Chiang Rai Travel Guide

North Thailand Vacation Tours



The Golden Triangle Province

Located in the northernmost province of Thailand, the city of Chiang Rai was the first capital city of the ancient Lanna Kingdom, and named after its founder, King Mangrai. Chiang Rai only became a Thai province in the early 1930s, and it wasn't until the 1980s when the region started attracting travelers followed by the opening of shops, restaurants, and other leisure facilities to cater to the new tourist market.

Though perhaps less famous than the neighboring Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai is by no means less picturesque. The city is spread out over a flat river plain, tucked between the Mae Kok River and limestone hills. Hilltribes account for a substantial percentage of the population, inhabiting the mountainous highlands and offering opportunities to explore a number of colorful and distinctive cultures that collectively call Chiang Rai home. 

A misty mountain view morning from Phu Chi Fa

A Base from which to Explore

Charter an excursion to visit the Golden Triangle, where Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet. Make a day of the oft-overlooked border towns – Mae Sai, just across a short bridge to Myanmar, or Chiang Khong, across the river from Huay Xai in Laos. Or just putter around Chiang Rai city, taking in the sites and enjoying the unhurried pace of life. The city itself also boasts a number of important historical and cultural sites, including Wat Phra Kaew, where the famed emerald Buddha – now housed within the temple of the same name on the Grand Palace grounds in Bangkok – was rediscovered in the late 14th century. When it comes to exploring nature’s beauty, Chiang Rai city serves as a convenient base for treks to the region’s spectacular rivers, waterfalls and mountains. Watch the dawn break from atop Phu Chi Fa, the highest peak in the region, and the sea of mist roll off the surrounding mountains with the awakening of the day. Whether it is nature or culture that inspires, Chiang Rai is a lesser trodden path, ideal for the spirited traveler.

View of the Mekong River which forms the border between Thailand and Laos


Hill Tribes

Visiting the province's many hilltribe villages is a popular activity, however, do note that many object to seeing refugees as voyeuristic “attractions”. Others might argue that, as the lesser of two evils, this at least contributes some income to the villagers.

As it is a touchy subject, it is probably best to start off at the Hilltribe Museum on Thanalai Road to have some background information on this polarizing activity. Alternatively, look through the tours offered through the Population & Community Development Association (PDA) of Chiang Rai, the NGO who manages the museum and organizes a few community-based tours and treks.

Travel tip: The six largest hilltribe villages are the Akha, Hmong, Karen, Lahu, Lisu, and Yao. Here is a bit about each of the groups. Read about our trekking tours ideas on how to view these cultures.

Chiang Rai Oub Kham Museum


Temples

The White Temple

One of the most recognizable landmarks of Chiang Rai is Wat Rong Khun, also known as the “White Temple”, the fruits of labor from Chalermchai Kositpipat, a renowned visual artist and architect. From the outside, the glass mosaics on the white colored temple glimmers in the sun, its ornate sculptures and snow-white exterior reminiscent of an fairytale evil queen's ice palace. Inside the temple, however, good and evil is depicted with pop culture icons, ranging from Kung Fu Panda and Harry Potter to the twin towers and Freddy Kruger. If anything, the unconventional imagery will make you ponder on the artist's core message.

Designed by a famous Thai artist

Wat Phra Kaew

Wat Phra Singh and Wat Phra Kaew are two other temples made famous elsewhere, in Bangkok and Chiang Mai respectively. The Emerald Buddha, now housed in the latter temple of the same name in the capital, was, as legend would have it, was rediscovered at the Chiang Rai location when a lightning (or earthquake) revealed the mystical green statue concealed within the temple's stupa.

Wat Phra Kaew


Caves

Mae Sai Wat Tam Pla

Chiang Rai's terrain is pocketed with caves (called “tam” in Thai), some of which are turned into temples (a.k.a. “wat”). Close to the Burmese border near Mae Sai is Wat Tam Pla (Fish Cave Temple), located a couple of hundred steps up from the main temple, housing a Buddha image and offering jungle panoramas across the valley. Wat Tam Phra (Buddha Cave Temple), located closer to town close the Chiang Rai “Beach” along the Mae Khok River, is a working temple which houses an impressive collection of ancient Buddhist statues.

Mae Sai Wat Tam Pla


Golden Triangle

The Hall of Opium

Formerly a hotspot for opium production, the Golden Triangle – where the borders of Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos come together – now features a few attractions that bear reminders of this page from history. A good place to start is the educational Hall of Opium at Golden Triangle Park, located about an hours drive from town, and the picturesque Mae Fah Luang Art & Cultural Park.

Visitors can learn about Opium's 5000 year history in the Hall of Opium


Lakes and Waterfalls

A Drive to the Laos Border

Hop the border: Pop over to Myanmar's Tachilek via Mae Sai, visiting the market on this side of the border, and visiting the Shan village and temple on the Burmese side of the border. You can also cross the Mekong River from Chiang Kong (a 2.5 hour drive from Chiang Rai) to the Laotian town of Huay Xai. Here is a great place to catch a 2 day river cruise on the Mekong River taking you to Luang Prabang in Laos, a charming small city with Unesco World Heritage status.

Chiang Saen Lake


Nature

Trekking & Cycling

Head for the hills: Visit Doi Tung, site of the late Princess Mother's former royal retreat and on-site museum which showcases efforts of the royal project to eradicate poppy cultivation in the region. Further afield – and possible to combine on the same day trip – is Mae Salong, a hilltop village inhabited by a Kuomintang army party who fled communist China via Burma in the early 1960s. Visit the tea plantations, the mausoleum of General Tuan, and Phra Boromathat Chedi, the latter stupa built in honor of the late Princess Mother.

Mountain biking Phu Chi Fa


Markets & Shopping

The biggest shopping center is Central Plaza, a popular all-in-one meeting point for locals and tourists located just south of city center, with tenants including restaurants, movie theater, supermarket, plus handicrafts shops on the ground floor. Across the road is Big C, the other (and smaller) shopping center, a hypermarket that has everything from hair salons and karaoke booths to aisles upon aisles of food and household items.

Every Saturday, the 1.5 kilometer stretch of Thanalai Road closes off to the traffic as vendors set up shop for the weekly Saturday Walking Street from about 4 or 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. An array of local cuisine can be sampled at the open-air food court between browsing the stands selling everything from handicrafts to herbal products. 

Walking Street

There's also a smaller Sankhongnoi Happy Street – a.k.a. Sunday Walking Street – named after the street it is located on, also with the same lively yet laid-back vibe, and featuring plenty of food and performances to entertain the non-shopper. If you're not around for the weekend, you can still pick up your souvenirs or stretch the trekked-out legs at the Night Bazaar near the bus station. Orient yourself by locating the golden clock tower in the middle of the small city.

Handwoven scarf made by Karen Hilltribe women


Restaurants & Nightlife

Hungry travelers would not have to look far for a decent meal in Chiang Rai – the offerings range from the myriad options at the Night Bazaar food court to the high end culinary experiences at five star resort restaurants.

Situated about 15 minutes drive from town, there are a handful of local bamboo hut restaurants on Chiang Rai “Beach” that offer lunch with a view over Mae Khok River. Note: “local” means bring a local, or lean your basic Thai food phrases!

On the main thoroughfare Paholyothin Road near the clock tower, visitors have a choice of tastes, including Da Vinci Italian Restaurant, Aye's with Thai and international food, and Old Dutch with pan-European and global dishes. Nearby and situated opposite the bus station, Baan Chivit Mai serves mouthwatering bakery items with a good cause – the charity set-up provides training to underprivileged hilltribe kids. 

Enjoy tasty relaxing meals on the Mae Khok River

Dining Out at the Night Bazzar

For an unhurried afternoon tea try Doi Chang located near the Night Bazaar and known for their fair trade coffee cultivated locally, or Chivit Thamma Da, housed in homely colonial building on the banks of the river. Just north of the clock tower on Thanalai Road in the same building as the Hilltribe Museum, Cabbages & Condoms serves surprisingly good food (though slightly pricey). Nearby on the same road, Phu Lae restaurant hits the spot for northern Thai cravings, including flavor-packed hang-lay curry and sai-ua sausages. Chiang Rai's nightlife is quite modest compared with say Chiang Mai. Most watering holes are found down Jedyod Road, serving simple drinks, pool tables, sports streaming on the television, and curbside seating, perfect to perch and watch the world drift on by. Of the more notable establishments is Cat Bar, featuring live jam sessions most late nights, and Coconut Bar.

Dining Al Fresco at the The Chiang Rai Night Bazzar is sure to provide many delicious choices


Getting Around Chiang Rai

From the Airport

Upon arrival at Mae Fah Luang International Airport, visitors have to walk some 300 meters outside the terminal and outside the actual airport to get a metered taxi, whether you called for one in advance or not.

The other choice is to pay the flat fee of THB 200 (~US$6.40) to get from the airport to downtown, but we like the metered option.

Taxi's and Tuk Tuk's

Sam-lor (literally “three wheels”) are human-powered cyclos that can get you around downtown, a small area which is easily explorable on foot. Tuk-tuks, the fuel-powered version tricycle, as well as songtaew's are also convenient ways to zip around town.

To explore the surrounding areas outside of downtown at your own pace, there is a selection of local and chain car rental branches, the latter including Sixt, Avis, and Budget.

In 2012, Chiang Rai introduced yellow-and-blue metered taxis. As they are not “allowed” to park everywhere, it's best to call and book one in advance at +66 (0)53.773.477 if you have a fixed travel time.

Getting In and Out of Chiang Rai

By Air

Thai Airways operated thrice-daily flights to Chiang Rai from Bangkok, landing at Mae Fah Luang International Airport approximately 1hr20mins after take off.

Air Asia and Nok Air also service this route from Bangkok's Don Mueang Airport.

The only international connection to this airport is from Kunming, China, on China Eastern Airlines.

By Train

The closest train station to Chiang Rai is in Chiang Mai. After arriving from Bangkok, Chiang Rai-bound passengers would then have to make their way to Chiang Mai's main Arcade bus station transfer to the final destination (buses leave regularly and often throughout the day), a journey of between three and four hours.

By Bus

From Bangkok, there are several buses that leave from the capital's main Mo Chit bus terminal, ranging from standard air-conditioned 55-seaters to VIP buses with just 24 comfy seats. The latter costs approximately THB900 (~US$29) for a one-way journey which takes anywhere between 11 to 13 hours. You can also check out bus options from the Ekamai Bus Terminal in Bangkok. The Chiang Mai bus terminal of course serves Chiang Rai daily with various departure times throughout the day making for about 4.5 hour journey depending on frequent the bus stops.

By Car

Visitors can feasibly also drive from Bangkok to Chiang Rai, which would take slightly less time than a bus. Because it's a fair bit of a drive, travelers can also consider breaking up the drive into two or even three days and see the sites along the way. Spending a night midway at Sukhothai is always a great idea.

Consider booking our guided private SUV tour that starts in Chiang Mai and does a 3 day golden triangle private excursion - see all the sights in comfort.