Chiang Rai: Thailand’s Northern Province

When people think about Thailand, they always think about the beaches and Bangkok. However, up north, there is a part of Thailand, which many people may not know about it, called Chiang Rai. While not as glitzy as Bangkok, this place is a gem for those who want a quiet holiday, surrounded by lush tropical trees, great food, and very friendly people.

Chiang Rai is the most northern province of Thailand bordered to the north by Myanmar and Laos to the east. The land is at least 1,900 feet above sea elevation and is a lot cooler than most other places in Thailand, which are hot and humid. This northern part of Thailand is often referred to as the Golden Triangle, chiefly because it is rich in agriculture products like coconuts, pineapple, coffee, and bananas. Unfortunately, it is also a common route for drug smugglers from Laos into Myanmar. A word of warning to all farangs (foreigners)- Thai authorities do not take it too kindly if you are caught smuggling or dealing with drugs- they also have very unpleasant jails).

chiang rai thailand

The capital city in Chiang Rai province is Chiang Rai. This small town of about 60, 000 inhabitants is a major commercial center for all trade that occurs between Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar. Anyone who wishes to tour these 3 countries needs to go through Chiang Rai. The character of the city is very different from Bangkok and the South in many ways.  The population is a mix of Laotians, Burmese exiles, and Thai. In addition, the food is a lot hotter and spicier than what you get in Bangkok. And finally, the weather is more tolerable than the heat and humidity of Bangkok.

Chiang Rai does have an airport that is served by several Asian airlines. For European and Americans, one must first go to Bangkok and take the 90 min flight up north. Chiang Rai is about 800 kilometers north of Bangkok but driving is not recommend as most road signs are in Thai and the way the Thai drive, you may never make it to your destination.

Visitors really do not need to rent a car to see Chiang Rai. The taxis are a lot cheaper to get around. If you are on a budget, you can use the buses that are very cheap but sometimes packed- so you may have to wait a few minutes for another one. Buses not only serve Chiang Rai but also take you to the border of Laos or to Chiang Mai, which is another neighboring city. Over the last few years, luxury bus services have also opened up business; these buses are air-conditioned and very comfortable.

All over Chiang Rai, there are small taxis called tuk-tuks, which are cheap. Or you can walk, as the city is quite small. Even though motorcycles can be rented, one has to be careful because motorists usually do not have any regard for anyone on two wheelers or two legs.

thailand tuk tuk

There are lots to see and do in Chiang Rai. There are several museums  (e.g., Bandaam, Mae Fah Luang and the Cultural Hall museum), which have traditional Thai art and paintings. Most of these museums offer a good history of Thai culture and language. I do not recommend going to all of them as most are quite dull.

Some of the things that a tourist may find appealing include the Gate of Siam where you go to the top of the mountain and beneath you can see the Mekong River and Laos.

A great place to visit is Namtok Khun Kon Forest that is about 45 mins away from the city. It has scenic waterfalls and the place is great for nature lovers. It places you can have a picnic but you will need to be fit, as the trails are steep.

mekong-river golden triangle thailand

All over Thailand, there are Wats (temples) and Chiang Rai is no exception. Most of these WATS have elegant carvings, statues, and Thai decorations. However, if you have been too few wat, that should be enough to last you a lifetime unless you are thinking of converting to a monk. however,

The two places I do recommend is the Wat Rong Khun, (white temple) which is a great place and is the most incredible temple I have ever seen, and the black temple Bann Dum (black temple or black house). these are known as a temple, however, are in fact art exhibits made by two brothers.

The Kok River runs through the city and here you can have boat cruises, which are fun. The scenery is gorgeous and some of these boat tours also have dinners.

For those who are adventurous, there is rock climbing but most of the rocks are covered with vine and are quite slippery. Unless you have a partner, this activity is not recommended in case you fall and need help.

white-temple thailand

If you just want to relax, go to the hot springs, which is about 20 mins away from town. Here the water is warm and the scenery is pretty.

Chiang Rai has a number of local festivals which include lychee fair, solar fair, and the Wai Sa Phaya Mengrai or Phokhun Mengrai Maharat Festival. All these fairs offer great food, traditional Thai dancing and a day of fun.

Like Bangkok, you can buy almost anything in Chiang Rai at low cost. There are shops everywhere and you can bargain. If you like Thai food, then you are in luck. Beside the street vendors, there are many food courts. Plus along the side streets, you can get some of best fruits on this planet. Food is very cheap in Thailand. A word of warning even though there is ample good Thai food on the streets, one should be aware that many of the vendors do not have good personal hygiene and severe cases of food poisoning are not uncommon. So before you buy the food, check the vendor and place- for safety buy from an indoor restaurant. A typical Thai meal with a drink will not be more than 70-150 baht (3-5 dollars) and the food will be authentic Thai. Of course, there are some 5-star hotels, which serve foods that are ten times that price. Over the years many French, British, and Germans have opened up cafeterias, pubs and fast food restaurants, which serve European foods- slightly expensive than the average Thai food but worth a visit as you will meet mostly ex-pats. Here you will also get tips on what to do and what not to do.

To stay in Chiang Rai, there are hotels to meet every budget. But do not stay in the ones that cost less than $5- you are likely to have good sleep but your belongings will be missing the next day. Most decent places with Wi-Fi for budget travelers will cost about $15-$25 a night.

Chiang Rai is best visited from Nov to April. The heavy rains occur from April to October and even though cooler, the rains really make everything messy. And Thai monsoon rains are Wet- real wet. During summer time it does get hot but it is less humid than Bangkok.

chiang rai