A brief visit to Chiang Rai led us to Chiang Rai Beach, a freshwater river (Kok River) with a sandy and occasionally rocky shore. It’s the closest you’ll get to a real beach this far north in Thailand.
It was from the riverbank that we noticed a large hill to the west, which was really a huge limestone rock standing proud and sheer on its own. Atop the rock was a little dot that looked like a tiny hut. I can’t speak for Caroline, but my immediate thought was, “I must reach the top of this giant rock.”
We headed in the general direction of the rock, which took us alongside English-style farmhouses, and onto dirt roads through lush greenery and small lakes dotted with young swimmers, eventually ending up at a wat directly at the foot of the giant rock. Steps led up the face, and so we began to ascend, assuming that they would take us to the summit.
We climbed the 30-odd stairs, rounded a corner, and came to a cave. Venturing inside with head torches, we found it filled with Buddhist relics (some still shrink wrapped), and covered in fluorescent lights (all of them turned off). The cave went down about 15 metres, and occasionally bats would zoom through the light of our torches, flitting from one corner of the shallow cave to another. The complete silence and pitch darkness of the cave intensified the brilliant green surroundings and insect cacophony as we exited.
Obviously this wasn’t the way to the summit, so we unsuccessfully tried circling the rock on foot. Foliage blocked the way, so we attempted to drive around the other direction, but ended up incorrectly taking a track through somebody’s paddy field. Eventually we found our way on a paved road, and spotted a small opening in a wall. Driving through it revealed a treacherous soil-and-root road, and so we bumped our way up that and ended up at the foot of a staircase. That had to be the way up!
The stairs didn’t last long. Soon the path turned into a sort of mild rock climb, with the occasional step carved into the rock face, or sometimes a few bricked steps up the steeper inclines. It took about 20 minutes to clamber up to the top – 80 metres.
Remember the picture of the hill above? The hut at the top left was presumably for the use of monks. It appeared to be infrequently used, but a padlock on the door prevented further inspection. The statue on the top right was a golden Buddha, both hands outstretched towards the east. We couldn’t find a way to the little hut halfway up, so that remains a mystery. All the building materials would have originally been lugged up by hand – there were no roads here.
The most incredible part of reaching the summit, was an amazing 360 degree panorama of Chiang Mai, and the surrounding hills, valleys and waterways.