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As first time visitors to Chiang Rai and the northern most areas of the province, we’d heard about how much there was to see in the region. We wanted to plan a Chiang Rai day trip that would take in a variety of city landscapes, temples, culture and traditions. After some intensive research into a day trip in Chiang Rai (well, Google and Trip Advisor!), we booked a private one day tour with Lanna Cultural Tours.
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Day trip in Chiang Rai
At the start of our private Chiang Rai tour we were greeted by Tony, the company owner (he also runs a lot of his tours), and after a quick chat about what we wanted to get out of the day, our first stop was Wat Rong Khun or (as it is more famously known), the ‘White Temple’.
This temple is one of the most recognisable in Thailand (especially on Instagram!) and has contributed to increased visitor numbers to the area. The original Wat Rong Khun had fallen into disrepair and the newer incarnation is the vision of renowned, local artist Chalermchai Kositpipat who funded the initial work himself (there is also a fantastic free to visit museum of his work next to the temple, which includes one of his first illustrations completed when he was just fourteen years of age).
The artist can sometimes be seen painting additions to the temple interiors, or (rumour has it), just watching and seeking inspiration from afar in one of the local coffee shops.
One thing I hadn’t realised before visiting was how different and unconventional certain elements of the this temple are compared to others, such as the ‘sea of arms’ at the main entrance way and especially the use of modern day characters, political figures and superheroes on the temple walls (such as Superman, Doraemon, George Bush, Terminator, Freddie Kruger etc) to demonstrate that the will of Buddha is greater than all.
This is also highlighted by the presence of a life size Predator model (from the Arnold Schwarnegger movie) that greets you by the main entrance (much more real than those Madame Tussaud’s wax efforts!). As a slight aside, there is also a Golden Toilet for you to use at your ‘convenience’.
We were very fortunate with the timing of our trip as the head monk of the White Temple was free (he is usually very busy) and Tony was able to introduce us to him and we each received a blessing.
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A short drive led us to our next stop on our day trip in Chiang Rai – Baan Dam (or ‘Black House’ as it is alternatively known). Like the White Temple, this is an iconic and world-famous site, a collection of wood buildings featuring works by Thawan Duchanee and other contemporary Thai artists, set in lush green surroundings. Duchanee spent more than 50 years building the museum in his home town to provide a place of learning for younger artists (it is now curated by his son as Duchanee sadly passed away several years ago but his legacy still lives on).
There are 40 different houses to explore onsite and on the day we visited, there was also a cultural performance being performed, choreographed by one of Chiang Rai’s leading artists.
The contrast between the White Temple and Black House is quite apparent and the different emotions conjured by the two has been previously dubbed the ‘heaven and hell of architecture’.
Pondering what we had just seen (there was a lot to take in), our next stop on our day trip in Chiang Rai was lunch at a local fish restaurant, one of Tony’s personal favourites, with an alfresco deck overlooking the rice-fields. The food here is simply sublime – we ate locally raised fish topped with deep-fried lemongrass and garlic with tom yum soup. Delicious. And not somewhere we’d have known about if we hadn’t taken part in this tour.
With our stomachs suitably full, we staved off our post lunch sleepiness with iced coffees at a nearby coffee-shop, themed like a European cafe with an outdoor terrace that had bamboo-licious views (compete with the occasional colourful butterfly floating by). Tony also mentioned that a lot of local actors and artists also hung out here.
For those that aren’t fans of coffee (seriously – what is wrong with you!?), the next stop on our tour might be more up your street – the Choui Fong tea plantation, the biggest in the province, producing 1000 tonnes of tea per year, and welcoming you from the road with a Hollywood style white sign.
Surrounding by tea plants as far as the eye can see, the site was busy with several tea-rooms on the plantation on the site to choose from (we visited the third cafe, which had newly opened that week). The plantation also was the star of a Thailand TV series (‘Rak Aok Agad’) which has contributed to its popularity with the locals.
After tasting their signature teas and a little freetime, we then headed towards the border town of Mai Sai, located next to Myanmar.
This bordertown is quite the experience, with the hustle and bustle of markets selling both Thai and Burmese goods (and lots of bilingual signs). A firstime experience was driving through one of the local markets (so close that we could almost reach out the car window and buy any goods we wanted – like a Thai version of a drive-through restaurant!).
At the top of a nearby hill, we got to see stunning views of the Thai / Myanmar border and then visited the Wat Phra That Doi Wao temple (also known as the ‘Scorpion’ Temple) which was being prepared for an upcoming religious festival – one thing of note was the rather looming and scary looking scorpion statue – not for the faint hearted.
Next to the monastry was a mini exhibition / shrine depicting the plight and subsequent rescue of the young Thai football team who got trapped in the underwater cave and then subsequently rescued earlier this year (2018). As we were leaving, we got to see some of the actual boys who had been rescued, as well as speaking to one of their mothers who now runs a stall selling merchandise to raise money for the permanent memorial that is planned.
Afterwards, we had a brief respite and hammock session at sunset at a cafe overlooking a rice-field (complete with boardwalks for use during the rainy season). It is funny how sometimes the most simple things in life can be the most rewarding – just relaxing, watching the sun go down with not a care in the world. All three of us just lay in the hammocks, drinking fresh orange juice, calmly taking in our surroundings – sheer bliss.
We then visited the Golden Triangle on the Thai border which is one of the most beautiful places in Thailand. Here we could see the neighbouring borders of Myanmar and Laos from the one spot – three countries all within close proximity. As there has been rain the previous night, the skies were clear and we treated to a gorgeous and glowing ethereal sunset.
After buying the obligatory souvenir fridge magnet (disclaimer – we are travelling for five months so we have very little room in our backpacks), we visited Sop Ruak (the big golden Buddha) before paying our respects at the Wat Phra That Chedi Luang temple, the largest in the area – we also got to see the ruins of almost 80 temples, that had been destroyed by previous earthquakes.
Tony explained the ethos of the Buddhist religion and then showed us how to pay our respects with a flower offering, before lighting two candles and three incense sticks.
By now, it was pitch black and the only life at the temple was ourselves, Tony and the mosquitoes. Ten hours of activity had passed so quickly and we were driven back to out hotel in central Chiang Rai.
At the end, we thanked Tony and I jokingly said that he should rename his company ‘Lanna Tranquil Tours’ – we had seen and done so much today, yet everything we did was explained so expertly and we never felt too rushed, with all the experiences so enchanting.
I can hand on heart say this is one of the best tours I have ever done in my life – if you are visiting the Chiang Rai region and want to cover a lot in a short space of time and learn about the tradition and culture of the area, you would be hard pushed to find a more rewarding experience than this. Thanks Chiang Rai (and Tony) – like the Terminator at the White Temple, we will be back…
How to book this day trip in Chiang Rai tour
You can book this amazing day trip in Chiang Rai by contacting Tony directly at Lanna Cultural Tours on his website and view the tripadvisor reviews here. We booked the sightseeing number 1 tour but the itinerary can sometimes be adjusted to suit your needs. The tour price includes lunch and entrance fees. Tony also organises cycling and overnight trekking tours.
Other Northern Thailand blog posts
- Top things to do in Chiang Rai
- Visiting the White Temple in Chiang Rai, Thailand
- A Day at the Thai Farm Cooking School in Chiang Mai
- The Cat ‘n’ a Cup Cafe, Chiang Rai
- 99 The Heritage – a stylish stay in Chiang Mai
Chiang Rai Accommodation
Here are some highly rated hostels in a good central location:
Norn Nung Len cafe and Hostel
Located in the heart of the city within walking distance of the night market. Live music every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday night.
Highly rated hostel located a short walk from the Clock Tower and close to restaurants and bars. Both dorms and private rooms with air con are available, plus there is a communal shallow pool and outdoor terrace.
Mid range hotels
We stayed at both of these mid range hotels, which were located in an excellent part in town (minutes walk from the night bazaar and many bars and restaurants) and were highly rated, clean and comfortable:
HI Chiang Rai hotel
Popular hotel with large indoor pool located a short walk from the bus station. Restaurant onsite and free bike hire available.
Wiang Inn hotel
Big hotel popular with tour groups, with outdoor swimming pool, 3 restaurants, a spa and even a karaoke club! Located a short walk to the night market bazaar and many restaurants in town.
Got some cash to splash? Treat yourself to one of these lovely resorts located just north of Chiang Rai town:
The Imperial River House Resort
Located on the banks of the Mae Kok River, with luxury rooms offering views of the river or the outdoor swimming pool. Other facilities include a spa pool and fitness centre.
Le Meridien Chiang Rai Resort
Luxury resort that is surrounded by misty mountains and historic Buddhist temples, with a two-level outdoor pool overlooking the Mae Kok River
Download the Grab app
Grab taxis are widely used by both tourists and locals, and the fares are really cheap! Download the Grab app here and use the code GRABCKTRAVELS to earn a free ride when you sign up.
Sim cards and pocket WIFI
Having data on your phone whilst travelling is almost essential these days – from planning your route around the city, booking a Grab taxi or for staying connected with friends and family back home. SIM cards are pretty cheap in Thailand with generous data allowances and are available to purchase from both of Bangkok’s airports, malls and 7-Elevens (bring your passport along for identification purposes).
You can also prepay online and collect a SIM from Suvarnabhumi Airport, Don Muang Airport or Siam Centre. Just remember to make sure your phone is not locked to your local network provider before purchasing one.
Alternatively if you do not want to change your sim card then renting a pocket wifi device with unlimited high speed internet access might be for you. We’ve used them multiple times and love that we can both connect our devices to it. Pre-order one online with Klook for collection when you arrive at either Suvarnabhumi or Don Muang Airport.
Disclosure: The tour places were complimentary but as always, opinions are all our own.
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