Nestled in the lush landscapes of Northern Thailand, Chiang Rai, a city of cultural richness and scenic beauty, awaits the next culture-loving visitors. From its awe-inspiring temples to the vibrant hill tribes, Chiang Rai is a treasure trove of experiences… (and languages!) It is always the first place I tell people to go in the north. So, are you ready to learn more about it? I’ll take that as a yes.
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The Significance of Chiang Rai
Established in 1262 by King Mangrai, Chiang Rai translates from the old Northern Thai to “The City of (Mang)Rai.” It was the first capital city of the Lanna Kingdom, later succeeded by Chiang Mai in 1296.
This means that despite all the glory that Chiang Mai has been receiving from tourists and expats, Chiang Rai is not to be overlooked, for it has a much longer history and remains a more local destination today. Let’s dive into what you can do and see in my favorite northern province.
Oh, did I say the word culture already? Well, brace yourself for more because that is how rich in culture Chiang Rai is! Below are some of the options to get a quick look into the province’s best.
The White Temple (Wat Rong Khun)
I know, I know, I know. You’ve heard it all before… But one cannot talk about Chiang Rai without mentioning the White Temple. A masterpiece of contemporary art and spirituality, with its intricate, glowing-white structure, it stands as a beacon of creativity.
Built by Chalermchai Kositpipat, the most respected yet most controversial artist in the country for his tendency to blend Buddhist images with contemporary ones, this temple fits the trend. The sanctuary interior is beautifully hand-painted in scenes from Buddhist tales, but the use of lines and colors is clearly modern. Unfortunately, photo-taking wasn’t allowed inside, but that means you have to come see it in person!
If you pay attention around the temple, dubbed “heaven,” you’ll see hell-like imageries and statues surrounding it, including hands of the dead reaching up on both sides of the bridge leading into the sanctuary. They represent the temptations that surround us on our way to becoming the best version of ourselves.
- Hours: 8:00am – 5:00pm weekdays, 8:00am – 5:30pm weekends
- Fee: 100 Baht ($3) for foreigners
- Location: 19.8232669, 99.7601336
If you’re interested in photo editing, check out this Lightroom preset I created inspired by the White Temple!
The Blue Temple (Wat Rong Suea Ten)
The newest of the stunning Chiang Rai temples, Wat Rong Suea Ten was completed in 2016 by one of Chalermchai Kositpipat’s prodigy students. You will see the same mixture of traditional Buddhist and temporary styles come through inside the sanctuary, in which you can take photos, but only while seated.
Around the temple is a neighborhood known locally as “Rong Suea Ten,” which means “Brook of the Dancing Tigers.” Word has it that another older temple stood in its place, abandoned for hundreds of years, so the tigers came out of the woods and roamed freely on the grounds.
Unlike the White Temple, the Blue Temple is a working temple with monks and occasional ceremonies. So, just be mindful of that when visiting and keep your voices down.
- Hours: 7:00am – 8:00pm daily
- Fee: Free entry (Go before this changes!)
- Location: 19.9233966, 99.8392979
If you’re interested in photo editing, check out this Lightroom preset I created inspired by the Blue Temple!
Hill Tribe Villages
Venturing into the Hill Tribe Villages offers a glimpse into the diverse cultural fabric of Northern Thailand. Each tribe, with its unique customs, languages, and colorful attire, tells a story of a rich, yet often unseen, part of Thai culture. If you have a day (or even better, a couple) to spare, I highly recommend taking the 2-hour trip out of the city for this.
Phahee & Phami Villages
The most well-known and easiest to get to, Phahee and Phami are both tribal, coffee-cultivating communities in the mountains bordering Thailand and Myanmar.
If you only have a day to spare, go as early as you can in case you make it there before the morning cloud inversion disappears. If you have more than one day, I highly recommend spending a night in one of the local homestays and waking up for coffee and cloud inversion the next morning.
The only downside of these villages is they’re far and harder to get to without a car. If you’re doing a day trip, striking a deal with a Grab driver and booking him/her for the day might be possible. However, if you’ve seen the traffic with your own eyes and feel comfortable driving, I recommend renting a car.
NOTE: Make sure to have your passport with you. The road to these villages swerves into Myanmar for a bit, so you will pass military checkpoints.
If you’re interested in a more immersive guided experience, there’s a trekking tour you can join. It goes to a different village than Phahee and Phami, but the itinerary looks amazing.
Cultural Tour Alternatives
If you’re on crunch time but would like to see all the cultural stops, there’s a tour that covers ALL the biggest highlights of Chiang Rai, from the temples, a tea plantation, and a tribal village.
It is a packed itinerary, so I don’t think you’ll get a lot of time in each place. But if you have limited time, it should work well as a survey for what you’d like to spend time on when you visit again.
You could also book a private, customizable tour if it works for your budget level. This way you can go wherever you want in the area without having to worry about transportation.
Galleries and Museums
Of course, picking out the two most impressive ones out of many more.
Baan Dam (The Black House)
Contrasting the White Temple is Baan Dam, the Black House. By “contrasting,” I mean it in both the literal and metaphorical sense. Consisting of over 40 pitch-black traditional Thai buildings, the locals have dubbed this museum the “Hell of Thai Architecture,” pairing it with the “Heaven” that is the White Temple.
The massive gallery houses a vast collection of works by Thawan Duchanee, a celebrated Thai artist who in life was the mentor to Mr. Kositpipat, the White Temple designer. Its dark, mysterious ambiance, filled with traditional and contemporary art, offers a thought-provoking experience. Don’t miss out on the “Baan Dam Soft Serve” charcoal ice cream sold at Building 7.
A word of caution to animal rights activists; some tusks and animal skins are displayed in some of the buildings as well.
- Hours: 9:00am – 5:00pm daily
- Fee: 80 Baht ($2.5)
- Location: 19.992037, 99.8581774
If you’re interested in photo editing, check out this Lightroom preset I created inspired by Baan Dam!
Doi Tung Royal Villa
Perched atop the hills, Doi Tung Royal Villa, once the residence of the mother of King Rama IX, now serves as a symbol of the region’s history. The palace, with its elegant architecture and over-the-hill view of its garden, is subtle compared to most other palaces I’ve seen, yet impressive.
A little bit of background about the late Princess Srinagarindra; She was a commoner before marrying into the royal family, a rare instance. After becoming a princess, she was well-known for maintaining her humble lifestyle, later passing it on to her sons, both of whom became kings.
This “palace” is a testament to her humility. Massive in size, but as you walk along its halls, you’ll find muted wooden furniture and a simple bed with plain white linens.
- Hours: 8:00am – 5:00pm daily
- Fee: 90 Baht ($3) for the palace, 220 Baht ($6) for the palace 7 the gardens
- Location: 20.2883303, 99.8072545
If you’d like to combine the Villa visit with a tribal village and tea plantation, this tour below covers both.
As the sun sets, the Night Bazaar comes alive. This bustling market, with its array of stalls offering everything from local crafts to delicious street food, is a feast for the senses. This night market, with its lively atmosphere, is the perfect place to soak in the local culture (and maybe drink a bit!)
- Hours: 6:00pm – 11:00pm daily
- Location: 19.9053883, 99.8315661
Indulge in the Culinary Options
Chiang Rai’s culinary scene is as diverse as its culture. From traditional to fusion dishes, the city’s restaurants cater to every palate. My personal favorite is rather simple; the Northern Hor d’Oeuvres, a selection of steamed vegetables and sausages with the local green chili paste (Namprik Noom).
Below are some of my favorite restaurants. Pick and choose as you wish, but I recommend them all!
หลู้ลำ Lu Lam
- The most traditional choice, every dish is served plain, but the highlight lies in the taste… and of course, being by the river, the ambiance!
- Hours: 10:30am – 9:00pm daily
- Location: 19.9219682, 99.8480401
มาลองเต๊อะ Ma Long Der
- With stylish spins on traditional decorations, this place offers both a-la-carte and set menus of traditional northern dishes. It is also right next to one of the art galleries in town; your opportunity to do some digestive walking… order some more food to eat, repeat.
- Hours: 9:00am – 5:00pm, closed on Mondays
- Location: 19.9563662, 99.8485571
- This is the most modern/fusion option of the 3. Not only is the interior design impeccable, but their dessert selections are also INSANE. The food is great. Desserts are just that much better.
- Hours: 9:30am – 10:00pm daily
- Location: 19.9064185, 99.8270449
If you’re interested in learning more about the Thai culinary background and styles, check out my post on Thai Cuisine, where I discussed cooking styles from all regions of Thailand.
Chiang Rai in and of itself is easily a voyage through the heart of Northern Thai culture, food, and art. Each stop, from the awe-inspiring White Temple to cloud inversions of the mountain villages, to the humble Royal Villa, is guaranteed to enrich your experience in Thailand and keep it on your mind for a long time.
The ideal time to visit Chiang Rai is from November to February when the weather is cool and dry. This period offers the most comfortable climate for exploring outdoor attractions and participating in activities like hiking and visiting temples.
Yes, visitors can interact with hill tribe communities, But it’s important to approach such visits with respect and sensitivity towards their culture and traditions. The rule of thumb is don’t do anything you wouldn’t do to your own people.
Where do I start? The northern cuisine is just delicious, plus healthier than its central region counterparts due to the heavy use of steamed vegetables and herbs. Be sure to try these: Sai Oua, Khao Soi, Khanomjeen Nam Ngiaw, and Noamprik Noom Kab Moo.
When in any big city in Thailand, the Grab app is your best friend. There are also plenty of Song-Taew passenger trucks and tuk-tuks if you’d like a more local experience, but make sure to get a price quoted BEFORE starting the ride.
Yes, the Chiang Rai Flower Festival in December (sometimes into January) is not to be missed! It showcases beautiful floral displays and local horticulture.