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Wednesday 26 Jun 2013
Chiang Khong, Thailand

Straying across the border

After a lot of indecision, I finally bought a Stray Asia pass that would take me from Chiang Mai up to the border at Chiang Khong, across into Laos then cruise along the Mekong on a slow boat to Luang Prabang. From Luang Prabang we'd board the bright orange Stray bus and travel the length of the country down to Don Det in the 4000 Islands of the Mekong Delta at the border with Cambodia. A journey of at least 2000km (NB check this on google maps!)
The advantage of travelling with Stray, as in New Zealand, is that it is designed for solo travellers to meet other people and travel with a guide, but retain enough independence to hop off in a place they like, then hop back on the next bus that comes through.
My tour had started in Bangkok, so Natalie (Bristol, UK) and Kye and Krysia (couple from Wollongong, Aus) had already been together a few days with the guide, an American named Mike. We had a private minibus up to the border and watched a movie to pass the time up to Chiang Rai.
We had a short stop in Chiang Rai to visit Wat Rong Khun, the White Temple. Unlike most of Thailand's wats, this one was only started in 1999 and not yet finished. It is designed by a Thai artist and reflects his thoughts on modern society. The outside is briliant white, covered in ornate carvings and small pieces of mirror which reflect the sky and shine like silver. The temple is surrounded by lush green lawns with sculptures climbing out of the grass in places. There are also objects suspended from soe of the trees. On closer inspection, these objects are revealed to be the severed heads of various well known famous people or film characters which the artist considers unworthy or a bad influence on society. One of the sculptures in the grass is actually 'Predator' from the 80's films. To enter the temple, visitors have to cross a pool and over a bridge to reach the doorway. This is synonymous with passing through hell and rising up to enlightenment. The pool at the start is filled with hands of the damned reaching up towards the light and surrounded by the guardians of hell. On each side of the bridge the way is guarded by two huge warriors keeping back the damned from crossing the bridge. It is really quite impressive!
Inside the temple, there is a large gold seated buddha and a very lifelike model of a seated monk - the sort where you half expect him to open his eyes and say boo if you get too close. The rest of the temple appears relatively plain at first, until you turn around and look behind you, back towards hell. Then you are greeted by an enormous mural which covers the entire back wall and wraps aong the sides of the temple. It is the face of a giant devil with gaping mouth, big teeth and fiery eyes. This is impressive taken as it is, but when you look closer, you suddenly realise that there is so much more to it. The mural is full of all the things which the artist believes are wrong with or bad for modern society. The two eyes contain portraits of George W. Bush and Osama Bin Laden. belived to be the two most hated figures on the planet. All along the bottom are pictures of tall buildings, space rockets, cars, guns, bombs, mobile phones, iPods, famous people like Michael Jackson and Elvis, characters like Superman and even Harry Potter flying on a broomstick reaching for a Golden Snitch. The detail was incredible and I could have spent ages looking at it and trying to identify all the elements. It was certainly different from any other temple I've seen on this trip, and that includes a lot of temples!
The mural is still being worked on. One artist was adding more details to the side wall while we were there, lying down with his iPod on to finish the flames licking up from the skirting boards... I wonder what the main artist would think of that? Outside we could offer a donation by throwing coins into a wishing well with a stack of bowls inside (like a champagne glass pyramid). Naturally everyone aimed for the top bowl, but the water deflected all our coins and they spiralled out to the edges. We could also buy a wishing pendant - a thin metal spade shape with beads hanging off the bottom. I wrote my wish with a Sharpie marker and hung the pendant onto one of the metal trees nearby. There were literally thousands of them already there. The idea is for the temple to be funded fully from individual donations so it has no affiliation with any government or organisation. There is still a long way to go to finish the ornamentaion on the outside of the buildings and the murals inside. It would be very interesting to come back in 5 years and see the progress.

From Chiang Rai we continued to the small town of Chiang Khong on the banks of the Mekong. Natalie and I became roomates, which made it cheaper for both of us. The guest house had a balcony along the first floor, where we could sit and admire the view across the wide river to the green hills of Laos. Our bathroom was en suite, but linked to our room by a balcony, so we had to go outside to get to it. It was quite nice to stand at the sink and brush my teeth while looking out over the gardens. The only socket in the room was at shoulder level. By the time we'd attached two plugs and adaptors together, the block was too heavy to stay in the socket, so Natalie and I improvised a tower from the bedside table, my backpack and her little rucksack to prop the plug block up with. Not at all dodgy...

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