Chiang Rai Guide – The Perfect Two Day Itinerary
If you think that Chiang Rai is just a sleepy small town with a couple of famous temples, I would have agreed with you, previous to this past weekend, that is. I was under the impression that there wasn't much to do and experience in Chiang Rai, so maybe that's why I never pushed for a visit.
It's pretty ridiculous that we've spent the better part of the last two years in Thailand and had never made the quick visit to the neighbor up north. Well, now that we spent the last two days there, I can tell you it's a pretty surprising town. If you're planning on a visit to Chiang Rai, this guide will give you all the details for everything you should do and how to experience it like a pro. See all that Chiang Rai has to offer!
While Chian Rai is less known as compared to Chiang Mai as a destination, it holds strong ties to the ancient ethnic Thai culture of the Lanna. The second capital of the Lanna Kingdom, Chiang Rai is considered one of the oldest settlements in Thailand.
I might even argue that two days isn't enough time, but it gives you a good glimpse of all of the beauty that this part of Northern Thailand possesses.
How To Get to Chiang Rai From Chiang Mai
I would venture to guess that a lot of tourists who end up going to Chiang Rai are doing so after their visit to Chiang Mai. I mean, if you're going to come up to the North and get a taste of the "mountain life" you really should give yourself a couple of days in Chiang Rai as well.
It's a very easy, convenient, and budget friendly trip for visitors. It can even be a last minute add on to any itinerary for those who don't like to plan too much ahead of time.
A three hour Greenbus ride is a comfortable way to get to Chiang Rai (you can even stop over on your way to Chiang Khong, if you're headed to Laos that way.). The cost of the ride is around $5-$8 USD per person, depending on the time and if you purchase VIP tickets. You can buy the tickets in advance at the Chiang Mai Arcade Bus Station or call and make the reservations and then pay for the ticket at a 7-Eleven.
Getting to The bus station is about a 15-20 minute ride from the Old City and there are always plenty of Tuk Tuks available to take you from there if you don't have a motorbike to drive yourself. If you do go on your own, you can park your motorbike at the station for about 10 THB a day.
Once you arrive at the Chiang Rai Bus Station, you can have a Tuk Tuk or Songthaew take you to your hotel, but most accommodations will probably also be within walking distance, just on the main road.
Where To Stay In Chiang Rai
Our hotel was an easy walk from the bus station (less than 10 minutes). We stayed at the Hi Chiang Rai Hotel on Phahonyothin Road. The ratings were very high and the price was just right for us. It looked like a brand new building and the pictures showed a modern and clean place, so we were excited about our stay.
The hotel was very true to the ratings and what we had seen in the photos. Everything looked brand new and clean. The decor is bright and modern. Very inviting. All of the staff we encountered were very friendly. However, they seemed to lack knowledge of their city as well as their hotel. We assumed that this was due to the hotel being so new that the staff had not really had a chance to gain the experience in running the place and helping guests.
While our room was very comfortable, including a nice bed and shower, it seriously lacked in noise proofing. We could hear everything that went on in the hall and outside. The open ceiling created a way for all the lobby sounds to travel up to all of the floors. This is a serious design flaw that they should consider doing something about.
I think that the hotels on this road are mostly pretty good. At least they semed nice from the outside. It's definitely a great location.
Top 8 Attractions You Must Visit In Chiang Rai
Wat Rong Khun - The White Temple
This incredibly picturesque temple sometimes just referred to as The White Temple, for obvious reasons, is probably the biggest attraction in Chiang Rai. The artist who designed and paid for this temple has done a wonderful job in creating a very iconic structure that is both beautiful to look at and provides a peaceful place of prayer.
I won't go into all the details of the history behind this place, but I want to tell you of our experience and give you some tips on visiting. For one, you may want to avoid going there on a weekend. The "cold season" tends to bring a lot of tourists to Chiang Rai, but going to this famous spot on the weekend will result in having to share it with tons of people. Yes, we were there on a Saturday so it was pretty busy. It really didn't bother us, but I could image it being a more "spiritual" experience had it been quieter.
This temple is a must see in Chiang Rai. It's unique design and all white exterior is what set it apart from all of the other temples in Thailand. The details and artistic talent that has been put into making this temple are definitely worth admiring in person.
Baan Dam - Black House Museum
Where there is a White Temple, there's also a Black House. Were they going for the Yin and Yang factor? Probably not, but it's cool that you can find these together in Chiang Rai.
To say that this is a strange place is a bit of an understatement. This museum is not just limited to artifacts inside one building, but the entire grounds seem to be part of a larger form of artwork. You will find lots of dark art (sounds like The Wizarding World?) as you walk around and inside the buildings and structures. And I don't mean just dark in color, but as in "the dark side of" things.
Long, wooden tables set as if they are inviting evil to dine are a repeated theme. With their animal skin "table covers" and horns and skulls as centerpieces and decor, it's both mesmerizing and off putting. The bleak and gloomy world that you walk into, in a way, makes you appreciate the beautiful things in life by showing you what the world would be like in their absence.
Getting here on Tuk Tuk is probably the best way. It was 300 THB, round trip, for us at the time without much negotiating. We were early morning riders so maybe we beat the "rush" and got a good deal.
The ride is about 20 minutes each way. If you take a Tuk Tuk, you will have a better time getting to the Black House. The bus will probably just drop you off at the main highway and you will have to walk about another 15 minutes through the little "village." The Tuk Tuk will just drop you off right at the door and wait for you.
At the time we visited, there was no admission fee, but this may be changing in the future. Though, I doubt it will cost more that a dollar, anyway.
Clock Tower Chiang Rai
Now, don't ask us what the significance of this clock tower is or how it came about to be an attraction. It's just a cool clock tower in the middle of a very big roundabout.
But we do know that it was built in the early part of the 2000s to honor His Majesty King Bhumibhol Adulyadej. Although it might not exactly be considered a "must see" to some, it does display a light and sound show in the evenings (note: at this time this is not displayed).
Being an easy walk from mostly anywhere in town, the Clock Tower still attracts visitors, who love to stop by and snap some photos. If you do visit the clock tower, you will not miss the resemblance in artistic characteristics to the White Temple. The twisting and swirling spires are the style of Chalermchai Kositpipat, who is behind the design and erection of the White Temple.
Phu Chi Fa Scenic Viewpoint
OK so, this would have been an epic experience for us. But it wasn't!
Technically it's one of the most gorgeous sunrise viewpoints one can imagine. Did we see any of that? NO!
We arranged a tour with our hotel so that we would not have to deal with driving a motorbike for two hours in the dark at 3am (well worth the 2200 THB per person). The tour itself was nothing to write home about. It was more like a couple of guys with a van that just took us around. However, it was nice to get picked up in a large, air conditioned, comfy van and be able to take a nap during the two hour drive to Phu Chi Fa at 2am.
Once we arrived at the base of the summit, we switched over to a pickup truck. It was still pitch black outside. Ton's of eager tourists were rolling in and piling into the pickup trucks. The ride up was about 15 minutes and from that point we had to hike a bit.
The hike is not difficult, except for the fact that we were still a bit drowsy and trying to walk through the darkness and fog on a slippery, muddy surface.
We made it through the 20 minute "hike" and lined up along the edge of what seemed to be a cliff. However, in the darkness and fog, it was good that there was a fence, otherwise we might have just kept walking. So then, we waited for the "spectacular" sunrise that all of the photos in the brochures had promised.
Slowly, within our two hours of standing around the light started coming through. The fog, on the other hand, was there to stay. All that was visible to us were the couple of hundred people standing around us waiting to get a peak at the sun that never appeared.
Oh Mother Nature, why did you rob us of the warmth and light of the sun?
Phu Sang Waterfall
The said "tour" also included a stop over at Phu Sang Waterfall. After our disappointing miss-adventure at Phu Chi Fa, we were kind of "done" for the day. It was good that the ride took about another 2 hours and it gave us some time to "simmer down." The scenic route that we took was also a nice treat as it tried to make up for the views that we had missed.
The waterfall is not very big, but the nature around it is beautiful. If would be a nice place to go for half the day and picnic. It's a nice, relaxing getaway. However, some might argue that the effort and time to get there may be a bit much.
What makes this waterfall unique is that the water goes through an underground heated layer of earth and the water is warmed in this process. We didn't check the temperature during our visit, but it was a bit chili out for a dip anyway.
Our final stop on the tour was Singha Park. We didn't spend that much time there, but got a good walk out of it, nevertheless. This park is huge!
We got dropped off at the top of the hill just above the tea plantation. There's a really nice viewpoint there of the entire park, tea plants, and lake.
We walked down and through the tea plantation and around part of the lake. It was a refreshing walk through a light sprinkle. Mostly visited by locals, this park is also another nice getaway and not that far (about 15 minutes) from the town.
While the park is sponsored by the Singha Beer company, don't go there expecting beer to be handed out. There is a restaurant at the top of the hill, where I'm sure you can enjoy a glass or two, if you choose.
The Chiang Rai Night Bazaar
It pales in comparison to the massive Sunday/Saturday Night Markets and Night Bazaar of Chiang Mai, but the night bazaar here is still a great spot to grab some Chiang Rai-specific souvenirs. One of the fun things we like to do is send postcards to family and friends wherever we travel. So, naturally, we bought a couple here and were able to send them off directly from the store we purchased them.
Another item that we would highly recommend purchasing while you're at the Chiang Rai night market is tea. There are several tea plantations surrounding the city so you can find great, local tea to take back home with you. The tea from Chiang Rai is also a perfect gift to take for friends and family!
Of course we can't forget about the amazing hot pot offered at the market here! We'll talk about that below.
Chiang Rai's Food Scene
We typically tend to stick with local food. Not just because we love Thai food, but also because it helps us stay on budget. However, sometimes we get our cravings for Western food and in Chiang Rai, it was offered everywhere you look.
After checking into the hotel we strolled down the street and turned at the first little alley. There was a small local Thai food place with an English menu and very friendly staff so we gave it a try. It was really great food and we paid around $1 USD for each plate, so you just can't beat that!
For dinner, we just happen to run into a place on the street as we walked over to check out the famous Clock Tower. After taking some pictures at the clock tower, we noticed what a great spot this street "restaurant" was located at so we grabbed a seat quickly. It can't really be called a restaurant, because it is more of a street food style place. However, they used the steps that are the corner of the street as seating, along with a few tables. Anywhere you sit, you'll have a great view of the Clock Tower and the roundabout. Oh, and of course the food was great! We recommend the Pad Thai and Khao Soi!
Saving the best for last, our biggest recommendation is the hot pot at the Night Bazaar. There are lots of stalls here that offer them and you really can't go wrong with any. All you have to do is pick the right size basket of veggies and order your meat. They bring the hot pot to your table and you do the rest!
Have you been to Chiang Rai? Tell us what you enjoyed most about your visit in the comments below. We'd love to answer any questions you may have about visiting Chiang Rai so let us know below as well!
About the Author
Hi! I'm just a California girl addicted to travel and adventure with a passion for art and dance on the side. Born in Iran, but I consider myself a citizen of Earth, adhering to the belief that "The world is but one country and mankind its citizen." I strive to make a positive impact on everyone I meet and learn as much as possible from them. My degree out of college is in Marketing. However, I entered the hospitality business at an early age and worked my way up to hotel management. After about 13 years in that industry (5 of which I was a hotel assistant manager), I made the decision to move to Thailand and leave the 9 to 5 grind behind. My husband and I set off for a life of living abroad and hopes to continue traveling the world, just 3 months after our wedding. It all started with the two of us, along with our cat, together in Thailand. Can't wait to see where life takes us next!