Getting to Chiang Rai from Chiang Mai

Sunset at Chiang Rai’s bus Terminal 1

Hi again everyone, if you’ve been following my recent chain of posts you’ll know that whilst in Chiang Mai I had the pleasure of finding the “Silver Temple.” HERE’s the post if you’re interested.  I was so moved by the uniqueness of this temple, I went to look for other such artistic temples and find some I did. BUT… they weren’t in Chiang Mai, they were in another city named, Chiang Rai and luckily it’s close enough to Chiang Mai to warrant a visit.

How to get to Chiang Rai then? Well, there are no direct flights nor direct trains to Chiang Rai from Chiang Mai. So that leaves buses, car (self drive or taxi) and motorcycle.  Keeping in mind that it’s at least a 3 hour journey, I chose go by bus because it was the cheapest and IMO most comfortable and safest. As far as buses to Chiang Rai from Chiang Mai, there’s really only one company that I could find whilst searching online (in English) and that is the Green Bus Thailand. They offer 3 “classes” of tickets…A, X and V (V for VIP, the costliest, roomiest and quickest. Plus there’s a toilet on board). I booked a Grab taxi and off I went to the bus station. There are 2 bus terminals in Chiang Mai and the one that I needed to go to was Bus Terminal 3. The ride cost me $200 TBH from around Tha Phae Gate to Terminal 3.

Entering from the front entrance, the Green Bus’s ticket counter is on the left and quite clearly marked, you can’t miss it. There’ll most likely be a lot of people yelling calling at you to get your tickets from them though as soon as you walk into the building. I just went to the line in front of the ticket agents under the Green Bus signage. Thankfully, the ticket agent’s understanding of English was good enough for me to pick my seat, ensure that my destination is Terminal 1 and book my VIP return tickets, two days in advance, at a cost of $560 TBH. Quite easy and hassle free. Here’s some photos of the front of the terminal taken at night because like this whole trip I’m winging it.

After purchasing my tickets I walked around a bit to try to find where I’ll be getting on my bus. I looked at my ticket and found two berth numbers. Great! Whilst looking around inside, I couldn’t find any berth numbers. You actually have to go outside of the building to find the berth numbers. The signage is on the outside walls. I actually lucked out and found my bus berth on the first try. It’s the first exit on the right when walking further into the terminal.

Chiang Mai’s bus Terminal 3 berths

The terminal has two floors but the second floor is basically empty with a small seating area and empty shops.  The only reason why I went up there was because there was signage indicating that there were clean toilets up there plus it’s relatively deserted so no need to wait in line. All the toilets in the terminal have an entrance fee but the main floor ones have an attendant at the entrance collecting the fee and selling toiletries like toilet paper just in case you didn’t bring your own. In my experience, when traveling in Asia always, ALWAYS have a packet of tissues and wet wipes with you (In Singapore you can also use them to reserve your seat/table at food courts)! The entrance to the toilets upstairs are coin operated turn styles but I’m guessing there’s an attendant around somewhere that cleans frequently because the toilets are clean. Here’s some photos inside the terminal, not of the toilets cuz that’s creepy.

If you have time, there is a mall next door with food shops and bars in  it, and at night there’s street food vendors in the parking lot. The bar on street level looked energetic and happening whereas the bar upstairs was more quiet and moody. I would have loved to grab a beer or three but I was on meds from the dentist. Around the corner is also some sort of religious area with statues and shops selling all sorts of religious items was pretty cool to just stumble onto something like this.

On the day of departure, I went about an hour early and bought some snacks and drinks, even though I’m supposed to get a drink and a snack on the bus (which turned out to be a small bottle of water and a small little cake, like a swiss roll).  At the berth, there are lots of attendants walking around in Green Bus  uniform (they are very easy to spot) so I asked one which berth will my bus be at and she looked at her clipboard and pointed. Easy Peasy. Looking at the buses coming in and out, you can’t visually discern which ones are the VIP ones and which aren’t. I would say 98% of all the buses I saw looked, um, dated.  Some more than others. There were a couple of really nice looking double decker tour buses but sadly not Green Bus ones. A bus arrived relatively close to the time on my ticket but didn’t look VIP at all to me but it looked newer than most of the buses that came and left this berth. There was only a paper sign on the window saying Chiang Rai, so I proceeded to get on the bus. I figured if it’s the wrong bus the attendant would stop me. Anyways, when the bus pulled in, I started having flashbacks of riding the Greyhound buses back in College.  I got on the bus and was pleasantly surprised. It was cold, seats were big and leg room was more than sufficient. I had my back pack on the floor in front of my chair and couldn’t feel that it was there.  My happiness subsided a bit when I sat down. The seats weren’t as comfy as they looked and mine felt a bit lumpy but at least mine reclined. I saw other fidgeting with theirs and eventually gave up. There were individual aircon jets you can adjust and I adjust mine away from me and I still had to put on my jacket.  Still for this price, well worth it and so much better than the Greyhound buses I used to ride back in day.

Things to note: I was told by hotel staff that there was construction on the roads to Chiang Rai that started last year and that my bus ride would probably be more than 3 hours. They recommended that I should not put my bag in the cargo hold of the bus as there have been reports of attendants climbing into the hold (while the bus is moving) and stealing things. I only had my backpack so I wasn’t worried about that plus I always have a TSA combination lock to lock bags’ zippers together. Anyways, I’m happy to report that we got to Chiang Rai in 3 1/2 hour and I didn’t get robbed. I did see some road construction going on outside Chiang Mai in multiple spots on the ‘highway’ between my naps.

Once In Chiang Rai’s Terminal 1 you can immediate tell it’s much more subdued and less busy than Chiang Mai. Terminal 1 is within downtown Chiang Rai with shops and buildings all around so most likely you’d want to alight here. Terminal 2 is on the outskirts of town and is the first stop, so make sure you’re aware of where you are and where you want to alight, as any instructions given by the attendant is in Thai. Frankly I didn’t have much time to look around Chiang Raias I only had one day including travel to see the three artistic temples that I planned on visiting. Long story short, I only saw two because they were just so awesome! Keep a look out for my posts regarding the white temple and blue temple, I’ll be putting them up soon. Anyways, I made it back to the bus terminal to catch my bus back to Chiang Mai about 30 minutes before the departure time. A bit too close for comfort. I shouldn’t have stressed because my bus was late.  How late? Well, 30 minutes after the scheduled departure time, a bunch of passengers bombarded the attendant with questions to which she only answered with wait (in English) she said a bunch of stuff in Thai but most of us couldn’t understand and those that did, didn’t translate so I went into the terminal to ask the ticket counter and they told me they don’t know where the bus is but it should be here shortly. 30 minutes turned into an hour, an hour turned into two. Yup 2 hours late. The most stressful part, for me, was the hopes and dashing of hopes every time a bus pulled into the berth. Then the thoughts of “I hope that’s not my bus” when a clunker drives in. I couldn’t wander too far off either because I don’t want to miss my bus. But just so you know, there is a night market that sets up just behind the parking lot. I saw a bit of it but not too much. There was even some comic relief that made my day a bit better. I found it quite entertaining to see some of the more irate passengers causing a fuss, and at one point a Chinese guy was literally jumping up and down screaming “VIP, VIP” while his buddies tried to calm him down but they too eventually moved away and left him jumping by himself. After he calmed down an attendant went up to him and noticed that he had some prohibited food items(the very pungent, durian) in his bag and when they tried to tell him that he can’t bring them on the bus, he began his VIP chant again but this time he pulled out his ticket out and waved it around. While waiting for the bus he and his buddies ate the durians. The best part about the wait was the sunset probably why I wasn’t all too upset about the delay.

Thankfully on the bus everyone just slept. Even more impressive that being two hours late, this bus driver might actually be a retired rally car driver. We still made it back to Chiang Mai in about 3 1/2 hours, on winding roads and in the dark! Keep in mind that there are scattered construction areas along the way. Yup you can tell because those were the only areas with lights aside from the roadside establishments that our driver liked to stop at so frequently.  He stopped far enough away where I couldn’t see where he was going or what those stalls/huts were for. Maybe checkpoints, I don’t know but he wasn’t gone long, a few minutes at most each time. There were a couple times at the construction areas where I couldn’t tell if we were on the correct side of the dirt road because sometimes headlights were on our right and sometimes on the left. The area wasn’t lit well enough for me to see any railing or traffic cones or maybe there weren’t any but like I said, this driver is impressive.

All in all, I will take this method of transport again because well, it was fun and I don’t think there’s a better way from Chiang Mai. I’ll probably be back in Chiang Mai before the year is done and I’ll definitely go back to Chiang Rai but next time I’m gonna spend at least 2 days in Chiang Rai.

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Chiang Mai’s silver temple, Wat Sri Suphan

Chiang Mai’s silver temple, Wat Sri Suphan

Honorable mention on my top 5 list of must visit wats in Chiang Mai is Wat Sri Suphan.  Once you reach the premises, which is located slightly off a main road (you won’t be able to see it from the main road), you’ll immediately see the uniqueness of Wat Sri Suphan. The Ubusot, both interior and exterior is all silver. Maybe not pure/real silver but I’m pretty sure it’s not paint because it gets really bright when the sun hits it. I think it’s silver gilding but don’t quote me on that.

I rode the Songthaew from just outside the Tha Phae Gate at a cost of $80 TBH and paid an entrance fee of $50 TBH. The entrance fee comes with a sticker you have to put on your shirt and a small bottle of water. After paying the entrance fee I proceeded to walk towards the front of the silver temple (I didn’t know it was the ubusot at the time). Then I walked around it and ended up outside the “barricade.” Yup, the premises is that small! I didn’t even get inside or the other side of the outside. So I went back to the entrance and was stopped by a ticket guy, I pointed to my sticker, of course, my sticker wasn’t there. Luckily the lady I had paid my entrance fee to, recognized me (there weren’t many people there, like less than  10) and I was able to go back in.  So the entrance fee is just to check out the silver ubusot and the other silver statues and the odd gold one here and there.  Both the interior and exterior are very intricately detailed, much more so than the other wats I’ve seen in Chiang Mai, thus far. I can’t imagine having to polish all that. The interior of the ubosot is pretty incredible, all silver except the one big, gold Buddha statue. Even the floor is silver, metallish but not slippery. As customary, no shoes allowed and women aren’t allowed in either. There aren’t many donation boxes around, less that the other wats (that I’ve noticed) but they do have a lot of things you can buy and leave as offerings.

Once you’re done with the silver temple, you can check out the prayer hall and stupa, which is outside the paid section so it’s free. In the vicinity are stalls selling food, drinks and souvenirs too. All in all the premises is quite small so it won’t take up much time and so worth the visit, in my opinion. I spent about an hour there but as usual around closing time so I didn’t get to go into the prayer hall and many of the food stalls were closed. Oh, if you do get a chance to go and it’s really sunny, bring your sunglasses because it can get very bright. If you go around sunset, you can get some pretty cool / weird color reflections on the silver temple and on the silver statues too.

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Wat Umong, an underground temple in the jungle

Main altar in the underground wat

Rounding out my top 5 wats to visit while in Chiang Mai, Thailand, is Wat Umong. Let me start off by saying this wat is the most unique experience I’ve had visiting wat’s in Chiang Mai and I really enjoyed it. This wat is underground within a jungle and has a $20 BHT entrance fee.

Entrance fee table.

When you get to the premises , you’ll be dropped off at a gravel/dirt parking area where there are a few buildings scattered around but they were all closed when I was there. I couldn’t tell what they were for either. Looking around you’ll easily find the sign pointing to the trail to Wat Umong. Along the way you’ll find , scattered here and there, insightful phrases on cards nailed to trees. Yah, I read every one I could find. Anyways, on the way to the wat, you’ll pass a meditation center / retreat of sorts but I didn’t go that way as it went a bit too far off the path to the wat. Continuing on you’ll find a few statues here and there and a library, yup, a library in the jungle. Oh, the walk to the wat is on a slight incline with stairs every now and then giving you access to the next plateau. Not too difficult a hike.

Wise trees

There’s three entry points into the underground temple, two in front and one in the back (that leads to the stupa). It’s not underground as in you have to go down some steps or anything it’s more like walking into cave built into the plateau but with tunnels that don’t open up to a spacious area, they just end with a display of religious artifacts . The tunnels are relatively short, straight and lit well enough to see where you’re going so it wasn’t scary at all but if you’re claustrophobic that may be a different story as the inner tunnels are smaller. I didn’t know until I got there and read some of the plaques that this wat was built somewhere between the 15 and 16th centuries. It does look and feel old but the electric lights inside the tunnels dull the “feel” of it, I think. Don’t worry about having to walk around without your shoes inside the temple as the floor is tiled and as clean as any other wat. You won’t spend much time inside the wat as there’s not much to see and if there’s a tour group, it’ll get cramped really fast.

While walking around outside the wat, I found a trail that lead to an outdoor, makeshift altar with a rather unique looking statue of Buddha, I’m guessing. The statue is black in color and looked weathered, frankly it made me uneasy looking at it. I’ve seen similar looking statues but this is the only one that made me uneasy. Although I was curious as to what the statue was made of, I had no inclination to go any closer to “exam” it. Then I came up to a cordoned off area with signs saying do not enter. It’s because you’d be walking on the roof of the underground temple. Walking the other way, I found the housing area of the monks. Yes I just strolled right through their housing, I didn’t feel right doing so, so I got out of there as quickly as I could and then found myself in an area I’d describe as a relic graveyard. It was a flat area of land with broken parts of statues arranged, for the most part, in rows. Pretty weird, right? It didn’t look as though I should wander through it, so I didn’t but as I walked back towards the entrance to the underground wat, there was a patch of the “graveyard” with paths between the relics so I wandered through there a bit.

 

The Chedi is quite large and in a bit of disrepair. It’s not bad, in my opinion, it’s just enough to keep the air of being centuries old. The vines growing and cracks on the chedi give it a jungle vibe and a stone petal or two from the lotus flower base lends to the age of the structure. Plus you can get right up to it and touch it!

Whilst exploring I found more stuff like vendors selling cold desserts and drinks, a path leading to more statues and a big pond. One of my favorite finds was the free literature kiosk with booklets about Buddhism, mediation and the like. The signage says free, donations appreciated. I found an interesting booklet amongst the many different ones made a donation and sat by the pond to read it. Turned out to be not so great an idea. As serene as the pond was, with the diy aerator and the water fowl or two, the flying insects and the not timid pigeons made the moment not fun, at all.

I took a songthaew (ride share, pick up truck taxi) to wat Umong from Tha Phae gate at a cost of $80 TBH and the driver asked if I needed him to wait (for an added cost). I declined his offer because I usually don’t know how long it’ll take me to finish looking around and plus I thought it wouldn’t be too hard to catch a ride back. Boy, was I wrong! Yeah, there aren’t any songthaews cruising around that area. There’s only a few outdoor kiosk restaurants , a coffee shop or two and a few local business and the rest is residential. There may be a tuk tuk or two in the parking lot though. When I arrived, there were 4 with the drivers napping at the wheel or back seat. When I was exiting the compound there was only one tuk tuk and the driver called out and I asked him the price to get back to my hotel and he said $120 TBH which was higher than the songthaew ride there so I declined thinking I could catch a songthaew. When I couldn’t, I went back and the driver jacks the price up…I give a smile and told him he told me $120 TBH 30 minutes ago and he starts his tuk tuk and waves me into the vehicle I restate the price and he says, “ok, ok.” Phew! Lol. In any event, this was before I learned there’s Grab Taxi in Chiang Mai and having used it extensively while I was there, I highly recommend installing the Grab app. It’s “saved” me on more than one occasion.

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Wat Chiang Mun, you had me at oldest…

Wat Chiang Mun Chiang Mai’s first and oldest temple

Wat Chiang Mun Is said to be not only the oldest temple in Chiang Mai but also the very first one! Construction was ordered by King Mang Rai in 1306 after making Chiang Mai his new capital city in 1296. WOW! They had me at “oldest!” I love looking at historic stuff, soaking up the ambiance, touching (if possible) a bit of history, yeah I’m weird that way. Just so you know, if you can’t find it on the map, it may be spelt Wat Chiang Man on your map. I “found” Wat Chiang Mun while doing my usual urban exploring, it was such a treat for me to read all the plaques and learning about this wat and its’ historical significance. YAY explorer me!

The main religious attractions of Wat Chiang Mun is the Buddha statue holding an alms bowl. This statue is reportedly the oldest statue in Thailand and is currently housed in the larger of the two viharns. I couldn’t tell which one of the four “standing buddha holding the alms bowl” statue it was and I couldn’t get close enough to check.  In the smaller viharn is the Crystal Buddha carved from a clear, quartz crystal and has a base and canopy made of gold. An estimated 6 kg of gold! You can catch a glimpse of the 1800 year old Crystal Buddha and a 2500 year old marble Buddha statue through the metal bars that is the vault’s door. Also in this viharn is the stone monument depicting Buddha taming an elephant that dates back to between the 8th and 10th centuries ( I guess scholars can’t decide when it was made).  I didn’t see this monument though and later learned that it’s not always on display (neither is the Crystal Buddha). They’re usually only on display during celebratory days or on an occasional Sunday. So I guess I really lucked out having found Wat Chiang Mun and being able to see the Crystal Buddha or maybe the info I got was outdated.

Vault housing the Crystal Buddha and the Marble Buddha

View of the Crystal Buddha

One of the four standing Buddha statues holding an alms bowl is Chiang Mai’s oldest statue

The structural attractions are the Elephant Chedi because the chedi looks like it was built on top of the elephants backs as opposed to just having an elephant statue or two sticking out of the chedi’s foundation. It’s noted on a plaque, that enshrined in the chedi is a Buddha Relic, in this case, a strand of Buddha’s hair. This is a first for me! I’ve been to several buddha tooth relic temples but never a hair one and since it’s enshrined in the circular, gold gilded chedi, I couldn’t see it. The other structure of note is the scripture library and the twist on this rare structure (when it comes to structures on wat premises) is that it’s built on brick stilts, in the middle of a pond! I sat at the entrance looking at the library wondering how the monks got in because there was no bridge and I didn’t see any other means of getting across. Must be some sort of high level ninja skills…just kidding, there seems to be a retractable plank under the library that can be pulled out (if you have a really long pole with a hook on the end), you can see it in one of the images below. Moving on now to the ubosot (ordination hall) which is, as customary, off limits to the public.  On the front porch is the monument with the inscription detailing the exact date and time of the founding of Chiang Mai as well as the premises being the location of the King’s residence at that time. It’s the dark gray thing in the photo below just behind the white fence.

Stone elephant foundation for this gold gilded chedi

Ubusot at Wat Chiang Mun

I would rank this wat as fourth on my list of must see wat’s in Chiang Mai. It’s probably about a 15 minute walk from the Tha Phae Gate heading north.  As with most temples in Chiang Mai, there isn’t an entrance fee but unique to Wat Chiang Mun (to the best of my knowledge) are the few but highly noticeable donation boxes which are actually safes. Their hours of operation are 8 am to 5 pm and is definitely worth planning a trip to and since the premises is small, an hour should be enough time to see everything and get some nice photos, I took 2 hours but you know I linger and the timestamp of my last shot was at 6:28, time really flies when you’re having fun and no one to rush you out.

Donation box at Wat Chiang Mun

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Wat Phra Singh and it’s golden stupa

Wat Phra Singh at sunset

Wat Phra Sing is ranked third on my list of awesome wats when I toured Chiang Mai. Why is that you may ask? While it’s somewhat true that “if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all” in the sense that all wat’s have a pagoda/chedi, a viharn, prayer hall and similar buildings, not all are decorated exactly the same, have the same number of structures and statues and not all are the same size in terms of structures and premises. Not to mention the upkeep status of the structures and statues as well. Wat Phra Singh is also just a blocks away from Chedi Luang, which I rank second on my list. You can check out my Chedi Luang post here. Number one on my list is Doi Suthep if you’re interested, the post is here.

For a wat that has been around since the 14th century, it looks really good! Mainly due to the extensive upgrading, renovation and restoration works over the years. Wat Phra Singh is also an active monastery so you can expect to see monks and novices walking around performing upkeep tasks. So you can look forward to some environmental portraits too. From my experience, the monks and novices are ok with having their picture taken. Having said that, I’m never up in anyone’s face taking pictures, I’m usually a good distance away. I usually try to wait for my subject to look my way and when that happens I smile, wave and point to my camera. I’ve never, yet, had anyone say no or display any form of negative body language. Some however won’t look up. In that case I just take a shot or too (if the moment is still there) and move on.

Wat Phra Sing is one of the bigger wats I’ve seen (in terms of building size and premises. It is also one of the most well upkept ones as well. Proof of this is the all gold chedi/stupa in the back, complete with gold elephants. I couldn’t tell if it was gold paint (I doubt it because it was sooo shiny) or gold leaf but that would make it too too expensive to maintain, especially outdoors, no?  If it’s gold leaf it makes this chedi even more impressive as I didn’t see a single scuff or missing patches of gold or any dullness for that matter. The brick paths to the stupa is like a mini maze, kinda fun to walk on, felt like I was in a old video game, lol. Another interesting building that wats seldom have are scripture libraries. You can tell it’s a scripture library by the first story stone foundation and walls (for protection against floods and pests) and the wooden, highly walls and roof for the 2nd story.

Scripture library at Wat Phra Singh

Golden Stupas

I spent only about half an hour here because I got there late, well after closing time (I had just finished Chedi Luang) but could have easily spent 3 hours at Wat Phra Singh.  If only I had done some research prior to going I would have been better prepared. At least I know I can get the last bit of sunset around 8pm, however that time is well past their closing time.  Be prepared to be ushered politely but firmly towards the exit if you try to get a sunset image. Their hours of operation are 8 am to 5 pm. There may have been an entrance fee but I’m not sure. I didn’t see any ticket booth and nobody stopped me either, including the security guard putting up traffic cones, but then again I went in around 7:30 pm so the ticket people were gone for the day? Anyways, here’s a few shots I got. I’ll be sure to get more my next trip out there!

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