Wikipedia | Google | Google Images | FlickrChiang Rai is a mid-sized city (and province) in northern Thailand and capital of the famed Golden Triangle, where Thailand meets Myanmar and Laos. Mostly used as a convenient springboard from where to explore the stunning northern region, Chiang Rai does seem to lack the enticement of neighboring Chiang Mai although many who stay here a while will find it boasts a lovely vibe and beautiful charm. The surrounding countryside is the real splendor here, with the city being framed by stunning forest-covered mountains, verdant valleys, and a multitude of sparkling rivers. Chiang Rai sits at an altitude of 1,312 feet and enjoys one of the best winter climates in the country.
This effervescent hub boasts a wonderful mix of all nearby cultures, due primarily to a history of invasions and long-standing stints of commercial trade with neighboring countries. The uniqueness of the northern Thai culture is what makes this region enticing and very popular with foreign visitors who wish for more than just a suntan and seafood overload on their Thai vacation.
The city of merely 200,000 inhabitants boasts many attractions, so filling in a few days here, before exploring the region, is certainly recommended.
Brief HistoryThe origins of the northern Thai people are still somewhat shrouded in mystery. However, if the cuisine, customs and beliefs are anything to go by, the theory that northern Thais are descendants of Chinese, Burmese, and Laotian nomads is probably quite spot on. The differences between native northerners, and all other Thais, are quite evident, even for those who are none the wiser.
Modern-day Chiang Rai was established as a capital of northern Thailand in the early 13th century, however the town did spend most of the next few centuries swapping hands, between the Kingdom of Siam and that of Burma. Thailand annexed the city once and for all at the end of the 19th century, and an homonymous province was formed just before the start of WWII.
Chiang Rai’s political importance waned as the years passed, and the town developed a reputation for being a center for arts and culture instead.
Highlights of Chiang RaiEven those who have never heard of Chiang Rai, will no doubt have seen at least a few photos of the magnificent and glistening Wat Rong Khun temple, one of Thailand’s most precious treasures. The city is brimming with amazing temples, and offers varied activities and attractions to suit everyone, from history buffs to nature lover and even the gastronomically adventurous.
Here’s our pick of Chiang Rai’s best highlights.
Wat Rong KhunKnown as the White Temple, the temple of Wat Rong Khun is the Chiang Rai’s epitome highlight and a temple you don’t want miss, no matter how many you have already meandered through. This privately owned shrine is one of the most unique sites in all of Asia; insanely decorated and intricately carved, it comprises murals and carvings depicting everything from traditional Buddhist scenes to iconic sci-fi film characters and modern pop artists. Bizarre, entrancing, and unforgettable are three of the most widely used adjectives to describe this spot. Don’t miss it!
Wat Phra KaeoThailand’s famed Emerald Buddha , now in display in Bangkok’s Grand Palace, is believed to have been unearthed here in the 14th century. This centrally located temple, with its beautiful turtle filled pond, contemplative gardens and gorgeous ornaments, is an absolutely delightful place in which to spend an hour or so. This is very much a working temple, so cover your shoulders and don’t be shy about engaging the resident monks in conversation. They love nothing more than a chat and photo session with visitors.
Bandaam MuseumThe Black Temple of Chiang Rai is a museum located about a half hour’s drive out of town. A collection of temples and pagodas made of wood, stone, terracotta and glass, Bandaam is unique and interesting, with the complex being the creation of an eccentric local artist. Private displays showcasing arts and crafts from Myanmar, Bali and almost every corner of Thailand make this quite the comprehensive culture fix. Furniture carved out of animal bones and skulls may not suit all sensitivities. Entry is free of charge and the museum is open from 9am to 5pm with an hour’s lunch-break starting at 12pm.
Khun Korn WaterfallNature buffs ought to head to the Khun Korn Forest Park, where a collection of splendid falls and hiking trails make for a fantastic day out in nature. The hike, up to the 70m tall waterfall, is through luscious bamboo forests and is doable for anyone with a moderate level of fitness. The trails are kept clean and are suitable for active kids as well. You’ll find a nearby village boasting a couple of lovely restaurants, ideal for a post-hike lunch.
Doi TungDoi Tung mountain is easily reached from Chiang Rai and home to a stunning regal villa, flower filled garden and a temple which reputedly houses Buddha’s collarbone. The perfectly landscaped gardens are at the base of the Royal Villa, and you’ll find a gorgeous cafe’ half way up the mountain which grants striking views of the gardens below and mountainous landscape above. The ride is scenic and will take you through the rugged region bordering with Myanmar. This is in the heart of hilltribe land so take a whole day to explore it at length. Rent a car and go it alone, so you can make various stops along the way.
Phu Chi Fa Forest ParkSome say that taking off at 3am and driving up a very winding road for two hours (and hiking for 30 minutes) to watch the sun set over the scenic viewpoint atop Phu Chi Fa is a lot of effort, yet everyone who does it can attest to it being extremely worthwhile. Standing on the protruding rock-face and admiring the valley drenched in a sea of crimson fog is simply spectacular.This is one of the most breathtaking viewpoints in the Chiang Rai province and, if you have the time, you could always drive up during the day and stay in a guesthouse in a nearby town overnight.
Chiang Rai Night MarketsYour opinion of the night market in Chiang Rai will depend largely on your previous experiences. If you haven’t seen many (or any at all) then you may be impressed with the display of food and wares on offer. If you’ve already been to Chiang Mai, however, you may be less than thrilled. It’s still a great place to find a cheap and fantastic meal, and prices, overall, are lower than in Chiang Mai, so if you are in need of something (new pair of genie-pants, perhaps?) then at least you’ll save a few dollars here.
Kok RiverOne of the cleanest and most beautiful rivers in all of Thailand, the Kok River which traverses Chiang Rai offers some of the most rewarding boat rides in the whole country. The options are numerous here, and while you can enjoy a stupendous ride on a longboat from Chiang Rai all the way to Chiang Mai, you can also simply make your way to the pier in town and rent a boat to take you up and down the river for a couple of hours. You could also take a ride to Thaton (about 3 hours), spend a night in the village and head back the next day.
Best time to visitMuch like Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai also enjoys three seasons, with a very divine ‘cool’ season added to the usual wet/dry combo found in the southern regions of Thailand.
How to get thereMost people arriving in Chiang Rai will usually come either from Bangkok or Chiang Mai. The transport infrastructure, from these two hubs, is well established. A few overlanders will make their way through land borders from Laos and Myanmar as well.
From Bangkokthe fastest and easiest way to reach Chiang Rai from Bangkok is by catching a one-hour flight. You could also take an air-conditioned bus from Bangkok’s northern bus station, for a ride which normally takes 12 hours or so. Unfortunately, there is no rail link to Chiang Rai, so if you are adamant about catching the train, consider heading to Chiang Mai first by train (about 11 hours from Bangkok) and then heading here by bus.
From Chiang MaiThe bus journey between the two ‘Chiangs’ is delightfully scenic, although the crazy driving by conductors can also make it quite hair-raising. Accidents on this stretch of road (which takes only three hours to cover) are very common, so consider spending a little more for a VIP bus, which may cost ฿300 ($9.30), but boasts a better safety record. The kamikaze mini-buses charge only half the price but also only offer half a chance of getting there in one piece.
From LaosThe opening of a brand new ‘Friendship Bridge 4’ linking the northern regions of Thailand and Laos have made travelling in the region infinitely easier. Instead of the old time-sucking rigmarole of taking a mini-bus to the border, dragging all your bags across on a boat, crossing the Mekong and then jumping on another rickety tuk-tuk, all you have to do nowadays is hop on a cool and comfortable bus at one end, alight temporarily to have your passport stamped, and get off at the other end. Too easy! Brand new VIP bus companies now offer services from Luang Prabang to Chiang Rai, for an infinitely convenient door-to-door service. Tickets cost $ 30 USD per person and the ride usually takes 14 hours or so.
From MyanmarChiang Rai’s northern disposition means that heading over to Myanmar, even on a one-day trip, is very easy. The Thai border town of Mae Sai is only one and a half hour’s drive from Chiang Rai, and buses depart to and from every 10 minutes or so. This border is frequented by an abundance of tourists who do what used to be a ‘quick and easy’ visa run, whereby one crosses a border into a neighboring country just to turn around, go back, and get a fresh visa. This practice is detrimental to the local economies of both countries and is one which is being closely scrutinized by authorities at time of writing. The border town in Myanmar is called Tachileik so wherever you are in the country, you’ll find various ways of reaching it overland.
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Author: Laura Pattara. Last updated: May 08, 2015