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Chiang Rai is Thailand’s northernmost city that sits in the basin of the Kok river. With it’s location East of Chiang Mai and fairly close to the border of Laos, I expected it to be nothing more than a stop off point to break up the journey, but I was pleasantly surprised.
Although the pace of life in Chiang Rai is much more relaxed than Chiang Mai and Bangkok, there are still plenty of things to do in the city and surrounding region.
The highlight of the city itself has to be the incredible food market but most of the top things to do in Chiang Rai require getting out of the city so I’d recommend hiring a bike or scooter for your stay.
Getting to Chiang Rai
Most people visit Chiang Rai from Chiang Mai. The best way to make this 190km journey is by bus which takes roughly 3-4 hours. You can visit Chiang Mai bus station or book online using Green Bus Thailand which should cost in the region of ฿200-300.
For those travelling from further afield, Chiang Rai also has an international airport (Mae Fah Luang) with flights from the south of Thailand costing in the region of ฿1500 during peak season.
Where to Stay in Chiang Rai
If you’re looking for a hostel recommendation in Chiang Rai then I have to advise Mercy Hostel. It was modern with huge social areas, a paddling pool and you can take your own food and drink in from the shop which was great for the evenings.
All of the reviews of Mercy Hostel rave about the gym but this is very basic, if you’re looking for a decent gym check out Combo4Fitness gym for ฿50 per session.
Best Things To Do in Chiang Rai
Visit the Famous White Temple
Chiang Rai’s most famous attraction is Wat Rong Khun (or commonly referred to as The White Temple). It’s an absolutely beautiful temple, but be prepared for every man and his dog trying to get that iconic shot outside the temple.
It’s located 13km towards the south of the city, just off the main highway although you’d never realise this once you’re in the peaceful grounds of the temple.
What to look out for at the White Temple:
- There is a toilet housed in a building made from gold, considered the most beautiful toilets in the country (unfortunately it was closed during our visit).
- There are lots of pop culture references throughout the temple, look out for faces hidden in the decorations including Iron Man, Darth Vader and Gollum.
- Before entering the temple, there is a section representing hell with hands plunging out of the ground, it symbolises greed, lust and desire.
Hike to Khun Korn Waterfall
Khun Korn waterfall is just a 25 minute drive from the White Temple and is definitely one of the best things to do in Chiang Rai. I’d recommend combining these two for a brilliant day.
The waterfall is located up in the Kok River National Park and at 70m high it’s the largest waterfall in Chiang Rai province. Swap the hustle and bustle of the city and popular tourist attractions for the green peaceful surroundings of the jungle.
Be prepared for a short hike from the car park up to the waterfall but you’ll be rewarded with a stunning sight of nature.
Read more about my visit to Khun Korn Waterfall here
Chill in a Hut at Chiang Rai River Beach
Take an afternoon away from the city and relax at Chiang Rai Beach on the River Kok. There’s no sand here, but the riverside bamboo huts are a great place to chill out, enjoy some local cuisine and a beer or two. This area is popular with locals as it’s away from the main tourist attractions.
Getting there: The beach is about 15 minutes from Chiang Rai, most people will take a tuk tuk, this should cost in the region of 50baht which can be shared between 2-4 people.
Make Cat Friends at Cat ‘n’ a Cup Café
Enjoy a drink in the company of some feline friends at Cat ‘n’ a Cup café located in Chiang Rai. The cats here are the most adorable you’ve ever seen.
At first the cats seem a little reluctant to come near you but buy some cat food from the counter for 40baht and you’ll soon be the most popular person in there.
Visit the Black House Museum
Located just north of Chiang Rai is Baan Dam Museum, also known as the Black House. All of the pieces of work in this museum were created by controversial Thai artist Thawan Duchanee who spent over 50 years pulling it all together.
This is a museum unlike any I’ve ever seen before, full of interestingly designed pieces of furniture, paintings, animal skins and sculptures spread across more than 40 buildings.
I wouldn’t recommend making the journey specifically to see the black house but combined with the monkey temple and golden triangle it makes a nice day out.
Meet Some Primates at the Monkey Temple
Get up close and personal with some monkey friends at Wat Tham Pla, more commonly known as the Monkey Temple.
The temple is set against the beautiful backdrop of surrounding cliffs with tons of monkeys allowed to roam free. The baby monkeys were incredibly cute and it was great to watch them playing and rolling around together (although their parents were never too far away!).
I wouldn’t recommend feeding the monkeys, we saw a family attempt this which was quickly followed by the monkeys attacking them to try and take all of the food for themselves.
See 3 Countries at the Golden Triangle
The point where Laos, Myanmar and Thailand meet is known as the golden triangle. Separated by the Ruak and Mekong rivers, this was once the centre of the opium trade in the area and you can visit the nearby opium museum to learn more about this.
Whilst you won’t be able to cross into Laos or Myanmar, on the Thai side of the border is a large golden Buddha statue and a small market with a viewpoint across the rivers.
For me, the most wonderful part of visiting the golden triangle was the beautiful drive to get there. I’d recommend driving there yourself rather than taking an organised tour.
Sip some tea at Singha Park
Although it’s owned by the company as the Singha brewery, you won’t find copious amounts of beer on offer at Singha Park. Originally used to grow barley for beer production, the park is now a sustainable tourism project with a tea plantation, orchard and picturesque countryside for visitors to explore by bicycle or tram.
Those with a taste for tea will be thrilled to find a menu of both food and drink using the fresh tea leaves. More adventurous travellers can opt to zip line through the plantation or try their hands at the climbing wall.
Wonder at the Blue Temple
Yet another of Chiang Rai’s amazing temples, the Blue Temple is a must visit attraction in Chiang Rai. Officially known as Wat Rong Suea Ten, the Blue Temple is relatively new, having only opened in 2016.
I really enjoyed looking around this temple, it is an incredible piece of architecture and entrance is free which is always a positive. Everything has been designed in blue and gold except for the large white Buddha statue inside the temple which makes a great contrast.
Although it is only a few years old, it is built upon the remains of an ancient temple which was abandoned about 100 years ago.
Relax in the Hot Springs
If you’d like to enjoy relaxing in the spring mineral waters, then take a trip to one of the hot springs nearby. The main spring, Huay Mak Lium, doesn’t actually allow bathing so your best bet is Pong Pra Soet Hot Springs where you can relax in the large undercover public pool or for a bit of privacy, hire one of the small rooms with your own private tub.
Take a Visit to the Hill Tribe Museum
A popular activity for many tourists in Chiang Rai is to visit the Long Neck Karen Tribe, one of the ancient hill tribes known for the rings around their necks.
There is a long debate as to whether visiting them is ethical, I personally didn’t feel comfortable with the idea but I also recognise that the money tourists bring does help them. If you do go, I would recommend that you buy some souvenirs to make sure you are contributing to their villages.
For those who don’t want to visit, the Hill Tribe Museum in Chiang Rai is another great way to learn about their culture. Although quite small, it’s a great way to learn about the different tribes in Thailand and to get a bit of insight in to how they live.
What can you see at the hill tribe museum:
History of the hill tribes (not just the Long Neck Karen tribe), many of them were refugees from Myanmar
- Culture, art and clothing of the hill tribes including how they made them
- Incorrect stereotypes about the hill tribes
- Videos and slide shows about the tribes and tourism
- How to visit the tribes responsibility if you’d like to do so
Get a Taste for Thai Food at the Night Bazaar
No visit to Chiang Rai would be complete without somewhere to indulge in local food. I visited the food stalls at the night market every single evening during my stay in Chiang Rai, it’s epic.
There’s a large seating area surrounded by food stalls selling all sorts of Thai food. Pad Thai, Fried rice, Spring rolls, Thai Hot Pot, Green curry, Smoothies, it has everything you could want.
There was also fee entertainment until late each evening including traditional Thai dancing, acoustic singing and bands.
See the Goddess of Mercy at Wat Huay Pla
From a distance I could see the large white statue overlooking Chiang Rai at Wat Huay Pla, but as we neared I realised that it was not Buddha but Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy.
As well as the large statue, there is a beautiful white temple and a 9 story padoga which houses more wooden Guan Yin statues.
For 40baht you can take a lift to the top of the large Guan Yin statue, but instead we chose to climb to the top of the Padoga which is free of charge and gives you a fascinating view across the Thai landscape.
Cabbages & Condoms for Dinner
Not what you think. There’s a restaurant chain across Thailand called Cabbages & Condoms run by the population and community development association (PDA) that seeks to educate the public about family planning and aids prevention, you’ll find one of their restaurants in Chiang Rai.
Whilst the peculiar name and novelty signs will draw you in, you can enjoy good local food and the peace of mind from contributing to a social enterprise.
Drink the Night Away on Jetyod road
Chiang Rai is generally quite a quiet and chilled place so there isn’t much nightlife. If you’re looking to hit some bars, seek out Jetyod road. Luckily for us this was right near our hostel so a few beers were never far away, Cat Bar was once of our regular stops.
Party at Par Club
When you really want to party, head to Par Club. Expect a mixed line up of DJ’s and live performances from bands. For anyone who hasn’t experienced an Asia nightclub, this is a great chance to visit one, it’s a very different experience to Western clubbing.
When we visited, we were the only tourists in the club which was a great experience. The Thai people were really friendly and it wasn’t long before we were sharing drinks and dancing with some locals.
Watch the Clock Tower Light Show
You’ll become familiar with the infamous Chiang Rai Clock Tower during your stay here as it is a useful landmark to refer to as you navigate the city.
The golden clock tower was designed by the same architect as the White Temple and is an astonishing piece of work. Although I was a bit disappointed that it had been built in the middle of a busy roundabout which detracted its beauty a little.
At night the clock tower is lit up and if you’re nearby at 7pm, 8pm or 9pm, you’ll witness the “light show”. Don’t raise your hopes too high as the lights on the clock just change colour to music for about 10 minutes, but it’s still a great excuse to take a moment, have a beer and enjoy Chiang Rai.
Getting from Chiang Rai to Laos
A common route on the backpacker trail is to head from Chiang Rai across to Laos. This can be done via a 24 hour bus, however most backpackers opt to take the slow boat from Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang. This 2 day journey down the Mekong is the most scenic way to make the trip and you’re guaranteed to meet other travellers on the boat.
Read my full guide on taking the slow boat to Luang Prabang and make sure you don’t follow the same mistake I made.
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Kieren is the avid traveller behind the blog. His adventures have included Interrailing through Europe, road tripping the US and backpacking SE Asia.