I’ve spent a lot of time in northern Thailand, so I wasn’t paying much attention to it as my plane descended toward Chiang Rai last Thursday. As the earth began coming into focus through the clouds, however, I felt as if I was looking upon it for the first time—Chiang Rai province, and the planet.
Lush, emerald mountains clouded in mist. Mirrored rice terraces and golden stupas, in every direction as far as the eye could see. And a behemoth statue of Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, whose clasped hand seemed to be guiding the aircraft safely to the runway—more on her in a minute.
Indeed, Chiang Rai and the adjacent Golden Triangle (where Thailand meets Myanmar and Laos) are home to some of the most enchanting scenery and culture in all of Southeast Asia. Many travelers miss them as they wander through northern Thailand, asking themselves “is Chiang Rai worth visiting?” and then answering “no” without a second thought. I’m assuming you won’t be among them, however, since you managed to find your way here.
Where to Stay in Chiang Rai
Although Chiang Rai province is relatively well-known among Thais and seasoned Thailand travelers, tourism remains undeveloped here. As a result, I’ve found it’s best to base yourself in Chiang Rai proper for several nights and explore the province via day trips. Indeed, staying in the right place is a great way to make sure you conclude that Chiang Rai is worth visiting, once you leave and move on to other destinations in Thailand.
The most comfortable, cozy and authentic place to stay is Baan Jaru, which is located a stone’s throw from Chiang Rai Clock Tower and run by a local Thai family. Book the “cottage” if it’s available! Alternatively, stay out of town and book Thailand Golden Triangle hotels such as the luxurious Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle.
What to Do in Chiang Rai
Seek Urban Enlightenment in Chiang Rai
The capital of the Golden Triangle in Thailand, Chiang Rai is smaller than its more famous neighbor Chiang Mai, but also less discovered. For this reason, I’ll start with a succinct phrase—white, black and blue—to immediately simplify the process of exploring the best Chiang Rai attractions.
The first place you should visit is Wat Rong Khun (the “White Temple“), located about 20 minutes away by minivan from the muddy parking lot currently serving as Chiang Rai’s bus station. After spending a couple hours at the Chiang Rai White Temple in the morning, head back to the bus station and board one bound for Mae Sai, but tell the driver you want to get off about 15 minutes into the journey at Baan Dam—the “Black House.” Once the goth-chic of the exhibits here becomes too much to bear, head back to the main road and board a bus back toward Chiang Rai, this time alighting after about five minute at the “Blue Temple” of Rong Suea Tan.
I like to start with these three because in seeing them, you’re not only visiting the most photogenic (manmade) places in Chiang Rai province, but you’re also getting a colorful overview of the Lanna style that defines traditional (and, in some cases, modern) architecture in northern Thailand. This is particularly the case when it comes to the Chiang Rai Black Temple.
Another benefit of seeing these star attractions during the first half of day one is that you can spend the second un-burying treasures of a subtler sort. Discover less conspicuous temples, such Wat Jetyod or Wat Phra Singh, which is only a few minutes’ walk from the picturesque Kok River. Alternatively, eat a spicy bowl of Khao Soi soup at Barrab near the Clock Tower, shop at the Night Bazaar or watch sunset from Wat Huay Plakang, which is where the aforementioned statue of Guan Yin sits (admittedly a bit outside the city).
Visit Coffee Shops—and Explore Coffee Farms
As is the case with much of what to do in Chiang Rai, the city’s café culture isn’t unique on the surface. Coffee shops are having a major moment in Asia as a whole, to say nothing of how they (and the hipsters who frequent them) have infested neighboring Chiang Mai.
But two factors make coffee one of the things that really makes Chiang Rai worth visiting, the first being how truly extraordinary cafés here are. The most shining example of this is Café Chivit Thamma Da, which occupies an airy, two-story house on the banks of the Kok. Here you’ll find impressive Thai and Western food menus to supplement the sumptuous selection of coffee and cocktails, and a scenic view that belies your proximity to the city (and to the Blue Temple, which is a five-minute walk away).
Secondly, Chiang Rai province is where most of the coffee in Thailand’s Golden Triange is grown. Whether you stay at Baan Jaru or elsewhere, have your hotel staff arrange a taxi to Doi Chang Coffee Farm and some of the others plantations in the lush mountains around it. This should cost no more than 2,000 baht for a full-day excursion, during which you can also hike to Khun Korn Waterfall and visit sprawling Singha Park (and the White Temple, if you didn’t mention to see it on your first of three days in Chiang Rai and its vicinity).
If you’re more of a tea person, you could visit the Mae Salong Tea Planation, although this is neither as impressive as other tea areas in Asia (namely Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands and Sri Lanka’s Nuwara Eliya), nor as relevant to Chiang Rai’s sipping sensibility as coffee is.
Travel Around The Golden Triangle
Of course, the most famous (infamous?) crop grown in northern Thailand is one you won’t want to consume—if not because of the current opioid epidemic, then at least because of the ultra-strict drug laws that exist around these parts. I’m talking about opium, whose former ubiquity near the point where Thailand meets Laos and Myanmar is the reason it’s known as the “golden” triangle.
To be sure, you won’t see a single poppy within Thai territory, save for photographs inside the House of Opium museum. But that’s OK, because you will get stunning views of Myanmar (from atop Wat Phra That Doi Wao in the town of Mae Sai) and Laos (from the Mekong riverfront in Chiang Saen), not to mention the confluence of the three countries itself, both from ground level (atop the Treasure Ship at the base of its giant buddha) and at the viewpoint of Phra That Doi Pu Khao temple.
Practically speaking, I recommend structuring your day as follows. As early as possible, board a Mae Sai-bound minibus from Chiang Rai’s bus station, then get off before the Thailand-Myanmar border crossing. Spend an hour or so walking up to and exploring Wat Phra That Doi Wao and admiring Myanmar from afar, then head back down into town and get a blue song-theaw (pick-up truck) to the Golden Triangle (Saam Liam Thong Kham in Thai) itself. Have lunch at any of the riverfront eateries—they’re all about the same.
It’ll take a couple hours to see everything here, so I imagine you’ll be getting a minibus or motorbike to Chiang Saen around 2 or 3 p.m. Take your time enjoying the stunning Mekong views (and scattering of temples) here, but make sure to board a bus back to Chiang Rai no later than 4:30 p.m., which is when the last scheduled one leaves. An alternative to this “local” itinerary is that you could take a Golden Triangle tour, but where would the fun be in that?
Travel from the Golden Triangle Thailand into Laos
I spent slightly more than three days in Chiang Rai (and environs), one of which I dedicated to visiting the town of Chiang Khong, located along the border with Laos just downstream from Chiang Saen. There is literally nothing to see here, so I wouldn’t recommend you come here unless you plan to take the slow boat to Laos (which I absolutely do recommend!).
As far how that would go, you would first need to cross the border (which has limited hours, usually only during day time) to Huay Xai, Laos, which requires purchasing a Lao visa as well. Then, you’d begin the two-day boat journey, spending one night in Pak Beng before arriving in Luang Prabang, a delightful city that almost feels like it could be part of the Golden Triangle Thailand.
Chiang Rai vs Chiang Mai
I know, know—apples and oranges (or maybe durians and mangosteen, since we’re in Thailand). On the other hand, my answer is pretty unequivocal. Even if you don’t take into account the Golden Triangle, Chiang Rai is much more enjoyable for me than Chiang Mai, to say nothing of how much more it encapsulates what I think of when I imagine northern Thailand.
On the other hand, Chiang Rai’s tranquil city center alone (and how dramatically it contrasts with Chiang Mai’s traffic- and tourist-filled one) doesn’t account wholly for how I enamored I am by Chiang Rai province. The Thailand Golden Triangle is one of my favorite day trips to take anywhere in the world, from the perspective into Myanmar Mae Sai offers, to the relaxed river vibe of Chiang Saen, to the Golden Triangle monument itself.
Other FAQ About Visiting Chiang Rai
How many days do you need in Chiang Rai?
If you simply want to enjoy Chiang Rai’s city center—i.e. the White, Black and Blue temples, plus the area around the Clock Tower—a single day and night is enough for you. If, on the other hand, you want to venture into the Golden Triangle, I’d recommend spending 2-3 days in Chiang Rai.
What is Chiang Rai known for?
Chiang Rai is known for two things: 1) Its proximity to the Golden Triangle and 2) For being Chiang Mai’s smaller, quirkier little brother. With this being said, Chiang Rai isn’t really very known at all among most travelers, which is a bit part of why I find coming here so satisfying.
Is Chiang Rai cheaper than Chiang Mai?
Chiang Rai is cheaper than Chiang Mai for accommodation, food and transport, at least local buses and songthaew. However, there is a smaller variety of hotels in Chiang Rai as compared to Chiang Mai, and a lack of competition with private transport like taxis means you’ll likely pay higher prices for these. As a result, you can expect the daily cost of travel in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai to be similar.
The Bottom Line
Is Chiang Rai worth visiting? Well, Chiang Rai is underrated and, because of its proximity to popular Chiang Mai, largely undiscovered. I won’t wade anymore deeply into the Chiang Rai vs Chiang Mai debate right now, other than to say you’ll not only get a taste of authentic northern Thai cuisine and culture in Chiang Rai, but will be day-trip distance from some of the Kingdom’s most incredibly scenery, including Golden Triangle Thailand, Mekong River and a menagerie of coffee and tea plantations. If you’re pressed for time on your trip to Thailand, I would almost go so far as to say you should visit Chiang Rai instead Chiang Mai—it’s that good!