Unveiling the Magic: Why Chiang Rai, Thailand Deserves a Spot on Your Itinerary

Wondering if Chiang Rai is right for you? Should you make some time in your itinerary for a day trip or a few days in this northern Thai city? We think you should, we spent 4 days there last year and discovered a more relaxed, local environment that allowed us to learn more about Thailand and its culture. Read on to discover what we enjoyed and why we think Chiang Rai is a special place.

Chiang Rai is renowned for its beautiful temples. And while its temples are often the reason visitors come here, its tranquil atmosphere is another reason it’s worth visiting on your trip to Northern Thailand.

Chiang Rai offers a welcome change from the busier streets of Chiang Mai with fewer cars and less people. So, if you want to escape the crowd and visit somewhere with a more laid back atmosphere while trying out authentic northern Thai experiences, Chiang Rai is a must.

Chiang Rai is a popular day trip from Chiang Mai. But if you want to soak up its unique charm and discover what makes it stand out from the other places in Thailand, consider spending a few days.

What is the best season to visit Chiang Rai?

The cool and dry season is the best time to go to Chiang Rai. It’s the period between November and February. During this time, the city enjoys pleasant weather with clear skies. Because of the pleasant weather, you can spend more time outdoors, giving you enough time to explore its unique temples and immerse yourself in the local culture.
I would recommend avoiding what’s known as the “Burning Season” that happens between February and April each year. This is when the farmers across south east Asia burn their fields in preparation for planting the next year’s crops. Air pollution at this time can be intense and very uncomfortable.

Which attractions in Chiang Rai are not to be missed?

Chiang Rai is renowned for some of the most unique temples in Southeast Asia, and they are indeed unique, but there’s more to see beyond these religious sites. It also has stunning tea plantations, gorgeous national parks and local shops and markets, where you can engage with friendly locals and sample delicious street foods.

Wat Rong Khun (The White Temple) and quan yin statue

Wat Rong Khun (The White Temple)

No trip to Chiang Rai is complete without seeing its most famous attraction – the White Temple, officially “Wat Rong Khun”. Recognized for its white façade made of mirror shards and lime that gleams beautifully on a sunny day, the White Temple is among the most famous sights of Northern Thailand. Follow the queue of visitors to get inside, where you’ll find murals featuring Buddhist motifs and other thought-provoking designs.

While crowded with tourists, the White Temple is a must-see, especially for those who want to learn more about Thai culture and religion. Unlike the traditional Buddhist temples you’ll find in Chiang Mai, the White Temple is infused with contemporary elements, including super hero characters and references to modern culture, which makes it so interesting to visit.

Aside from the main white temple, you’ll find other impressive structures within the temple’s grounds as you wander around, so don’t miss these.

Wat Rong Suea Ten (The Blue Temple) with its stunning blue interior

Wat Rong Suea Ten (The Blue Temple)

Also called the Blue Temple because of its bright blue facade, Wat Rong Suea Ten should also be a must on your list of places to see in Chiang Rai.

Designed by local artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, it features traditional Thai architecture with some contemporary elements.

The Blue Temple is even more beautiful inside than on the outside. Immediately on entering I was drawn to the large, almost glowing pearlescent buddha is mesmerising. The entire space is decorated and you’ll be in awe of the murals, and ornate ceiling.

Aside from the main temple, you’ll find many other blue statues within the complex, such as the dragons at the entrance. After wandering around the temple complex, treat yourself to some coconut ice cream with blue sticky rice at one of the food stalls outside the temple.

Baan Dam Museum also known as the Baan Dam Museum

Baan Dam Museum

If you’re planning to stay more than a day in Chiang Rai, be sure to add the Baan Dam Museum to your itinerary. More commonly known as the Black House, this masterpiece by famed Thai artist Thawan Duchanee is a must-visit for any art lover.

Offering a unique perspective, it stands out among the country’s many museums. The Baan Dam is not your typical tourist spot. With dark-themed structures and unconventional sculptures, it offers a refreshing break from the ordinary.

Baan Dam explores themes of death and darkness, creating a striking contrast to the renowned White Temple. As you wander through the museum’s complex, you’ll experience a fusion of ancient beliefs and modern interpretations. Each building within the compound provides a glimpse into the artist’s creativity.
Wat Huay Pla Kang (Big Buddha)

Dominating Chiang Rai’s landscape with its towering stature, Wat Huay Pla Kang is an impressive statue about 25 meters tall. Also called the Big Buddha, smaller statues with intricate carvings surround the tower. Its serene atmosphere makes it a perfect place to end the day.

As you climb to the statue’s interior, you will reach the observation deck, from where you can enjoy the panoramic views of Chiang Rai’s picturesque surroundings. Aside from the main structure, the site also features two other monuments, a beautiful temple and a large pagoda with nine floors.

Khun Korn’s Waterfall

If you’ve had enough temple visits and are looking to get away from the crowds, check out Khun Korn’s Waterfall. It’s a tranquil spot, offering a refreshing escape from the busier areas.

The waterfall is about 30 minutes from central Chiang Rai. It’s a relatively easy circle walk through a lush bamboo forest. Remember to wear a good pair of shoes as it can be slippery.

Singha Park

It’s time for a change of pace and to see how the locals like to enjoy a family day out. Nestled in the picturesque landscapes of Chiang Rai, about six km from the White Temple, Singha Park is a fantastic place for immersing in the local culture and soaking up the city’s natural scenery.
(Images on deposit photos)

You can wander around its extensive gardens, hire a golf buggy or enjoy a scenic bicycle ride. There is a small zoo, tea plantation and even a zip line if you fancy an adrenaline hit!

A majestic golden lion statue – a popular spot for souvenir photos, especially for those who are partial to a drop of Singha’s famous beer marked Singha Park park’s iconic entrance.

Chiang Rai at Night: Time to hit the Night Bazaar

The best place to end your day is at Chiang Rai’s Night Bazaar. While the rest of the city can be fairly sleepy in the evening other than a couple of streets of small bars, the night market is usually where the action is.
What sets Chiang Rai’s Night Bazaar apart is its relaxed ambiance. Open every night and conveniently located near the bus station and town centre, it’s the perfect spot to snag some last-minute gifts or sample some delicious street food.

For an even more lively experience, make sure to visit the colorful “Saturday or Sunday Walking Street” over the weekend. On either day, a different street transforms into a bustling market, and takes things up a notch. There is usually a stage with local entertainers and plenty more stalls.

Chiang Rai Clock tower for its nightly show

After you have finished exploring the night market, make your way to the Chiang Rai Clock tower for its nightly show. The clock lights up at 7, 8 and 9pm for about 10 minutes.

Looking for delicious foods to try at the Chai Rai Night Bazaar?

Looking for delicious foods to try at the Chai Rai Night Bazaar?

The Chiang Rai Night Bazaar is a bustling hub of culinary delights, offering a diverse array of tasty treats that will tantalize your taste buds. As you stroll through all the colorful stalls and aromatic smells from just made snacks or takeaway foods, these are the must-try dishes that will leave you craving for more when you visit this market:

  1. Khao Soi: A beloved Northern Thai dish, Khao Soi is a rich and creamy coconut curry soup served with egg noodles, topped with crispy fried noodles, and accompanied by pickled mustard greens, shallots, and a wedge of lime. The combination of flavors and textures is simply irresistible.
  2. Sticky Rice with Mango: Indulge in this classic Thai dessert featuring sweet, ripe mango served with a generous portion of glutinous rice drizzled with coconut milk. It’s the perfect balance of sweetness and creaminess, sure to satisfy your sweet tooth.
  3. Grilled Meat Skewers (Moo Ping or Gai Yang): Sink your teeth into tender and flavorful grilled pork or chicken skewers marinated in a blend of Thai spices and herbs. These tasty bites are often served with a side of sticky rice and a tangy dipping sauce, making them a popular choice among locals and visitors alike.
  4. Fried Insects: For the more adventurous foodies, the Chiang Rai Night Bazaar offers a unique opportunity to sample an assortment of crunchy fried insects, such as grasshoppers, crickets, and silkworms. Packed with protein and seasoned with savory spices, these unconventional snacks are surprisingly addictive.
  5. Khanom Krok: Treat yourself to these delightful coconut pancakes cooked in a special pan until crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. With a sweet coconut filling, Khanom Krok is a delightful street food snack that’s perfect for satisfying your cravings while exploring the bazaar.
  6. Fresh Fruit Smoothies: Beat the heat with a refreshing fruit smoothie made from a variety of fresh tropical fruits like mango, pineapple, watermelon, and dragon fruit. Blended to perfection and served with ice, these colorful concoctions are both delicious and hydrating.

Whether you’re a daring food adventurer or simply seeking to indulge in the flavors of Thailand, the Chiang Rai Night Bazaar promises an unforgettable culinary experience that will leave you craving for more foods to try and why not everything here is so inexpensive. So, grab a plate, sample a bit of everything, and immerse yourself in the delicious gastronomic foods of Northern Thailand.

How long should you allow to see Chiang Rai?

While you can see Chiang Rai’s top attractions in a day, consider spending at least two days if you don’t want to feel rushed. That should give you enough time to visit key attractions like the White Temple, Black House, and the Blue Temple, and spend some time enjoying the local street food and markets.

If you want to venture outside the city center and visit some of Chiang Rai’s surrounding areas, including tribe villages in the mountains and the area’s natural parks, consider staying three or more.

How to get to Chiang Rai

For most travelers, a day trip from Chiang Mai, which takes approximately three hours, is the preferred route. Numerous tour companies operate day excursions, departing in the morning and returning in the evening, making it an ideal choice for those with limited time. Unless you are really short of time, I think the area is worth at least an overnight stay.

If you are visiting from central or southern Thailand, consider a direct flight to Chiang Rai International Airport. Then continue your northern adventures by taking a bus to Chiang Mai. This saves you from doing the 3 hour return trip.
Overnight buses and trains from Bangkok also provide a convenient and more affordable way to reach Chiang Rai if you are travelling on a budget.

If you are already in Chiang Mai, shared mini buses are a cheap option.
We hired a car and found the drive easy and the road conditions good. You could also book a private driver for your trip from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai.

What are the transportation options for getting around Chiang Rai?

Like most cities in Thailand, public transportation options like tuk tuks and Songthaews are an affordable and convenient way to get around Chiang Rai and venture into nearby attractions outside the city center. For longer distances, taxis and Grab rides are readily available.

If you are comfortable driving or riding a motorbike, you can easily rent one in Chiang Mai. This allows the flexibility to explore at your own pace.

If you want to explore attractions outside Chiang Rai, such as the Golden Triangle and hill tribe villages, you will find tour companies that can arrange guided excursions.

When renting a car in Thailand, you need a valid driver’s license from your home country or an International Driving Permit (IDP). These are fairly easy to get but allow a couple of weeks to apply and receive yours if you plan on getting one.

Summary on visiting Chiang Rai

Summary on visiting Chiang Rai

In summary, there’s no denying that Chiang Rai, brimming with culture, natural beauty, and architectural wonders, is more than worth a visit. Even though it’s often overshadowed by its more popular sister city, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai offers a distinct, richly diverse experience that sets it apart.

Check out these other Northern Thailand posts exploring the region

If you are looking to spend more time exploring the various areas and towns in Northern Thailand, check out my posts on cool and fun places to visit below:

Top places to visit in Northern Thailand

Eco tours in Northern Thailand

Hill tribes of Northern Thailand

A Loatian village in Northern Thailand

Hill tribe stay in Northern Thailand

Untapped Loei in Northern Thailand

Thailand Awaits Guest Post – Chiang Rai

About the Author: Paula Morgan has been visiting Thailand for more than 20 years and along with the street food and wonderful landscapes she loves exploring the inner streets of Bangkok looking for new artwork. You can find more of her writing including lots of practical advice for visiting Thailand on her website Thailand Awaits.

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