Everything you need to know about a trip to Chiang Rai.
In the misty mountains far in the north of Thailand, near the borders of Laos and Myanmar, lies Chiang Rai, a city rich in culture, temples and spectacular mountain scenery.
The less visited sister of the former capital of the Lanna Kingdom Chiang Mai, this sometimes overlooked city boasts an abundance of things to do and see, and it’s a great spot for tourists where they are assured a warm welcome, great food and a wealth of sites and attractions.
Read on to discover all the essential information you need to know about the marvelous Northern Thai city of Chiang Rai…
- 1 Chiang Rai Weather
- 2 How to Get to Chiang Rai
- 3 Things to do in Chiang Rai
- 4 Where to Stay in Chiang Rai
Chiang Rai Weather
Although it is the northernmost city in Thailand, Chiang Mai nevertheless enjoys a warm climate, especially in the summer months when temperatures can rise well into the 30° Cs.
From July to September is the peak of the rainy season, and while temperatures remain hot, the city and its surrounds can experience regular rain showers.
When it falls, the rain is rarely cold and showers tend to last only an hour or two, so this shouldn’t be counted as a reason not to visit Chiang Rai during this time of year — simply equip yourself with an umbrella or a poncho like the locals and make the most of the fact that there are fewer crowds.
The weather in Chiang Rai in the cool season from December to March does see a drop in temperatures, with averages in the mid 20° Cs.
That said, it rarely gets uncomfortably cold, although a light jacket at this time of year is a must — particularly in the evenings.
The best time to visit Chiang Rai is during the transition between the cool season and the hot season, or at the end of the rainy season when the mists clear and the air is fresh.
How to Get to Chiang Rai
Typically visitors to the city of Chiang Rai get there via Bangkok or Chiang Mai.
Depending on which city you are coming from there are various different choices of transport. Here’s the lowdown…
Travelling to Chiang Rai from Bangkok
By far the quickest way to reach Chiang Rai from Bangkok is by air travel.
There are multiple direct flights available to Chiang Rai airport provided by low cost carriers Nok Air and Thai Lion Air — as well as Air Asia — departing daily from Don Mueang International airport in the north of Bangkok, as well as daily flights with Bangkok Airways and Thai Smile Airways departing from the larger Suvarnabhumi Airport.
Flights departing from both airports take around an hour and a half from takeoff to touchdown.
Prices vary, but expect to pay between 1500 and 2000 THB on average for a one way flight.
There are no direct trains from Bangkok to Chiang Rai.
It is however possible to get a train to Chiang Mai and then make your way to Chiang Rai from there by other means. Trains to Chiang Mai have a journey time of around twelve hours.
If you’re not bothered about taking in the scenery on the way, your best bet is to take a night train and book a bunk.
Prices are anything from 600 THB for a seat up to 2000 THB for a first class sleeper. Trains to Chiang Mai from Bangkok depart from Hua Lamphong train station in the centre of the city.
One of the most affordable ways to get to Chiang Rai from Bangkok is by taking a direct bus from Bangkok’s northern bus terminal Mochit.
Most buses travel overnight with the journey taking anything from twelve to fourteen hours.
Bangkok Busline, Siam First and Budsarakham all operate direct routes from Mochit to Chiang Rai bus stations.
Tickets cost approximately 500 to 700 THB depending on whether you choose a first class ticket on a bus with air conditioning, or an economy ticket.
Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai
There is no train station in Chiang Rai, and the distance between Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai doesn’t merit taking a plane (in fact there are very few flights between the two airports).
Aside from taking your own transport and making your own way to Chiang Rai, the best options are to make the journey by bus or minivan…
By far the most popular way to get to Chiang Rai from Chiang Mai is by bus from the Arcade Bus Station to the north of the city. It’s cheap, easy and relatively fast.
With only 125 miles separating the two cities, the journey takes about three to four hours, and there is some stunning scenery along the way.
Tickets can be purchased directly from the bus station kiosk, and prices start from as little as 140 THB, but it’s worth investing a little extra in a VIP ticket on a Green Bus (around 300 THB) for a much more comfortable and safe experience (with a toilet).
On arrival in Chiang Rai, there is a choice of two bus stations where you can stop, with one being in the town centre and the other on the outskirts of the city to the south.
Take a look at this video for a taster of the journey:
An alternative to the bus is to take a VIP minivan which can be booked through travel agents around the city.
This option is marginally more expensive than taking the bus, costing an average of 400 THB.
Although comfortable and fast, hiring taxis to take you from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai can be an expensive business compared to taking the bus.
Expect to pay a minimum of 2000 THB.
Things to do in Chiang Rai
White Temple Chiang Rai
The glistening white peaks of Chiang Rai’s most famous tourist attraction look as if they have been skillfully carved from blocks of crystal.
In fact, the walls of the White Temple (also known as Wat Rong Khun) are studded with tiny fragments of white glass which glitter in the sun to symbolise the purity and wisdom of the Buddha.
Construction of this modern ‘temple’ — it’s really more of a work of art than a worship site — on an existing older temple site started in 1997, and to date the works remain unfinished.
Sadly in addition to this, earthquakes in 2014 caused some damage to the structure which somewhat delayed the ongoing building works.
However although the White temple Chiang Rai is a work in progress, its ethereal beauty remains intact, and is without doubt a must see for any visitor to the city.
- Location: 13 km south of the city centre
- Open: Daily from 06:30 am to 5:30 pm
Bizarre and a little disturbing — yet strangely compelling — Baan Dam (otherwise known as the Black House) provides a stark contrast to the White Temple.
This extraordinary building lies within a park filled with strange sculptures and art installations.
The park and house are the lifetime’s work of local and nationally renowned artist Thawan Duchanee, and themes revolve around the artist’s commentaries on the human condition.
The Black House itself has an ambience as dark as the colour of its walls, decorated with blackened, twisted animal bones, skulls and skins.
- Location: Ban Du district, north of Chiang Rai
- Open: Daily from 9 am to 12 pm and from 1 pm to 5 pm
Formerly the world’s largest producer of opium, a visit to the Golden Triangle in modern times offers the unique opportunity to be in three countries at the same time — Thailand, Myanmar and Laos — and it also marks the convergence of the majestic Ruak and Mekong rivers.
Situated amongst luxuriant tropical jungle and majestic mountains, and a excursion to the site provides the occasion to admire the view, take a riverboat trip, or shop at the nearby bustling Mae Sai open air market.
The best way to get to the Golden Triangle from Chiang Rai is to take an organised tour or hire a private taxi to take you there.
Hilltribe Museum and Education Center
The hills around Chiang Rai are still home to many hill tribe peoples including the Karen, Hmong and Lahu tribes.
Run by a non-profit organisation, the Hilltribe Museum and Education Centre is the ideal place to gain fascinating insight into the history, culture and way of life of the various different hill tribes.
Intriguing exhibits include clothing, local crafts, tools, and other anthropological objects.
- Location: 3rd. Flr., PDA Building, 620/25 Thanalai Road, Chiang Rai 57000
- Open: Monday to Friday from 8:30 am to 6 pm, weekends from 10 am to 6 pm
Chiang Rai Night Bazaar
The Thais love a good market, and nothing beats the hectic yet magical atmosphere of the night markets.
Chiang Rai Night Bazaar is the smaller version of the huge night market in Chiang Mai, but although it’s on a smaller scale a visit here is still a whole lot of fun and it’s possible to pick up some great bargains including hill tribe handicrafts, clothing, jewellery and other souvenirs.
It’s also an excellent place for foodies, who will love the delicious traditional Northern Thai street food and snacks available in the food courts.
- Location: Thansai Road, Off Phaholyothin Rd, Chiang Rai
- Open: Daily from 6 pm to midnight
Wat Phra Kaew Chiang Rai
One of the city’s oldest and most revered temples, Wat Phra Kaew is allegedly where the infamous Emerald Buddha was first discovered in 1434 (the Emerald Buddha is now housed in Wat Phra Kaew near the Grand Palace in Bangkok).
Today a replica of the original Emerald Buddha carved from jade can be seen on display here.
The temple has several structures built in the traditional Lanna style, and there is a modern museum on the site dedicated to displaying artifacts from the Lanna era.
- Location: Trairat Road, Chiang Rai
- Open: Daily 7 am to 7 pm
Wat Phra Singh
Over 700 years old, Wat Phra Singh is built in the Lanna style with magnificently carved doors and other architectural features, and the main shrine is beautifully decorated with painted murals.
A tree in the temple grounds is encircled by brightly painted niches holding golden Buddha images in various different positions, and the grounds also contain a Pali language school which teaches the language in which the ancient Buddhist scriptures are written.
- Location: Intersection of Singhaclai road and Tha Luang road, Chiang Rai
- Open: Daily from 6 am to 5 pm
Oub Kham Museum
Discover a history spanning over one thousand years of the different Tai groups of Southeast Asia including the Lanna peoples at the Oub Kham Museum.
A remarkable array of artifacts which contains exhibits of elaborate royal regalia, an impressive golden throne, and a whole host of other unique and precious items.
The grounds of the museum are beautifully maintained, and also hold a number of sculptures and fountains.
- Location: 81/1 Nakai Road, Chiang Rai
- Open: Daily from 8 am to 5 pm
Mae Fah Luang Art & Culture Park
Enjoying royal patronage since its foundation in the 1970s, Mae Fah Luang Art & Culture Park houses the largest collection of Lanna and Tai artifacts in the region.
Perhaps an even more alluring aspect of the museum though are its stunning gardens featuring rare botanical specimens and dazzling floral displays.
Hidden amongst the tropical foliage visitors will find ponds, pavilions, sculptures and spirit houses. It’s a wonderful, tranquil place to while away a few hours.
- Location: 313 Moo 7, Baan Pa Ngiew Road
- Open: Tuesday to Sunday from 8 am to 6 pm
Beer lovers will be familiar with the golden, rather draconic Singha lion emblem that graces the label of the famous Thai beverage, and which can also be seen in the form of a huge sculpture at the entrance of Singha Park.
But although the park is owned by the brewery that created Singha beer, there’s not a beer in sight at this vast green park expanse covering over 3000 acres filled with plants, lakes and meadows, and with many attractions such as a farm, a small zoo, an electric tram, tea plantations and activities for the kids.
- Location: 99 Moo 1, Mae Korn, Amphoe Chiang Rai, Chaing Rai
- Open: Daily from 9 am to 6 pm
Where to Stay in Chiang Rai
For some serious 5 star glamping you won’t find better than the Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle.
In an unprecedented jungle location, hotel guests have the opportunity to interact with rescued elephants in their natural habitat, explore leafy mountain trails and blast along the river in a traditional longtail boat.
The luxurious tent accommodations are huge and lavishly appointed in an elegant tropical style, and feature wooden decks with hot tubs overlooking the jungle paradise.
The traditional Thai spa offers massages and treatments enhanced by the healing power of mountain botanicals and local warming spices in a bamboo forest setting.
Dining is top notch too, with the restaurant serving Thai, Laotian, Burmese, and Western delights, and the open air bar is the perfect place to unwind.
- Riverside swimming pool
- Luxury accommodation
- Multiple excursions
Occupying an idyllic site on the banks of the Kok river, Le Meridien Chiang Rai Resort is an exceptional 5 star hotel where the beautiful landscape blends with Lanna influenced contemporary design and a warm Thai welcome.
Comfortable and spacious guestrooms are the epitome of minimal chic, and feature private balconies and open air rain showers.
The Parvati Spa offers a range of restful massages and treatments, and yoga classes and a state of the art gym are also available.
The resort’s three-step pool is located outdoors along the Mae Kok river beside the resort lake, providing a scenic background for all guests while swimming.
Sumptuous international cuisine in a sophisticated setting is offered at the hotel’s Latest Recipe restaurant, or guests can dine on Italian fare in an intimate and romantic riverside setting. The stylish bar has everything from fine wines to exclusive crafted cocktails.
- Spa and wellness centre
- Fitness centre
- Bar and poolside bar
- Outdoor swimming pool
- Choice of 2 restaurants
- Excursions offered
In the heart of Chiang Rai city, The Mantrini Chiang Rai 4 star boutique hotel offers guests tasteful, modern and comfortable accommodations with en suite bathrooms, air conditioning, cable TV, and either city or garden views.
The hotel is arranged around a large central courtyard containing the delightful open air swimming pool with terrace and Jacuzzi.
The hotel’s two restaurants feature inventive Italian and Thai cuisine.
- City centre location
- Swimming pool
- Jacuzzi and sun terrace
The 4 star Legend Chiang Rai Boutique River Resort & Spa is a boutique hotel set in nature on the banks of the river Kok.
The hotel has an authentic Lanna atmosphere with traditional Thai architectural details and artworks by local artists.
The 78 well sized rooms and villas set in tropical gardens feature teak wood furniture, outdoor showers, and private open air seating areas, with villas benefitting from private pools.
An infinity pool right next to the river offers panoramic views of the lush surroundings, and the hotel’s opulent spa offering traditional Thai herbal treatments is set in tranquil gardens with trickling fountains. A newly renovated gym has everything you need to keep yourself in top form.
The riverside terrace restaurant has a romantic and relaxing atmosphere in which to enjoy both western and Thai cuisine, and the garden restaurant is the perfect setting for intimate evenings with barbeques and cocktails as you watch the sun sink below the horizon.
- Infinity pool
- Fitness centre
- Riverside location
- Choice of 2 restaurants
What are your favourite things to do in Chiang Rai?
Featured image is by Atibordee Kongprepan (CC BY-ND 2.0 licence)