Chiang Rai Travel Guide

Chiang Rai is a small city in the north end of Thailand, located about 3 hours north of Chiang Mai and very close to the borders of Myanmar and Laos. The city was founded in 1262 by King Mangrai as part of the northern kingdom of Lanna – literally “the kingdom of the million rice fields” -, and was not incorporated as Siamese territory until the end of the 18th century. The truth is that Chiang Rai does not have a really beautiful historical center, but the city certainly has its charm.

Chiang Rai has somehow become the city of the eccentric temples of Thailand. Here you will find the most original and surprising temples in the whole country, such as the famous Wat Rong Khun, also known as the White Temple, or the Blue Temple, Wat Rong Khun, among others. However the whole province offers beautiful nature with towns to explore like the beautiful Doi Mae Salong.

ℹ️ Top Things to Do in Chiang Rai

Visit its spectacular temples

Chiang Rai TemplesIt would be a real pity to go through Chiang Rai and not visit some of its most outstanding temples, since some of them are considered – for different reasons – among the most outstanding in Thailand. The most spectacular and most famous among tourists is Wat Rong Khun (White Temple), while the most revered among the local population is Wat Phra Kaew. Other remarkable temples among the most striking and modern are Wat Rong Seua Ten (Blue Temple) and Wat Huay Pla Kang (Big Buddha), while other prominent temples among the ancient and traditional are Wat Phra Singh and Wat Jet Yod .

Tour to the Golden Triangle

The name of the Golden Triangle still evokes images of poppy fields, opium-smoking mountain tribes and clandestine laboratories hidden in the jungle. But the truth is that today the dangerous border of this region remains only in the past (at least in the Thai part), and the Golden Triangle is a region that attracts many travelers. Golden Triangle is the name by which the mountainous area where the countries of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos converge: “triangle” because it is the meeting point of three countries, and “gold” because this precious metal was the payment system used by the first opium traders… in the second half of the 20th century, more than 70% of the opium sold worldwide was produced in this region!

Go Trekking through the mountains

Do not miss the opportunity to trek through the mountains of northern Thailand! The combination of mountains covered with jungle vegetation and small villages of ethnic minorities make it a unique and memorable experience. It is estimated that in Thailand there are more than a million people belonging to the tribal ethnic groups of the northern mountains, mainly Karen, Akha, Lisu, Mien / Yao, Hmong, Padaung and Lahu, all of them with their own culture, religion and languages . In these trekkings you will have the chande to sleep in local houses and in local conditions, meaning that the comforts are few: a mattress on the bamboo floor, a blanket and a mosquito net. But in any case, this is part of the experience, and the lack of comfort is more than compensated by the fact of having lived an authentic and incomparable experience.

Wat Rong Khun: the White Temple

Although it is already included in the category of temples, we consider that the Wat Rong Khun (White Temple) deserves a category by itself since it is considered one of the most important temples in the city if not the most. Its totally groundbreaking design, the strange figures that decorate it and its immaculate white that represents the purity of Buddha, usually arouse the admiration of all who visit it. It was started to build in 1997 and, like the Sagrada Familia, it still does not have a clear completion date but it is speculated that it will be finished in 2070. Although it is not finished, the temple is already fully visitable because its construction is very advanced.

Baan Dam Museum: The Black House

Like the White Temple, the Black House is considered another of Chiang Rai’s jewels. Baan Dam Museum (Black House) is just a half hour drive from the White Temple. The contrast is big and therefore interesting. This museum is made up of 40 cabins of different sizes and shapes, which, as its creator Thawan Duchanee says, evoke Thailand’s past from a contemporary point of view. The two places are original and interesting in their own right, but perhaps what makes them even more attractive is their proximity that allows you to visit one the same day you have been to the other. The entrance to the White Temple costs 100 THB, while visiting the Black House will cost you 80 THB.

Its most famous dish: Khao Soi

Khao SoiWithout a doubt, during your trip to Chiang Rai you should try one of the most famous traditional dishes of the place: Khao Soi, a Thai dish with Burmese influence, specifically from the Shan tribe, who live mainly in Burma. It is a crispy noodle soup served in a slightly spicy coconut milk broth that is delicious and easy to find in street food stalls in the city of Chiang Rai. Must bear in mind that this dish is quite spicy so perhaps, if you do not tolerate spicy food very well, it may not be suitable for you.

Mae Sai: the Burmese border

Mae SaiAbout 65 km north of Chiang Rai is Mae Sai, the northernmost town in all of Thailand. The good point of this excursion is to stroll around and enjoy the border atmosphere, and take a walk through the bustling market area, a set of alleys with all kinds of shops, where you can take a break with a cold drink in one of its small cafes . After visiting the market, you can take the path that leaves the back of the market, and climb up to a Buddhist monastery located on top of a hill, Wat Pha That Doi Wao, which offers views over Myanmar. From Mae Sai it is even possible to cross the border through the bridge that leads to the Burmese town of Tachilek, in the Shan State of Myanmar.

Enjoy its Night Markets

Night marketIf you are lucky enough that your stay coincides in the weekend, do not forget to visit the night market on Saturdays and / or the one on Sundays, and you can directly do without the Night Bazaar. These are huge open-air street markets where you will find a great atmosphere and a lot of stalls with street food, clothes, souvenirs and crafts, as well as bars –some of them with live music–. The Saturday Night Market – the most popular and busiest – is set up on Thanalai Street, while the Sunday Night Market – somewhat smaller and quieter – is held just behind the Chiang Rai Hospital. The activity begins around 5:00 p.m., and usually ends around midnight.

Sunrise at the top of Pu Chi Fa

Mount Phu Chi Fa, hardly known to foreigners, is very popular among Thais as one of the best places in the country from which to see the sunrise. It is located in a remote area right on the border with Laos, and is about 1,450 meters high. From its top, you can see a great Laotian valley that, in the morning, is covered with clouds: the famous Tale Mook (sea of ​​fog) that attracts Thais so much. A little path from the parking area leads in about 15 minutes to the top and the famous huge cliff from which you get great views of a large Laotian valley.

🏨 Where to stay in Chiang Rai

Chiang Rai has a fairly wide hotel offer, and in any case more than enough for the moderate number of visitors it receives. There are accommodations of all types and categories, from simple hostels to luxurious 5 * hotels. In the central Jed Yot street and its surroundings there are numerous cheap hostels, and next to it, in the Soi Sunpanad alley, there are several good options of mid-range hotels. But Chiang Rai is a relatively large and sprawling city, and most of its accommodations are dispersed at various points throughout the city.

Our recommended hotels in Chiang rai:

La Luna Resort 3-4*

Best for:  Classical traveler

Advantages:
✔️ 3-4* resort with great price
✔️ Very beautiful swimming pool
✔️ Good breakfast
✔️ Renovated rooms

Four Seasons 5*+

Riverside BangkokBest for: Luxury

Advantages:
✔️ One of the best in Thailand
✔️ 5 star luxury bungalows
✔️ In the middle of the nature
✔️ All included

Le Patta 4*

ChinatownBest for: Asian street life lovers

Advantages:
✔️ Right next to the Night Bazar
✔️ Great boutique hotel
✔️ Good breakfast
✔️ Clean and modern rooms

🧭 Itinerary to visit Chiang Rai

One day is enough if you want to know the most important places of the city:

1

Central Market

We start this route by the Central Market of Chiang Rai since, as usual in Asia, the activity in the markets begins early in the morning, and thus we can see it near its peak of activity. In this market, known locally as Kad Luang (Big Market), there is a great variety of fresh products - many of them surprising and completely unknown in the West - and it is a pleasure to walk through its stalls and alleys with eyes wide open so as not to miss detail of human bustle. It opens in the mornings from 06:00 to 14:00, and in the afternoons from 17:00.
2

Wat Phra Kaew

We will continue our route through the Wat Phra Kaew monastery, which although it does not enjoy the popularity of other more modern and extravagant temples among travelers, is the most important temple in all of Chiang Rai. This ancient temple was originally known as Wat Pa Ya –Temple of the Bamboo Forest–, until in the mid-fifteenth century the impact of lightning cracked its main chedi, revealing inside the famous statue of the Emerald Buddha –Phra Kaew in Thai -, which became the main Buddha statue in the temple and since then gave the place its name.
3

Wat Rong Khun (White Temple)

The White Temple Wat Rong Khun is really spectacular, and very different from any other Buddhist temple that we can see in Thailand. Its totally groundbreaking design - the work of the local artist Chalermchai Kositpipat -, the strange figures that decorate it and its immaculate white - which symbolizes the purity of the Buddha - often arouse the admiration of all who visit it. The White Temple is open daily from 08:00 to 17:30, admission is THB 100, and is located 14 km south of Chiang Rai city.
4

Wat Rong Suea Ten (Blue Temple)

The Blue Temple opened its doors to visitors in 2016, although some parts of the enclosure are not yet finished. The set of buildings and statues, almost all painted in an intense blue color with gold decoration, is really impressive. The main chapel is dominated by a large 6.5 meter high white statue of the Buddha, surrounded by blue murals very different from those that usually decorate the interior of Thai temples. Despite the fact that the Blue Temple is much less visited than the famous White Temple, the number of tourist visits has grown rapidly to become one of the most popular visits in the city. The Blue Temple is open from 07:00 to 20:00, admission is free, and is located within the city of Chiang Rai about 3 km north of the Night Bazaar.
5

Wat Huay Pla Kang

There is a recent addition that is definitely worth a visit as well: the Wat Huay Pla Kang temple, located 6 km northwest of the city, stands out for its huge statue of the bodhisattva Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy. Despite not actually being a Buddha statue, the place has become popular with the misnomer "Big Buddha." Make sure to climb to the highest level of the huge and extravagant 9-story pagoda next to the gigantic statue, for magnificent views over the city of Chiang Rai and its surroundings - climbing the stairs or paying THB 40 for use the elevator. The temple is open every day from 07:00 to 21:30.
6

Night Bazaar and other night markets

And to end the day, we recommend that you take a walk through the central night market known as Night Bazaar, a busy market for clothes and souvenirs, as well as having dinner in its very popular Food Court: a large central patio, full of tables and chairs surrounded by food stalls of the most varied. The place has a lot of atmosphere, it is one of the places where you will eat the cheapest during your trip, and all enlivened with live Thai music and dancing. Highly recommended!

🗺️ Map of Chiang Rai

On the following map you will find the location of all the places previously mentioned:

✈️ Arriving to Chiang Rai

There are mainly 2 ways:

🛫 By airplane: Mae Fah Luang Airport (Code: CEI)

➡️ Most flights go or come to/from Bangkok
➡️ Many airlines options: Air Asia, Thai Lion Air, Thai Smile, Bangkok Airways, etc.)
➡️ Not far from Chiang Rai City

🔹Once you arrive to Chiang Rai Airport there are two options:

🚖 By taxi: When arriving to Chiang Rai Airport you can find two options, the “Meter Taxi” which uses taximeter so the price is normally cheaper (around 120 THB). The second options is the “Airport Taxi”which has fixed price depending on the destination. The cost is aproximattely the double compared with the Meter Taxi.

🚍 By bus: If you prefer the cheapest option then your choice will be the CR Bus. It departs every 30 minutes from 06:20 to 22:20 and the cost is 20 THB per person.

🚌 By bus

You can go to Chiang Rai by bus from mostly all major cities of Thailand. Be aware that in Chiang Rai there are 2 bus stations, one in the center of the city (Terminal 1) and another one 7 km away to the south (Terminal 2). You will be able to take the CR Bus as mentioned before or maybe you will prefer to take one of the most famous local transportations, the songthaews.

🚇 Where to go next?

Most common destinations after Bangkok:

Chiang Mai, the center of the North

A 3h bus

Phuket, the Most Famous Island

A short flight

Krabi, the Base of Andaman Sea

A short flight

Koh Phi Phi, a Dream Island

Flight + Ferry