Chiang Rai is a city in the northern realm of Thailand, in a mountainous province of the same name. From Bangkok, there are many options to fly up north for a cultural experience that will be distinctively different. Sit back and relax as the jet accelerates through the central plains of the kingdom. In an hour or so later, you will find yourself in the rose of the north for a dose of laid back charm, coffee in the clouds and much more.
As the attractions are located far and wide around the province, it is best to rent a car, or if you’re in a group – get a van with a dedicated driver. Before you meander away to the mountains, is best to drive into the city centre and have a relaxing downtown tour. Start slowing down your pace, as you’re on Chiang Rai time now. Use the Clock Tower in the middle of the city as your base and first photo op. Make a stop at the King Meng Rai Monument too before you check in to your hotel.
And if you are here on a Saturday, there is also a weekly night market that you should not miss. Schedule your massage before you hit the pedestrian market, if time permits. It is the best way to spend an afternoon cocooned from the hectic routines of Bangkok.
To dive a bit deeper into the storied past of Chiangrai, head to the Overbrook Memorial House. It is a historical house with stories and artefacts preserved, plus it has good coffee in a cafe inside. This memorial house is also the first hospital in Chiangrai. A very easy way as well to lull the day away in this northern city. If you are spending more than a weekend here, you will start to notice several coffee houses dotting the city, with cozy gardens by the river. Make time for one more, it’s worth it.
I always tell our friends to keep Day 2 for the temple runs and of course, one must start with the renowned White Temple (Wat Rong Khun). Despite making a stop here each time we are up in Chiangrai, the fascination remains. The intricate artwork and architecture blows you away each and every time.
Interestingly, there is also a Temple of Emerald Buddha here in Chiangrai, or Wat Phra Kaew. It was here where the Emerald Buddha was discovered in the year 1434.
The abbot in this temple is the ecclesiastical head of North Thailand. Next up, make time to admire the Huai Pla Kang Temple – a must visit. The Big Buddha adjacent to a magnificent pagoda will be a humbling experience. Be ensconced in the serenity here.
Do not miss the Blue Temple (Wat Rong Suea Ten) as well. The stunning interior is in sapphire blue colour and is totally unique. There are local tours that will take you to these temples plus a hot spring interlude if you prefer to have a guide. This temple is included in the 4-Must See Places recommended by the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
In these guided tours, they will make a stop at a Black House (Baan Dam Museum) too. Yeah, it is a potpourri of colours up north and this House has a storied design and well, it definitely is unique. It will give pause, and while some might say it is disturbingly eerie, pay a visit yourself to decide if you’re for or against.
Keep your third day for excursion trips to outer rims in Mae Chan and Mae Sai. Along the highway, stop for fruits or noodles if you see any.
Start the morning with a visit to a Doi Tung coffee place. It is a nod to plantations here in Chiangrai itself and they make some wonderful cakes too. You can find a few in the city center or better yet, make time for a proper visit to Doi Tung Mae Fah Luang Gardens.
The manicured flowers are a sight to behold and the mountain air is just invigorating. Nothing quite like it and to complete the feels, once again – look for Doi Tung or any local coffee place for your morning (or afternoon) caffeine dose.
If there is one temple you should visit on your third day of excursions, the Wat Tham Pha Archa Thong ticks every list. Here, monks go for alms riding horses. Yes, horses!
At the temple, the monks and the novices live close to the horses. This is an interesting way of life of monks who live among forests, an Unseen Thailand that’s worth a visit. For more illustrative details, this excellent article by the Tourism Authority is very insightful!
Singha Park offers the perfect pitstop to welcome the evening sun, a place to chill and gulp down some refreshing beer. The park offers a plethora of activities for families and lots of light bites and dinner options.
And if you like to consider lingering further in the north, Chiang Mai is about 3 hours away by bus. The bus will be going round the mountain – which explains the longer than expected time to go between these two northern cities, albeit a very scenic ride.