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Chiang Saen a Shipping Port

Although organized tours are great for seeing the major sights and getting oriented with Northern Thailand, there are some precious things that no organized tour can show you. If you're staying a while in Thailand and have access to a car, an unguided trip to some key spots in Chiang Rai Province would be a very worthwhile experience! Chiang Rai and the towns near the Mae Khong River offer glimpses into the past with historic wats and folklore, and hints of future prosperity with increased trading activity along bordering nation states.

Chiang Rai: Wat Khao Kwai

Situated on a hill just west of Chiang Rai's old airport, this temple is known for its association with mythical beasts. When literally translated to English, the full name Wat Prathart Doi Khao Kwai means "Buffalo Horn Hill". A major feature of the temple is a mythical beast with bear paws and the general body structure of a bear sculpted in stone. But the bear has five eyes and four ears. The story behind the sculpture is an important part of Chiangrai legend. Nearby villagers and local residents still claim to hear and see strange animals coming from the vicinity of the hill.

The story dates back to 700 years, when the small hill was still part of an unruly jungle. The few people that inhabited the area told of a five-eyed, four eared bear that ate burning hot charcoal and shat pure gold. These villagers tried to capture the bear several times, but failed. Finally, a crippled man named Toog Tanah followed the creature to its cave and collected the gold manure. He left the bear in its cave and returned to the village a wealthy man, able to marry the daughter of Chiangrai's governor. The marriage was blissful and successful, and Toog decided to build a Buddhist temple in memory of the mythical beast. Throughout the years, stone sculptures of other mythical creatures were erected on the wat grounds.

A viewpoint has been constructed just outside the wat, offering a 180 degree, panoramic view. Chiangrai is a spacious city, still very much shrouded with green trees and not yet marred by towering condos and hotels.

Chiang Saen: Bustling Piers

This small town near the Mae Khong River offers an exciting look at the trading activity between Thailand, Laos, Burma and southern China. Visitors will see local piers congested with vessels, mostly from China, docked to take Thai goods ranging from petrol, rubber sheets, automobile tires and cement, to tonic drink, cooking oil, sugar, dried Lumyai fruit, fruit plants and other commodity goods, to sell to buyers in southern China. In the last few months, the number of foreign ships stopping at Chiang Saen piers has risen to about 20 per day due to Lumyai harvest season.

The town is ripe for growth, as most commercial buildings are booked for Chinese and Thai exporters' offices. Many of these exporters have also purchased land in Chiang Saen to build warehouses, and this high demand has led to increased land prices. It's a lively atmosphere indeed, with hundreds of nearby villagers coming in for day labor, carrying boxes and boxes of goods to the piers.

In addition to the trading activity, the river is still a necessary means of transport in the area. Visitors will see everything from slow moving paddleboats and bamboo rafts, to speedy long tail boats used by villagers and local residents to carry out their daily activities. A dilapitated pedestrian bridge still remains over the river, just beside a modern bridge constructed for motor traffic. This is no doubt an exciting time to visit this riverside town in the midst of transition.

Mae Sai: Customs House

Most visitors know of this border town as a gateway to a day trip into Tachilek in Burma and associate Mae Sai with Thai Immigration. But to the locals, it's considered a major axis to trading activity. The newly constructed Customs House says it all. This impressive structure at the Mae Sai Tachilek border pass is indeed an indication of how important this small city is to the prosperity of residents on both sides of the border.

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