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Chiang Rai – 11 amazing things to see and do

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Chiang Rai

Joanna Horanin

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Last updated at 23/05/2024, 23:45

Hi, I'm Joanna, the author of The Blond Travels. In the worlds of Thailand and Portugal, I feel like a fish in water - and it's no coincidence! I've been exploring Thailand for over a decade, and I've settled in Portugal for 6 years now. My mission is to support Dreamers - just like you - in discovering these fascinating countries and helping those in love with them find their own place on Earth, preferably for good! Let's uncover these unique corners of the world together.

I couldn’t believe I was in Chiang Rai again. The last time I had visited this place was years ago, when I first moved to Thailand. Back then, with a group of friends, we rented a car and headed further north from Chiang Mai. At the time I wrote a blog post in English, which I recently had to correct because it was a proof of how little I still knew about Thai culture. Today I’m taking you on a sightseeing tour. I’ll give you a hint of what to see in Chiang Rai in northern Thailand, where spirituality is indivisibly linked to art and where you’ll see one-of-a-kind buildings.

I went to Chiang Rai for the weekend. I arrived late in the evening, when the night market had already opened on the main street. Somewhere in the distance I could hear traditional Lanna music. The street led me past food stalls, smiling vendors and a couple of bars, tempting me with a cold beer. Before heading to the hotel, I sat in the main square, in front of a stage with Thai dancers swaying to music. Beautifully dressed in Lanna costumes, smiling slightly, graceful, they seemed to almost flow in the air.

I already had a plan, I knew what to see and do in Chiang Rai, but then in the evening I sat down once again to check exactly where to go for the next 2 days. Later it turned out that I had to change that plan, but I had a super weekend in Chiang Rai. I’ve put together an itinerary of sights and attractions for you to have an unforgettable time there as well.

Chiang Rai attractions, Blue Temple.
Chiang Rai has fewer temples than Chiang Mai, but all of them are spectacular.

Chiang Rai offers quite a few attractions in the city itself. There are many temples, very unusual and unique. In addition, there is also a market, the so-called walking street, a bit of good coffee and tea stores. One whole day is enough for things to see and do in Chiang Rai, but you can also combine it with an overnight stay and go further into the mountains.

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    Wat Rong Khun – The White Temple

    The most important attraction and probably the most famous. A must-see place in Chiang Rai. This is where every tour that has a plan to visit this part of Thailand comes.

    The White Temple in Chiang Rai was built by Thailand’s famous artist Chalermachai Kositpitat. The entire building was opened to the public in the 1990s. Up to now, renovation and finishing works are still going on.

    White Temple, Chiang Rai, front of the temple
    The White Temple in Chiang Rai is a must-see place.

    The entire temple looks like something out of a fairy tale. The main building is a small chapel, which is covered with sculptures, white paint and crystals that glimmer in the sun like diamonds. A bridge leads to it, under which sinners from hell reach out for help. After crossing, you enter the fantastically finished interior of the temple.

    Behind the main building you will find another, equally beautiful. Both structures stand in gardens, contrasting in their greenery with the rest of the complex.

    Wat Rong Khun is open to the public from 8:00 am. It’s worth getting there early to avoid the full sun. There are always plenty of tourists here, regardless of the time.

    Admission is THB 100 per person.

    Map

    Baan Dam – The Black House

    When I visited this attraction in Chiang Rai 10 years ago, it was one house, standing in a large forest. Today there are more than 40 smaller and larger buildings.

    It is not a temple, although it may seem that way. The shape certainly resembles a Thai wat (temple). Some of the structures house statues of Buddha. It is, however, an art gallery where artist Thawan Duchanee shows his works, and those of other artists from around the world.

    A skull wit horns at the black house, chiang rai.
    This is a very interesting place with lots of things to ponder over.

    All the buildings are black, made of wood. In the center of the main room you will find not only paintings, but also a long table covered with crocodile skin, chairs made of animal horns and bones, and animal skins that cover this uncommon furniture.

    Other rooms are set up with Buddha statues, sculptures or furniture. There is something different in each and each may surprise you.

    Baan Dam is open from 9:00 am and admission costs 80 THB.

    Map

    Wat Rong Suea Ten – The Blue Temple

    Another place to see in Chiang Rai. This time, we have the colour blue. This temple is perhaps more fantastic than the white one. It was constructed by Sala Nok, a student of the artist responsible for the White Temple.

    Blue Buddha, blue temple.
    The Blue Temple is a very interesting place, with a beautiful interior.

    In the square in front of the building we have a fountain with a Buddha sitting in lotus pose, and the deities who protect him.

    There are small steps leading up to the main building, guarded by Naga – snake – dragons. Inside is blue, almost cosmic. The central place is, of course, occupied by a sizable Buddha.

    On each side of the Blue Temple are lined up beautiful angels, which of course are also blue.

    Admission to the temple is free.

    Chiang Rai hotel with a pool

    Featured Hotel: Blue Lagoon Hotel – Great location, clean and spacious rooms. The pool is a great addition. Rate starts from $20 per night. Book your room here. 

     

    Map

    Wat Huay Pla Kang – 3 temples in one place

    Haven’t had enough of temples yet? If so, let’s head to Wat Huay Pla Kang. It is a complex with 3 temples, dedicated to the Goddess of Grace. Its biggest attraction is the huge Buddha statue, and the pagoda, which is 9 stories high.

    A huge white dragon's head
    This complex is a good place to see in Chiang Rai for its unique architecture.

    I will honestly say that this was probably my least favourite place to see and do in Chiang Rai. Thailand keeps building these kinds of complexes to attract not only the faithful, but also tourists. I, for one, had the impression that I was in a Thai Fatima. Somehow the place did not captivate me. On the other hand, if it’s on your list of places you want to see in Chiang Rai, why not? I think it won’t hurt to come here and see if you will enjoy it.

    Admission to all the temples is free.

    Map

    The Clock Tower

    In the middle of the main roundabout in Chiang Rai stands a huge golden clock. During the day it appears to be total kitsch (my own feelings). During the evening it is a bit more attractive, as it is illuminated by colored lights.

    It’s hard to say entirely whether the clock is beautiful. It can certainly appear to be so. It is certainly an attractive design.

    It was made by Chalermachai Kositpitat, the same one who created the White Temple. The artist is known for his fantastic visions and here, too, he certainly showed his creativity. The clock in Chiang Rai is definitely worth seeing, even if you think you don’t like it at all.

    Map

    The Walking Street

    A fragment of the walking street in Chiang Rai, white tents and a mill.
    The walking street is quite big and offers a lot of things to eat and to buy. There is also a lovely park next to it.

    In the evening, just after dark, food stalls line up in the middle of town. Here you can really buy everything and try the best Thai dishes. If you want to buy souvenirs or clothes, you won’t be disappointed either.

    Map

    Tea plantations

    If you’re wondering what to see and do in Chiang Rai, besides the temples, it will definitely be the coffee and tea plantations. It only takes about 3-40 minutes to find yourself in a tea field near Chiang Rai. Driving into its grounds, it seems as if one has suddenly found oneself in Portugal or another country in Europe. The fields here are beautifully landscaped.

    A woman walking, tea plantations in Chiang Rai.
    These fields are a great place to see near Chiang Rai.

    You will also drink very good tea at the plantation, eat a cake based on it and buy good quality tea for your home.

    Map

    Try good coffee

    The coffee in the north of Thailand is very good and now beats Vietnam in quality. If you want to try something really good, and to meet new people, go to RN Coffee & Meakok Ronnie Coffee Roast. It’s a tiny coffee roastery run by an expat – Ronnie, a German who set up his business here. He and his Thai wife live in a beautiful house with a garden and treat visitors to good coffee.

    Map

    The 12km Viewpoint

    Small houses on a hill in Thailand.
    Near the viewpoint you will find a nice little village.

    On your way to Doi Tung, you will come across a quiet viewpoint. During good weather, you will experience nice views for sure. The hungry and thirsty will buy drink and food at this place.

    Map

    Doi Tun Royal Villa and the botanical garden

    A little farther north, in the Doi Tung Mountains, stands the former summer residence of the Royal Family. The house itself was built on the model of Swiss mountain huts. It is a beautiful wooden building.

    Small door, flowers, green grass
    The garden here is a beautiful place to enjoy.

    Some of the rooms look exactly as they did during the years when the royals stayed there. In the showcases you will find items used by the Royal Family. You’ll also learn a bit about what the current King’s beloved grandmother liked to do in her spare time and what she did and achieved during her lifetime.

    At the foot of the house spreads a sizable botanical garden. Many species of trees, shrubs and flowers grow here. A lot of effort is put into maintaining this place, and it shows. This garden is even more beautiful than the one you’ll find near Chiang Mai.

    Map

    Phu Chi Fa

    Phu Chi Fa is a mountain near Chiang Rai, on the border with Laos. You drive there on very steep roads, so it’s a good idea to have either a large motorcycle or 4-wheel drive in your car. I made it there in a passenger car, but it was really tough.

    On Phu Chi Fa it is worth staying overnight and getting up for sunrise. The experience is amazing.

    Map

    Your plan of things to see and do in Chiang Rai

    You can visit Chiang Rai in one day. During this time you will definitely see the major attractions in the city. You’ll need to leave yourself an extra day for the mountains.

    Travelers who don’t have a lot of time are free to arrange a day trip from Chiang Mai. In this case, first go to the White Temple, then have lunch in the city, and then go to the Blue Temple, Wat Huay Pla Kang, and finally leave yourself the Black House.

    A blue statue of an angel
    Spend at least one day in Chiang Rai to experience all the amazing places.

    If you have more time and are staying overnight in Chiang Rai, then head to the mountains on the second day, to Dui Tung. For those with large cars or motorcycles, I recommend going to Phu Chi Fa and staying there overnight for sunrise.

    Moving with something smaller? Drive to Doi Tung and see the botanical gardens, the villa and just take in the views.

    Is it worth visiting Chiang Rai?

    Did you know that Chiang Rai was founded earlier and is older than Chiang Mai? It was the first capital of the Lanna Kingdom in the 13th century. It was here that the culture of the northern region, of which the Thais here are so proud, developed.

    A viewpoint in Thailand.
    The surrounding mountains are amazing, especially during the winter months.

    Chiang Rai is not large. Only 200,000 people live here – far fewer than in the regional capital, Chiang Mai. Because it is even farther north, many travelers choose to forgo a visit. Sometimes, hounded by limited time, tourists opt for quick tours of the most important temples. I understand this, and I know that it’s not easy to see everything during the vacations. However, it is worth a visit not only because it is an important city in Thai history, but also because of the many interesting temples and sites to see.

    Not far from Chiang Rai there are also high mountains, which, especially during winter, create a specific microclimate. You can even freeze here! These mountains offer beautiful views, and hide many attractions – gardens, villages, waterfalls, tea and coffee plantations. All this is about a 40-minute drive from the city.

    Chiang Rai itself is an extremely pleasant city, much less crowded, quieter and gentler than Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Here you can really feel the spirit of northern Thailand.

    So, to answer the question in the title of this paragraph – is it worth visiting Chiang Rai, Thailand? Of course it is. I highly recommend spending at least one day there.

    When to visit?

    The best time to visit the north is always December-mid-February. From mid-February to mid-April there is smog.

    From mid-April to June, expect very high temperatures. In my opinion, you can go to Chiang Rai then, but sightseeing will be hampered by the heat. In addition, everything is very dry then and the landscape is brown, so for sure the views in the mountains will not be so beautiful.

    The entrance to the white temple in Chiang Rai.
    The best time to visit Chiang Rai is the end or the beginning of the year.

    June-November is the rainy season. It is often difficult to predict what the weather will be like. In the north, it often pours in the evenings, but you can also expect to see precipitation during the day. The skies are also often overcast and just plain white.

    If you want to visit the area, it’s definitely worth going there between December and March. It certainly won’t be as beautiful in other months.

    How to get there?

    The easiest way to get to Chiang Rai is from Chiang Mai. There are about 200 kilometers between the cities.

    W red bus, Thailand.
    This is a local bus that goes between the villages in Chiang Rai.

    There are buses that run from Chiang Mai. The trip takes about 2-2.5 hours. The buses are large and comfortable. There is a toilet on board, you also get a snack and water. The bus stops once along the route for about 10 minutes. Buy your ticket here or at the bus station in Chiang Mai.

    Chiang Rai has its own airport. AirAsia offers flights between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, among others. Costs vary, depending on the time of year, but you can find flights for as little as 20 USD.

    I think it is possible to get to Chiang Rai and return in one day if you want to go there by bus or plane. However, this requires planning and having a contingency plan, such as if you are late for transportation.

    Those wanting more flexibility can rent a car in Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai. To drive a car in Thailand you should have a valid driver’s license and an international license. By car, you will definitely find it easier to go and return in one day.

    There are also day trips to Chiang Rai from Chiang Mai. You leave at 8am and return late in the evening. The itinerary always includes a tour of the main attractions. Sometimes others are added, such as the village of Long Neck. I recommend asking your driver to take you to Phayao for sunset. You can book a tour tailored to your needs here.

    Accommodation

    There are quite a few hotels to choose from in Chiang Rai. I stayed at a very popular place – The Mira Hotel. The location is great. You don’t even have to drive anywhere. You have a 5-minute walk to the main street. The rooms are large and very clean. The staff also got us a scooter at no extra charge. Unfortunately, there were downsides – the air conditioning, although new, was very noisy at night and often turned off. Until midnight we could hear the bass from a nearby bar. The bed was not the most comfortable. I would give Mira 4 stars out of 5.

    Find more accommodation on Booking.com.

    What and where to eat?

    I made myself a list of restaurants before the trip and almost every one was a slight disappointment. In some places, the food was not typically Northern Thai and was very expensive. In other restaurants, it just wasn’t tasty. The only place I can wholeheartedly recommend is Simply Northern Thai Food, where you will find very tasty northern cuisine. Order a couple – remember that in the north people share food. Top it off with sticky rice, which you eat with your fingers, forming balls and scooping other dishes with them. Enjoy!

    I left Chiang Rai quite early in the morning. I sat at the bus station, decorated with beautiful murals depicting national minorities, and knew I had to come back here. Due to limited transportation, I didn’t go further into the mountains, and it’s certainly something I enjoy doing and would like to see more of the local area.

    On your trip to the north of Thailand, don’t skip Chiang Rai. Come here at least for a day to see the temples and unusual buildings that are only found in this city in Thailand.