Continuing our way towards the border, we stopped next in Chiang Rai, possibly my favourite area of Thailand. Along the way the scenery changed and the more mountainous landscape rolled in, a taste of what lay waiting for us in Laos.
Chiang Rai, while still well on the backpacker circuit, has a certain charm about it with its quirky temples and museums. On our way there we visited the famous White Temple, Wat Rong Khun. The contemporary building, arguably an art exhibit in its own right, was built by Chalermchai Kositpipat, a local artist. Costing 40 million baht of his own private money so far (it isn't due for completion until 2070), the stark white temple is quite breathtaking upon first sight.
Filled with Buddhist symbolism, albeit a little less conventional than most religious buildings, entry to the temple is accessed via a bridge through a sea of outreached hands. These symbolise unrestrained desire with the bridge providing a path to happiness for those who resist temptation and greed. Entering the main body of the temple things get even more surreal with murals depicting horror scenes of demons and nuclear warfare including Michael Jackson, Freddy Kruger, a Terminator, Harry Potter, Superman and Hello Kitty amongst other characters. I wish I could have taken photos to show just how weird this place was, but photos inside the temple were strictly forbidden.
Next up was the Black House Museum or Baan Dam. Built by another artist, this time Thawan Duchanee, the fifteen black buildings on the site house a collection of animal bones, skins and horns intended to portray evil, the artists impression of hell. He does a pretty good job, creating an eerie sense of darkness that's not at all comfortable to witness. It's hard to describe the exhibits accurately so I'll leave it to the photos which I think do quite a good job on their own.
A surprise element to the place was walking to the far side of the site and catching a glimpse of what looked like a Mardi-esque eye on the side of a curious looking igloo-like dome. Closer inspection revealed Mardi in all his/her glory in several places around the site, including one posed cheekily to pay homage to the artist himself. We later discovered that these had only been painted a couple of weeks beforehand, so our timing couldn't have been better.
Continuing with the weird theme, next we found ourselves at Wat Huay Plakang 9 Tier Temple. Another oddity, the newly built Chinese-Buddhist temple does indeed have nine tiers and is nice enough, but the real attraction at this site is the enormous statue of Kuan Yin, the female Buddha of Compassion and Mercy. Towering above us, we were pleased to discover that reaching the top didn't involve climbing steps, but that there was an elevator to whisk us up to the viewing platform inside of her head. What we didn't expect was to find the stunning plasterwork there, freshly sculpted and not yet painted. Featured heavily were dragons and Buddhist figures, in true Chiang Rai temple tradition, the artists have playfully thrown in a few anomalies such as bears. And of course, a Pokemon.
Almost templed out, we found the time to stop by the Blue Temple on the way home - I mean, we'd seen the white and black ones, so we could hardly miss it out - before retreating back to the cool of our guesthouse from one of the hottest days we'd experienced so far.
It was at this point, the day before we planned to cross the border to Laos, that we discovered that somewhere along the line Evan's import permit paperwork for his bike had gone missing. To this day we have no idea what happened to it, but despite spending three hours repeatedly checking every last crevice of both our little backpacks, it was nowhere to be found.
After asking on a facebook forum for advice on the possible consequences of this we were told by several people to expect a 10,000 baht fine upon exit if we didn't have it. This put a decided damper on our evening which was only made worse when someone also pointed out that we had also failed to complete another piece of paperwork when we entered Thailand, the TM2 form, and that we could be fined another 10,000 baht EACH when leaving for not being able to present these. You can appreciate that we weren't happy at all at the thought of having to potentially pay over US$850 in fines.
After some debate about the best way to deal with the issue, we decided to face the music at the border the next day. As it turned out, we never had to because an even bigger problem presented itself before we had the chance to confess.