Chiang Rai - The City of Surreal Temples
Often overshadowed by its similarly named neighbor, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai is truly an underrated gem. The city is best known for its otherworldly temples but its relaxed small-town energy could keep you there for days. We spent 5 days in this amazing city and felt immediately at home. Here is everything you need to know if you're thinking about visiting Chiang Rai.
Things to do in Chiang Rai
The White Temple (Wat Rong Khun)
This is Chiang Rai's most renowned attraction, with tourists both local and international traveling to Chiang Rai exclusively to see it. The temple was built by a contemporary artist and looks more like a modern art sculpture than a Buddhist temple. The pristine white temple is covered in ornate glass details and dark, twisted sculptures. There's really no way to describe it and do it justice. Like many of the temples in Thailand, you are required to cover your shoulders and knees in order to enter. Sarongs are available to rent across the street for less than $1 USD. Unfortunately, the unique beauty of this temple brings giant crowds! Visit this place as early as you can to minimize your stress.
The Blue Temple (Wat Rong Seur Ten)
The Blue Temple is less popular than the White Temple but has equally stunning architecture. In fact, the architect behind the Blue Temple was a student of the person who designed the White Temple. The color blue is said to have calming qualities and you can really feel this in the Blue Temple. On the inside, a large statue of Buddha is lit with slowly pulsing blue lights, making it a peaceful place to sit and meditate. On the exterior, there are so many interesting dragon-themed structures to explore. The dress code for this temple seems to be laxer, but they provide free sarongs at the entrance of the temple so you can cover up.
Big "Buddha" (Wat Huay Pla Kang)
Wat Hauy Pla Kang is a small temple complex that has a 9-story pagoda, a stunning white marble temple and a giant statue of Guan Yin (not actually Buddha), the goddess of mercy. Entrance to the complex is free but for 40 baht you can take an elevator to the top of the Guan Yin statue. Supposedly, you can see gorgeous views of Chiang Rai from the top but we were feeling cheap that day and didn't go up. The complex is surrounded by mountains and is much quieter than the white and blue temples. While we were there they were playing mesmerizing Buddhist music and we could easily get lost in the peaceful ambiance for hours.
The Tea Plantations
There are several tea plantations around Chiang Rai to choose from. Choui Fong Tea Farm is the largest and best-known in the area. This plantation is located about an hour outside of Chiang Rai city and is blessed with the best scenery, being completely surrounded by mountains. They are also known for having delicious green tea cakes and drinks. If you're not feeling the hour trek, Singha Park is another place where you can view fluffy rows of tea plants and is only 20 minutes outside of the city.
The Elephant Sanctuaries
There is a lot of controversy around elephant tourism especially in Thailand and many unethical ones do exist so it's important to do your research before you visit one! When choosing an elephant sanctuary, avoid ones that offer rides to tourist or force the elephants to perform tricks for tourists.
We went with Elephant Valley Thailand. This sanctuary places the health and wellbeing of the elephants first, which means the interaction with tourists is limited. For most of the time, we walked around the elephants' area with a guide, maintaining at least 15 meters between us and them. The guide introduced us to each of their elephants, explaining their different personalities and mannerisms. Then we were able to watch the mahouts bathe the elephants and finally fed each of the elephants a banana from behind a fence. We left having learned so much about elephants and could rest assured that we weren't contributing to animal abuse.
The Night Market
The Chiang Rai Night Bazaar pops up daily from 6 pm to 11 pm. Here you can shop for everything from handicrafts made by the hill-tribes to cheap souvenirs and knockoff designer goods. The highlight of the night market, however, is its food. At the epicenter of the market is a large outdoor food court surrounded by food stalls. I've never seen hotpot served as street food before but it is huge here and it only costs $3 USD for two people! Otherwise, you can find all the Thai classics including our favorite, mango sticky rice!
The Cat Cafe
We walked by Cat n' a Cup a few times before we caved and decided to go. We had only ever visited one other cat cafe in Tokyo where many of the cats were deformed and seemed drugged. Luckily, this cat cafe was nothing like that! The cats are treated kindly and are very lively and friendly! On top of their cute cats, the cafe has really good Thai teas and food as well! This is a great place to have lunch and laugh at cats doing weird things for a few hours.
Trolley Tour Through Chiang Rai City
We heard about this tour from the women working at our hotel. At the tourist center behind the King Mengrai Monument, you can sign up for a free tram tour which leaves at 9:30 am and 1:30 pm daily. While the tour is mostly conducted in Thai, it was still interesting to see all the sights around the city. Ask for an English brochure before the tour leaves so you have a better understanding of what you are seeing. The tour stops at 5 temples around the city and the famous clock tower, which was built by the designer of the White Temple.
Two more activities we skipped
There are two more popular attractions that we skipped but I'll list them here so you can decide if you want to go for yourself.
Black House is the most peculiar thing to do in Chiang Rai. The Black House actually consists of around 40 buildings that display the controversial artwork of Thawan Duchanee. His artwork involves a lot of animal skins, skulls, and phallic sculptures, so not the most family-friendly place to visit (be sure to check out the hilarious reviews on TripAdvisor!). We were slightly intrigued but the 20-minute drive was out of the way for us.
Another popular thing to do in Chiang Rai is to visit the Golden Triangle. The Golden Triangle is where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos meet. Sounds cool in theory but the area is actually very touristy, with tons of souvenir shops and group tours passing through. The drive from Chiang Rai city is also almost an hour an a half so we skipped on this one.
When to Visit Chiang Rai
The weather in northern Thailand is divided into three seasons: cool, hot, and rainy. In Chiang Rai, the cool season lasts from October through February and is the most comfortable time of the year to visit. Also, keep in mind that "cool" here means highs of 87°F (31°C) and lows of 55°F (13°C) so you'll need clothing to suit a wide range of temperatures.
The hot season lasts from March through May with temperatures reaching up to 95°F (35°C) and the rainy season lasts from June through September. Since the rain falls in short bursts and so many of the Chiang Rai attractions are indoors, the rainy season would be a nice time to visit for smaller crowds.
How to Get to Chiang Rai
Fly from Bangkok
There are incredibly cheap flights going from Bangkok to Chiang Rai, like $16 USD each way cheap, and the flight is only 1 hour 25 min. Note that if you including taxis to and from the airport as well as checked baggage fees, you could be looking at closer to $50 one-way.
Overnight bus from Bangkok
This is the route we took. Tickets are about $18 USD per person and you get to save on accommodation for the night. The overnight buses take between 11 and 13 hours to reach Chiang Rai and they are fairly comfortable with reclining seats and footrests. They also provided a bunch of snacks and water for free!
Bus from Chiang Mai
If you're coming from Chiang Mai, taking the bus is the cheapest and easiest option. The ride only takes about 3 hours and the bus fare is less than $6 USD.
Day trip from Chiang Mai
There's so much to do and see in Chiang Rai that it definitely deserves more than just one day! However, if you're extremely pressed for time, check out this day tour. They will pick you up from Chiang Mai and take you to some hot springs, the White Temple, the Blue Temple, and a lake cruise. It costs around $27 USD and lasts 12-13 hours.
Getting Around Chiang Rai
Chiang Rai city itself is very small and easily explored on foot. However, most of the main attractions are located outside the city. We rented a scooter for $6 USD per 24 hours. Tuk-tuks, taxis, and Grab are all readily available in Chiang Rai but will cost more than twice the price of scootering around.
Where to Eat in Chiang Rai
Cub house coffee - An awesome coffee shop mixed with a custom bike shop. A little on the pricey side for Thai standards, but cool vibes.
Chiang Rai Night Bazaar - We ate here almost every night. You can really get any Thai dish you want here. The highlights are the hotpot, khao soi, and mango sticky rice, all for under $2 USD per person.
Where to Stay in Chiang Rai
$ - Baansiri Chiangrai - This is where we stayed and it was perfect! The staff was so hospitable and gave us maps of Chiang Rai and recommendations on things to do. The rooms were also very spacious and clean and included free coffee, tea, and snacks.
$$ - Pah - This hotel looks so cool. They serve floating breakfasts in their pool and have free minibars in the rooms.
$$$ - The Riverie - One of the best 5-star hotels in Chiang Rai. Their outdoor pool looks bigger than a football field.
Chiang Rai was our favorite destination in northern Thailand. Hopefully, this article inspires you to pay it a visit!
More on Thailand
If you're interested in how we budgeted for Thailand, read: How to live in Thailand for under $1000/month.