Located in the northernmost mountainous region of Thailand, Chiang Rai is usually known to backpackers of the Banana Pancake Trail as the jump off point for the Golden Triangle. For many travelers, it is still unknown. If you’re going to Chiang Mai though, I highly encourage you not to skip Chiang Rai and the other northern Thailand provinces. Here’s my Chiang Rai travel guide and sample itinerary during my 2 days in the province last year.
The ancient city was founded by King Mengrai in the 13th century as the second capital of the Lanna Kingdom. Nowadays, Chiang Rai is inhabited by a diverse population of city dwellers, hill tribes and migrants from the nearby Myanmar and China resulting to a mishmash of cultures, traditions, and way of life.
The province’s highlight is its proximity to the borders of Myanmar and Laos as well as the access to the mountains in the west and the Mekong River. The more relaxed atmosphere in Chiang Rai is why some travelers label it as a sleepy town. There is hardly nightlife here and if there is, it no way compares to Chiang Mai or Bangkok.
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Chiang Rai Travel Guide
How to Get to Chiang Rai
Coming from Chiang Mai, I took a Greenbus from Chiang Mai Bus Station. Travel time took around 3 hours. Tickets can be bought 60 days in advance but since I was traveling during the low season (September 2015), I bought it on the day I was traveling. You can also book via their website www.greenbusthailand.com.
From Bangkok, you can take a bus from the Northern Bus Terminal (Mo Chit) and choose either a non-airconditioned or an air-conditioned bus. Travel time is around 9 to 11 hours so take the sleeper bus to save up on accommodation too.
You can take a domestic flight from Bangkok via AirAsia, Nok Air, Thai Smile Airways, Bangkok Airways and Lion Air.
How to Get Around Chiang Rai
There are plenty of buses that can you ride to nearby provinces and points of interest. You can also rent a bicycle or motorbike to go around. There are also tuktuks and songthaews that you can ride.
Where to Stay in Chiang Rai
I booked an overnight stay in a hostel within walking distance from the Old Bus Terminal. Mercy Hostel was one of the best hostels I’ve stayed in.
What to see in Chiang Rai
1. White Temple
Also called as Wat Rong Khun, the famous White Temple is as mesmerizing at is in pictures. It was built and designed by artist Chalermchai Kositpipat. If you’re lucky, you might even see him walking around.
I took a 20 baht local bus from the Old Bus Terminal which dropped me off the highway. You still have to cross the road and walk a few meters to get to the White Temple. Photos are not allowed inside the central temple so make sure you take it all in and notice all the small details on the murals.
Don’t take the other buildings for granted too. They are also a must-see especially the other structures as well as the famous golden toilet building!
From the highway, I waited for the bus that goes back to the Old Bus Terminal.
Visitor Notes: Standard dress code for temples applies. No smoking, food, and drinks allowed inside the temple grounds. Shoes are also removed before entering the central temple.
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READ: Chiang Rai: A tale of two temples
2. Black House Museum (Baan Dam)
In contrast to the White Temple are the black houses by Thawan Duchanee, a national artist of Thailand. The biggest house is the museum and displays a plethora of curio. Animal skin, human hair, animal bones, and lots of other surprises if you care to take a look.
There are other black houses within the area but not all are open to the public. The artist also showcases Balinese, Burmese, and Ayutthaya architecture. The whole area lends off that dark vibe that is even made more creepy by the little things found inside the black houses. Definitely a must-see for art lovers and those who like obscure and weird things.
You can get there by bus (from the Old Bus Terminal) and just walk from the main road all the way to the museum. We were waiting for a bus to get back to the Old Bus terminal but it took a long time so we just hailed a songthaew to take us back to town.
Other museums to see: Hill-Tribes Museum and Education Centre, Mae Fah Luang Art & Cultural Park, Oub Kham Museum
3. Wat Jed Yod
Meaning Seven Peaks, Wat Jed Yod got its name from the chedi with seven peaks which can be found behind the main temple. A temple of the same name can also be found in Chiang Mai. Aside from the famous White Temple, there are other temples worth checking out in Chiang Rai. This one is nearest from the hostel where I stayed.
Other temples you can see: Wat Klang Wieng, Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Phra Singh, Wat Phra That Doi Chom Thong, Wat Srin Bun Ruang
4. Chiang Rai Clock Tower
Bearing the same design as the White Temple, Chiang Rai’s Clock Tower is an awesome find in the downtown area. This ornate structure serves as an important landmark in the capital of Chiang Rai province. Built in 2008 to honor His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the golden clock tower becomes an attraction at night. When the clock strikes at 7:00 PM, 8:00 PM, and 9:00 PM, a light, and sound show appears. Drop by before or after going to the night market!
We went at 7:00 PM and my dormmates said that they saw a different show when they went at 9:00 PM.
Location: Intersection of Phaholyotin, Banphaprakan, and Jed Yod roads
5. Chiang Rai Night Bazaar
What makes this night market unique compared to the night markets in Chiang Mai, are the items made by the hill-tribes. Most of them are even handmade! Although you can see some of it sold elsewhere, the prices are mostly cheaper here. The market area is quite organized and there is a separate area for the food stalls and dining area. The food has a good variety but there are still some stalls that sell the same food. Bestseller is the hot pot! An entertainment stage can be seen in the center where local artists perform. When we were there, though, much focus was on the television showing the football finals.
Other places you should see in Chiang Rai:
Phu Chi Fah in Amphoe Thoeng is for mountain lovers and is very popular during winter time. Those wanting to see the Golden Triangle can head to Chiang Saen. Most backpackers I’ve talked to told me that it was too overrated and not really worth the boat ride. The House of Opium was more interesting since opium used to pass freely in between the three countries. Coffee aficionados, as well as agriculture buffs, will enjoy Doi Chang.
*Updated June 2017:
Another temple getting popular with travelers is the Blue Temple (Rong Suea Ten) built by a student of Mr. Kositpipat (maker of White Temple). It was completed last 2016. No entrance fee but donations are always welcome.
Check here to know how to get to Blue Temple.
Additional Reading: Chiang Mai’s Hill Tribe Royal Project
Sample Itinerary: Chiang Rai
11:00 AM Chiang Mai Bus Terminal: Bus to Chiang Rai
2:00 PM Arrival in Chiang Rai Old Bus Terminal
2:10 PM Check-in Mercy Hostel
4:00 PM Walk around the city
Visit temples/Find spot for sunset viewing
6:00 PM Head to Chiang Rai Night Bazaar
9:00 PM Chiang Rai Clock Tower
8:00 AM Breakfast
Check out. Leave things at Reception
9:00 AM Walk to Old Bus Terminal
10:00 AM White Temple
12:00 PM Lunch in food court in front of White Temple
1:00 PM Head back to Old Bus Terminal
2:00 PM Bus to Black House Museum
3:00 PM Black House Museum
5:00 PM Bus back to Chiang Mai
Have you been to Chiang Rai? What can you add to the guide?