Chiang Rai was but a blip on my Asian radar, and I only spent a day in the northern Thai city. A four hour bus ride from Chiang Mai, we set out to do two things in in the old capital: 1) see the White Temple, 2) visit the long-neck village. This is one of the Thai villages where the women continuously add rings around their necks as they get older giving the appearance of an elongated neck. As much as I wanted to like the city, it fell short in almost every aspect of our planned weekend trip.
The White Temple in Chiang Rai
After renting a crappy motorbike for the day, we started out for the White Temple, about one half hour out of the city. The temple itself is unique, detailed, and appealing to the eye. But after visiting so many ancient temples and sites, the fact that this temple was created in 1997 as a tourist attraction and has no religious significance takes away from the value. It’s not old, it’s not cultural, it’s just something pretty they built.
The Long-neck Village
I didn’t actually make it to the long-neck village! A combination of intense abdominal pain and pouring rain prevented all of us from actually getting there. Though I wanted to see the spectacle, at the same time I am glad I did not. Precisely because that is what tourists come to see – a spectacle. Not a culture or a way of life. Many reviews of the village say it is like going to a human zoo. There is an entrance fee, you can take pictures, and you look at the women with long necks. I am sure some tourists actually meet and bond with the villagers, but it does have some weird, zoo-like shadow cast over it.
Chiang Rai Night Bazaar
The nightlife in Chiang Rai was very disappointing. I don’t know if August is incredibly different from the high season in the winter, but the “popular” bars and areas had 1-2 patrons max. The only bright spot was the night bazaar. This seemed to be where everyone in the entire city hung out. Alleys full of colorful vendors surrounded two major food areas with live performances.
Pictured above is the main food court area. Both sides of the seated area are lined with dozens of varying cuisines from local Thai dishes to sushi to western food. On the stage, women (or more likely trans women) dressed in glittering dresses sang and lip-synced songs while dancing around. A few really good bands also played live music later in the evening.
My meal of choice for the night was a hot pot. Upon seeing that I had no clue what to do with the raw egg, meat, and vegetables placed in front of me, the kind woman who ran the stand came over and prepared my meal for me. You can see the hot pot prep in the video below.
In the end, I would say that Chiang Rai is skippable if you only have a day or two to spend there. The White Temple, long-neck village, and night scene aren’t worthy of traveling to go see. However, further research does reveal that Chiang Rai has amazing waterfalls, treks, hot springs and other nature in the surrounding areas. So if a long trip is in the playing cards and outdoor activities are a priority, it might be worth a visit after all.