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As frequent visitors to Thailand but first time visitors to Chiang Rai, we had heard so many good things about this northern province. We wanted to see as much as possible in the few days we had here so we initially explored and looked at as many blogs and online guides as we could (so that you don’t have to!). Here is our things to do in Chiang Rai guide:
Things to do in Chiang Rai
Wat Rong Khun / The White Temple
This temple is one of the most recognisable in Thailand (especially on Instagram!). 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 we 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, 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 schwarzenegger 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’.
The White temple is located a 20 minute drive out of town, so it is best to get a taxi/tuk tuk/songthaew, or you can jump on a public bus for just 20 baht from bus station terminal 1 to take you there. The entry fee for the White Temple is 50 baht.
If you do not like crowds try to time your arrival well before 10am to avoid the large amounts of day-trippers from Chiang Mai. Read more about the White Temple in our blog post guide.
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Chiang Rai Markets
The most famous Chiang Rai market has to be the centrally located Night Bazaar, but let’s be honest – other than the food court, it is quite an average experience. The stores generally sell all the same tat merchandise and very little of it is unique or original. Most nights there is live entertainment with singers or traditional Thai dancing. The Chiang Rai Night Bazaar is open every evening from 6pm to midnight.
We found the Saturday night and Sunday night walking markets a better and more authentic experience. The Saturday Night Market is located on Thanalai Road but sprawls across several streets and we found the area congregating near the ‘75 Anniversary Lamb and Flag Park’ the most interesting, as there were lots of family run food-stalls, ad hoc plastic picnic tables plus group dancing and live entertainment – the locals were also really friendly. The Sunday night market is located on Sang Khon Noi street and is a little bit smaller.
We also visited the Municipal Market, where local farmers line the streets outside the temples and sell their produce – there is also a wet market with all the usual fare plus a fine line in spices, toys and other bric-a-brac. During my time there, I didn’t see another tourist so this felt like a real local market.
Chiang Rai Street food
As you’d expect, there are loads of street-food options to try and ‘nom’ on (all comparatively cheap, which means you can go wild). We found the best collection of street vendors at the Saturday night walking market where we tried dishes like black sesame sticky rice for 10 Baht and Miang Kham (leaf-wrapped salad bites) for 10 Baht.
Our personal favourite was the chicken satay lady who sets up shop in the shadow of the clocktower every evening. The satay here is easily the best we eaten on this trip to Thailand. Pull up stool at one of her plastic outdoor tables and order yourself 10 or more sticks of either pork or chicken for just 50 Baht. The sticks are accompanied with a succulent satay sauce and refreshing cucumber chilli dip.
There are lots of street-food style options at the Night Bazaar but it is all quite samey – 80% of the stalls are hot pot vendors, then the rest are just a few deep fry stalls and the ubiquitous pad thai vendor. It is definitely worth a visit though (we went several times), but we’re just encouraging you to also spread your (chicken) wings and try other places.
Chiang Rai restaurants and cafes
Khao Soi Phor Jai
Easily our best discovery whilst trying the various local restaurants was the Khao Soi Phor Jai restaurant. The northern dish Khao Soi was one of the best (and cheapest) we’ve tried in Thailand.
There are three types of Khao Soi to choose from (chicken, shrimp or fish) all priced at 40 Baht. The restaurant is run by several ladies who run an efficient and tight ship. There is a limited menu but this also means they are good at what they do. The restaurant is open daily from 8am to 4pm. Address: 1023/3 Jetyod Rd.
Cat N A Cup Cafe
At the opposite end of the spectrum, we also really enjoyed the Cat N A Cup Cafe, whereby you can enjoy your iced coffee whilst playing with some very cute and fluffy cats (yes, not really an authentic Thai experience, but this seems one of the better cafes of this type). You can read our dedicated blog about it here.
Finally, we all know that whilst travelling, you sometimes crave Western food or need a break from hotpots or fried dishes. Two popular (and wallet friendly) chains in town are the Pizza Company (small pan pizzas start from 99 THB) and Swensen’s Ice Cream (prices starting from 65 THB for an average size chocolate sundae). Both had brisk service but were good at what they do, and their aircon was always appreciated.
Chiang Rai Clock tower
The clock tower is a relatively new addition to Chiang Rai and was designed and launched in 2008 by White Temple visionary Chalermachai Khositpipat. This ornate golden clock tower is worth visiting both in the day time and at night for the evening light show (pulsing light filters on the clocktower are choreographed with music at 7pm, 8pm and 9pm each evening).
There are restaurants and bars next to it (e.g. Kaffee Haus) so grab an outside table and enjoy the light show with some food & drink (but it won’t likely be something you’ll do again after seeing it once – much better to appreciate its dazzling splendour by day).
Baan Dam / or The ‘Black House’
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, is 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’.
The Black House is located a 25 minute drive from Chiang Rai town and entry costs 80 baht.
Wot Rong Suea Ten / The Blue Temple
A modern Buddhist temple distinguished by its vibrant blue and golden hues, this new temple (built on the site of a former 100 year old temple – the iconic main hall was completed only a couple of years ago in 2016) is a 45 minute walk from the city centre (the walk isn’t that scenic other than the river so best to get a tuk-tuk or songthaew), and entry is free.
The name (Suea Ten) translates as the ‘dancing tiger’ for it is here that legend has it that rivers used to jump across the nearby Mae Kok river.
As it is so new, parts of the site are still other construction and as a slight aside, the colours were reminiscent of an Ikea store.
Chiang Rai Bar scene
Compared to the likes of Chiang Mai and Bangkok, the bar scene here doesn’t appear to be that great (although as a caveat, we didn’t get chance to try any of the riverside establishments). A lot of people seem to congregate at either the Night Bazaar to knock back Leo, Singa or Hong Thong or visit the bars around the Jed Yod area (Reggae Bar, Cat Bar etc).
The best bar we went to by far was the Late Dinner bar, a rooftop bar in central Chiang Rai. Just across from the Wiang Inn hotel, we only noticed this place because of the fairy lights strung around the outdoor bar area. Walk up three flights of narrow stairs and you will find a cute and compact rooftop awaits.
They have a cocktail happy hour from 5pm to 8pm (100 THB instead of 180 THB), and also a great craft beer selection. If you decide to make a night of it and work your way through their extensive beverage menu, be careful of the steps on the way down as they are pretty steep!
Kaffee Haus 1 is also worth an honourary mention, as it is a good place to sit outside and watch the nightly clock-tower light show with a cold beer (we didn’t try the food).
As you explore the city, you’ll realise that as well as the more famous temples in Chiang Rai (wats) on the outskirts (e.g. the White Temple), there are several city temples that are also worthy of a visit.
Wat Phra Kaew is one of the region’s most revered temples as it is home to an emerald Buddha (the green ‘glow’ of the room is most unique compared to other temples in Thailand). The story goes that in the 15th century, the pagoda was split by lightning which uncovered a sacred Emerald Buddha inside, which was then toured around Thailand, before relocating permanently to the Royal Palace in Bangkok (the one in Chiang Rai is a replica). The grounds also have a museum plus a turtle pond.
Our other recommended temples to visit (all within easy walking distance of downtown Chiang Rai) city would be Wat Phra Singh, Wat Phra That Chedi Luang (home to a 20 metre high pagoda) and Wat Klang Wiang.
Choui Fong tea plantation
The Choui Fong tea plantation is the biggest in the province, producing 1000 tonnes of tea per year. Surrounded by tea plants as far as the eye can see, the site was really busy when we visited with customers enjoying tea and cake with a view on the terrace. The plantation also was the star of a Thailand TV series (‘Rak Aok Agad’) which has contributed to its popularity with the locals.
Choui Fong is located an hour’s drive north out of Chiang Rai city and open from 8.30am to 5.30pm. I do not think you can get there by public transport so it might be best to include it as part of your itinerary on a private tour. We visited as part of a sightseeing day with Lanna Cultural Tours.
The golden triangle
Many day tours include a visit to the Golden Triangle which is located on the Thai border. This is where you can see the neighbouring borders of Myanmar and Laos from the one spot. The views are reallystunning and if you have time on your itinerary you should definitely plan to visit.
Traditional Thai Massage
You will find several places offering inexpensive Thai massage in Chiang Rai’s city centre. Some places you will find an hour long massage for as cheap as 150 baht! Treat yourself 🙂
Lanna Cultural tours
If you are limited on time, we recommend a one day tour with the aforementioned Lanna Cultural Tours, whereby you can see the White Temple, Black House and the Golden Triangle (where Thailand borders with Laos and Myanmar) plus learn more about Thai and Buddhist culture.
Getting around Chiang Rai
Downtown Chiang Rai is quite compact and easily walkable for all the main sites; tuk tuks are also good value e.g. 80 Baht to the Blue Temple from downtown.
Getting to Chiang Rai
There are two easy ways to get to Chiang Rai – by bus or by plane.
By bus: There are two main bus stations in Chiang Rai (bus station number 1 is the main downtown one you will most likely need). We arrived in Chiang Rai from Chiang Mai having purchased a one way ticket online in advance with Green Bus for 250 Baht (VIP air-conditioned). The journey from Chiang Mai takes approximately 3.5 hours.
Check public transport fares and times with 12Go Asia:
By plane: An airport bus (number 5) also recently launched in October 2018 – it runs approx every 30 minutes from the airport through downtown Chiang Rai, via both bus stations, the night bazaar and the main mall. Alternatively a taxi from the airport to the city centre will cost approximately 160 baht.
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.
Other Thailand blog posts
- The perfect daytrip in Chiang Rai
- 3, 4 or 5 day Chiang Mai itinerary guide
- Visiting the White Temple in Chiang Rai, Thailand
- The Cat ‘n’ a Cup Cafe, Chiang Rai
- A Day at the Thai Farm Cooking School in Chiang Mai
- A Thai cookery class ‘with a twist’ in Bangkok’s flower market
- Exploring Bangkok at night by Tuk Tuk
- 99 The Heritage – a stylish stay in Chiang Mai
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