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Touring the Golden Triangle with Tony – A Lanna Cultural Tours Review

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Thailand is a country that is absolutely packed with wonderful experiences and places to exxplore. From the white sand beaches of the south to the lush green hills of the north there is so much to see and do. We have spent around ten weeks here in total but we still find it hard to cram everything in that we want to see. On our last trip, we decided to visit Chiang Rai and explore the northeastern corner of Thailand with an expert. After some research, we decided to team up with Tony at Lanna Cultural Tours for a day of adventuring across the Golden Triangle Region. Read on for our Lanna Cultural Tours review.

Our tour was gifted by Lanna Cultural Tours but all opinions are entirely our own

Tony at Lanna Cultural Tours

Thailand is not short of tours. Seemingly every guesthouse and hotel has a tours desk and Khao San Road is lined with people proffering books full of glossy tour photos. However, very few of these people run the tours or have even been on the tours and you get what you’re given. However, Tony created Lanna Cultural Tours to share his passion for this amazing corner of Thailand with the travellers passing through. He curated each itinerary, working with local businesses and is open to chopping and changing according to his guest’s needs.

Our chariot for the day

Tony himself is an incredibly friendly guy. We talked about the local pineapples and he stopped at a street stall just we could try one…he wasn’t wrong. It was truly incredible!

Wat Rong Khun – White Temple

Unlike many of the temples in the centre of Chiang Rai, the White Tempe is relatively new, in fact it isn’t finished. The temple, the surroundings and its intricate plasterwork, are all designed by local artist Chalermchai Kositpipat who decided to reconstruct a temple that was almost beyond repair. He funds the project himself and so far, estimates for his investment total around THB1,080 million (around £24,000,000 or $32,000,000). He predicts construction will be ongoing until around 2070 so his bank account will be suffering for a few years yet. The artist is from the village next to the temple so I am sure he believes this sprawling work of art is worth all the time and money.

From afar, the temple looks similar to many others, with plenty of fiddly decoration and iconography but look closer and you will that is actually wildly different. The work takes the viewer from hell, at one end of the walkway to heaven inside the temple. Along the way, you see lots of pop culture references and unusual elements like the eerie sea of hands grasping up from the underworld, Hellraisr emerging from the lawn and apparently, Hello Kitty hanging out inside.

Nearby is a curiously beautiful toilet block and an exhibition of Chalermchai Kositpipat’s other artworks, a great variety of posters, paintings and sculptures which again, have plenty of pop art vibes.

Baan Dam – Black House

Housed in a huge teak hall is the work of another one of Thailand’s most famous artists, Thawan Duchanee. This is a vegan’s worst nightmare but it reminded me in a strange way of the little museum near my childhood home full of terribly Victorian taxidermy. Crocodile and snake skins extend the length of huge teak dining tables, the least festive table runner for a Christmas dinner ever but perfect for a BBQ! I sat in a chair, bedecked with huge horns and marvelled at how masculine the art felt. The main hall was also full of bold paintings of animals created in striking black, white and reds. When w visited, there was a very cool addition. By scanning the QR codes, and watching through our phones. the paintings were brought to life with animation, AR and sounds. It was pretty special.

We walked around the lush green grounds to investigate the workshop and other art spaces. Inside the weird and wonderful collection of buildings, we saw countless pieces constructed from deceased creatures, blended together or adorning wooden sculptures.

I was surprised to see the lawnmowers. There are two buffalos living on the property that keep the grass trimmed. I wonder if they have any concept of their deceased brothers and sisters on display just a few metres away(!)

Hacienda Coffee House

The Golden Triangle used to be well known for opium production (the money that rolled in from this gave the region its name). However, the royal family are making a concerted effort to change the face of the countryside Throughout the area, opium fields are being replaced with one of my favourite addictive substances…coffee. I suggested we go and see some coffee plantation and Tony said he knew just the place. The Hacienda Tea House was not what I was expecting. With a distinctly Spanish name, I was picturing a roof covered in terracotta tiles and décor dominated by lots of earth tones.

Instead, it was the most charmingly twee, tea room style café and restaurant. Chinse florals and lacy doilies were everywhere and it was very odd to be sipping coffee in the sticky Thai heat in somewhere that was reminiscent of my grandma’s front room. Mind you, the coffee was much better and the view considerably more beautiful.

Lunch – Khao Soi

Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai both lay claim to a wonderful fusion noodle dish called Khao Soi. The noodles are coated in a spicy yellow curry sauce and topped with crispy noodles. Tony chose our lunch spot so that we could try the best version of Khao Soi. It was definitely better than the version we had eaten in Chiang Mai in the place LP suggested so he clearly knows what he is talking about!

I had mentioned that I’d like to try Sai Ua (a northern Thai sausage) at some point during our time in Chiang Rai. When we sat down for lunch, Tony snuck off and came back proffering the famous garlic and lemongrass laden banger that I was so keen to try. It didn’t disappoint and it was so sweet of him to find some for us.

Doi Tung Flower Garden

Originally, I had contacted Lanna Tours about travelling to the very Northern edge of Thailand, Doi Hua Mar Kham, to see the Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia Diversifolia). It turns out, I didn’t understand just how far away this was from everything else we wanted to see so as a little compensatory side trip, we agreed to take a trip to the Doi Tung Flower Garden.

Doi Tung is a huge complex, built by the Thai Royal Family for their villa and it is a huge tourist draw. We just visited the flower garden which was full of…well, European flowers. Turns out, the high elevation makes the spot perfect for growing the kinds of flowers only seen in our home continent. The princess mother wanted to share these rare blooms with the local people. Ah well, it was still lovely. There were some huge set pieces surrounded by lanterns perfectly manicured lawns that again, we really weren’t expecting and a lovely greenhouse stocked with orchids, always a treat.

Wat Tham Pla – Fish Temple & Monkeys

To be completely honest, this was not what I was expecting at all. I had seen videos of other monkey temples in Thailand where the monkeys were running free across the temple, wreaking havoc with the tourists. When we arrived at this temple, we were told to pick a stick that would keep the monkeys at bay.

Red flag.

Turns out, this was originally the fish temple, and there is a large population of coy in the lake but the main attraction these days is the group of monkeys that come down from the hill that towers above the complex. Tourists can purchase some food and interact with the monkeys who will come and pick the food straight out of your hand. There is a tire swing and platform set up where the little ones develop their swinging skills under the watchful eye of their parents. It’s sweet but the whole thing made me feel strangely uncomfortable.

Luckily, as you can tell, Tony is very happy to chop and change the itinerary on your Lanna Cultural Tours, so if you want to meet the monkeys, you can. If you’d rather skip it, you can do that too.

Wat Phra That Doi Wao – Overlooking the Mae Sai Border

Up a steep hill, we arrived at a strange temple hub. This modern complex is one of those truly eclectic and mildly bizarre spots that Asia provides. They are always a surprise and a delight. Lining the walkway were plastic figures of comedic people, laughing smiling and grimacing as passers-by. We also spotted a very cheerful “Western Buddha”, otherwise known as a fat one. Overlooking the border was a huge scorpion. With this and the hilarious figures, it was almost like being at a theme park.

Behind the modern area is a stupa that has been beautifully restored in sun-catching gold. There has been a temple here since 364 B.E, built to store the hair of the Buddha. It is quite the contrast to the garish temple across the road.

For another great view, we stopped by a tall standing statue of Phra Suphan Kanlaya. From here we could see where the Mekong and Ruak rivers converged, the different hues of brown river water merging into one. From this vantage point, you can see Laos and Myanmar. It was strange to gaze into these countries, so close but closed to us at the moment. It was nice to reminisce about the travels we have done in both. Tony recommended a small opium museum (not the big one you read about in the guidebooks) but sadly, it was closed for renovation.

As we watched a large boat coming down the river, talk turned to the Chinese influence on the Laotian side of the river. They are building large casinos here and bringing boatloads of tourists here to enjoy a flutter or thousand. Apparently, dangerous chemicals are being released into the river with little regard to those living downstream. As we chatted, a huge boom echoed across the water and a plume of smoke rose slowly into the blue sky. Just one example of the care and attention the Chinese are taking to preserve the beautiful landscape surrounding the river.

Phra Chiang Saen Si Phaendin – A Giant Buddha

On the banks of the Mekong sits a huge bronze Buddha, surveying the slowly flowing river. It is surrounded by animals (including two large elephants) and other Buddhist symbols. To be honest, this area feels more like a tourist attraction than a religious site. Nearby, tourists can take a short boat ride on the river to see the tri-point borders from the water.

Before we left, Tony grabbed a coffee from his favourite spot and I thought I didn’t one but as soon as I saw it I was instantly jealous. Never mind, it was time to keep going and I didn’t know when we would come across another bathroom so I gave it a miss.

Wat Pa Sak – Our Sunset Temple

Set just outside the walls of Chiang Saen, the oldest city in Thailand is a temple that dates back to the 1200s. It gets its name, Temple of the Teak Forest, from the large trees that surround it. These trees, combined with the deep green grass that is only just kept at bay from the temple’s edges, give the place a beautiful contrast. This is especially heightened when the setting sun hits the temple and sets the stone ablaze in a shock of red.

We just made it for this lovely moment and watched the sun slip away too quickly before hopping back into the car.

(But not before Mr Fluskey took his revenge on this big beast that managed to bite me five times in as many seconds).

Wat Rong Seua Ten – Blue Temple

After a white temple, a black house and a red temple we rounded out the day with the most colourful temple of all, The Blue Temple. This bright and beautiful spot is located just outside of Chiang Rai, making it an excellent last stop. After dark, the azure hue is enhanced by blue floodlights and it is truly stunning, with its golden highlights. Inside, the walls are covered in bright murals that pop against the blue carpet, blue columns, blue ceiling and striking white Buddha. This is another recent construction, work only beginning in 2005 on a temple that had been abandoned 100 years before. Thus, you’ll find some wonderfully modern decorations inside that are similar to those of the White Temple. In fact, the designer was a student of Kositpipat.

Final Thoughts

I am so glad we decided to approach Tony at Lanna Cultural Tours. His incredible knowledge, patience, easy-going friendly countenance made the day fun and relaxing. His recommendations before the tour and on the day itself were all spot on. It was great to see the big sights I had found out about beforehand and discover some strange additions. (The tearoom still blows my mind). It wasn’t all perfect, I didn’t enjoy the monkeys but the pineapple really made up for it. My advice? Drop Tony a message, work together to create your perfect tour and have a great day!

Rosie xx

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