Last Update: February 2023
Chiang Rai is a city in the North of Thailand about 800km from Bangkok and 200km from Chiang Mai. It’s also the capital of the province with the same name. As a destination it may not be on the list of Thailand’s major highlights, but Chiang Rai is certainly worth discovering. An interesting destination, oozing with local Northern culture. Not exactly a hidden gem, but certainly no tourist 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 steals much of its shine. Some might even say that Chiang Rai appears rather dull and ugly. However, travelers that bothered to have a closer look know better. Next to the spectacular surroundings there is definitely more to this town than what meets the eye at first glance.
Tourism here is still in the developing stage and of recently Chiang Rai has its own night bazaar. 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 for now it ensures this small city to remain mellow and affable.
Furthermore, Chiang Rai is the gateway to the illustrious Golden Triangle and this opens up a whole can of explorer opportunities.
Reasons to visit/avoid Chiang Rai
3 Reasons to visit Chiang Rai
- As mentioned before, the North of Thailand isn’t exactly a hidden gem anymore. Many travelers have found their way up here and there’s an adequate tourism infrastructure. However, tourist numbers in Chiang Rai are nowhere near Chiang Mai’s. Moreover, this part of Thailand preserved much of its authenticity. In other words, Chiang Rai has the best of both worlds.
- Thailand is known for its friendly population, helpful, courteous and smiling. The people of Chiang Rai seem to even have taken it up a notch. In general, they are very interested in you without being intrusive. Any dealings I had with the locals were always polite, respectful and very pleasurable. You’ll know what I mean when you meet them.
- The surroundings of Chiang Rai are truly amazing. The mountains, the rivers, the forests, waterfalls and rural country, there’s just no end to it. If you’re into nature, this is the place to be.
2 Reasons to avoid Chiang Rai
- If all you imagine are turquoise seas and white sand beaches when you think of Thailand, then Chiang Rai will disappoint you. The nearest sea is more than 400km away and you would find yourself in Myanmar, not Thailand. The beaches you’re thinking of are in the South of Thailand, which is a different world altogether.
- It is of course entirely my opinion, but a successful visit to Chiang Rai depends on the amount of time you’re willing to spend here. The city and its surroundings deserve at least 3 days in your itinerary. A day trip from Chiang Mai just to see the temples is not going reveal the true heartbeat of Chiang Rai. You will have nice temple selfies for your instagram, true that.
Best time to visit Chiang Rai
Because of its Northern location, Chiang Rai has a milder climate than Bangkok and the Islands. Having said that, temperatures can still reach up to 33 Celsius in March, April and May. From November through February, highs are usually below 30 Celsius and nights cool down as low as 12 Celsius.
Rain season in Chiang Rai starts mid April and lasts until mid October, although it’s not the torrential rain that the South of Thailand usually gets. So in terms of weather, from October until March is the best time to visit Chiang Rai. Just pack a sweater for the cooler nights.
Besides the weather, why not time your trip with some of the festivals in Thailand? November has the lantern festival (Yee Peng) and the festival of lights (Loy Krathong), both in neighboring Chiang Mai. In February the flower festival is celebrated, also in Chiang Mai. Furthermore April, which is the hottest month, has the very refreshing Thai New Year water festival (Songkran).
Read more: “Best Thailand Festivals“, a comprehensive guide Thailand’s epic festivals.
Chiang Rai is famous for its temples and yes, they are indeed something else. Typical Northern Lanna style and very different from the usual in Thailand.
Wat Rong Khun
2 hour activity
Probably the most famous of Chiang Rai temples, also known as “the White Temple“. There’s so much surprising stuff to see here. Evil looking skulls and hundreds of hands reaching out from an abyss, a stairway posing as the “gate to heaven” and guarded by death himself. Inside, the walls are unusually adorned with murals depicting Spiderman, Batman, spaceships and Elvis. For THB30 you can hang a medaillon with your name on one of the concrete trees on the premises.
Wat Rong Khun, the must see temple of Chiang Rai is located about 13 km South of the city. Best reached by taxi (THB300) or public bus from terminal 1 (THB20). Opening hours are from 8am to 5pm and the admission fee is THB50.
Wat Rong Seua Ten
1 hour activity
“The Blue Temple”, North of the river Kok also attracts its share of worshipers and visitors. The bright blue and gold colors really add something special to this temple. Ornaments and sculptures of mythical figures are incredibly detailed. The temple interior is even more exciting with intricate mosaic patterns and murals.
This temple is relatively new and construction was only finalized in 2016. Modern construction materials and techniques were used in the building process. For this reason some people classify the Blue Temple as “artifical” with a “Disney component”. To a certain level I can relate to this. Still, no matter how you feel, it’s a serious place of worship for the locals, so never mock the temple.
Entrance is free and it makes for a good hour of interesting sight seeing. Opening hours are every day from 7am to 8pm. Going there by tuk-tuk should not be a problem as the temple is not too far from the city center (3.5km).
Wat Huay Pla Kang
2 hour activity
Although magnificent on its own, Wat Huay Pla Kang is better known for the enormous statue adjacent to the temple. People refer to the statue as the big white Buddha, while it actually represents “Guanyin, the Goddess of mercy”. Including the mount and pedestal, Guanyin rises 90 meters above the landscape. An elevator inside the statue brings you 25 floors up for spectacular views.
The actual temple consists of a Thai style viharn and a 9 stories high Chinese Pagoda, both stunning and beautifully decorated.
Charter a tuk-tuk, taxi or maybe a songthaew if you’re part of a larger group for the 8 km trip from the city center. Opening hours are every day from 7am to 9.30pm and the entrance is free. Only the elevator in the statue will cost you THB40.
Wat Phra Kaew and Wat Phra Singh
1 hour activity
If you’re into temples, have a go at these two together since they’re only separated by a 300m walk. Both temples are not the most spectacular, but of great significance to Buddhism in Thailand. Wat Phra Kaew is a beautiful wooden temple and highly revered. In the year 1434 the emerald Buddha was found hidden in one of the chedis that was struck by lightning. The emerald Buddha is the most important Buddha image in Thailand and now resides in the Wat Phra Kaew temple in Bangkok. Opens from 7am to 6pm, free entrance.
Wat Phra Sing is one of the oldest temples in Chiang Rai, built in the year 1385 and is said to hold a footprint of Buddha. Opens from 6am to 5pm, free entrance.
With their locations just 500m and 800m from the city center, both temples are within walking distance. Alternatively, you can charter a tuk-tuk to get you there.
Why not book a tour?
I know it sounds less adventurous, but if you don’t have a lot of time, booking a tour can be useful. Especially a private tour where you decide your own itinerary. You can see all the temples in one go without all the transport hassle and navigating your way. You’ll probably see a lot more in a condensed time frame.
Chiang Rai Beach
Half day or whole day activity
Yes, Chiang Rai has a beach! Ok, it’s a river beach about 5km North of town, but it can make for a refreshing swim on a hot day. 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. When you’re there, don’t miss the Wat Tham Phra (Buddha cave temple) on the other side of the river.
Update February 2023: A recent flood washed away much of the sand at the beach. Currently, construction work is ongoing to improve the shoreline. The river huts and restaurants are open and it’s still a nice place to spend some leisure time. The best part of the beach is near the sandbank Island in the Kok river, opposite from the Buddha statue.
2 hour activity
In the museum section you will be astounded by “Baan Dam“, meaning “Black House” (11km North of town). 40 dark-aura building structures showcase the work of Thai artist Thawan Duchanee. A rather unusual display of surreal and bizarre art. In my opinion a must see when in Chiang Rai. Opening hours are everyday from 9am to 5pm. Admission is THB80.
The Oub Kham museum is a worthwhile historical museum with a large collection of artifacts from the ancient Lanna Kingdom. Near the city center with opening hours everyday from 8am to 5pm. Admission is steep at THB300, but includes a passionate English speaking guide and tea afterwards.
Chiang Rai loop
Multiple day activity
This adventurous bucket list route through villages, over mountains and along interesting sites, takes you straight through the North of Thailand. The total route covers 720km. Start in Chiang Rai, into the Golden Triangle and then looping over mountain tops to Chiang Mai and back again to Chiang Rai. Similar to the Mae Hong Son loop from Chiang Mai you can drive this route by motorbike and/or car. Super fun road trip.
Read more: “How to rent a car in Thailand“
Phu Chi Fah “Sea of Clouds”
Whole day or multiple day activity
Thailand’s best kept secret lies about 100km West of Chiang Rai. Magical and completely overwhelming are the only words to describe the fantastic views over Laos from Phu Chi Fah.
There is so much to do and see in the Phu Chi Fah area that it should actually be considered a destination on its own. Coffee plantations, flower fields, wild rapids, forest and mountains. Having said that, you need good weather to experience Phu Chi Fah at its finest, because the view is often obstructed by clouds. From November to February in dry season is the best time for unobstructed views.
Whole day or multiple day activity
There are numerous travel agents on Jetyod road in town offering day treks in the Lam Nam Kok National Park. The park is relatively close (30 minutes by car) to the city, but a completely different world. It’s still undeveloped, so no guesthouses or restaurants. If you want to stay overnight, bring your own tent as camping is allowed. The park has a few nice waterfalls and even a hot spring where you can bathe.
Most multiple day treks around Chiang Rai also focus on the Lam Nam Kok National Park. They often include a visit to the Northern hill tribes and a homestay in a Lahu, Lisu, Akha or Karen village.
Most of the offered treks are pretty mainstream. If you’re up for a more “off the beaten path” experience, maybe 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 licensed guide, offering customized treks.
Half day to whole day activity
The infamous Golden Triangle, meaning the area where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet. Once the opium production center of the world, now a favorite travel destination. Well, on the Thailand side at least. No one really knows what shenanigans might (still) go on in Myanmar and Laos, so for now we stay on Thailand soil.
Small town Sop Ruak in Thailand is right where the three country borders meet and serves as the host of the Golden Triangle Park. Except for the spectacular Golden Buddha statue and a small opium museum there isn’t actually that much to see here. Sure you can see Laos over the Mekong and Myanmar over the Ruak river, but from a distance it kind of looks the same as Thailand.
You can even do a boat tour for a closer look. Even more so, you can visit the Lao Island “Donsao” in the Mekong without any paperwork, but meh…same same. I guess you’ll have to do with the awareness of being right at the heart of the Golden Triangle.
Tip: Head for the Phra That Doi Pu Khao (Temple of the Ancient Buddha of Chiang Saen), just a 3 minute walk from the Golden Triangle Park. Ascend the stairs at the temple to the viewpoint that offers the best view of the three different countries in one shot. On your way back, pop in the House of opium museum.
Tip: If you really want to explore the Golden Triangle area besides the rather touristy park, I know just the perfect accommodation for you. Check out the very high-end “Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle“, if not for actually booking there, then maybe just to drool over.
No, no, no, don’t you dare to skip this chapter, even if you think that travel insurance is boring. You are a million miles away from professional and reliable health care….just saying. Any serious injuries or ailments will most likely involve costly medical transport to Bangkok. Payable upfront if you lack proper insurance. Better have that rich uncle on speed dial.
Make sure that your travel insurance includes medical care abroad, evacuations and repatriation. Don’t just assume that your regular insurance covers adventurous activities.
Read more about travel insurance, or at least get a non committal instant quote in under 30 seconds!
Accommodations are pretty much spread out, but the city center is the obvious area to stay. There is a cluster of affordable and mid range guesthouses Southeast of the clock tower. Shops, restaurants and bars are abundant and it’s close to the night bazaar and Bus Terminal 1. Depending on your (nightlife) needs I can also recommend to stay a bit out of town. The area just North of the Kok river has a more tranquil, rural vibe with excellent budget accommodations.
Le Patta Hotel
Mid range = from THB1000 to THB2500
Excellent 4 star hotel in the center, close to the night market. Service here is impeccable and the staff wears a smile all day. Rooms are large and spacious and well kept. Not the cheapest option in town, but value for money indeed. Good breakfast, bicycles for guest use and a swimming pool.
Budget = from THB500 to THB1000
Excellent small scale hotel. Centrally located, but tucked away in an alley and very quiet. Nice garden to sit and relax. With rates just over THB500 p/n, rooms here are a steal of a deal. The owner is very nice and there is English speaking staff. One block away from the night bazaar and close to the main bus station.
Budget=THB500 to THB1000
If you have your own transport, consider this accommodation. Super clean and a quiet cozy atmosphere. About 3km from the city center in the middle of green rice fields. Seriously good breakfast is included. Note: Bathrooms are shared.
There are so many places to eat in Chiang Rai, I almost don’t know where to start. The surroundings of Jetyod road definitely has a lot of good eats, but don’t dismiss the other parts of town. I do consider Chiang Rai a foodie heaven. There are so many eateries to choose from and a whole lot of them are really, really good.
Khao Tom Charoenchai (400/11 Sanambin road). Typical Thai canteen style restaurant. It’s not about the decor, it’s all about food, delicious! This eatery can be very busy and waiting time to be seated up to 20 minutes is not uncommon. We were handed a Thai menu, but fortunately it had images of the food for us to point out. It wasn’t until after our meal that we found out they also had an English menu stashed somewhere.
Well, the unintentional adventurous meal turned out great. We had minced pork with eggplant and a sort of salted meat with squash. Both dishes we would normally never have ordered, since they don’t sound particularly appetizing. They looked great on the photos though and they turned out to be excellent. We like it so much we actually returned for another meal the next day, which was equally delicious. Simple food, but packed with flavor.
Kunda Vegan Burger (372 Trairat Road). Vegan burgers, definitely good quality and definitely not cheap, burgers start at THB250. The food here exceeds by far the regular dull fare of most ‘jump the bandwagon’ vegan restaurants in Thailand. Almost all ingredients are locally sourced. In fact, the jalapenos are from their own roof garden. Most importantly, the burgers are super tasty. Only for lunch though, restaurant opening hours are from 11am to 4pm.
Night Bazaar. Not quite as large 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, tasty snacks, cheap beers and full of charm. Opens every day from 6pm to 11pm.
Walking Street. On Saturday evenings from 3pm to 10pm, Chiang Rai hosts its very own Walking Street. Souvenirs, clothes, handicrafts, bags and above all…..delicious food! It’s adjacent to the “75 Anniversary Flag and Lamp Park”, which is a flower, sculpture and flower art display. A bit tacky Thai style, but nevertheless a merry sight and good atmosphere.
Barrab Restaurant (897/60 Phahonyothin Road). For me, one of the best restaurants in Chiang Rai. Their cuisine is Northern Thai, with Khao Soy, Hung Lay Curry, Laphet Thoke and other usual suspects, all cooked to perfection. Since we don’t know all about Northern Thai cuisine it was nice that the lady (owner?) speaks English so well. She took her time to explain everything in detail and gave us some great recommendations. She was also helpful explaining the many vegan options on the menu. I’m telling you, one of the best in Chiang Rai, check it out for yourselves.
SunSeouls Grand Korean Bar & Grill If Korean food in Thailand tastes this good, there’s no need for me to go to Korea. SunSeouls is a seriously good restaurant in the heart of Chiang Rai. I think it’s a franchise and there are more branches in Thailand, although not certain. Anyway, the food served here is clean, high quality and most of all delicious. The grill menu and the Korean hotpot are always a good choice, but my absolute favorite is the pickle Salmon. The interior has an industrial feel with a lot of stainless steel, loved it! Never thought we would find something like this in Chiang Rai, but sure happy we did.
Chiang Rai has its own airport with several budget airlines flying in from Bangkok, which is 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. Most travelers come in through Chiang Mai. The ride from Chiang Mai bus terminal #3 takes app 3.5h. Note that your arrival at Chiang Rai Bus Terminal 2 (long distance) requires a change to a provincial bus to get to Chiang Rai Bus Terminal 1 in the center of town.
For bus/ferry/train schedules and tickets within Thailand, try the transport planning tool from 12Go.com below 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 generally walk-able. However, some of the main attractions are a bit further out. For the ones that are not too far you can use a tuk-tuk. For the attractions out of town a metered taxi or a taxi app might be a better idea. Grab is the leading service in Chiang Rai.
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.
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.
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