Last Update: January 2020
In the know destinations – Thailand
I can’t even begin to count the number of times that I’ve visited Thailand. Some visits were just short beach holidays or passing through on my way to other destinations. Several, longer visits involved extensive travel for months on my way to nowhere, just exploring this wonderful country.
Although the list of Thailand’s highlights seems endless, there are still many places like Chiang Rai that are not yet overrun by tourists, but certainly worth discovering. Interesting cities oozing with local culture. Small laidback riverine towns and spectacular nature reserves. Not exactly hidden gems, but without the usual crowds, only visited by the few travelers in the know.
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Way up in the North of Thailand on the banks of the river Kok is where you’ll find the city of Chiang Rai. Once the capital of the Lanna Kingdom, nowadays the capital of the Siamese province with the same name.
At first glance Chiang Rai might not be particularly appealing. It’s true that big sister Chiang Mai, just 150km to the South, steals much of its shine away. Some might even say that Chiang Rai appears dull and ugly. However, travelers in the know don’t come here for the city. They come for the spectacular surroundings even though there is definitely more to this town than what meets the eye at first glance.
Tourism is still in its developing stages and of recently Chiang Rai now has its own night bazar. There is a Saturday walking street and every year a high level jazz festival is hosted. Still, the town is somehow overlooked by the bulk of tourists. Good!, because it ensures this small city to remain mellow for us to enjoy.
Furthermore, Chiang Rai is the gateway to the illustrious Golden Triangle and this opens up a whole can of explorer opportunities.
How to get to Chiang Rai
Several budget airlines fly to Chiang Rai airport with Bangkok just a 1h30m flight away. Use the Skyscanner site to search and book flights. Sometimes flying is cheaper than buses and trains. Of course you’ll miss all the nice scenery.
If you’d rather travel there by bus, multiple buses leave Bangkok everyday for the 12h journey. The ride from Chiang Mai bus terminal #3 takes app 3.5h.
For bus/ferry/train schedules and tickets within Thailand I always use the transport planning tool from 12Go.com to book online. Especially during high season and public holidays it makes sense to book ahead to secure your seat(s). Just fill out your place of departure, your destination and travel date and it will show the complete schedule and ticket price of all related transport. Make your choice and book instantly.
The city center of Chiang Rai is rather compact and the major tourist hotspots are generally within walking distance. For the attractions that are a bit further out, use a tuk-tuks or metered taxi, both are abundant.
Taxis are relatively cheap with THB35 flagfall plus THB2 p/km. Tuktuk’s however, require some serious bargaining. Don’t pay more than THB80 for rides within the center and THB150 should be the maximum for Chiang Rai beach. Using a taxi app can also be a good idea. Grab is the leading service in Chiang Rai.
The best city transport I can recommend however is a rental bicycle, or motorbike if you’re planning to venture out of town as well. Some guesthouses offer free to use bicycles, but normally these are of the Chinese, old and rickety kind. There are plenty bike rental companies around that offer better quality for THB60-THB80 per day. 110cc motorbikes usually do THB300 p/d.
Things to do in Chiang Rai
The city is famous for its temples that are different from the usual in Thailand.Wat Phra Kaew in the city center is a beautiful wooden temple and highly revered. Likewise, the “blue temple” Wat Rong Seur Ten, just North of the Mae Kok also attracts its share of worshipers and visitors. And what to think of the ‘white temple’ Wat Rong Khun, 13km to the South, that is making quite a name for itself?
Chiang Rai Beach
Yes, Chiang Rai has a beach! Ok, it’s a river beach, but it can make for a refreshing swim on hot days. You can swim, relax in a river hut and of course order food and beers. I do feel that the surrounding park needs a good clean up. Just 5km North West of town.
In the museum section you will be astounded by “Baandam“, meaning “Black House” (11km North of town). 40 building structures showing the work of Thai artist Thawan Duchanee. A rather unusual display of surreal and bizar art. In my opinion a must see when in Chiang Rai. Opening hours are everyday from 9am-12pm and 1pm to 5pm. Admission is THB80.
The Oub Kham museum is a historical museum dedicated to the hilltribes in South East Asia. Opening hours are everyday from 8am to 5pm. Admission is steep at THB300, but well worth it.
Chiang Rai loop
This adventurous motorbike route covering villages, mountains and interesting sites, takes you straight through the North of Thailand. Unlike the similar Mae Hong Son loop near Chiang Mai I have not driven this route yet, so unfortunately I have no first hand information to offer. I’m sure though that there’s a ton of easy to find information online.
Phu Chi Fah
Thailand’s best kept secret. Magical and completely overwhelming are the only words that can describe the fantastic views over Laos from Phu Chi Fah, about 100km West of Chiang Rai.
There is so much to do and so much to see that Phu Chi Fah should actually be considered a destination on its own. You need a good day to experience Phu Chi Fah at its finest, because the view is often obstructed by clouds. From November to February in the dry season is the best time for unobstructed views.
There are numerous travel agents on Jetyod road offering day treks in the Lum Nam Kok National Park. Other, multiple day treks focus on the Northern hilltribes with overnight stays in a Lahu, Lisu, Akha or Karen village.
Actually, these treks are pretty mainstream. If you’re up for a more “off the beaten path” experience you might want to try a customized trek with a private guide. To find a private guide, use this link and scroll to “Chiang Rai – Area Guides”. You might be lucky to find a qualified guide, offering customized treks.
No, no, no, don’t you dare to skip this chapter, even if you think that travel insurance is boring. Just realize that you are a million miles away from professional and reliable health care…just saying. Outside of Bangkok, healthcare in Thailand is hopelessly underdeveloped. Any serious injuries or ailments will most likely involve costly medical transport to Bangkok.
Choose the right travel insurance. One that covers your medical care abroad and includes evacuations and repatriation. Also make sure that adventurous activities are covered if you plan to participate in any of those.
Where to stay in Chiang Rai
Accommodations are pretty much spread out across town. There is however a cluster of affordable and midrange guesthouses North of the clock tower. Likewise, to the South East, where Jedyod road crosses Phaholyothin road and leads to Sanpanard Soi 1 and 2, is another concentration of affordable guesthouses.
Dirt Cheap = up to THB500
Budget = from THB500 to THB1000
Dorm beds and private rooms with shared bathrooms in this gorgeous hostel with breakfast included. I honestly don’t know how they keep the place so clean, it’s spotless! Close to the clock tower and walking street.
Sleepy House Chiang Rai
Mid Range = from THB1000 to THB2500
With rates just over THB1000 p/n, rooms here are a steal of a deal. The place looks new and clean and the rooms feature comfortable beds. The small included breakfast was really tasty. One block away from the night bazar and close to the main bus station.
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Where to eat in Chiang Rai
The surroundings of Jedyod road is definitely the place to be for good eats in Chiang Rai. There are literally numerous eateries and coffee shops to choose from. Most of them are ok and some of them are even very good.
Kunda Vegan Vegetarian (372 Trairat Road). Definitely on the expensive side, but exceeds by far the regular dull fare of most ‘jump the bandwagon’ vegetarian restaurants in Thailand. Dishes are creative, tasty and prepared with a true passion for healthy food.
Khao Thom Charoenchai (400/11 Sanambin road). Typical Thai canteen style restaurant. It’s not about the decor, it’s all about food, delicious!
Rosprasert Muslim Food (407/7 Isaraparb road). Oeh, chicken biryani and local Khao Soi (noodle curry soup) for unbeatable prices. This restaurant is an excellent local breakfast and lunch option. Not really suitable for dinner unless you want to eat very early as the restaurant closes at 5:30pm.
Da Vinci Pizza Satisfy your pizza crave at Phaholyothin road, near the night bazar entrance. Excellent pizza, but be prepared to pay Western prices.
Night Bazar. Not as big as the Chiang Mai version, but certainly cozy and just as lively. There are two food courts, which are both excellent. The first one is more elegant with costumed staff and Lanna dance performances. The other one is of the kind we know from all over Thailand. Folding tables with plastic chairs, cheap beers and tasty snacks.
Walking Street. On Saturday evenings Chiang Rai hosts its very own Walking Street. Souvenirs, clothes, handicrafts, bags and above all…..delicious food!