the corner.

The Thais weren’t entirely happy about this state of affairs, and the KMT head honchos started to have their own doubts about the probability of imminent return, so the two struck a deal: the battle-hardened KMT would help the Thais squelch their own Communist insurgency, and they’d get Thai citizenship and help for crop substitution. Somewhat surprisingly, the plan worked — the Reds got squished, the renegade Chinese became upstanding Thai citizens, and instead of opium fields, it’s now tea plantations growing Taiwanese High Mountain Oolong that dot the hills of Mae Salong.

And that’s where I found myself standing on a broiling hot April noon. It soon became clear that this was well off-season: the peak here is the winter, when the plums and cherries blossom and visitors come not just from Thailand but KMT’s main territory of Taiwan as well. My only consolation was that April is tea harvest time, so leaves were drying out next to tea factories and the smell of roasting tea filled the air.

Guidebooks try to paint Mae Salong as a little Yunnanese Shangri-La, where KMT cadres with wispy Ho Chi Minh beards smoke suspiciously opium-y long pipes, but no, appearancewise it’s pretty much a Thai town these days, complete with the obligatory Seven-Eleven in the little town square. I trekked up to the hilltop to see the Thai stupa and temple, detoured via the Mae Salong Resort (formerly a KMT training camp and still looking about as comfy as an army barracks), had a bowl of not very noteworthy noodles at the Yunnanist Noodle Shop and tried my hand at Chinese tea ceremony with an obliging if English-challenged tea shop hostess. And with the heat and the haze beating down, I felt I’d seen enough and took my leave. Maybe again someday in winter…