While there is plenty to do in Chiang Mai, Thailand, we were intrigued about a guided day trip to Laos and the Golden Triangle. Neither of us had been, and it would be another stamp in the passport, so we figured why not? It was going to be a long day, lots of driving (well riding in a small bus)– Laos wasn’t exactly close – but the trip was worth it.
Our first stop was just outside of Chiang Rai, which is about three hours from Chiang Mai. We stopped at the White Temple, known as Wat Rong Khun in Thai. This has got to be one of the most impressive temples anywhere in the world. It was built by a local artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat, with his own money. It opened in 1997 (although construction is still ongoing) and admission is free.
To get to the main building you cross a bridge over the pond filled with koi. The hands you see reaching up symbolize greed and desire. Then you pass the “Gate of Heaven” and come upon the entrance to the main building of the temple. Unlike other temples, you may see while in Thailand, there is some modern art inside. You will have to remove your shoes to enter. In addition to going into the main building, be sure to stop off at the bathroom. This is the gold building, which many people have said is the most beautiful toilet in the world. I don’t know if I would go that far, but it is worth the visit.
Then we headed to the Golden Triangle, which was about 45 minutes away. The Golden Triangle is where Thailand, Laos, and Burma meet and also one of the top opium producing areas in the world. There is a Buddha monument and a few shops that overlook the river. After looking around, we boarded a boat for a short cruise to Laos.
The part of Laos we went to was actually a small island. There were locals selling random stuff (alcoholic drink with snake inside it), but other than that there was not much there. We only spent 30 minutes there, but it was plenty of time for the small area. I hope to go back to Laos some day and see some more. Also, there wasn’t a formal passport check when we arrived. We asked our tour guide and he took us to get our stamps. Then we went back on the boat to Thailand and then drove towards the Burma border. We didn’t actually cross over, just did a little shopping at the market there.
Our next and last stop was a Burmese refugee camp – home for the “Long-Neck Women” officially called the Kayan people. The reason they got the nickname is that the women have to wear heavy brass coils around their necks to make the neck appear longer. The longer the neck, the more beautiful the woman is considered. Men do not have to wear any coils.
Girls start wearing the coils at age 5. Over time, the coils are replaced with longer ones. The weight of the coils presses down on the collar bone and compresses the ribs, so that the neck appears longer. They don’t really ever take the coils off, even when they are sleeping. It is not even possible to take the coils off without someone to help. They did let us hold a sample coil, and it was even heavier than I imagined. I didn’t feel comfortable taking pictures of them, but there are plenty online.
None of the women (or men) could speak English, so our tour guide acted as our interpreter. We had the opportunity to ask questions. They showed us scarves that they had woven, and a few people from our tour group bought ones. All the Long-Neck Women we met seemed happy, but I guess it is the only way of life they have known. I felt so badly for the women, and especially the young girls, who were playing just like typical kids but wearing the heavy coils I cannot imagine having to undergo body modification like this.
Visiting the refugee camp definitely made me appreciate how lucky I am. Overall, it was a very enlightening and eye-opening day!
- Make a trip to the White Temple in Chiang Rai (and the golden bathrooms) if you get the opportunity.
- For passport stamp collectors: You may need to ask the guide to take you to get your passport stamped when you enter Laos. You may also enjoy reading the post about rare passport stamps on Live in 10 Countries.