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Chiangrai -- A Cultural Snapshot

Chiangrai Chiangrai, so good they named once. No its not quite New York but Chiangrai does have a park and it is pretty central. It also has great burgers, but they don't come from McDonalds, they come from one of the many expat owned Beer Bars that line Jet Yod Road off from the clock tower. It also has a great mix of cultures, except they are mainly from Burma, China and Lao, instead of Italy, Ireland and everywhere else.

Call it the Big Lychee if you like, actually Little Lychee would be better, when in season anyway. The rest of the time it is just good old, never changing, Chiangrai, gateway to the North. The fact that you are unlikely to get any further than the Burmese border is neither here nor there. It is still the gateway to the exotic fairytale Golden Land of Burmese culture, and what a rich culture it is. Pieces of it can be seen all over the Chiangrai area. The style of temple architecture known as the Lanna style owes much to Burmese influence and many crafts, textiles and antiques can be found in Chiangrai and of course directly on the border in Mae Sai.

Chiangrai and its surrounding province has a lot to offer and the mountains that follow you on route to the border town, are a sight to behold, and full of dark secrets. Only twenty years ago it would have been too dangerous for tourists to venture there. Opium was the way of life then, but that has gone and all that remains is the museums, the Opium Museum at the Golden Triangle, between Mae Sai and Chiang Saen, and the Hilltribe museum in Chiangrai itself. But venture you must, like thousands before you, to be photographed in front of the sign fronting the Mekong river, which announces that you stand at the centre of the Golden Triangle, where Thailand, Burma and Lao meet. The Golden Triangle is an area so notorious for producing most of the worlds opium many years back that many tourists now leave the heat of the Phuket beaches to venture north, just to be photographed in front of that sign.

For a real taste of trek culture, Chiangrai beats Chiang-mai. The hilltribes are more authentic, even down to the dirty clothes and there are many treks available from the small tour operators scattered around the town.

The Tourist Authority of Thailand is really keen to promote eco tourism and it will probably succeed, one day, and Chiangrai is the perfect place to focus its efforts. Where back-packers once trekked and missionaries once saved will be luxury eco orientated hotels (theyre already here). Eco tourism will probably save Chiangrai economically, together with the new University. Yes they have built a University, the Mae Fah Luang University. Lets hope that one day local graduates will move away to foreign shores for their second degrees in England, America or Australia (its a Thai obsession) and then return to Chiangrai with new energy and a sense of commitment to preserve, develop and ecologically commercialize the area. Its crying out for it and it is ripe for cultural preservation.

The night market is bordered by old Chinese shop houses, drab and dull in the daytime but exciting when evening comes. There are many kinds of local foods on the stalls. Sure, try them, the deep fried silk worms and grasshoppers but save yourself for the jewel in the crown, Chiangrais most famous restaurant. Dont take my word for it; eat at the Rattanakosin Restaurant overlooking the second stage on the night market. In fact it is essential, as its one of the best places to unwind after a day of cultural overload, posing for photos and avoiding the odd drug warlord or two. The Rattanakosin is also packed with antiques and is dripping in local culture. Lets face it, people come to Chiangrai to be intoxicated by the culture and easygoing feel of the place. Trust me, get a table right outside the restaurant or on the first floor balcony and imagine you are in that fairytale. Chiangrai Chiangrai, something to sing about.

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