Top things to do in Chiang Rai
Table of Contents
Located around 3 and a half hours North of Chiang Mai by road in Northern Thailand and close to the borders of Laos and Myanmar, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the famous white temple which is almost synonymous with the Chiang Rai is the only thing to do here, but you’d be wrong.
Enjoying a slower pace of life and a relaxed vibe which makes a welcome relief from the hustle and bustle of big sister city, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai has plenty to keep visitors interested and entertained, whether you visit for the day or whether you decide to stay a little longer.
Here is a run down of our family’s favourite things to see and do on a visit to Chiang Rai
Be Dazzled by Wat Rong Khun; The White Temple
OK, so we did say it wasn’t the only thing to do here, but the stunning white temple definitely earn its place at the top of our visit list. Even our temple fatigued kids ranked Wat Rong Khun as one of their very favourite places to visit, and that’s high praise indeed!
Located around 13Km outside of Chiang Rai city centre in the village of Rong Khun, the white temple represents the life’s work and passion of renowned artist Chalermhai Khositpipat and is as much a work of art as it is a religious monument.
When the original temple at the site fell into a state of disrepair, Khositpipat invested his own time and money into transforming it into Chiang Rai’s most visited site and arguably one of the most beautiful temples in all of Thailand.
Visually spectacular, the temple itself is painted white and inlaid with mirrored silver mosaic tiles to represent Buddhas purity and wisdom, which make it dazzling in the Thai sunlight.
Marvel at the many hands reaching upwards from the pits of hell as you cross the bridge of the cycle of re-birth towards Nirvana which is guarded by demonic statues.
Enjoy a surprise as you reach the main hall to find yourself face to face with the likes of Superman and Harry Potter!
From the temple itself to the waterfall wall and art gallery, the site is full of surprises and intrigue with a fusion of Buddhist symbolism and pop culture, where beauty meets bizarre, spirituality collides with surreal and you never know what’s coming next.
The white temple is also home to some of the fanciest restrooms in the world, housed in a golden building itself resembling a temple. Built to reflect the idea that man-kinds obsession with wealth and greed belongs down the toilet, you can’t help but enjoy the opulence of the place.
Read our separate post on visiting the White Temple for a full insight into the symbolism, photography tips and detailed travel arrangements.
Cost: TBH 100 per person
Opening: 06.30 – 18.00 daily. Gallery opening 08:00 – 17.30
Transport: Public bus from Chiang Rai Bus Terminal 1 (half hourly to hourly)
Dress Code: Cover shoulders and knees, no hats inside the temple hall
Feel anything but blue at Wat Rong Suea Ten; The Blue Temple
In complete contrast to the dazzling white of Wat Rong Khun, Wat Rong Suea Ten is a brilliant shade of blue both inside and out. Whilst it enjoys less of the fame and glory of the white temple, it is no less worthy of a visit.
The name ‘Rong Suea Ten’ actually means ‘house of the dancing tiger’ and is a throwback to life before the area became populated, when tigers are said to have roamed freely here and ‘danced’ across the nearby river.
Sharing similar origins to the white temple, the blue temple too rose like a phoenix from the ashes of an abandoned and dilapidated temple on this site. In 1996, villagers decided to build a new temple as a focus of worship for the area with the project reaching completion in 2016.
The similarities don’t end their either; visitors drawing comparisons between the style of the interior artwork in this and the white temple will be interested to know that the artist, Putha Kabkaew, was a student of Kosipipat himself.
The entrance to the temple site is guarded by towering blue statues resembling Neptune, welcoming you through to admire the fountain in front of the temple and the temple itself at the back of the complex.
The deep blue of the temple’s exterior is contrasted by gleaming gold embellishment, whilst Naga (mythological sea serpents) in iridescent shades of blues, greens and purples guard the entrance.
Inside, a mural of vivid colours covers walls and ceilings with spiritual images framed in gold set against them.
To exit the temple, you must walk through the mouth of a painted demon.
The white Buddha statue sits in gleaming contrast at the end of the temple hall. If ever there was an underwater temple for Buddhist mermaids, this would be it!
In contrast to the white temple, the blue temple is a site of active worship with offerings of lotus flowers, food and money and burning incense and candles decorate the shrine. As such, visitors should be respectful of those coming to worship as they explore, keeping voices low and dressing respectfully although photography inside the temple is permitted.
Be sure to venture around the backs and sides of the temple which are heavily decorated and are as beautiful as the front and inside.
Cost: Free (correct of 2020)
Opening: 07:00 – 20:00 daily
Transport: When we visited, there didn’t appear to be any public buses which stop at the temple, therefore private taxi, Grab taxi or songthaew are your best options. We took a songthaew to the black house, stopping at the blue temple on the way.
I have subsequently read the the Mae Sai bus for the black house will stop on the main road close to the temple if you ask the driver, but you will have to walk around a kilometer down a side road the reach the temple itself.
Dress Code: Cover shoulders and knees and remove hats inside the temple hall
See a darker side to Chiang Rai at the Baan Dam Museum; The Black House
Chiang Rai is an exploration of colours, with the Baan Dam museum completing the trio. With ‘Baan’ meaning ‘house’ and ‘Dam’ meaning black, the name ‘black house’ could refer as much to the colour of the imposing timber buildings as to their content; the museum features a rather macabre section of animal skins, skulls and bones and taxidermy amongst its weird and wonderful artefacts.
In stark contrast to the white temple’s representation of heaven, the black house certainly contains enough death to represent a portrayal of hell. It is said, however, that all of the animals contributing to the exhibition died of natural causes, and this wasn’t the artist’s intention.
By now, you may be starting to wonder why on earth we’re recommending that you visit such a dark and macabre place?
Despite the unusual choice of medium, there is a tribal beauty to the artwork, and certainly a fascination about the oddly shaped buildings, carvings and animal remains which occupy the peaceful gardens of the museum.
You can’t help feeling a little bit sorry for the 2 buffalo who roam the grassy lawns, however, knowing where their horns are likely to end up!
Our children found the museum fascinating to explore and enjoyed the space to run around as well as trying out the enormous drums in one of the buildings. This attraction might be a good one to miss if you’re a steadfast vegetarian however…..
The museum was the former home of the late artist, Thawan Duchanee, whose controversial work eventually gained him notability as well as notoriety.
He started the project in 1976 with work continuing up until his death in 2014 at the age of 74. The bizzare whale shaped building was his own living quarters, and remains closed to the public even after his death.
As you enter the site, your eyes are immediately drawn to a towering black temple like building featuring the same tiered roofing of many of Thailand’s religious buildings, however, the building was not intended to have any spiritual purpose.
Inside, an enormously long table is surrounded by chairs made from buffalo horns and skins and covered by a crocodile skin table runner.
Intricate wood carvings are displayed between paintings and animal remains.
The 40 something buildings on the site vary in style from traditional Thai constructions in teak to futuristic white domes. The tribal furniture fashioned from animal skins and horns is a consistent theme throughout the museum.
The toilet block features intricately carved doors and you are greeted at the entrance of a shop towards the back of the complex by some carved men who look very pleased with themselves!
As a somewhat unique experience exploring one mans interpretation of what constitutes art, the black house makes for an intriguing, if somewhat puzzling visit.
Cost: TBH 80 per person correct of 2020
Opening: 09:00 – 17:00 daily
Transport: The public Mae Sai bus departing from Chiang Rai’s bus terminal 1 stops close to the black house; just be sure to tell the driver where you want to stop. The ride takes around 25 minutes and costs around TBH 20.
You could alternatively catch a songthaew from the bus terminal or hailed from the street.
Although the black house is located along the same road as the white temple, there are no public buses running between the two and not all songthaew drivers hailed from the roadside will drive between the two. Frustratingly you will have to travel back into Chiang Rai from one to leave again and access the other.
Shop souvenirs and street food galore at the Saturday night market
Whilst the night market in Chiang Rai doesn’t live up to the somewhat epic proportions of Chiang Mai’s weekend markets, there is no better place to come for your fill of street food that the Saturday night walking street in Chiang Rai.
As the sun goes down around 4pm, Thanali Road close to the clock tower comes alive with market vendors pedalling all manner of street food delights to tempt you after a day of sight-seeing.
Choose from vividly coloured sushi, dumplings and stir fries, barbecued meats and sweet treats. One thing for certain is that you won’t go hungry here, with little Bhatt asked in exchange for delicious fare.
Of particular note was the fried chicken, and there was more than one visit to the sushi stall for our family too.
Arrive early to beat the crowds as the market is popular with locals and tourists alike and soon becomes very busy.
Once your belly is full, turn your attention to souvenir shopping with plenty of handmade offerings from Hilltribe women amongst the usual souvenirs and some beautiful quality artisan pieces you won’t see elsewhere.
The vendors are interspersed with buskers performing cultural dances and playing traditional instruments to provide the soundtrack to your exploration.
There is apparently a smaller Sunday night walking street along Sang Kong Noi Road, although we were unable to find this.
The night bazaar is held every night behind the central bus terminal 1 (the old bus terminal) and features delicious food, locally made souvenirs and rotating cultural performances.
We personally found the street food to be our favourite eating option in Chiang Rai with choices to suit every taste and plenty of food for you Bhatt. It was also nice to buy souvenirs that were locally made to remind us of our visit.
Enjoy the psychadelic light show at the Clock Tower
Yep, you did read that right! Another of Chalermchai Kositpipat’s creations, Chiang Rai’s landmark clock tower which was built in honour of King Bhumibhol Adulyadej in 2008 sits at the intersection between Thanon Jet Yot and Thanon Baanpa Pragarn roads.
Every night, on the hour at 19:00, 20:00 and 21:00, the golden monument becomes the centrepiece of a psychedelic sound and light show which lasts around 10 minutes and is rather surreal to watch from the pavement as the cars zoom past the busy roundabout going about their business.
Be sure to pop and see it at least once if you’re staying overnight in the city; you really haven’t seen Chiang Rai until you’ve seen the clock tower!
See 3 countries and 2 rivers meet at the Golden Triangle
We never made it to the golden triangle during our visit to Chiang Rai on account of three travel weary boys preferring to enjoy the pool, but the popular day trip from Chiang Rai remains on our ‘next time’ visit list.
It is here that Thailand meets Laos and Myanmer (formerly Burma) and where the Ruak and mighty Mekong rivers converge.
Historically, the Golden Triangle was the centre for trade, and particularly, opium production in South East Asia. Nowadays, the Hall of Opium Museum is the only reminder of the regions troubled past.
The Royal Development Project initiated by King Bhumibol Adulyadej has effectively eradicated Opium production as the Hill tribe growers have replaced poppies with produce and now supply their fruit, vegetable, coffee and rice crops to feed the whole of Thailand.
Tourism has replaced the ravages of drug addiction and the battlegrounds of drug barons have been returned to peaceful hilly countryside.
At the Golden Triangle Park, a large Buddha statue sits in a boat overlooking the Mekong river and boat tours will take you across to Don Sao Island which is part of neighbouring Laos (although you don’t need a visa to visit which would be required to set foot on the mainland)
For now, we will have to be content with pictures and stories alone, but there’s always next time….
Admire the street art at the Chiang Rai bus terminal
Another quick and enjoyable visit in Chiang Rai is the enormous mural on the wall of the Chiang Rai bus terminal. In this city of art and creativity, a spectacular large scale piece of street art depicts the beauty of Chiang Rai’s culture and countryside in glorious technicolour which has to be seen to be believed.
Although it won’t take you long to admire, it is definitely worth the brief detour when you visit the night bazar or on your way home from after a bus ride.
Visit the Elephants
We actually did our elephant visiting in Chiang Mai at Karen Elephant Serenity which was a fantastic experience. Spending time with elephants in Thailand is high on many a traveller’s itinerary, however, not all elephant tourism experiences are ethical. It is important to do your research and ensure that you’re spending your money on an ethical experience rather than inadvertently funding animal cruelty.
Read all about our visit and ethical elephant tourism here. (photograph from our Chiang Mai visit)
Having reviewed other travellers blogs and trip advisor reviews, I have discovered Elephant Valley Sanctuary in Chiang Rai which appears to be an ethical experience.
The sanctuary was founded in 2016 and appears to be a genuine sanctuary where elephants have retired from a life of cruelty to enjoy just being elephants in a large jungle habitat.
If you’re keen to see elephants in Chiang Rai, Elephant Valley seems to tick all the boxes. From what I have read, I would feel confident in giving this a try, although having not been myself I am unable to 100% guarantee that it is ethical.
Give it a miss….
Hill Tribe visits
We thought long and hard about whether to visit the hill tribes whilst we were in Northern Thailand and read much conflicting advice about whether or not it is ethical to do so.
On the one hand, our family find it fascinating to learn about other cultures and traditions, especially those that differ so much from our own, to appreciate a different way of life and to see the costumes and rituals they involve.
As a keen photographer, I would have loved to have snapped some photographs of the faces of the people from the different tribes, especially the famous long neck tribes women with their brass rings.
In the end, though, we decided to give it a miss. Although there are reports that some of these tribes, especially the long neck Karen, now rely on income from tourism to survive due to being displaced from Myanmar and denied citizenship that allows them to find gainful employment in Thailand, there are more reports that tourism allows these people to be exploited.
My understanding from my research is that they are given little of the income from tour groups paying to visit them, this instead finding its way into the pockets of wealthy businessmen who forbid them to leave the ‘villages’ (not all of them authentic) and treat them badly. Their main income is from tourists buying their handicrafts with lots of hard sell involved.
We did visit the Hill Tribe Museum in central Chiang Rai to learn more about the different tribes, but this was very basic, poorly laid out and mostly featured printed information and pictures which were laminated and pinned to the walls, most of which could have been found on the internet. Overall, I’d recommend giving this a miss as well. (Pictured)
In fact, we saw several hill tribe women (mostly Akha) selling their wares at the night market who were more than happy to have a chat in broken English, show you their handicrafts and pose for a photograph.
This is one of those things you will have to make your own mind up about but definitely worth doing some research on before you decide either way.
How long to stay; day trip versus overnight stay
Many tourists visit Chiang Rai as a day trip from Chiang Mai, and certainly, there are plenty of tour operators offering this trip. These will generally include the white temple, black house, hill tribe village and sometimes also the golden triangle.
That said, it takes around 3 and a half hours to reach Chiang Rai from Chiang Mai and around a further hour to reach the golden triangle.
Certainly, if you’re pushed for time and visiting Chiang Rai for the day will be the difference between you getting to visit the white temple and missing out altogether then my vote would be to do the trip, either as an organised tour or travelling under your own steam. Be prepared though for a very long day and a lot of driving and you’ll need to factor in how safe you think you would be driving unfamiliar roads after such a long day.
If you have a little more time to spend, however, I would definitely recommend staying at least overnight in Chiang Rai so that you can see the sights at a slower and more relaxed pace, take in the night markets and enjoy Chiang Rai’s laid back vibe. 2 nights would give you enough time to see the main sights without feeling too rushed.
We actually stayed 3 nights which worked perfectly for us as our hotel had a fantastic pool and the longer visit gave us plenty of time to relax and for the kids to enjoy some much needed downtime in our hectic schedule.
Where to stay
We don’t generally include recommendations for accommodation in our blog posts, however we felt that our Chiang Mai accommodation was worth a mention.
The Nak Nakara hotel was fairly centrally located making it a good base to explore from and to reach the bus terminal for excursions (around 15 minutes on foot).
The hotel is nicely presented from the outside and welcomes you into a large, nicely decorated foyer area. The fridge opposite the entrance is well stocked with tasty treats which you can help yourself to whenever you feel peckish.
The hotel has a generously sized pool with a backdrop of stone Naga and plenty of sun loungers and sofas for guests to enjoy. The worst thing about the pool for us was that the kids loved it so much they didn’t want to go anywhere else!
As soon as we settled ourselves by the pool, we found ourselves endowed with glasses of water and a selection of fruit and cakes from the fridge delivered by the attentive staff who always seemed happy to assist.
Rooms were clean, comfortable and simply but tastefully decorated.
The buffet style breakfast featured a selection of cereals, fruit, yoghurt, toast and pastries, pancakes and waffles with a choice of toppings and a varied hot selection with eggs to order available on the patio.
Overall, this was one of our favourite places that we stayed during our month in Thailand and definitely woth checking out. We found the best prices were available via Booking.com.