Chiang Rai is an ideal destination for lovers of the outdoors. Soak up the beauty of Thailand’s northernmost province and hike along mountain trails, cycle past rice paddies or go rafting on rivers. Chiang Rai city is an excellent base to explore the natural wonders all around and learn more about the fascinating history of the region. Try to spend at least a few days sightseeing in and around the city before heading out into the Chiang Rai countryside. Take a look at the suggestions below for your Chiang Rai itinerary.
1) Admire the gardens at Doi Tung and Mae Fah Luang
Head into the mountains to enjoy the cooler air, wonderful views and gorgeous gardens at Doi Tung. Located an hour’s drive north of Chiang Rai city, the mountain of Doi Tung has strong royal connections and was a favourite destination for HRH Princess Srinagarindra, the mother of HM King Bhumibol Adulyadej. A royal villa was constructed here for the lady who was known as the Princess Mother and touchingly referred to by the hill-tribe communities she helped so much as ‘Mae Fah Luang’ (‘Royal Mother from the Sky’). Visit the Hall of Inspiration at Doi Tung to learn more about this special lady and the Royal Projects she established to empower hill-tribe communities.
The love and respect for HRH the Princess Mother cannot be underestimated and the Mae Fah Luang Foundation continues her remarkable legacy. When you visit Chiang Rai you will see the term of endearment, ‘Mae Fah Luang’ at a number of locations including the airport and the university. The name is also used for the gardens at Doi Tung and another lovely green space in the city, Mae Fah Luang Art and Cultural Park. If you can’t get enough of Chiang Rai’s beautiful parks and floral displays, Tung Garden in the heart of Chiang Rai city is another location worth seeking out.
2) Learn about hill-tribe communities
Chiang Rai is home to a number of different hill-tribe communities including Karen, Akha and Lisu. If you would like to go to one of the villages, pay a visit first to the informative Hill-Tribe Museum in downtown Chiang Rai where you can learn more about the culture of the different communities and be given tips on etiquette and responsible tourism. Staff at the museum can help you book tours or you can also take a look at some of the options available from Local Alike, an award-winning social enterprise that enables travellers to enjoy authentic community-based experiences.
3) Book a stay in the Golden Triangle
In the northern outreaches of Chiang Rai province, along the mighty Mekong River, is where Thailand meets neighbouring Burma and Laos. This border region, known as the Golden Triangle, was notorious in the past for opium production. The Royal Project initiatives have helped to end that and where poppies once flourished there are now tea and coffee plantations. Day tours to the Golden Triangle are fine if you are short on time and will allow you to see Sop Ruak at the centre of the Golden Triangle and the Opium Museum. However, to do the area justice consider staying for a few days in or around Sop Ruak. If you are on a budget, the historic riverside town of Chiang Saen is a good choice. If you are looking for luxury and a truly unique experience, book yourself into the amazing Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort or the equally wonderful, Four Seasons Tented Camp.
4) Take a trip to the White Temple
One of the most famous artists in Thailand, Chalermchai Kositpipat, is a Chiang Rai native. If you visit Chiang Rai you can see his distinctive style on display at a number of locations. Chalermchai’s best-known work is located in his home village of Rong Khun just outside Chiang Rai city. It was here in 1997 where he began his labour of love which visitors from around the world know today as the White Temple. A stunning mix of classic and contemporary styles, the structure is part religious facility and part art gallery. The white exterior shimmers in the sunlight and when you walk inside you are greeted with walls that feature thought-provoking contemporary artwork. In a land full of temples, this is one of the most extraordinary you will see.
5) Watch the light and sound show at the Golden Clocktower
Standing on the roadside looking at a roundabout might not sound very appealing. But this is no ordinary traffic roundabout. Located in the middle of the city, the Chiang Rai Golden Clocktower is another example of Chalermchai’s exquisite work. The ornate golden-coloured fretwork is stunning during the day, but takes on an even more impressive look at night. Each evening, a light and sound show entertains onlookers with the displays timed for 7pm, 8pm, 9pm and midnight. Pull up a chair at one of the nearby open-sided restaurants or bars, order some food or drink and enjoy the show.
6) Visit the Black House
Baan Dam (Black House) is the work of national artist, Thawan Duchanee. Sadly, Thawan passed away in 2014, but his creative legacy lives on at Baan Dam in his hometown of Chiang Rai. Baan Dam is a collection of buildings in a variety of styles. Some of the structures have the classic features associated with northern Thailand and then there are others, like the room in the shape of a whale, that are more outlandish. Thawan’s work reflects the themes of life, death, human suffering, and Buddhism. Baan Dam certainly won’t appeal to everybody, but it’s an interesting place to visit and one to look out for if you are visiting Chiang Rai. And if you would like to see more work from local artists, combine a trip to Baan Dam with a visit to Art Bridge Chiang Rai.
7) Travel to the Blue Temple
Already home to the Black House and the White Temple, Chiang Rai now has the Blue Temple. Completed in 2016, the temple is formally known as Wat Rong Seua Ten and is located across the Kok River to the north of Chiang Rai city centre. With deep blue hues on the exterior and interior artwork, this is a colourful twist on the designs that are usually seen at Thai temples. The artist who is credited with the design work is Phuttha Kabkaew, a student of Chalermchai Kositpipat the person behind the White Temple. Unlike the White Temple, photography is permitted inside the building. As an added bonus, the Blue Temple is close to the photogenic Chivit Thamma Da cafe and bistro so you can pop in there for a bite to eat and a coffee after your visit. And if you just can’t get enough of Chiang Rai’s photogenic temples, head north-west from Wat Rong Seua Ten and check out the scenic Wat Huay Pla Klang.
8) Enjoy the scenery at Singha Park
With its scenic trails, lakes, meadows, and restaurants, Singha Park is an enjoyable excursion from the city. Areas of the park are still a working farm with barley fields and tea plantations and there are also orchards and fields where visitors are allowed to pick fruit and vegetables. Hire a bicycle to ride around the expansive grounds or use the hop-on hop-off trams. A visit to Singha Park can easily be combined with a trip to the nearby White Temple.
9) Get on your bike
Chiang Rai is an excellent location for cycling. The climate is more forgiving than further south and there is a good choice of routes for riders of all abilities. Cycle along quiet country roads on an easy half-day tour or take on more challenging multi-day trips that take you around the Golden Triangle and beyond. Check out the variety of cycling tours available from Chiang Rai Bicycle Tours and Spice Roads for full details.
10) Laze on the beach
A beach? In Chiang Rai? This is the Thai sense of humour at play, but a trip to ‘Pattaya Noi’, also known as Chiang Rai Beach, is a fun way to while away an afternoon. Outside of the rainy season, the level of the Mae Kok River drops to expose a shoreline that is a mix of sand, shingle and mud. It’s not going to win any beauty contests and although it’s not the kind of beach you’d normally associate with Thailand, it is an enjoyable location to relax and enjoy some local atmosphere. Bamboo salas offer shade from the sun and an array of simple restaurants and food stalls serve up food and drink.
11) Cheer on ‘The Beetles’
The local football team, Chiang Rai United, were winners of the Thai FA Cup in 2017 and in 2019 they became champions of League 1, the top level of the Thai football league system. The team, who have the splendid nickname ‘The Beetles’, play their home matches at the Singha Stadium opposite Chiang Rai airport. Watching football in Thailand tends to be a sanuk experience and even if you’re not normally a sports fan, this can be a great way to spend an evening. Check dates of fixtures on the Chiang Rai United website.
12) Sample a taste of China at Doi Mae Salong (Santikhiri)
Located in the north-west of Chiang Rai province, Doi Mae Salong is a scenic mountain famous for sunflower fields and the terraced plantations that produce oolong tea. However, it wasn’t that long ago when this hillside looked very different and was a no-go zone for the general public.
The Chinese Civil War in the 1950s had repercussions for other countries in South-East Asia. Soldiers from the defeated Kuomintang (KMT) were forced out of China and many ended up in Burma. The 93rd Division of the KMT spent time in China, Burma and Thailand planning counter-attacks against the Chinese communist troops. The battle-hardened soldiers became involved in the lucrative opium trade along the borders of Thailand and Burma and were able to fund their movements and weapons. The Thai government offered them land on Doi Mae Salong together with official citizenship in return for their help to fight communist guerrillas holed up in the mountains of northern Thailand. Another key part of that deal was the cessation of opium production in favour of conventional crops including mushrooms and oolong tea. The village the soldiers made their home was named ‘Santikhiri’, the ‘Hill of Peace’. Some of the soldiers still live here as do their children and grandchildren and the Chinese influence in the food, language and culture remains strong in Santikhiri.
13) See the sunrise at Phu Chi Fah
There is something magical about watching the sunrise over a sea of mist at Phu Chi Fah. Mother Nature puts on a spectacular free show for those who make the effort to reach this remote mountain viewpoint close to the border with Laos. You’ll need to get up extra early if you are staying in Chiang Rai city and want to see the sunrise at Phu Chi Fah. Alternatively, make it an overnight trip and camp overnight or stay in a basic cabin closer to the viewpoint. Phu Chi Fah doesn’t see many foreign tourists, but is extremely popular with Thai tourists and can get crowded for the sunrise photo opportunities. Sunsets are impressive here too, and less crowded, so try to do the overnight trip if you can. Wrap up warm and enjoy nature at her best.
14) Spend an evening at the Night Bazaar
An evening at the Night Bazaar is the perfect way to round off a day of activities in Chiang Rai. Grab a table, order up your food and drink and sit down to enjoy the live music and dance shows. This is also the place to come to stock up on all the souvenirs and gifts for everybody back home. If you are in Chiang Rai at the weekend, the convivial Walking Street Market that sets up not far from the Clocktower is worth seeking out too.
15) Pay your respects at the King Mengrai Monument
Chiang Rai was founded by King Mengrai in 1262 and was the original capital of the Lanna kingdom before a new city, Chiang Mai, was built and which then became the new capital in 1296. The first king of the Lanna kingdom is still venerated throughout northern Thailand today and in Chiang Rai you can see locals paying their respects at the King Mengrai monument in the centre of town. If you visit the information kiosk behind the monument you can ask about the free sightseeing tram tour which runs at intermittent times during the day.