Chiang Mai’s smaller town cousin, Chiang Rai is best known for its unusual and dazzling White Temple and other impressive Lanna-style temples, art galleries, national parks, waterfalls, caves, ethnic hill tribes, and for being the gateway to the historically infamous Golden Triangle. There are many things to do in Chiang Rai and although you can see a few popular attractions in a day trip from Chiang Mai, it is worthwhile staying a few days so you can explore and enjoy the region more thoroughly. Northern Thailand is worlds apart from Southern Thailand in terms of landscapes and culture so spend some time soaking in the charms of this fascinating and beautiful region.
The unique and incredible White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) created by Chiang Rai-born visual artist Chalermchai Kositpipat is located south of Chiang Rai City. This elaborate temple complex combines elements of modernity with Buddhist symbolism on humanity. It features detailed sculptures, reminiscent of Gaudi which create a unique surrealistic impression in pure white plaster with white small glass inserts so it glimmers in the sunlight.
Wat Rong Khun – White Temple
Pong Phra Bat Hot spring
Wat Rong Suea Ten (Blue Temple)
Wat Phra Kaew
Chiang Rai Night Bazaar
Chiang Rai Clock Tower
At the other end of the spectrum, you can visit the Black House ( Baan Dam Museum) created by artist Thawan Duchanee. This macabre work combines contemporary art rooted in Buddhist traditions and features installations, sculptures and paintings, all themed in black. The “museum” is made up of around 40 artistic structures in the complex and inside some of the halls, banquet tables are set for a meeting of demons. Animal bones, skulls, horns and skins provide a Gothic overtone.
Still, on the colour theme of temples, Wat Rong Suea Ten was completed in 2016 and is known as the Blue temple. The striking blue and gold temple and monastery were designed by Phuttha Kabkaew, a protégé of Chalermchai Kositpipat and its name translates to mean the House of the Dancing Tiger, celebrating the native tigers that once inhabited the area. The temple’s interior is filled with colourful and intricate mystical imagery, mighty filigreed columns and it houses a serene white jade Buddha.
At Wat Tham Pla (also referred to as Monkey temple or Fishtail cave), visitors will encounter a 7-headed golden serpent known as the Naga at the entrance of the staircase up to the cave temple. At the entrance of the cave, you can rent a flashlight. It is inhabited by menacing macaque monkeys so watch out! Entering the cave you then cross a bridge over the fish pond fed by a freshwater source from the base of the mountain, venture up nearly 300 hundred steep stone-cut steps leading to a narrow gorge. Around two hundred metres long, the gorge shape is said to resemble a fishtail. There is a platform on the very edge of the mountain you can look out towards the Golden Triangle.
Wat Phra Kaew is a royal temple that was once home to the revered jade Emerald Buddha which was relocated to Bangkok. In its place, visitors can see a replica on display. With its mythical Naga protectors who act as ornate balustrades at the entrance. Nearby this temple is the Navel City Pillar which is a monument made of more than 100 Khmer-style pillars, a style of architecture that is scattered throughout Thailand giving us insight into the former Khmer Empire’s occupation of the land.
Mae Fah Luang Art and Cultural Park is a museum in a large landscaped garden showcasing Lanna artifacts under royal patronage. It is the region’s largest collection from the Lanna or Tai culture with the Haw Kham pavilion built using traditional Lanna architectural techniques and at Haw Kaew pavilion there is a collection of teak artifacts on display.
A popular landmark in the city is Chiang Rai’s ornate clock tower which was also designed by the visual artist Chalermchai Kositpipat. Perched within a busy traffic intersection, the ornate clock tower becomes the site of a colourful light show choreographed to music after dark and a popular spectacle for tourists to see.
Tham Luang Cave is located at the base of the Doi Nang Non mountain range near Myanmar just 10 km from the Mae Sai border town in Chiang Rai province. It is the largest limestone cave system in the region being over 10 kilometres long deep recesses and winding narrow tunnels Some parts feature stalactites and stalagmites. The cave complex made world headlines when 12 local young footballers and their coach were trapped for 17 days due to flash flooding in 2018. An epic rescue operation ensued, involving more than a team of 10,000 and the troop were successfully rescued without any fatalities. A film has since been made about the ordeal. The region has now been designated as a national park and although tourists are not permitted to enter the cave where the rescue happened, they are able to freely explore the other three caves within the complex. This Chiang Rai cave has a museum on-site to commemorate the incredible rescue.
A 40-minute drive outside of Chiang Rai is the 589 square kilometre Lam Nam Kok National Park. It is home to the impressive Khun Kon waterfall which stands more than 70 metres high with a clear stream that runs all year long Visitors can do multi-night treks including overnight homestays in villages nearby.
Singha Park is another lovely park in the countryside containing a working farm, walking and cycling trails, tea plantations, fruit orchards, an adventure rope and a zip-lining course. It’s actually owned by the Thai Singha Beer company, but the focus is on nature and sustainability, rather than beer. It makes for a great visit for families travelling with children.
Lisu, Akha, and Lahu are just a few of the Thai hill tribes that live in the Chiang Rai area. It is best to organise a guide to accompany you to these tribe villages and it is worthwhile visiting the Hill Tribe Museum to learn more about the region, history and culture of these ethnic groups.
Other things to do in the Chiang Rai area include shopping. The region has rewarding treats and you should definitely purchase some keepsakes. The locals showcase their skills and talent in tribal handicrafts and the weaving of Thai silk. Due to its climate and soil, Chiang Rai produces excellent quality tea and coffee, along with herbs and spices.
Chiang Rai is known for its temples with the best known being the dazzling White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) created by Chiang Rai-born visual artist Chalermchai Kositpipat. But there are many attractions around Chiang Rai such as mountain trekking, waterfalls and caves, village homestays, and being a gateway to the Golden Triangle.
For doses of ancient Thai and Lanna culture and nature feels, Chiang Rai is definitely worth a visit!
Things to do in Chiang Rai revolve around visiting an array of elaborate temples and museums, art galleries, exploring the mountainous surroundings and natural beauty of the region. Chiang Rai tours will incorporate many of these into 1-3 day itineraries. There are daily flights from Bangkok to Chiang Rai with the flight time being 1 hour 25 minutes.
It is approximately 190 kilometres between the two towns. You can take a bus which is very affordable or opt for a shared minivan or private taxi to Chiang Rai from Chiang Mai which will take up to 3.5 hours.
Chiang Rai is a good base for discovering Thailand’s Golden Triangle, so three days in the city give you ample time to immerse yourself in local culture and cuisine, and also explore the northern highlands. There are many ways to get around Chiang Rai including by tuk-tuk, scooter, car, bicycle, private taxi, and even on foot to some places.
Chiang Rai in Northern Thailand is the place to buy delicacies of the region including tea, coffee, spices, natural spa products, tribal handicrafts and Thai silk.
What to do in Chiang Rai at night involves visiting the night bazaar and there are a few bars in town but not much beyond that. Chiang Rai in Northern Thailand isn’t the place for lively nightlife, but rather a place to visit for art, culture and nature.
There are no trains running between the two cities as these are both situated in the mountainous region of Thailand so building a rail link has not been possible. Bus, minivan or private taxi are the only transportation options available. A Chiang Rai airport does exist but it is not currently operational.
Yes, it is possible, if you are leaving early morning and returning late afternoon. It will give you enough time to visit the famous White Temple and one or two other attractions. If you want to stay overnight, there are plenty of good value Chiang Rai hotels to choose from.
Chiang Rai weather is warm all year round but given its location in the mountains, it can get quite chilly in the mornings and evenings during the cooler dry season. So it is advised to pack a light jacket or scarf for those times. When visiting temples, make sure your shoulders and knees are covered as these are sacred places of worship and you need to respect local Thai customs.
The same etiquette applies to this temple as all temples in Thailand. Dress modestly being sure to cover shoulders and knees.
Theexterior of the temple is composed of white plaster with added glass inserts. The glass is used to represent the reflected wisdom of the Buddha, and the white colour represents purity.
Crime rates in Chaing Rai have been moderate to very low in the past three years, so the place is generally safe. Of course, one must follow the standard travel protocols and apply common sense at all times.
As regards the Covid-19 situation, the Thai government has extended enhanced restrictions in Bangkok and several other provinces through at least August 17. Chiang Rai is included in those provinces mentioned as Red Zone classified areas.
Food establishments can open until 23:00 nightly. Gatherings are capped at twenty people. ted Checkpoints are in place for inter-provincial travel. Thai officials enjoin the people to stay home except for essential purposes. Gatherings of more than five people are banned. Establishments exempted from closure are supermarkets, food establishments and essential businesses until 20:00 daily. Food establishments outside of shopping malls are allowed to operate for takeaway services only and until 20:00. All public transport are allowed to operate at 50% capacity only and services are suspended from 21:00 – 4:00. Telecommuting work is continued as much as possible. Facemasks are still mandatory in public places. Interprovincial travel is restricted and domestic flights to and from the Red zones are suspended except for medical flights, emergency landings, or flights under the tourism reopening program. Thai security forces are authorized to enforce these protocols.
Public transport services are suspended 21:00-04:00 and may only operate at 50 percent capacity. Workers must continue to telecommute as much as possible. Facemasks are mandatory in public areas. Curbs on interprovincial travel remain in place. Officials have suspended domestic flights to and from Dark Red zones except for emergency landings, medical flights, or flights under the government’s tourism reopening program. Authorities have instructed security forces to enforce the protocols.
“Chiang” means “city,” a word from the Lanna culture, the ancient kingdom once reigning over northern Thailand. It should be pronounced chee-ang, prolonging the ee sound longer than a second, but not with too much stress.
Traveller reviews and blogs commonly say that three days is enough time to visit Chiang Rai with ample opportunities to see, taste and explore Thai ancient culture and history and untouched beauties of nature, as well as the deliciously famous Thai cuisine and temples.
Chiang Rai province, Thailand’s northernmost province, measuring an area of 11,678 square km is part of the Golden Triangle, an area shared with the borders of Laos and Myanmar (aka Burma). Distinct from other provinces for its number of indigenous hill tribes in the mountainous terrains of the province, accessed by trekking only most of the time. Its capital is also called Chiang Rai City.
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