Welcome to Chiang Rai!
Deep in the north of the country, close to the borders of Myanmar and Laos, Chiang Rai, Thailand, has a reputation as a relaxed backpacker hangout nestled among some of the region’s most beautiful scenery. Scratch beneath the surface, however, to discover a city with a unique character and a rich array of sights, sounds, and experiences.
A worldwide local will see beyond the backpacker jaunts selling fruit smoothies to the tune of Bob Marley, and discover the culture and charm of this profoundly traditional corner of Thailand. Here is our guide to getting the most out of your stay in Chiang Rai.
Where to Begin
Chiang Rai is a town that makes you work for your enjoyment and may, at first, seem like any other provincial Thai town, with the rows of nondescript buildings and busy intersections. To begin to understand what makes the city tick, start by visiting the Baan Dam Museum, known affectionately as the Black Temple, to experience the excellent range of local arts and crafts on display. The temple of Wat Ming Muang is said to be home to the spirit of the city, while the impressive Wat Phra Kaew, with its magnificent Emerald Buddha, leaves no doubt as to the central role of Buddhism in daily life. In the relatively modern Wat Rong Khun or White Temple, Chiang Rai captures the imagination of visitors. It is well worth the short journey out of town.
Worldwide Local Tip: The White Temple, without a doubt, is one of the top attractions in Chiang Rai, and can be incredibly busy. Beat the tour groups by taking an early morning bus from Platform 8 of Chiang Rai bus station (ask the manager of your Chiang Rai hotel for directions if you are confused). The journey takes just 30 minutes and the cost is very affordable.
While the city center is best navigated on foot, many of the local attractions are scattered around the local countryside, meaning some form of motorized transport is key. Busses are not only cheap and frequent but offer a great chance to interact with local Thais, as you will undoubtedly have to ask for help and directions. Alternatively, hiring a motorcycle or scooter can be both cost-effective and great fun. Remember to always carry your driver’s license with you, the Police carry out regular checks on foreigners and the fines can be steep.
Worldwide Local Tip: Motorcycle rental scams are commonplace throughout Thailand, so be sure to use a reputable rental agency wherever possible. If possible, try to rent through your hotel, and never leave your passport as a deposit or guarantee.
Stand in Three Countries at Once
Once you’ve had your fill of Temples and galleries, hit the open road, heading north towards the famous Golden Triangle area where the borders of Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos all meet at a point. You will soon find yourself among some of Thailand’s most beautiful countryside lined with farms, tea plantations, and charming villages.
Worldwide Local Tip: Choui Fong Tea Plantation makes a great half-day trip from Chiang Rai. You have the chance to explore the vast plantations on foot before seeing how the tea is picked and processed. Then you enjoy a freshly brewed cup overlooking the estate, soaking up the beautiful Chiang Rai weather.
Food in Chiang Rai
As is the case in much of Thailand, some of the very best food is found not only in the large restaurants but also on the side of the road. A popular evening hangout among tourists and locals is in the streets surrounding the city’s famous golden clock, where you can eat a steaming plate of Pad Thai while admiring the most extravagant of monuments. Alternatively, the night bazaar near the central bus station is home to a number of vendors serving up a variety of local and international favorites at pocket-friendly prices. Be sure to try a bowl of Khao Soi, a Burmese style chicken curry soup with egg noodles, fresh shallots, and lime. It’s delicious!
Worldwide Local Tip: Dingy from the outside, restaurant Phochai (sometimes spelled Po Sai) is said to serve some of the best Khao Soi in the city; it is almost always packed with locals slurping their addictively spicy noodles.
Enjoy Your Time in Chiang Rai!
Chiang Rai is the very embodiment of understatedness. It may lack the beaches of Phuket or the wild nightlife of Bangkok, but a worldwide local will discover a city of culture and charm unlike any other--and may never want to leave!