Chiang Rai, Thailand: The White Temple

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Chiang Rai, Thailand: The White Temple

Once I decided to be a world traveler, Thailand was my choice – my first choice and my only choice. I cannot really say why, but after spending a month in Chiang Rai it is my belief the universe whispered to me: Thailand is where you need to be.

I am an educator, retired after years of teaching. One of my dreams has always been to teach overseas, and in January 2016, my dream came true. I left from Chicago O’Hare airport, flew to Dubai, then to Bangkok, finally landing in Chiang Rai after 27 hours in the air.

Crossing the international-dateline was just words until I actually did it. I honestly lost my sense of time, but when I got to Thailand, I found that time does not matter. Since there is not verb tense in the Thai language, everything is in the present. So, when in Thailand, all that matters is the here and now.

I worked at a volunteer camp 25 minutes outside of Chiang Rai, with cold showers, water flushed toilets and one-inch mattresses on old cots. The mode of transportation to and from teaching was an open-air truck, which bumped down dirt roads. We sat in the back of the truck and were always covered with dust from the road, but we loved every single minute of it. However, when the weekend came, I was ready to see the city – and I had three days in which to do it.

I am the kind of traveler that likes to do things economically. I like walking the cities, eating in the authentic restaurants and seeing the sights on a personal level. I love the stories the people have to tell, the small benches I can sit on and people-watch, and the kindness of the people who pass me on the street with a smile and a nod.

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Chiang Rai Street PIC: CT

Walking Chiang Rai

The camp bus driver dropped me off at the bus station in Chiang Rai, I decided I would walk through the city on my way to my lodging. I had directions, which I was sure would be enough. People were so friendly and most spoke some English, so no worry no cry, to quote Bob Marley.

I started on my walk through the city to my wonderful place that had a hot shower and a big, lovely mattress on the bed.

My first stop was the 7/11, where I got my international Sim card for $25.00. I was advised to get the card when I arrived because it was the best and easiest way to use my phone and stay connected. When the minutes ran out, I just added minutes and I was set. To my surprise, 7/11’s are everywhere, and they soon became my favorite store. The folks at the 7/11 spoke English, put the card in my phone and explained how it worked to me. Easy peasy and off I went for coffee near the Golden Clock.

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Chiang Rai Tuk Tuks PIC: CT

The busy streets reminded me of New York, but in New York I could read the street signs. In Chiang Rai it was a lost cause. However, signs telling visitors “English is spoken here” hang from at least one or two businesses on every block. Of course I stopped in more than one, showing my written address to the kind person who helped me on my way.

I loved that the people I asked for help did not tell me to turn east or go north. If they had, I would have ended up lost for sure. But I can go two blocks, then one more passed the stoplight. I can turn right by the hospital and go four blocks to the stop sign. I am a great landmark direction follower.

Spying the Golden Clock, I smiled to see the coffee shop right across the street. The Golden Clock was built in 2008 to honor King Bhumibhol Adulyadej, and the same architect who built the White Temple, a site to visit in Chiang Rai, designed it. At 19:00, 20:00 and 21:00, every evening, the clock tower comes to life with light and sound displays. Being a landmark in the central city of Chiang Rai, it is something to see. If you go to the night market, take the short five-minute walk over to it so you can enjoy the sounds and the lights in the beauty of the night.

As I glanced over my shoulder, a sign saying cats and coffee caught my eye. Of course, I had to see what it was all about. Peeking through the window, I saw people petting the many cats that wandered all over the floors and the furniture of the little coffee house. Since Buddhism requires kindness to animals and the temples offer shelter to street cats, I just assumed the coffee house is a place of kindness to all things great and small.

I want you to know that while in Chiang Rai, walking here and there, I never felt unsafe. I love walking and it helps me get into the city and become more a part of its story and heart. Of course, there are places one should not go. Night traveling is best done with a tuk-tuk or hotel taxis, and personal space awareness should be always turned on.

Coffee and people watching kept me busy for an hour or so. Chatting with those who spoke English, writing in my journal and rechecking my sightseeing itinerary found me passing more than an hour in this lovely place.

Thailand is a place of wonder with so much to see. The country is safe, the people are kind and so helpful, and the beauty of the country is untold.


Setting out for my lodging, I loved walking down the streets. The wires that hang above the city, chaotic as they are, seemed to me like a modern work of art. Cars and scooters are everywhere, and I must admit I was pleasantly surprised no one ran into anyone.

I stopped at a beautiful tearoom, with a sign that said English spoken here, just to make sure I was going in the right direction. Good thing I did as I had missed the turn by three blocks.

Arriving at the motel, I was thrilled with my room: the walk-in shower and the bed, mattress, pillows, covers, oh my! Hot water welcomed me as I washed off the dust of the week. On my way to the motel, I passed a small restaurant run by a local, so after I had washed a week’s worth of Thailand off my body, I dressed and went back for dinner and music. It was just a small café, but it was so peaceful and – of course – reasonable. I sat, appreciating all that I had experienced that day, and excited about all that was to come. So many of these small café’s dot the streets and each one is better than the next.

The White Temple

In the morning, I enjoyed an authentic Thai buffet for breakfast. Yes, I do love rice and eggs for breakfast, along with the 3 in1 coffee I became addicted to. I think it was 80% chocolate and sugar, and 20% coffee. Caring not, I loved it and had as much of it  as I could. After eating I set out walking and got a tuk-tuk to visit the White Temple, the first site on my list.

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Chiang Rai – White Temple PIC: CT

When I saw the White Temple, Wat Rong Khun, I just stopped and stared. Having no idea what to expect, I was so surprised at its magical aura, its mystery just begging me to enter. The sanctity of the temple humbled me, and I was filled with a feeling of grace. Even though many visitors fill the spaces inside and out, I never felt rushed or crowded, so do not let the crowds deter you.

Most temples have a story about their wonderful past, but the White Temple is a recent creation, designed by Chalermchai Kositpipat. However, had I not read about this fact, I never would have guessed this temple did not have a fascinating past.

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Chiang Rai – White Temple

The temple has thousands of little mirrors embedded in it so it sparkles in the sunlight. To me, it looked in its stillness like it was able to dance. The white symbolizes the Buddha’s purity, but evil is also represented with the eerie heads that hang from trees and the grotesque hands that reach out of the ground, from hell I think.

What I call a prayer tree holds thousands of medal ornaments with wishes for the future. All of my children, grandchildren and sisters’ names hang on that tree, with my wishes for them. At 60 baht a piece, forever my desires for their well being shall hang in a holy place that weds the old with the new, just as our lives have the past forever part of our present.

The Night Market

Later that night, I went to the night market for dinner and shopping. The night market in Chiang Rai offers unique items made by hill-tribe people: antique bags, masks, silver earrings, handmade traditional Thai dolls, carved wooden bowls and embroidered bags. The hill-tribes of Thailand produce beautiful products, one more unique and beautiful than the other. They set up shop by placing a blanket on the street and selling from there. Prices are cheap here, really cheap, and the wares are wonderful.

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Chiang Rai – White Temple Sculptures

The night market also has a lot of food stalls offering Thai food, and there is live music and dancing girls for your dining entertainment. The ice cream is good in Chiang Rai, so get some before you leave the market. If you want a short walk, remember the clock tower I told you about? Within five minutes you can stroll over and enjoy the night light and sound show.

The hill tribes bring embroidered items, earrings and elephant pants. I bought two pairs of pants, six scarves, and I cannot remember how many elephant ornaments and little statues for everyone at home.

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Chiang Rai – Night Market PIC: CT

Always negotiating for the best price, I was certain I had made the best deal. Sitting sipping my rice whiskey, taking in all the sites, I happened to spy a stall that had the same items I had purchased for less! But prices are so low in Thailand I just had a hearty laugh, knowing the story would be great when told at home.

The market is near the bus station in the center of town, and you can always get a tuk-tuk to take you back to your hotel when the evening is done. If you are alone, I suggest this. If not, walking a short distance though the energy of the night in Chiang Rai is wonderful.

So Much More

There is so much more to see in Chiang Rai than the White Temple and night market. I have not included information on trips outside the city, to the waterfalls, the little artsy village, the bus ride to Chiang Mai to see the temple with 350 steps, and the chat with the monks. These are for another time. Bangkok is another place I loved, with its water taxis and the Oriental Hotel where writers came to write and commune. I could sense the writers as I wondered through the hotel. Bangkok is also not a bad place for families – check out a Bangkok family travel planner if you stop by after visiting Chiang Rai.

Thailand is a place of wonder with so much to see. I have only shared a little of my trip, hoping that it will inspire you to look into a trip to Thailand. The country is safe, the people are kind and so helpful, and the beauty of the country is untold. You will not be sorry if you choose to make Thailand the next stop on your vacation list.

Catherine Tillman

Catherine Tillman

After retiring from a wonderful career as an educator, my life is now dedicated to writing, traveling, volunteering and joyfully enjoying my third and final act. In the midst of creating my first blog and website, I find that my life long passion for creating art with words is bringing more to me than I had ever thought possible. A Midwestern dweller for all of my life, Milwaukee, Wisconsin shall always be my home, but, as the Dali Lama tells us, "travel to somewhere you have never been at least once a year" has become my mantra.

1 Comment

  • Erika

    It sounds like you had a wonderful experience traveling in Thailand. Thank you for sharing!

    June 24, 2017 at 3:00 pm