Authentic Thailand: Chiang Rai trekking & Thai wedding
After my first visit to Thailand in 2009 (read more in my article Authentic Thailand: Bangkok to Chiangmai), I hadn’t planned to be back as I am always eager to discover new destinations when I travel.
But sometimes you are not the one to choose your destination, it is a destination that calls onto you.
That’s what happened when David, my boyfriend best friend, phoned us one day to invite us to his wedding in Chiangrai!
The big day was scheduled mid-March, a period of the year Miles and I didn’t have much holiday leave from work. Since I had already visited most of the must-sees on my first trip to Thailand and we didn’t have much time to travel, I tried to look for a quiet island where we could spend few days after the wedding to simply unwind, something we hardly do when we travel 🙂
After a week of in-depth online research, any island, also those apparently out of reach and far away from the coast, appeared to be highly frequented by tourists, with bad reviews on the amount of trash, including plastic in the sea (are you joking?!), and careless day trippers. I found nothing that appealed to me, so I just gave up on the idea of a paradise beach getaway.
What to do in Chiang Rai?
We choose a trekking in Chiang Rai for 3 day / 2nt with Lanna Trek, a local agency I read good reviews about. They replied promptly to our emails so we booked the tour with a private guide for the week before the wedding. March is summer time in Northern Thailand, which means hot and dry, and also quite off the tourist season.
When back to the city we visited the very singular Chiang Rai temples.
Authentic Thailand: Chiang Rai hilltribe trekking
Trekking Chiang Rai: Lahu hilltribe & bamboo forest
We got picked up at our hotel in Chiangrai and kicked off with a 50-minute boat ride on the Mae Kok river (mind it is not the Mekong as we wrongly understood the first day 🙂
Once disembarked in a small Kanen village, we turned down the offer to ride an elephant since we had read it was not a particularly ethical activity to do and we were even more convinced once we saw these poor animals closed in a small enclosure with chained legs 🙁
It was only 11:15 but our guide Lu suggested us to have lunch before leaving, so we had a Pad Thai (traditional noodle dish) accompanied with some unusual nibbles considered locally as a delicacy: smoked wasp larva... just to get ourselves acquainted 🙂 (read more about the 5 weirdest food I have tried in Eat Local).
Ready to go, we started our hike walking uphill on a small asphalted road under the midday sun.
You have to know that I have a kind of a delicate stomach so, not long after our departure, I started to struggle with my digestion and Miles had to play my hero, carrying my 10 kg backpack for half of the day.
Left the road, the trail ran through thick bamboo forest with no significant panoramas, also because during the dry season the rice fields are empty! After approximately 12/13 km, we reached our first homestay in the Baan Yafu village hosted by a Lahu hilltribe family.
Miles and I had a walk around. The village consisted in a bunch of houses (some made out of wood, others in concrete) developed on a main street called “Farm Road” surrounded by lush vegetation and fields. We saw quite a lot of people coming back to the village by scooter, so we asked our guide about the local community economy. We had imagined such a place to live on agriculture, whereas we have been told that the main activity is cow breeding, which is kind of remunerative, explaining the presence of quite expensive cars. There are no tourist attractions whatsoever nor even local businesses such as grocery or primary services.
Our homestay was simple but pretty spacious. We were not sure we would have access to running hot water so we were happily surprised to find abundant hot showers, being the village provided with free solar panels by the government.
Na Le was our host, a smiling strong woman who cooked for us wearing a headlamp though the house is perfectly served with electricity, probably they are still not used to these sort of amenities 🙂
Food was good and copious, we were captivated by the tasty baby fern soup and salad since in Italy we are not used to eat ferns. On the other side, we struggled with the “special” dish which consisted in pork battered in its blood in front of our eyes as a sort of tartare that locals usually eat raw, luckily it was cooked for us. It’s not that it was bad tasting but probably assisting to the preparation impressed us negatively.
Na Le husband and brother joined for dinner but since none of them spoke English, Lu (our guide who was also originally from a hilltribe) tried to translate to help us communicate, while men drank a sort of local “grappa” and Na Le prepared her handcraft souvenirs.
We slept on a thin mattress on the floor in the main room, while our guide was on the kitchen floor next to us. Unfortunately, we didn’t have much rest due to the hard bedding but, even worst, for the nearby cocks who started singing at 2am and continued throughout the whole night.
Trekking Chiang Rai: Hakha hilltribe & waterfall
We woke up early, had breakfast with the sweetest pineapple we ever tasted (there are quite a lot of pineapple plantation in these hills), bought few handmade bracelets from Na Le, before hitting the footpath again.
We started straight uphill and for the first time met another guide with two Dutch girls. We were glad the hiking circuit we chose was off the beaten path since it is farther to walk to and requires 2 nights instead of the most popular one that can be done in 1 day.
We reached a lookout on the valley after approx. one hour hike before entering the bamboo forest again. Lu was a guy of few words but did and excellent job clearing our path with his machete while walking 🙂
We stopped at a quiet place by the river where Lu and Na Le’s brother, who in the meantime joined us by scooter bringing fresh food, prepared a delicious bamboo bbq, a real treat we enjoyed eating with our hands sit on a rock in the middle of the river.
After a short hike we reached another nice spot at the river, the Huay Mae Sai waterfall. Coming from a region ourselves boasting wonderful waterfalls and pristine rivers, we were not that impressed, however we didn’t miss a refreshing dip surrounded by a group of local teens jumping and diving from the rocks.
We finally arrived at the second “homestay” at a Hakha village , that immediately appeared to us as more touristy, confirmed by the presence of various small groups or couples each accompanied by a guide. This is because the village is easily accessible also by car so we understood there were many people choosing this destination to do a 2 day / 1 nt hike. The accommodation was not exactly a homestay but more of a guesthouse. Each guest had his/her own separate wooden room with proper bed and mattress (which we highly appreciated), but still shared toilet and shower (which was not an issue for us).
Before dinner we heard some music and realized there where some local ladies performing a traditional dance gathered around the fire, and of course I joined in 🙂
When we returned, all the guides were busy in the kitchen cooking for us roasted chicken with potatoes (hopefully chicken, as we saw the guesthouse owners roasting a big cat-like animal on the other side of the room!). We had dinner all together sit at a long table in the communal area, which was nice to share the different experiences.
This allowed us to compare the Thai educated and well travelled guides working for international companies with Lu, our local guide from a hilltribe, who was surely more reserved and could appear rough sometimes, but definetely had a deep knowledge of the hilltribe culture as well as showed good bushcrafting skills (he also made two cups carved out of bamboo for us).
In the end, we were happy about our choice of supporting a local business, though this implied some further effort in the communication.
Trekking Chiang Rai: Pineapple and rice fields
Last day, arnica and tiger balm on my shoulders together with my beloved 10-kg backpack and off we go. The first part of the hike exiting the village was very nice, running through pineapple and cotton plantations.
We walked amidst rice paddies and the second part offered also some panoramas on the valley. We were right on time so we took it slowly, enjoying some stops to rest.
We finished our hike around noon in a small village where the program suggested to relax in the thermal pools. We don’t fancy hot pools that much in general, plus the idea of soaking up in a 30+ degree pool when the outside temperature was around 35, didn’t appeal to us. We were happy to end our experience, that took us for a total of 32 km in 2 days and half, with a pad thai and iced green tea, before being transferred back to Chiangrai.
Trekking Chiang Rai: what have we learnt?
1- We can cope with sleeping on hard floor for no more than 1 night
2- It’s ok to eat ferns and they are actually pretty good!
3- We prefer simple but genuine experiences, the best memories we have about this trip are indeed the night spent with the family, although we could hardly communicate, the bamboo bbq at the river, the sweetest pineapple we ever had (Miles ate almost an entire pineapple on his own)! Though the landscape was nothing exceptional, being far from tourist routes and interacting with the locals made this trip an enriching and memorable experience.
Authentic Thailand: Chiang Rai temples
The day before the wedding, David and Joy’s family had organized a tour of the main Chiangrai temples for some of the guests.
We started with the Baandam Museum also known as the Black House, where traditional Thai architecture meets modern design and eclectic pieces of art by the Thai artist Thawan Duchanee. Not for everybody’s taste, but I didn’t mind wandering around the garden spotting curious sculptures and installations.
Second stop was theWat Rong Suea Ten. Completed only recently (2016), it is becoming more and more popular for its characteristic blue interior and decorations that have made it known as the Blue Temple.Though it was pretty crowded, I really liked it and was probably my favourite among the all the temples we visited in Chiangrai.
Next we headed to Wat Huay Pla Kung, often referred to as the Big Buddha , although the statue doesn’t represent Buddha but the Chinese goddess of Mercy.The temple has been recently built on a hill 6 km out of town, in fact you can spot the big statue when moving around Chiangrai.
When we visited in March 2018, they were still completing the main staircase leading to the entrance so we used a small train that took us up to the top of the hill.
There is a 9-storey pagoda you can climb and you can also take an elevator to reach the forehead of the statue so that you can look out from its “bindi” (the third eye).
We stopped for lunch at a nice restaurant along the Mae Kok river, before finishing our tour at the popular White Temple (Wat Rong Khun), definetely the main attraction in Chiangrai, as you can tell from the numerous food and souvenirs stalls and the security gate you have to pass to enter the site.
The temple has been started at the end of the 1990’s and apparently never finished. The white that dominates the architecture is in contrast with some of the elements used to decorate it, as the hands reaching from the ground before passing over the first bridge.
We were surprised to see this sight was located right on the street as we are used to imagine this sort of buildings in quiet areas if not secluded.
Keep in mind the closing time is 5:30 pm! Luckily, we arrived just on time to visit it and at this time of the day we could appreciate it turning pink in the sunset light.
Authentic Thailand: Thai wedding
David is Miles’s best friend from Uni in Nottingham. Born in the US, but originally from Nepal where he grew up before attending boarding school in India and move to England for college and university.
After 2 years of long-distance relationship with Joy (he was living in London and she was in Bangkok), they got engaged and decided to get married in Thailand. Of course we couldn’t miss it, so we immediately booked our flights 🙂
What is a Thai wedding like?
First of all, it usually takes place in the village of the bride, but since Joy & David had many guests, they opted to have the ceremony and reception at a 5 star hotel in the city, where most of the international guests, including ourselves, were staying.
The ceremony is divided into two topic moments: the engagement, that usually takes place the night before the wedding, and the actual wedding celebration.
In order to ask a Thai girl’s hand to her family, the groom has to complete successfully a number of challenges set up by the bride’s family and friends, passing from one “gate” to another, representing ideally the different stages and difficult situations you have to face in a couple life.
Miles of course was one of David’s best men team wearing traditional Thai wedding uniform.
I didn’t like the idea of participating wearing western clothes, so I asked Joy if I could rent a Thai dress for myself as well. She was so nice to organise everything for me so I only brought a pair of shoes from home and dressed like one of her bride’s maids 🙂
We also took part in the engagement ceremony holding gates of flowers and asking David to perform dancing, singing, limbo and other funny challenges. Miles was on his side with other friends and parents carrying gifts to Joy’s family.
Once he passed all the gates , he could offer simbolic (and not only) gifts to Joy’s parents such as gold, money, flowers etc.
Each guest including ourselves, was invited to greet the couple making a wish of happy life and sealing their love tightening a string around their wrists (don’t know how they manage to take that bundle of 100 strings off their hands ! 🙂
Once the engagement was completed, the bride and groom were accompanied by the parents and Miles to the bedroom, where they were helped into bed to represent the presence of your beloved ones along this important journey.
Everybody got changed into more western-like clothes for the second part of the ceremony, which was the actual wedding, where Joy and David were standing on a stage surrounded by their families and different guests took turn to make a speech , including the very emotional bride and groom.
Big round tables, delicious food and little music compared to the Italian weddings (Miles and I were the only people throughout the whole night who stood up for a dance!). However, this second part, including the wedding cake, was very much alike what we are used to in Europe. Nonetheless, it was interesting to see the mixture of Thai people with international guests coming from USA, England, Singapore and Malaysia.
At various stages during the day, I got very emotional and couldn’t hold my tears, assisting to such beautiful moments and meet of different cultures.
Weddings are special events and if you are lucky to participate to one in another Country, it gives you a privileged insight into a culture you wouldn’t be able to get from any travel book.