If you’re looking for somewhere to go in Northern Thailand other than Chiang Mai and Pai, this is the post for you! Chiang Rai is around four hours from Chiang Mai, and it has quite a different vibe. It’s a lot smaller and less hectic but there’s still heaps to do there, including some unique temples, awesome waterfalls and one of the best sunrise spots in Thailand (although it’s quite a distance from town). Looking for the best things to do in Chiang Rai? Keep reading!
There are heaps of temples scattered throughout Chiang Rai, but the ones below are some of the most famous (and most interesting from a tourism perspective).
Created by Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat in the 1990s, the White Temple of Chiang Rai (Wat Rong Khun) is one of the most interesting (and funniest) temples you’ll ever see. There are heaps of random bits of pop culture scattered around the temple, as well as some hellish scenes, serene reflections and a really awesome bathroom. Those aren’t usually things associated with temples, so if even if you’re burnt out on Thailand’s temples, I’d still highly recommend a visit.
The Blue Temple (Wat Rong Suea Ten) more of your standard Thai temple, although the colour scheme is unique. It’s painted in blue and gold (the colours of my local rugby team) – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a temple decorated like this!
The Big Buddha
This little group of temples, statues and pagodas (Wat Huay Pla Kung) is out of town slightly and you’ll need to organise some transport if you want to visit. I organised a songthaew and driver for a few hours and saw this, the Blue Temple and the Black House (mentioned below). More on transport later though! The Big Buddha seemed to attract mostly local tourists, but I thought it was worth a quick visit (climbing to the top of the big pagoda was fun).
Other Temples in Chiang Rai
You’ll stumble across a few temples while exploring the city centre, and there are heaps of others to seek out. You may be a bit sick of temples at this stage (Chiang Rai likely won’t be the first place you visit in Thailand), but they really add something to the street scenes, even if you walk straight past them. You might also see the roundabout / clock thing that looks a bit like a temple (it’s a famous landmark in Chiang Rai).
The Night Market
Chiang Rai’s night market is right in the heart of the tourist area and is something that pretty much everyone seems to visit. I arrived in Chiang Rai at around 8 pm and the bus stop is right by the market – I had to walk through most of it to get to my hostel! The market has the usual tourist stuff – bags, clothes, souvenirs – and there’s a massive food section. Stalls line a big square area filled with tables. There are heaps of variety in the food offerings (I felt sick after eating some dodgy tasting prawns though) and there’s a good atmosphere with hundreds of people eating in close proximity.
Eating and Drinking
Chances are you’ll eat at the night market most nights, but there are heaps of other places to eat in the tourist area of Chiang Rai. I had an excellent (and cheap) burger at Heaven Burger and ate a few times at the small bars / restaurants / cafes that line Jetyod Road. A lot of them have seating areas out the front – they are great places to watch the world go by!
The Black House (Baandam Museum)
This set of wooden buildings were created by artist Thawan Duchanee. There’s around 20 of them all up, sprawling around a relaxing grassed area. It’s a great place for a stroll and the buildings themselves area pretty interesting (and photogenic). It’s a popular place but even with heaps of tourists it still a laid-back place to visit.
Visit a Waterfall
After a day or two of city sightseeing, you’ll probably want to get out into some nature. Visiting a waterfall is a great thing to do in Chiang Rai, and from the research I did I found that Khun Korn Waterfall is one of the best. I rented a songthaew and driver and left first thing on a Sunday morning (I’d heard weekend crowds could be extreme).
I walked for around 30 minutes through the forest and had this amazing waterfall all to myself – I was glad I left early! There are other waterfalls around Chiang Rai, and if you were to hire a motorbike for the day you could see more of them than I did (or you could just pay more for a driver I guess).
Phu Chi Fa
Phu Chi Fa is around three hours from Chiang Rai city (still in Chiang Rai Province) and in my opinion it’s the best thing to do in this area. Phu Chi Fa is a mountain right on the border with Laos, in the north-eastern part of Thailand. There’s a small village with some rustic guesthouse options and a couple of places to eat. The town is nice enough, but the sunrise from the top of Phu Chi Fa is the real highlight.
I’ve written a whole post about Phu Chi Fa, so I won’t go into too much detail here, but I’ll just say it’s one of the best sunrises I’ve ever seen and it’s more than worth the hassle it takes to get there.
I didn’t visit this place, but I’ve heard it’s one of the best things to do in Chiang Rai. It seems like it’s suited to families — there are rides, places to eat, tea plantations and plenty of other things to see and do. Let me know what it’s like in the comments if you’ve been there!
Other Things to do in Chiang Rai
There are places to trek, caves to visit and waterfalls to walk to in the countryside near Chiang Rai, as well as some places a little further afield that you might want to visit. From Chiang Rai I went to Chiang Saen and the Golden Triangle, which is home to some old temples and a river / border area where you can see three different countries (Thailand, Myanmar and Laos)
Getting to Chiang Rai
Most people will arrive in Chiang Rai from Chiang Mai. A bus between the two should take around four hours and costs around 200 baht (Green Bus). The buses are comfortable and the whole booking / finding your bus process is very easy (and you might see a nice sunset like I did). You can also arrive in Chiang Rai from Laos (I did this years ago), either by road or on the slow boat (which leaves / arrives at Huay Xai, 65 miles from Chiang Rai).
Getting Around Chiang Rai
The city centre is very easy to get around on foot, but if you want to visit some of the further out attractions, you’ll need to sort some transport. If you’re confident on a motorbike (and if you have a licence / insurance) you’re probably best renting one for the day. It’s the cheapest option but be careful of the roads – I’d be nervous even if I could ride a motorbike!
I rented a songthaew / driver to visit Khon Korn Waterfall (500-baht return) and to visit some of the sights closer to town (Blue Temple, Black House, Big Buddha). And, a few years ago now, I visited the White Temple by bus. For Phu Chi Fa, you’ll need to take the daily minivan or organise a tour.
Are you planning a trip to Thailand? Check out my two-week Thailand itinerary!
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