Chiang Rai Travel Guide
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Welcome to Thailand Travel Hub's ultimate guide to Chiang Rai, where you can find the most up to date information about the best things to see and do during your visit to the city and surrounding area. Located in the far north of the country, Chiang Rai enjoys a cooler climate than the capital and has many fascinating cultural sights and activities. Notably smaller and quieter than Chiang Mai, it has a very laid back vibe with beautiful temples and stunning natural landscapes and also offers great value for money compared to the more popular tourist haunts.
However, Chiang Rai itself is still a fairly large city with a population of around 200,000, although is not geared towards tourism the same way that Chiang Mai is. This means you get to see the "real Thailand", eat authentic local foods and pay lower prices. Even though there are only a handful of attractions within the city itself, it's the surrounding area which has so much to see and do which makes a trip to Chiang Rai a great addition to any traveller's itinerary. It should be noted, however, that if you are a young backpacker looking to party the night away, Chiang Rai may not be the best place for you.
Here we will provide the best travel tips for this fascinating city, with information about the best places to go, restaurants, hotels, nightlife and various other travel resources all in one place.
Chiang Rai Weather & When To Go
Chiang Rai has what is known as a tropical wet and dry climate and is fairly warm all year round, though notably cooler than more southerly destinations such as Phuket or Bangkok. Temperatures creep up until their peak in April when average daily temperatures can be as high as 35°C. This is then followed by the monsoon season, with almost daily and often torrential downpours. Don't be put off by the monsoon season, the temperature will be slightly more bearable and the downpours can often be short-lived.
In essence, the peak daily temperature varies quite little over the year, but the rainfall varies drastically; you can expect a lot of rain between April and September in particular. This means that you can visit Chiang Rai year round without too much worry, provided you can put up with the rain. Despite this, many tourists decide to avoid Thailand during the monsoon season, meaning that attractions will be quieter, and you may be able to secure lower rates for your accommodation.
Chiang Rai does get hot, it's just not as unbearable as the more popular destinations, and the monsoon rains provide a little extra relief. But even during the monsoon season, night-time temperatures can still be perhaps higher than you're used to, so consider that when deciding on a fan or air-conditioned room.
Getting To Chiang Rai
There are a few different options of transport to help you get to Chiang Rai, from the bus, a combination of train and bus and by plane.
Plane – Luckily, Chiang Rai has it’s own international airport just a few kilometres outside of the city. The majority of flights depart for Bangkok, both Suvarnabhumi and Don Mueang, with some flights heading for provincial Chinese cities. Booked in advance, one-way flights from Bangkok can be bought from 1300 baht ($41), and flights take around 90 minutes. Considering Chiang Rai's remote location in the far north of the country, flying should be your first choice, unless of course, you are already in Chiang Mai.
Buses – You can catch a bus all the way from Bangkok to Chiang Rai, taking up to 14 hours and costing 500-600 baht ($16-20) for a one-way ticket. The buses depart the Mochit bus station twice a day at 3:30 pm and 6:30 pm so you'll be travelling overnight. The buses are air-conditioned, however, you should be aware that travelling with a lot of luggage will be difficult (if not impossible), and the seating is not especially comfortable for such a long journey. Also, the roads can be quite bumpy and the quality of the vehicle can vary considerably, so if you're prone to travel sickness long-distance buses are best avoided.
Train – You will first need to take a train from Bangkok's Hua Lamphong train station to Chiang Mai. Second class sleeper tickets cost around 1000 baht ($33) one way and take 14-16 hours. Then you'll need to head to the Arcade Bus Station, where you can jump on a bus to Chiang Rai for around 180 baht ($6) one way. The journey takes around three and a half hours, though if you get one of the older drivers they can be quite slow, meaning it can take upwards of 4 hours. Or, you may want to stay in Chiang Mai and complete the Chiang Rai loop (see below).
Getting around Chiang Rai
Renting a Car or Motorcycle - Hiring a vehicle in Chiang Rai is cheaper than you would expect and is arguably the best way to explore the area, especially considering that many of the best sights are outside the city. There are a few caveats though. You will need to be a confident driver to tackle the Thai traffic, and you will also need an international driving permit to avoid any problems if you are pulled over (which is highly unlikely). Besides which, you should check the vehicle for damage thoroughly before accepting it, and make a walk-round video if possible. This is to prevent the renter from attempting to charging you for pre-existing damage upon its return, which unfortunately is a common scam on tourists in Thailand. If they see you videoing the vehicle carefully, they will be unlikely to try and charge you. Expect to pay 200-300 baht ($6.60-$10) per day for a motorcycle and 500-1000 baht ($16-$33) for a small car, rental places are dotted around the city and your hotel or guesthouse will be able to recommend one and even have the vehicle delivered to the accommodation. Do not hand over your passport as a deposit under any circumstances.
By Taxi (Car and Motorbike Taxis) - Like most Thai cities, Chiang Rai is well served by taxis, which are cheap and efficient. However, as usual, you should be wary of any driver making an excuse as to why he cannot use the meter; if this happens just flag another one down. Motorcycle taxis are also plentiful, and quick and easy if you are travelling alone. Short journeys will start at around 30 baht ($1) on a motorcycle and 40 baht ($1.33) for an air-conditioned taxi.
Tuk-tuks and Songtaews - Tuk-tuks are a fun way of getting around the city but are usually more expensive with the fare being agreed in advance. Take care of your belongings when riding a tuk-tuk as snatch thefts can occur in the blink of an eye. Songtaews are cheap and the preferred method of transport amongst the locals, but if you don't know the route the driver is taking then you won't know where you'll end up. Luckily most have the routes painted on the side in both English and Thai. Songtaew journeys start at only 10 baht ($0.33) per person.
Getting From the Airport to the City - The cheapest way to get into the city is to take the CR bus (shuttle bus) from the airport, costing 20 baht ($0.66) per person and takes up to 30 minutes. Just exit the airport, turn right and walk along the sidewalk until you see the big purple bus waiting for passengers. You can also take a tuk-tuk for around 150 baht ($5), a songtaew or a private taxi for around 100 baht ($3.33). Don't forget that if you have accommodation booked in the city, many will be able to arrange pick-up so ask them about this service before travelling. Try to arrange when booking, or call ahead, don't expect a reply to an email.
Where to Stay in Chiang Rai
City Centre – Arguably the most convenient place to stay, the city offers the best range of dining and nightlife options with the night bazaar and walking street market. Staying in the city itself is still very good value, with many places within walking distance, but you may still want to rent a motorcycle to save your legs. There are a few luxury hotels along the riverside, with less expensive guesthouses dotted around the city. Very highly recommended are Mora Boutique Hotel and Le Patta.
Mae Lao – Mae Lao is just outside the city and more rural and offers several delightful resorts and homestay options from under 1000 baht ($33) per night. Mae Lao has beautiful scenery, including cloud-topped mountains and rice paddies as far as the eye can see. The resorts will offer meals and beverages, with some having a swimming pool. If you don't fancy the hustle and bustle of an (albeit fairly sedate) city, this may be a better option for you. Highly recommended are the Doowall Hotel and Tong Tow House.
Mae Chan – Mae Chan is north of the city, and the region includes Hui Kang Phla waterfall forest park, Wat Kasa and the beautiful Doi Nang Non viewpoint. Again, this region offers mainly resort-style accommodation so that you don’t have to drive into town for your meals. It has very natural, lush green surroundings and clean air and very few rooms will cost you more than 2000 baht ($66) per night. Mae Chan offers a great base from which to explore some of the national parks. Highly recommended are the Kornwat Garden Resort and the Katiliya Mountain Resort and Spa.
Best Things to See & What to Do in Chiang Rai
Tour The Amazing Temples of Chiang Rai
One of the biggest draws to Chiang Rai is the famous white temple, and for very good reason; it is stunning. Wat Rong Khun as it is known is a must-see for all visitors for Chiang Rai and is one of Thailand's most beautiful temples. Once dilapidated and rundown, it was fully renovated and refurbished into its current state with its ethereal, stunningly pure white appearance, adorned with spectacularly intricate carvings. If you're taking a day to visit the temples, the next one on your list should be the blue temple, known as Wat Rong Suea Ten which is painted sapphire blue both inside and out. Both of these temples are located outside of the city, however, there are several notable examples within the city itself, including Wat Phra Kaew which originally housed Thailand's famous Emerald Buddha before it was moved to Bangkok. If you're interested, there are also some ancient Lanna-style temples, including Wat Ming Muang and Wat Phra Singh which are also within the city, and are two of Chiang Rai's oldest temples.
Visit The Museums & History of Chiang Rai
Chiang Rai is blessed with several great museums. Mae Fae Luang Art and Culture Park houses a large collection of cultural artefacts and teak objects from the ancient Lanna Kingdom. It is a lovely spot with traditional-style buildings set in beautifully manicured gardens around a small lake. With some spectacular views and places to relax, it previously won a Thailand Travel Award and is well worth a couple of hours of your time. The Hill Tribe Museum should be high on your list if you're interested to find out more about the Lanna culture, it houses a large collection of all types of ancient artefacts including clothing and headdresses, building tools, carvings and cooking utensils. Two other excellent cultural museums are the Oub Kham Museum and the Baan Dam Museum, and for a change of pace, you would be advised to check out the Art Bridge Chiang Rai, which although a little smaller, houses some excellent still life paintings and a mural in remembrance of the Thai cave disaster which took place in 2018.
Visit the Golden Triangle
The Golden Triangle is the geographical area at the confluence of three countries; Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, which became infamous during the 20th century as the world's largest opium and heroin producing area. Nowadays it is a huge, mountainous region which you can visit for spectacular views across all three countries, whilst enjoying various activities, a spot of walking and a very relaxed lunch. It is generally a quiet and serene place to visit, but there are some hotels if you'd like to stay a little longer, as well as a handful of restaurants including more recently a pizza restaurant, and some local-style restaurants. If you're into photography it is an amazing opportunity to get some candid shots of very rural Thailand, with workers ploughing their fields, herding water buffalo and going about their daily business. There are also opportunities for elephant riding, boat trips along the Mekong, some more temples (of course!) and even a chance to indulge in a spot of fishing if that's your thing. A peaceful, but very enjoyable day out.
Classes & Workshops
Chiang Rai still lags behind Chiang Mai in this regard, however, things are improving all the time and you can now find a range of classes and workshops of various types. Of course, there are some excellent Thai cookery classes which are surprisingly good value and usually include a trip to a local market to buy the freshest produce. A great way to impress your friends when you get back home. There are several different types of classes, depending on which style of food you prefer to take the time to choose the one which suits you best. Also, Chiang Rai offers yoga workshops for those looking for a bit of relaxation and meditation during their visit. For the more energetic, there are Muay Thai courses which can get you fit quickly (or just help you to burn off some of those calories!); there are courses from complete beginner to advanced. For those planning a return visit to Thailand in the future, investing in a Thai language course during your stay in the city could also be a good idea, rates are competitive and significantly cheaper than in Bangkok.
Try Delicious Northern Cuisine
The north of Thailand is home to some very tasty dishes and Chiang Rai is a great place to sample some authentic (and cheap) local specialities. Khao soi is the most famous northern dish, which combines a delicious, fragrant and spicy curry broth with crispy fried noodles. Usually served with chicken or beef, this is one seriously tasty dish that you'll want to try again without a doubt. Another tasty one is Khanom jeen nam ngiao, a dish of pork belly in a tomato-based broth served with freshly prepared rice noodles, both very tasty and filling. Sai ua is a delicious pork sausage packed with aromatic fresh herbs and another must-try when in the north of Thailand (you may struggle to find it in other places). You can also find some Burmese-style dishes in Chiang Rai, including gaeng hang lair which consists of pork belly stewed in a delicious curry sauce until it's falling apart served with jasmine rice, yet another one that you cannot miss.
Go Jungle Trekking
The region surrounding Chiang Rai city consists of great swathes of untouched jungle and mountains and therefore offers a fantastic opportunity to experience a bit of Thailand’s natural beauty away from the masses. A day or two trekking the jungles is an amazing way to get out of the city, take some exercise and see some stunning sights such as waterfalls, hill tribe villages and witness some of the amazing natural beauty that Thailand has to offer. Jungle trekking can also incorporate other activities such as rafting, kayaking, ATV or off-road motorcycling or even fishing, and for many visitors to the country, it is the highlight of their trip. It should come as no surprise that the jungle can be a dangerous place, however, so a guided tour is the best way to do it, and they start at around 1000 baht ($33) per person per day, which should include transport and lunch. You can expect to see a wide variety of tropical flora and fauna, including elephants, monkeys, birds, butterflies as well as snakes, lizards and a vast variety of tropical flowers.
Visit the National Parks
Thailand's national parks are a more sedate way to enjoy nature than a jungle trek, but you can go without a guide and just enjoy the surroundings by yourself. Within Chiang Rai province there are many beautiful national parks and nature reserves. The Elephant Valley is a working elephant reserve where you can see these amazing creatures up close in beautiful surroundings, and even spend the night there at the on-site accommodation. Phu Chi Fa national park is a little further, right on the border with Laos, but offers some stunning views with a short hike up to the summit. The landscapes are breathtaking and it's well worth staying overnight at the Phu Chi Fa resort to be able to see the sunrise first thing in the morning, a fantastic opportunity for budding photographers. There is also Doi Mae Salong, famous for its tea plantations, Khun Korn waterfall, and Singha Park with its huge golden lion statue on top of the hill, all well worth a visit for anyone coming to Chiang Rai.
Visit the Waterfalls and Hot Springs
Khun Korn waterfall is just a short distance outside the city and starts with a fairly easy walk of about 1.4km to reach the falls and lagoon. The waterfall itself is very tall and very beautiful, and it's quite safe to paddle or swim in the lagoon below. You can get there via motorbike or taxi from Chiang Rai City, expect to pay around 500 baht ($16) and the driver should wait for you to take you back which will be included in the price. Pha Soet hot springs may not be the most impressive hot springs in Thailand, being more of a roadside attraction, but they are genuine hot springs and well worth a stop if you are driving past. They are south of Chiang Rai on the 118 road close to Khun Chae national park and have the usual activities such as foot paddling and egg cooking. Phrong Phra Bat hot springs is a nicer experience, not far from the White Temple, with free entry and a couple of larger pools plus massage on-site.
Nightlife and Eating Out
Chiang Rai does have fairly limited options for nightlife and eating out and many are aimed at the locals rather than tourists, but don't let that put you off. Most locals will be going to the night bazaar or walking street market in the evenings, but there are still some enjoyable little places to relax and have a beer. Most bars will be fairly simple, with a TV, pool table, some outdoor seating and a kitchen serving snacks and light meals. Prices are very reasonable. There are some venues with live music, such as the Cat Bar but in general, most places are fairly subdued. Many of the massage parlours are open late if you feel like treating yourself on the way home, and there are a few go-go bars (but don't expect anything as raucous as what you'd find in Bangkok or Pattaya). Chiang Rai does have a reasonable smattering of restaurants with a range of international cuisine, don't miss the Mexican food at Sabroso, or the fantastic BBQ food at Ribs&co, for when you've overdone the Thai food.
Night Bazaar and Walking Street Market
Chiang Rai Night Bazaar offers a huge variety of shopping and eating options, often accompanied by some form of live entertainment. There is a seemingly never-ending array of food options including various platters and hot pots, and nothing is particularly expensive. You'll see many local families eating here which means that the food is both delicious and good value. It's a great place to enjoy a meal Thai-style, which means very slowly with a few beers, and enjoy some people watching. The Walking Street Market has a mind-bending array of stalls selling all kinds of goods, and also has a very laid-back plaza for eating and watching some entertainment with a few drinks. The market is huge, indeed you can end up walking for miles so make sure you wear suitable footwear. Something to note with the Walking Street Market is that it's aimed at the locals, not tourists unlike many places in Chiang Mai, so you'll find better prices and more authentic dishes. Be warned though, combining the bazaar and the market in one evening maybe just too much!
Day Trips and Excursions In Chiang Rai
There is a huge amount to see and do within the vicinity of Chiang Rai itself, if you only visit the city you'll be missing out on some of the best experiences Chiang Rai has to offer. You’ll find that most travel agents and hotels with travel services offer comprehensive tours which include several attractions in one day, and these offer great value and convenience. However, you can still tailor a package to suit your needs if there’s something you’d like to include or avoid, don’t be afraid to ask.
The more popular day trips in the area include packages taking in the temples, waterfalls and maybe a national park, stopping somewhere for lunch. These kinds of basic packages should cost around 1000 baht ($33) per person. If you want to add in white water rafting, ATV or motorbiking, boat tours, fishing trips or suchlike then you can expect this to push the price up. Insurance is often included but it's always advisable to check. Long-neck hill tribe village visits, arts and crafts making, homestays and elephant rides can also be included in your package. The more people that book together, the more leverage you’ll have when negotiating a discount. Another excellent option is the evening tour, with a show, dinner and rickshaw ride included, more information can be found here.
The Chiang Rai Loop - The Chiang Rai loop may be a good option for you, especially if you are already in Chiang Mai. It involves several days of travelling, taking in numerous attractions and can be completed on a rented motorcycle, but only if you are a confident rider as the total distance is in the region of 400-500km. It starts in Chiang Mai heading north, on the first day you will see a hot spring, waterfall and some temples before arriving in Chiang Rai. There you can take in Chiang Rai for as long as you please before continuing to Mae Salong and Doi Angkhang before heading back to Chiang Mai. Realistically, you will need four full days to complete this loop and see the main sights, possibly longer if you want to visit all the viewpoints, gardens, caves and temples along the way. There can be long distances between some of the sights, but the scenery is stunning with paddy fields, mountains and lakes; a very enjoyable journey with amazing photo opportunities.
Prices, Expenses & Typical Costs In Chiang Rai
Accommodation - Accommodation in Chiang Rai is very good value. Dorm beds go from a few dollars a night, and there are many budget guesthouse options from under 500 baht ($16) a night. 1000 baht ($33) per night gets you very comfortable accommodation, either in a resort or a boutique-style guesthouse. You can expect all but the most basic accommodation to have Wi-Fi and air-conditioning. There is quite a lot of choice in Chiang Rai so you don't need to book in advance, although booking online often nets you a small discount.
Transportation - Transport in Chiang Rai will be considerably cheaper than your home country, on the basis that you ensure you do not get ripped off by unscrupulous taxi or tuk-tuk drivers. Renting a motorcycle for 200 baht ($6.65) per day is the best option for most travellers, as long as you are a confident rider. Short taxi rides will be from 30/40 baht ($1-$1.33) for motorcycle or air-conditioned taxis respectively, and songtaew journeys start at only 10 baht ($0.33) per person.
Food and Drink - Chiang Rai has a decent range of places to eat, but make sure that you try the local specialities which are great value. A very popular place to eat is the food court at the night bazaar which has dishes at around 30-50 baht ($1-$1.66) per plate. Basic local restaurants will be a little more expensive, around 80 baht ($2.66) for a curry dish or 150 baht ($5) for a shrimp tom yum. More popular or upmarket venues will be pricier still, and western-style restaurants can also be more expensive; expect to pay around 400 baht ($13) for a decent steak. Alcohol is relatively expensive in Thailand and can drain your budget quickly. A small bottle of beer can be 30 baht ($1) at a convenience store and 100 baht ($3.33) or even more at a restaurant.
Tours and Excursions - With many tours and packages being tailored to the customer, costs can vary wildly. However, as an example, a full-day tour including the Golden Triangle, the White Temple and the Black House should cost in the region of 1000 baht ($33) per person, which includes all transport and sometimes free bottles of water. Quad bike and motorcycle tours will be a bit more as mentioned. Be sure to check that insurance and safety gear is included.
Recommended Budgets For Chiang Rai
A solo backpacker could enjoy Chiang Rai on as little as 1000 baht ($33) a day or even less, whilst a more sensible budget including a comfortable boutique guest house, a one-day tour and 2 good quality meals would be around 3000 baht ($100) a day. 3000 baht should leave you some leftover cash to cover any additional transport, a bit of shopping, and a steak or seafood dinner in the evening with an alcoholic drink. 5000 baht ($162) a day would allow you to stay in the best hotels, eat the best steaks and seafood, travel everywhere by taxi and have plenty left over for shopping or evening entertainment.
Chiang Rai Money Saving Tips
Chiang Rai is already a good value destination but there are still ways to make sure your money goes a little further. When booking packages and excursions, always ask for a discount, especially if several people are booking together. With Thailand suffering a downturn in tourism as of late, the agent would always prefer to offer a better price than to lose business. Likewise, when shopping at markets make sure you haggle, most of the vendors will expect this anyway. A 100 baht discount might seem paltry but a savvy traveller can eat two good meals on that.
Look out for “coupongs” & eat street food - When eating out, look for special offers and deals, or look for the discount coupons (known in Thai as "coupongs") handed out at malls and walking street. Many places will have a deal on food, drinks or both at certain times of the day. Alternatively, make the most of the local street food, not only is it tasty and convenient but prices are incredibly low. For a cheap snack, 7-Eleven offers toasted sandwiches and small meals for around $1.
Get clever at the ATM - Like everywhere else in Thailand, using your foreign ATM card here will be very expensive. There is a 220 baht ($7) charge just for using the machine, which as of 2020 is unavoidable. On top of this, your bank back home will charge a foreign transaction fee, and you may not get a favourable rate. So bring cash if possible, or withdraw the maximum amount to try and negate the effect of the fees.
Take cheaper transport - Transportation is another easy place to save money during your trip. Avoid expensive tuk-tuks and try to use the songtaews, or take a taxi which uses the meter if 3-4 people are travelling together and split the cost. Chiang Rai is a little cooler than other Thai cities so you may find that you can walk to nearby destinations, depending on where you are staying.
Don't waste money on clothes & laundry - Like other places in Thailand, you can save a small fortune by not using the hotel’s laundry services. You will see small serviced laundry shops around Chiang Rai where you can get your entire load done for what some hotels would charge for one item.
Staying Safe in Chiang Rai?
Chiang Rai is not known as a tourist hotspot, as such, tends not to attract the usual rogue characters who are trying to part you from your hard-earned cash in any way possible. It, therefore, tends to be a very safe destination, even walking around at night is safe. Despite this, there are still some annoyances to be wary of when visiting.
Anyone who approaches you in the street and strikes up a conversation in English is to be regarded as suspicious. Thai people are generally quite quiet and reserved and someone attracting your attention in the street will most likely be after money. Do not believe anyone who tells you the attraction you want to visit is closed today, this is a well-known scam.
Despite Chiang Rai's cooler climate, it can still get hot enough to dehydrate you quickly, especially in the middle of the day. If you're travelling, always carry a bottle of water with you, 500ml bottles are sold almost everywhere and will only set you back around 10 baht ($0.33) or a little more at places such as national parks or tourist attractions.
With many people in the country suffering financially as a result of recent events, you should be smart and not openly display your wealth. Discreetly take money out of your wallet rather than flashing thousands of baht, leave expensive jewellery at home, and think carefully about whether you need to take any expensive camera equipment when your mobile phone may suffice. It’s very unlikely that you will be the victim of a crime but you can reduce those odds even further by being sensible.
If you're planning on doing some jungle trekking or visiting a national park or waterfall, bring some sturdy walking boots from home. Sure, you can buy them in Thailand, however, you're much better off wearing comfortable, broken-in shoes, besides which you might find the quality of boots you buy in Thailand questionable, especially if you buy them at a market.