As we found out while visiting, Chiang Rai province is fast becoming a fantastic destination for those wanting a more chilled vibe but still with lots of attractions in and around the city to be explored as this Chiang Rai travel guide will reveal.
Located in the far north of Thailand, Chiang Rai often gets overlooked by travellers due to its more prominent brother to the south, Chiang Mai.
Chiang Rai city should also be considered by those travellers who are looking for a direct access to Thai – Laos border. Rest assured we will tell you all about how to cross that too in this Chiang Rai travel guide.
Chiang Rai Travel Guide: What to See in Chiang Rai
White Temple (Wat Rong Khun)
First up in this Chiang Rai travel guide is Wat Rong Khun. This temple is the weirdest thing we’ve seen in Thailand, there’s nothing quite like it in the whole country. Sitting just to the south of Chiang Rai the dazzling White Temple is hard to miss.
The artist Chalermchai Kositpipat spent well over $1 million of his own money into creating this intricate piece of architecture and it’s quite unlike any other temples in Thailand.
As you approach the temple you pass over the bridge of the ‘cycle of rebirth’ with lots of stone hands reaching up towards you like a bad dream. This represents unrestrained desire which you must forgo if you are to be truly happy, apparently. You then pass through the ‘gate of heaven’ and up the steps to the inside.
Be sure to head inside the temple for the contrasting dark modern mural designs depicting the ‘evils’ of humanity including Mickey Mouse and Harry Potter. It’s all very weird and symbolic.
Click here for full details: The Stunning White Temple (Wat Rong Khun)
The Black House (Baan Dam)
Talking about weird stuff in Thailand! Thai artists seem to like a bit of dark art too. While exploring Chiang Rai, be sure to visit the creation of Thai artist Thawan Duchanee, the Black House located around 6 miles north of the city.
Darkness is the theme throughout this complex of around 40 black structures with animal bones arranged to create spooky but intriguing patterns.
We recommend visiting the Black House Museum as early as possible to avoid the many coaches and jeeps which squeeze down the narrow lanes around the temple from 11am onwards.
Information and directions to Baan Dam: Baan Dam – Black House Museum
Khun Korn Waterfall and National Park
This Chiang Rai guide wouldn’t be complete without us mentioning the wonderful green space that you can explore.
After visiting the weird and wonderful Thai creations, it’s worth driving a further 10 miles or so west away from the No.1 Highway to find the refreshing Khun Korn Waterfall in the lush National Park. We were lucky to have it nearly to ourselves, there were only a few other visitors late in the day.
There’s lots of free parking space as soon as you pass the barrier into the Khunkorn Forest Park. From here the distance to the waterfall is around 1,400 m so be sure to wear comfortable footwear.
As you approach the base of the waterfall, enjoy the cooling mist coming from the waterfall dropping 76 yards down into the pool below. It’s a popular spot for a swim but beware the rocks here are very slippery so mind your step!
Enjoying the read? Then check out our full post: Stunning Khun Korn Waterfall
Wat Huay Plakang 9 Tier Temple
There’s yet more wonderful stuff in this Chiang Rai travel guide for you to discover! How about a 9 Tier Temple and giant white female sitting Buddha statue overlooking the valley below? We were overwhelmed by the sheer size of this epic statue!
Be sure to climb the 9 flights of stairs to the top of the temple building for fantastic panoramic views across the countryside. And if you are hungry, there are plenty of delicious local food stalls close by too.
Info and directions to the 9 tier temple here: Chiang Rai 9 Tier Temple
Choui Fong Tea Plantation
The tea plantation might be a little way away, at around 40 km north of the city, but it’s a fabulous sight to visit. It was quite a journey to accomplish with our little scooter, but the Choui Fong Tea Plantation was a real joy for both our eyes and stomachs.
Beside the factory there’s a lovely cafe and shop with a terrace to sit and enjoy the views whilst sampling Thai tea and sweet treats.
Read our full post: Visiting Choui Fong Tea Plantation
Chiang Rai Travel Guide: Food in the City
Night Bazaar and Food Courts
For some cheap local fare, make your way to the local market just off of the busy Phaholyothin Road in central Chiang Rai. It’s open every evening from 6pm. Vendors here are friendly and don’t hassle much, it’s a pretty chilled affair.
There are also two food court areas, both with a stage for live traditional dance performances each evening. We enjoyed our dinners here on a couple of occasions and found the food reasonably priced and tasty. Food varies from delicious local ‘hot pots’ with bubbling stock bowls sitting over hot coals to freshly deep fried sea foods.
Chivit Thamma Da Coffee House
If you are prepared to splash out, you should visit the beautiful Chivit Thamma Da Coffee House. It’s family run coffee house (and spa) located on the banks of the Kok river.
While the prices will blow the daily budget of an average backpacker, the food here is excellent. To sooth our turbulent stomachs after an all day Thai cooking class we came here to indulge in a western style breakfast and it was amazing.
If anything, this shaded place with beautiful views of the river is lovely to pop in for a relaxing coffee break at any time.
Read our experience at the coffee house: Chivit Thamma Da Coffee House
Authentic Thai Cooking Class in Chiang Rai
If here’s one thing you should do while travelling around Thailand it’s to learn the secrets of the wonderful Thai cuisine. And to do it properly, you have to let the locals teach you.
We really recommend Ann’s Thai cooking class in Chiang Rai. It was a tiring all day cooking session, but we really loved cooking with Ann. She’s very patient and friendly and her English is excellent. With Ann’s help we cooked up some awesome Thai dishes that not only looked beautiful, but also tasted delicious.
If you are interested in a Thai cooking class, you can check out our full post and see what’s involved: Authentic Thai Cooking Class with Ann (Ann’s contact details are in the post.)
Where to Stay in Chiang Rai
Accommodation wise Chiang Rai is abundant with places to stay, but we opted for a local homestay. For the best experience, we wanted to stay in a real Thai house and chose Ann’s Green House which we booked via Airbnb. Not to be confused with the equally good Ann Guest House!
Tempted by the fact that we were already living in the Thai home where the action happens, we booked a Cooking Class with Ann for 1,100 THB each.
Getting to Chiang Rai
From Bangkok it’s a jolly 12 to 14 hour bus ride for 600 to 700 THB.
If that’s not your cup of tea you can jump on the train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai and then take the bus onward. It’s best to take the sleeper train from Bangkok to save wasting a days travel.
Chiang Rai does have a small airport if you need to get there quicker. A flight from Bangkok to Chiang Rai takes just over 1 hour and costs around 2000 THB.
TOP TIP: To find the best prices for air or bus travel in Thailand we would recommend using the locally based travel website called 12go.asia.
We used this site to book most of our journeys in Southeast Asia. Best of all, you can just show any ticket on your smartphone when boarding your train/bus. That saves any running around to find a place to print your vouchers!
Try their site via the search box here. Simply pick your travel date for a full page of travel options in Thailand and beyond!
Crossing the Thai – Laos Border
As promised at the start of this Chiang Rai travel guide, here is a quick guide to crossing the Thai – Laos border.
While it is easy to cross the Thai border into Laos from Chiang Rai, there are few things you need to know.
To get to the border, you can take a bus going towards Chiang Khong. The journey takes around 2 hours and you can pay for your ticket onboard.
Visa costs vary depending on which country passport you are travelling with. For us it was $5 cheaper to cross the border with the Lithuanian passport than with the British one ($35) and for the Canadians just before us the stamp cost over $40.
To cross the Thai border over the bridge you’ll need to take a mandatory bus so make sure to have some spare THB.
Once at the Laos border, you’ll want to get to the nearest town Huay Xai. The Tuk tuk drivers at the border seem pretty fixed on ripping you off so you can choose to either pay or walk all way up hill into the town.
Full details on crossing the Thai – Laos border here: How to Travel to Laos
This is then the perfect spot to pick up a relaxing 2 day slow boat down to Luang Prabang. For full details, prices and booking check out this post: Mekong River Cruise on the Slow Boat
However, if you are crossing the other way round, here are 50 things you need to know about travel in Thailand before you set foot to the land of the smiles.
We hope you found this Chiang Rai travel guide helpful and useful. If you have any thoughts or think we’ve missed anything, let us know in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you!