The morning after we arrived back in Thailand, we were in for one of the most varied days yet: culture, tourism and then a mix of both. Leaving our hotel soon after breakfast, we arrived within two hours in Chiang Rai, about a third of the distance between the border crossing at Chiang Khong and our destination at Chiang Mai. The sun was already high in the sky and the heat was very dry, making for almost unbearable conditions outside of the minibuses.
We had stopped at Wat Rong Khun, an unconventional Buddhist temple that was started in the late ’90s and is estimated to be finished by 2070. The temple is painted brilliant white, with small mirrors covering certain slopes and grains that reflect the sunlight in every direction. A small pond is situated next to the walkway that takes visitors through a sea of sculpted hands, reaching up from the ground, holding skulls and small bowls to the heavens.
On the inside of the main room (where pictures are strictly forbidden), the walls are painted with the strangest murals; the back wall holds a painting of a demon with George Bush in one eye and Osama Bin Laden in the other. Inside the mouth of the demon is a scene depicting the collapse of the Twin Towers, a missile, some spaceships, and, just for good measure, Spiderman. Other items painted on the walls include Kung Fu Panda, Michael Jackson, Keanu Reeves‘ Neo, Darth Vader, a Transformer, Jigsaw from the Saw films, Harry Potter and a single Angry Bird.
All of these bizarre objects converge in a mass of light at the roof of the temple, symbolising the escape of all the evils of this world, achieving enlightenment, joining Buddha in his serene state above it all, in heaven. Or some such nonsense.
We left the temple and drove on south west to Chiang Mai, where we checked in to our hotel and hopped into a couple of Tuk Tuks which would take us to Tiger Kingdom. This was another experience I was particularly excited about and another point I’d be able to check off my bucket list.
When we arrived, we were shown the options – there were four categories: smallest (0-3 months), small (3-6 months), medium (6-12 months) and big cat (12 months+ – fully grown). One can buy tickets for each category in any combination, or all four for a discounted price. Joaquin and I decided to make the most of it while we were here, so we paid our ฿1,400 (approx. £30) and visited the big cat enclosure first. The tigers prowled around, making me awfully nervous, but the guides were brilliant and told us that we could touch the cat anywhere bar its head.
For the rest of the afternoon, we went from enclosure to enclosure, becoming increasingly more confident the more tigers we petted. The guides told us we could lie down, use their tails as scarves and play with them as if they were cats or dogs. So we did! The experience was out of this world, and I’m definitely glad we bought a pass to see all four ages. The youngest ones were particularly cute, with blunt little teeth that would clamp on your arm and only smart a little. They are very majestic creatures, and it’s comforting to know that even though these tigers are not drugged in any way (as they sometimes are in other sanctuaries), there has never been an accident at Tiger Kingdom.
With one cultural and tourism aspect out of the way, it was time to head back to Chiang Mai and take in a sport that is seen as entertainment by the locals and a novelty for the visitors; Thai Boxing. There were eight fights billed for the evening, starting with two 14 year old boys and ending with an international match, in which an American would fight a local.
The fight between the two young boys was soon over after one knocked the other clean out, and from that point on the fights grew gradually longer, at one point peaking at five rounds before a winner was declared on points. The strangest and most entertaining fight of the evening was between five Thai men, all wearing blindfolds. The objective? Hit anything you bump into. The in-ring referee gave up and went home after being floored twice.
The American won the last fight of the night, taking quite a beating in the process.
I can’t say I enjoyed the sport so much that I now follow it or would make a point of going again, but it was certainly interesting and I’m glad I went. Exhausted after a long and busy day, we headed back to the hotel after the fight and the next morning were treated to our first lie-in in a month.
That day was spent lazily seeing what Chiang Mai had to offer; the market selling the same tourist tat we had been seeing for the last 30 days, the ancient city wall, Thapae Gate and to finish it off, a massage.
The evening brought with it our final sleeper train, which would transport us to Bangkok, arriving in the early hours of next morning…