Is Chiang Rai worth visiting? 100% yes! This Thai city is hugely underrated. Being the northernmost major city in Thailand, it’s often overlooked in favor of other spots like the digital nomad hub of Chiang Mai and the hippy hill town of Pai. Compared to the first, it’s a whole load more relaxed. But it also comes with a unique urban buzz and rich history and culture of its own.
Whether you’re looking to spy out fantabulous architecture, sample distinctive (and spicy!) local cuisine, or learn about the history of this northern region, Chiang Rai has you covered. The town is replete with intriguing temples and enthralling Lao–Thai Lanna heritage, and sits on the doorstep of some of the most stunning mountain scenery this side of the Himalaya.
Okay, so it might not be the same sort of tourist hotspot as Phuket, Koh Samui, or Bangkok, but there’s oodles to get up to here. This guide will reveal nine of the most awesome things about Chiang Rai, from the lush tea plantations (yep – tea in Thailand!) to the elegant White Temple, all with the hope that you’ll come this way during your Southeast Asian adventure this year…
For the nightlife
The nightlife in Chiang Rai isn’t on the same hedonistic level as other Thai hotspots like Koh Phangan (home of the Full Moon Party) or Bangkok (home of Khoasan Road), but there’s still plenty going on here…
The Chiang Rai Night Bazaar is filled to the brim with street food, apparel, jewelry, gifts, foodstuffs – you name it. There’s even a dollop of live entertainment in the main area. Although smaller than the night market in Chiang Mai, it’s a truly unique experience and a great opportunity to grab some souvenirs. It takes place in the streets just south of Phaholyothin Rd, about five minutes’ walking from the Chiang Rai Clock Tower.
There’s also plenty in the way of parties. Hit the strip going south on Jetyod Road and veer off onto Thai Vivat Alley. Those are the two streets that form the epicentre of the after-dark action in this northern city. They’re packed with everything from ramshackle reggae bars (get to flag-strewn Reggae Home & Bar if that’s your bag) to whiskey-beer bars with cocktail deals (check out the Black Dog for that sort of vibe.)
For the amazing architecture
There’s a magnificent golden clocktower that stands in the middle of a roundabout in the heart of Chiang Rai. It was designed by Chalermchai Khositpipat, who is the same person behind The White Temple (more on that later). This clock tower has significant importance as it was made in honor of the late King Bhumibol. The clock tower lights up very nicely in the evening, so we’d recommend swinging by around 6pm.
You can also go to seek out the Baan Dam Museum. Also known as the Black House Museum, it showcases a series of fantastic buildings built in the traditional styles of northern Thailand. They were designed by architect Thawan Duchanee and hit a zenith with the so-called Cathedral, a stunning timber hall flanked by oriental flying buttresses.
Oh, and let’s not forget the White Temple itself. We’ll talk more about this jewel in the crown of Chiang Rai a little later on, but suffice to note that it’s up there with the most jaw-dropping religious sites in the Land of Smiles – and that’s really saying something!
To sample tea at the Choui Fong Tea Plantation
Interested in learning more about tea? Choui Fong Tea Plantation is a must. Spread over the green hillsides close to the Burmese border just to the north of the city, it encompasses a whopping 471 acres of land and has been going since the late 1970s. Its founder, Thawee Wanaspitaksakul, envisaged creating a fine tea that would rival any in the world. We have to say…we think he did a pretty darn good job!
Yep, the award-winning teas that are produced here are nothing short of excellent. You’ll be able to taste them in one of the two Tea Cafes that are on site. The menus include aromatic oolong with infusions of osmanthus, Assam tea varieties, and scented jasmine teas to name just a few. On top of that, both the tea cafes boast sweeping views of the surrounding hills and the plantation growing terraces.
There are now two plantations in the Chiang Rai area under the Choui Fong name. We’d recommend picking the one that’s in Mae Chan District. It’s bigger and has the better tea tasting platforms, along with a fantastic tea shop where you can purchase your own leaves and tea-related souvenirs after a tour of the site.
To see extraordinary wildlife
Thai wildlife is a wonderful thing and Chiang Rai is one of the wildest cities in the whole country. Yep, it’s perched on the edge of rolling hills and mountains and dash all the way up tot eh border with Burma, meaning you can drive for just 10 minutes and be surrounded by the great outdoors in these parts, and there are oodles of chances to spot local animals as you go…
The Monkey Temple is a highly recommended tourist attraction. Go there and you’ll see macaques living in a Buddhist shrine. Just don’t take food into the cave, or else you may have a number of eager monkeys clambering up your legs! The Elephant Valley is rated as one of the most ethical elephant sanctuaries in the country, with large, open spaces and educational programs about these elegant beasts.
And it doesn’t end there. You can drop into the Pong Sali Arboretum to see sapling teak trees growing above the Lao River. Or even push further into the Doi Luang National Park, a vast reserve that hosts Asian black bears, muntjacs, sun bears, and rare tree shrews!
To lay eyes on the White Temple
Chiang Rai is known for its beautiful temples, and the White Temple – Wat Rong Khun – is almost certainly the best among them. With its jaw-dropping architecture and filigreed apses, it looks like something out of a fairy tale.
The entrance of the White Temple features the bridge of “the cycle of rebirth”. It’s a bridge with hundreds of arms that symbolize unrestrained desire but is said to herald happiness for those who cross its path, as they leave behind temptation on the way.
The Ubosot is the main building of the temple. That’s brimming with unexpected pop culture references. See if you can see Harry Potter, Hello Kitty, and Michael Jackson in the carvings and reliefs, folks! There are also depictions of nuclear warfare and terrorist attacks, such as the attack on the World Trade Centre.
At the end of the Wat Rong Khun, you can expect to find the best-looking public toilet you’ve ever laid eyes on. That’s right, the White Temple is so luxurious even the public toilet is great to admire! It could easily be mistaken as another temple in its own right. However, the toilets are known as the cleanest public toilets in Thailand.
The Baan Dam or Black House
One thing Chiang Rai isn’t short of is interesting history, art, and local heritage. Cue the so-called Black Temple or Black House, also known as Baan Dam to locals. It sits a little to the north of the town center but you can get there on public buses up Route 1. What awaits is a series of about 40 eye-wateringly wonderful buildings that are packed with fascinating art pieces and relics from all over Southeast Asia.
The building work is the brainchild of Thai artist Thawan Duchanee. Much of it – like the iconic Cathedral and the series of Black Houses – draws on the age-old construction techniques of the Lanna-Lao peoples who historically occupied this part of the country. You’ll see lots of carved temple tops, steep-gabled roofs, whittled door coverings, and more.
You might also be wowed by the beauty within. One of the most iconic parts of the museum is the light wood arches, which balance out the darkness of the building outside. Then there are the displays, which showcase a range of taxidermy and a whole host of interesting Burmese art pieces collected from the next-door country.
To admire the beauty of The Blue Temple
The Blue Temple – Wat Rong Suea Ten – is instantly recognizable for its stand-out colors and bold design choices. It has the same gold linings as many other Thai shrines, only they come on a background of pure Windows-error-screen blue.
Nearly a century ago, there was actually an abandoned temple in the very same place. A decision was made by locals to rebuild the temple in the late 1990s. The project was started in 2005 and the final structure was finally opened 2016. However, it’s still a work in progress.
Wat Rong Suea Ten is filled with intricate paintings depicting the life of Buddha. In the center of the temple is a shiny Buddha statue, surrounded by elaborate columns that are then backed by formidable dragon carvings. Pretty cool, huh?
For the national parks
Escaping the hubbub of the city is easier in Chiang Mai than just about any city in Thailand. You can cruise out of town to the north and be surrounded by tea fields and mist-gathering hills in less than 30 minutes. To the south are some of the largest and wildest nature reserves in the whole Land of Smiles.
The biggest of the lot is surely the seemingly endless Doi Luang National Park. It takes about an hour to get there on the main Route 1 highway. What awaits is the tail end of the Phi Pan Nam Range, a string of mountains that carves through Southeast Asia. They cover 1,170 square kilometers with bamboo woods, waterfalls, and tussock-topped summits like mighty Dot Luang. It’s a hiker’s mecca but an organized tour is definitely recommended.
Chiang Mai is also a fantastic base for getting out to the Phu Sang National Park. That sits on the Laos-Thai border just to the east. It’s got hot springs, caves, and its own dramatic waterfalls, along with accessible hiking trails.
Because it’s the perfect gateway into Laos
Chiang Rai is known for its place on the side of the so-called Golden Triangle; the spot where Myanmar, Laos and Thailand all meet. The border that most people head for from here is the Thai-Laos line. It’s the gateway to one of Southeast Asia’s more untouched lands, where you can venture to the forests to swing with gibbons or see the UNESCO wonders of Luang Prabang.
If you have the time, we’d 100% recommend going from Chiang Mai to the border crossing in Huay Xai. Not only is that the jump-off town for the uber-famous Gibbon Experience, but it’s also where you can get longboats down the snaking Mekong River. They take 2-3 days but whisk you through endless rainforests where the calls of monkeys echo in the canopies.
The trip to the border crossings at Huay Xai and Chiang Khong take about two hours in all. Buses go there direct from the central terminal in Chiang Rai, costing around 220 THB ($6.50) per person.