Chiang Rai. Often playing second fiddle to its more vibrant neighbors down south, the city of Chiang Rai is perhaps well-known to most as a pitstop for an attraction or two or as a gateway to some national parks in Northern Thailand. I visited this city recently as a weekend trip and found it a worthwhile destination in its own right, with plenty of attractions to keep one busy especially with a duration of just two days. Here are my suggestions of places you can visit in this city:
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Wat Rong Khun (White Temple)
I started my trip to Chiang Rai at the city’s most famous attraction – Wat Rong Khun or the White Temple located about 10 kilometers from the center of town. It’s as much a museum as it is a temple. This is one of Thailand’s most popular tourist attractions so there’s actually a queue to enter the glittering white prayer hall. The temple was built and self-funded by Thai artist, Chaloemchai Khositphiphat and remains a work-in-progress to this day, same with the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.
To get here, I hired a taxi which cost around 200 to 300 baht for a return trip.
Tip: Best time to go to this temple is early in the morning before 9am. Outside of these hours, the temple is packed with tourists and you will have to queue to enter.
Opening hours: 6:30 to 18:00 daily (temple); 8:00 to 17:00 (museum)
Black House (Baan Dam Museum)
The Black House is another cultural complex built by an artist, more specifically Thai artist, Thawan Duchanee. Spread over a couple of hectares of land are no less than 40 structures showcasing Lanna and other Thai architectural styles. The interiors are quite unusual. Expect to see a lot of buffalo horns, shells, paintings and other woodwork.
It is a bit out of the way and I ended up chartering a taxi for 300 baht for a return trip from downtown Chiang Rai. Admission to the museum is free. The guard at the entrance refuses entry to anyone carrying mineral water bottles so be warned.
Opening hours: 9:00 to 17:00 daily (1 hour break from 12:00 to 13:00)
Admission: THB 80
Mae Fa Luang Cultural Park
Far more serene and picturesque than the Black House in my opinion is the Mae Fa Luang Cultural Park (not to be confused with Mae Fa Luang Gardens which is located north of town) located just a few kilometers west of the city center. The verdant compound has a lake as its centerpiece, where reflections of the Lanna-style pavilions can be seen early in the day or late in the afternoon.
Most visitors come here to wander around and relax amidst the serene surroundings. A highlight is the Haw Kaew pavilion which houses traditional woodwork coming from the various Northern Thai provinces.
Opening hours: 7:00 to 17:00 daily
Admission: THB 200
Temples in Chiang Rai
Like Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai is dotted with temples around town. Though they are arguably not as impressive as in the former, a couple are still worth a visit especially since many of them are within walking distance of each other. Here are some recommendations:
Wat Phra Kaew
The temple that visitors most often visit in Chiang Rai – aside from the White Temple – is this sprawling religious site which was the original home of the Emerald Buddha.
Today, the Emerald Buddha is no longer there but a replica is housed in the ordination hall behind the vihara. I chanced upon the temple on a Sunday with tons of local tourists all over Thailand at the temple grounds. Beside the vihara is a Lanna museum, housed inside an intricately built Thai-style house with dark wood panels which is also worth checking out.
Wat Phra Singh
Although not as grand as its namesake temple in Chiang Mai, the Wat Phra Singh in Chiang Rai is also worth a visit as it is along the way when traveling between the city center and Wat Phra Kaew. I don’t have much recollection of this temple except that it features a vihara that is set in parallel to a small chapel. That being said, it’s quite a popular temple among locals.
Wat Klang Wiang
Though not a particularly famous temple in Chiang Rai (I was the only visitor when I went), this is a must-see for its ornate white chedi with sculpted elephant statues around it.
The vihara is also elaborately done, with intricate carvings at the façade. As I walked to the temple’s rear, I spotted a couple of interesting sights such as a board that essentially promotes the idea of conflict avoidance, a trait which seems to prevail in Thailand.
Wat Jet Yot
The last temple I visited was Wat Jet Yot, primarily because it’s just around the corner from the hostel I was staying in. It’s a small and quiet temple set on quite spacious grounds consisting of a vihara. Apart from that, I don’t really consider it as a must see.
A commonly-used symbol of Chiang Rai, the golden tower sparkles in the day and is floodlit at night. It was designed by the same artist who created the White Temple so the intricate artwork is not entirely surprising. At night, there’s a little light show at the clock tower where it turns to different colors. If you’re heading your way to the walking street, then it’s worth stopping by for a few minutes.
Even though this is the default “clock tower” of the city, it’s not the original one. That would be the unimpressive clock tower situated a couple of blocks north near the market.
Eat Khao Soi
A trip to Chiang Rai (or Northern Thailand for that matter) would be incomplete without having a taste of Khao Soi or spicy and crispy curry noodles. While many places serve this Northern Thai staple, Por Jai is arguably the best place to try it in Chiang Rai. I happened to stumble upon this unassuming eatery by accident as I was looking for something to eat. Located at Jet Yot Road a few steps south of the clock tower, the noodles are great and affordable, at only 35 Baht per bowl. I ended up having two!
Saturday Walking Street
If you happen to be in Chiang Rai over the weekend, a visit to this fascinating night market is definitely a must. I loved the night market in Chiang Mai when I was there three years ago so I was curious to see how Chiang Rai’s would compare.
The Saturday Walking Street of Chiang Rai which is located in Thanalai Road is actually quite extensive, even though Chiang Rai is not as big as Chiang Rai. Come here with an open mind. It starts at 6pm. You’ll see some pretty exotic snacks, handicrafts made by the hill tribes as well as the run-of-the-mill clothes. With the many food stalls in the market, many also opt to have their dinner there.
Opening hours: The stores will start to be set up at around 17:00 on Saturdays
Other Places to Visit Around Chiang Rai:
- Golden Triangle – the place where Thailand meets Myanmar and Laos
- Visit hill tribe villages
- Bask in the scenery of Doi Tung, and while there visit the Mae Fa Luang Gardens if you like flowers and Wat Doi Tung if you want to see more temples
Where to stay in Chiang Rai
My main consideration when it came to my lodging in the city was the proximity to the city center. Most of the chain hotels are situated in the outskirts so those were a no for me. I ended up staying at Mercy Hostel, located just behind Wat Jet Yot in the city center. From there, it’s an easy 5 to 10 minute walk to the clock tower and the Saturday Walking Street. They charged only 800 Baht for a private airconditioned room with double bed. You can book this hostel here and compare for the best prices.