It was a hot and humid day in Chiang Rai, Thailand, as I sat sweating in my bus seat at the central bus station. A lady outside was going from window to window selling tubes of bamboo stuffed with sticky rice. The lady sitting in front of me purchased a tube for 15 Baht, and I shook my head with a smile to say “no thank you”. What I really wanted was for the bus to start moving to get some air coming in through the open windows. “Chiang Saen, Chiang Saen” I could hear the bus’ ticket lady yelling out repeatedly outside the door of the bus, stating the name of our destination for any waiting passengers. The bus driver was no where in sight, and it became apparent that the bus wouldn’t be leaving until it had a decent amount of passengers to start off with.
Eventually, as the bus filled up a bit more, the bus driver finally hopped in the driver’s seat and we were off travelling through the streets of Chiang Rai.
I had decided today to make my own way out to explore the infamous Golden Triangle, while stopping to see the ancient ruins in Chiang Saen on the way. I had no real idea of how to get there, so I just walked to the bus station and hopped on the next bus to Chiang Saen.
As we left the outskirts of Chiang Rai, the busy streets and buildings gave way to beautiful green rice fields. The warm breeze that came through the window was a welcome relief from the sweltering heat that had engulfed the bus when it was stationary at the bus station, and the views of the countryside was a nice change from the city that I had been exploring for the past couple of days.
The road that we travelled passed through small towns and villages on it’s way to Chiang Saen, and I noticed that there were a lot of houses that seemed to be in the process of flooding as creeks and rivers were overfilled with water from recent rains. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the start of the terrible flooding that would eventually affect much of Thailand in the coming weeks.
Eventually, after the bus stopped in several towns to drop off and pick up passengers, we passed through the ancient walls that surround Chiang Saen, and entered onto the main street where the bus service ended. I walked along the street, passing several street food stands and market stalls on the way. Shops selling random items lined one side of the street, and at it’s end I crossed another main road that put me right on the banks of the mighty Mekong River. Some locals sat under a tree on a wooden bench in deep conversation, while a man on a bicycle slowly rode past me, seemingly not in any hurry to get anywhere. I walked along the river for a while before turning around and heading back down the main street to find something for lunch.
As I walked along looking at the different food stands and restaurants that I found, I noticed something that I wasn’t entirely used to here in Thailand. I seemed to be the only tourist in town, or at least if there were others in town, they weren’t anywhere near here. I couldn’t really work out why.
After yet another delicious local Thai meal, I set out in the early afternoon sun to find some of the ruins of the ancient city of Chiang Saen. Some ruins in the city date back a very long time, but the majority are from it’s heyday when Chiang Saen was built into a walled city during the 13th and 14th centuries, and it became a part of the ancient Lanna Kingdom. It of course fell with the rest of the kingdom to the Burmese and was sacked again by the Thai’s at the start of the 19th century. It was left abandoned after this time until the start of the last century when people began settling here again. What these events resulted in is the terrible condition of what remains of the ancient city.
I found a few ruins of ancient temples as I wandered along the main street, but the most impressive was Wat Chedi Luang which is still used as a working temple today. When I eventually reached the ancient walls of the city, despite the sweltering heat, I stupidly decided to continue to walk along the road that follows the wall through the town. The hot afternoon sun was almost unbearable, and each part of the walls all looked the same, so I began to lose interest.
In Thailand, I have never had a problem finding a tuk tuk driver when I needed one because they are literally everywhere, but here, there wasn’t a single tuk tuk or taxi in sight, so I ended up circling half the town before returning back to the main street. Pouring with sweat and desperate for a bit of shade, I finally found the “bus stop” for a songtheaw service that runs from Chiang Saen to Mai Sai via the Golden Triangle, and happily sat for about half an hour while I waited.
I sat in the back of the songtheaw (pick up truck) with a lady and her young son, who both got off in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. I was beginning to wonder if I was actually going anywhere near the Golden Triangle, and if I was, I had no idea where I supposed to hop off. My worries were soon put to rest though, as I suddenly found out where all of the tourists were. The Golden Triangle, with it’s hoards of tourists, shops and tour buses, was a huge change of scenery to the quietness of Chiang Saen.
This place was obviously here simply to lure in tourists, and I instantly knew that this wasn’t the place for me. I located the hill that allows you to look out at the meeting of the three countries that make up the Golden Triangle (Thailand, Laos and Myanmar (Burma)), and passed a couple of old temples on the way. The heat was terrible, and despite my endless consumption of water, I was feeling dehydrated as I made it to the top. Although this was obviously a huge tourist trap, the view was quite nice.
I had now seen the Golden Triangle that everyone seemed to rave on about, and I was ready to get the hell out of there. I wandered around trying to find the bus stop to get back to Chiang Saen, and after asking a few people, it turned out that I had missed the last songtheaw for that day. Of all of the places in Thailand that I could have been stuck in, this wasn’t one that I would choose.
It took me a while, but I eventually managed to get a ride back to Chiang Saen on the back of a motorbike…for a price of course. Hanging on for dear life, the motorbike raced along the road, flying past bicycles and other vehicles. I was dressed only in shorts, a t shirt and flip flops, and I had no helmet. The situation wasn’t safe by any standards, and I could only hang on and hope that I would make it in one piece. Still, despite all of this, I couldn’t keep the smile off of my face.
When we made it onto the main street in Chiang Saen by late afternoon, I paid my driver and managed to hop on what I was told was the last bus of the day back to Chiang Rai.
The Golden Triangle may not have been very impressive, but the adventure of the day was a whole lot of fun. This is why I love independent travel. You can not have these experiences any other way, and for me, this is what travel is all about.