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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.