Chiang Rai Travel Guide
Introduction to Chiang Rai
Located three hours northeast of the city of Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai often lurks in the shadow of its better-known contemporary. Despite being overlooked by many, there are plenty of reasons to include this city in your travel itinerary.
With a series of fantastic temples built by modern artists, towering waterfalls, numerous hill tribe villages, and proximity to the infamous Golden Triangle region, it is a city well worth your attention.
Cultural Attractions in Chiang Rai
Get your stay in Chiang Rai off to a roaring start by heading straight for the White Temple. Known in Thai as Wat Rong Khun, this elaborate art gallery (built in the style of a temple, but lacking official status) blends traditional, modern, and pop culture to create an atmosphere unlike any other in Thailand.
Around since 1997, this gem is the brainchild of visual artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, who continues to add to the themes contained within this structure. From images of Rahu, who decides the fate of the dead in the afterlife, to depictions of Neo from The Matrix, visiting this attraction is a must for all visitors to Chiang Rai.
After exploring the White Temple for a couple hours, make the Baan Dam Museum your next stop. Also known as the Black House or the Black Temple, this institution doesn’t just attract visitors with its unique architecture, as it contains a number of unique exhibits within its walls.
From skeletons of water buffaloes and elephants to snakeskin table runners, each of the pieces of art contained within all adds up to artist Thawan Duchanee’s depiction of Hell. A student of the previously mentioned Chalermchai Kositpipat, visitors can expect an eclectic collection of art that will satiate the appetite of the most discerning culture vulture.
Finish off your tour of the colour-themed temples of Chiang Rai by dropping by Wat Rong Sear Tean. Nicknamed the Blue Temple, this is yet another creation of a pupil taught by Chalermchai Kositpipat.
Adorned with a royal blue exterior and a calming sky blue interior, this is a spectacular place to visit, despite it not being a significant hall of worship in Thai Buddhism. Possessing a white Buddha statue, dazzling frescoes, and regal carpets on its floors, this place is well worth seeing if you have the time to fit it into your schedule.
While there are plenty of arty ‘wats’ in Chiang Rai, Wat Phra Kaew is easily its most important traditional temple. According to local lore, an Emerald Buddha was discovered in a chedi on the temple grounds after it was struck by lightning in 1434.
While the translucent jade Buddha is now stored in the Grand Palace in Bangkok, this temple is still worth a visit thanks to its peaceful bamboo grove on site, as well as the ponds of catfish and turtles which complement the main temple building.
Other Attractions in Chiang Rai
As far as modern attractions go in Chiang Rai, its glitzy Clock Tower stands out from buildings that are otherwise normal for an unassuming provincial capital. Another creation of Chalermchai Khositpipat, this treasure was built by the famous artist as a gift commemorating the reign of the late King Bhumibhol Adulyadej. Should you decide to snap a picture of this landmark, come by during blue hour or after dark, as it is lit up brilliantly during these times.
While it may languish in the shadow of its more famous cousin three hours to the southwest, the Chiang Rai Night Bazaar still holds plenty of unique crafts that are worth a look. Not as burdened by the commercialization that has taken hold in the bazaar in Chiang Mai, visitors will find plenty of unique souvenirs, handicrafts, items of clothing, delicious street food, and genuinely entertaining performances here.
Head down at 6 pm, when the sizable food court opens up for its loyal contingent of local and expat diners. As such, this attraction is a great place to people watch, especially on weekends.
Although locals are less keen to acknowledge this fact, the Chiang Rai area is within a day drive of an area known as the Golden Triangle. It is not the geographic curiosity of a triple border (Thailand/Burma/Laos) that makes some residents wince; it is its longtime association with the opium trade.
Drug trafficking activity has fallen off greatly from the days of the Vietnam War, but the connotation of the name remains. Tours will clue you in on the details of the past history of this region, but we think you’ll love the scenery along the Mekong, boat tours that will take you out on its waters, and visits to markets run by members of local hill tribes.
Want to take in one of Northern Thailand’s best cataracts? Be sure to include a trip out to Khun Korn Waterfall. Featuring cool waters plunging from more than 70 metres above, it is the perfect way to end off your time in Chiang Rai. Just be sure to bring good shoes, as the grades and rough rocks make this hike unsuitable for those wearing flip-flops.