Lindy Laird discovers a land of contrasts, culture and change in Chiang Rai.
The caves in Thailand's Chiang Rai where a football team of boys and their coach were rescued from rising waters now host a flood of a different kind.
Stalls, tour guides, an information centre and other enterprises have inundated the area near the Tham Luang Caves entrance.
Natthapat (''Call me Nat'') told me about the change when we struck up a conversation at an outdoor seat in Chiang Rai City, several hours north by road from bigger, better-known Chiang Mai.
The province was once best known to Westerners for its location on the Golden Triangle, where the mountains and valleys of the border shared with Myanmar to the west and Laos to the east were swathed in opium poppies and other plants grown for the international drug trade.
This remote hill country now sustains old and replanted hardwood forest, tea, rice and other staples, and national parks.
Over decades, tourism has made huge inroads into the local economy, shaping whole communities and changing traditional earning and lifestyle practices.
I travelled there with World Animal Protection to look into the mistreatment of elephants at ''riding'' camps. There are about 55 such places in the vicinity. Some of the elephants might once have been used in the logging industry, which is now illegal, or worse, forced to perform for tourists.
The tourist demand for riding and bathing elephants - and in some cases circus-style acts which are cruel and unnatural - provides a living for their mahouts.
There are changes afoot but it will require a philosophical shift from both tourists and operators. A new eco-tourism emphasis could save most of the jobs - if the elephant handlers and camp owners accept the need to move from tourists having hands-on experiences to them observing the animals in their natural habitat.
Nat had presumed I was heading to the now-famous caves. On hearing I was looking into humane elephant tourism, he said many in Thailand were pleased the matter was gaining considerable international attention.
Adventure tourism was on the rise, with people attracted by Chiang Rai's mountains, forests, rivers, waterfalls, caves, trekking and mountain bike trails.
Cultural tourism around the hill country tribes and villages was an attraction too, although Nat, a nurse, said no-one wanted to see traditional villages turned into ''human zoos''. The main attractions in some high country villages were women whose necks were elongated through wearing metal rings. Girls start wearing the rings as young as 5.
I asked Nat if he thought tourism activities compromised authenticity or threatened the environment. "It requires balance and care,'' he replied.
When Nat learned I was from New Zealand, for the second time that evening I received the quintessential gesture of the "wai": head bowed over joined hands.
My visit was only weeks after the Christchurch mosque massacres. ''You come from a wonderful country," Nat said. Our hearts went out to New Zealand after those terrible shootings but we were so impressed with the country's reaction.''
Earlier I'd wandered the city centre's large outdoor food hall and night market unable to decide what I felt like eating. Thai food had been incredible everywhere - delicious, fresh, authentic meals from a few dollars up to NZ$40, but as I left the aromas, colour and sounds of the markets I came across the perfect solution. The roti cart offered sweet and savoury fillings, and I chose banana and chocolate, drizzled with condensed milk (about $4).
While she expertly fried, filled and folded my roti, and I sat at a street table barely resisting the temptation to lick the sweet roti sauce off the paper plate, the young woman tending the cart expressed similar sentiments to Nat. ''I like your prime minister,'' she said.
I didn't think I could manage a foray into the main drag of this service town of 200,000 people. My always-dodgy neck was sore after three days of bone-crunching road travel, up to five hours at a time in the van.
But every four shopfronts or so on the main street, Thai massage was on offer. And after walking past several, I decided to walk no further and lurched into the next massage shop I saw. Possibly the best neck and back treatment I've had was delivered by a tiny person whose age or gender I could not tell, and I walked away from that $25 massage pain-free and able to move my neck again.
Just along the road was the Chiang Rai Clock Tower, an elaborate roundabout which is golden by day and gaudily lit at night. It pulsed with life as cars, vans and motorcycles whizzed noisily around it, pop music pumped from shops and groups of young locals laughed and chatted loudly, standing around in groups or walking by.
The clock was designed by Chalermachai Khositpipat, whose indescribable White Temple we visited the next morning in our last few hours in Chiang Rai.
In a region known for its beautiful temples and diverse architectural styles, the first sight of this bizarre building 15km from Chiang Rai was a ''holy crap'' moment.
Fully funded by the artist, the Buddha-meets-Gaudi-meets-Dante's-Inferno monastery/art gallery - also known as Wat Rong Khun - includes a prayer hall, shrine of Buddhist relics, meditation hall, monks' living quarters and an art gallery featuring mainly Chalermachai's work. In an adjacent gold-painted building were extremely flash public toilets.
The main building famously sparkles in the sun, as its white paint contains crushed glass. But on the late March day we visited, there was more of a pearl-like lustre than a sparkle, the sun lost behind a pall of pollution so severe that health authorities were calling on the provincial government to declare a state of emergency. That day people were warned to stay indoors and children not to attend school as the 2.5 micron inhalable particle test touched 500. To put it in perspective, in Auckland on the same day the 2.5 micron reading was 12.
The main cause was dust rising from severely dry countryside after months without rain and, in that windless month, smoke from many fires which sparked spontaneously in highly combustible dead vegetation. Illegal land clearances and controlled burn-offs of the tinder-dry undergrowth added to the haze. Most of the smoke was blowing over from Myanmar where forest clearance was still common, we were told. The burn-off practice is frowned on in Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai, with the government, environmentalists and fire services campaigning for a ban.
Many among the hundreds visiting the White Temple wore masks, while others might have wished for protection of a more spiritual kind. At first glance, the temple is Disney-esque, like giant wedding cakes and macabre fairy tale sets spliced together. A closer look beyond the Buddhist icons, mythical creatures and expectations of love, peace and enlightenment reveals hundreds of grasping hands reaching out of the pits of hell, disembodied heads, skeletons - the mortal, immortal and the plain evil in a grasping, greedy fight for souls.
Our group had no time to stop at the nearby Black Temple, or Black House, another architectural, artistic and spiritual pot-pourri - and the home and living gallery of another well-known Thai artist, Thawan Duchanee. We were told that as much as the White Temple is ''out of this world'', the Black House is rooted in the earth, symbolised by references to venality and nature, including the bones of hundreds of animals littering the place and treated as art installations.
Chiang Rai, a land of contrasts. On a short and full-on visit I was struck by its beauty, diversity, challenges, traditions, the people, their celebration of thousands of years of civilisation and their continual adaptation to contemporary life.
Thai Airways flies from Auckland to Chiang Rai, via Bangkok. thaiairways.com
To find out more about World Animal Protection and its efforts to assist elephant welfare,
go to worldanimalprotection.org.nz