Chiang Rai is one of those places that most travellers never get to, but it’s well worth putting on your itinerary especially if you’re looking for something a bit different, a bit laid back, but with lots of options as well.
Most visitors to Chiang Rai seem to be on the way to somewhere else - Chiang Mai, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), even China – so they stop over for a day or two to recharge their batteries, stock up on snacks and make their forward travel arrangements. But they miss out on much of what makes Chiang Rai so very special.
I think Chiang Rai is to Chiang Mai as Chiang Mai is to Bangkok. It’s a whole set of gears slower and more laid back, friendlier (yes, it is possible), cheaper, easier to navigate and get around. While Chiang Rai lacks the “theme park” adventures of its bigger neighbour, it more than makes up for it in real-life adventure opportunities.
Although maps of Chiang Rai show an “international airport”, there are actually no international flights into or out of Chiang Rai. Maybe it’s some leftover of past glories, or perhaps it was wishful thinking, but the only flights to and from Chiang Rai now are Air Asia and Thai Airways to Bangkok or with SGS Airlines to Chiang Mai. One-Two-Go may also now service Chiang Rai, but not sure. In any case, if you do end up flying in, you will find the airport is on Phaholyotin Road about 8 km from the city centre. There are fixed price airport taxis available that will take you downtown for 200B.
Most people generally arrive by bus and there are two bus terminals in Chiang Rai, so it helps to know which one you’ll be arriving at. Terminal one is the old bus terminal on Phaonyothin Road, just east of the city centre, which generally now only services bus journeys within Chiang Rai province. If you arrive there, everything is pretty much close enough to walk to. Terminal two is the newer bus station on Highway 1, about 6 km from the city centre, which services buses to and from Chiang Mai, Mae Hong Son and the border to Laos. There are regular songthaew services from Terminal 2 to Terminal 1 for about 10B, or you can grab a tuk tuk into town for around 60B depending on where you’re going.
The buses from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai leave from the Chiang Mai Arcade bus station at least once an hour, usually on the hour and on the 30 minutes. The 166 Bus is not air-conditioned and takes almost four hours to complete the 180 km journey at a cost of about 60B. There is a 2nd class, air-conditioned bus that gets there about 30 minutes faster and costs 80B. Or you can take the VIP bus which does the trip in about 3 hours and costs 100B. All these buses travel the new Highway 1019.
The other way to arrive in Chiang Rai, which we did on our recent trip, is by car or motorbike from Chiang Mai. If you come in this way, it will take you about three hours plus stops and it’s a pretty smooth and wide road all the way. The only issue is that the entry into Chiang Rai from the highway is a little bit tricky to navigate. We had oriented ourselves to navigate from the clock tower once we hit the middle of the city, but there are actually TWO clock towers and it got really confusing to find where we wanted to go. The clock tower shown on most maps is the one in the photo above, so if you find that you can use it as a major landmark.
Getting around Chiang Rai
One of the really nice things about Chiang Rai is that it’s small enough to walk around. If you don’t fancy walking, do as the expats do and hire a bicycle because it’s mostly flat so it’s a nice ride too. If riding or walking aren’t your thing, there are plenty of songthaews, tricycle taxis, tuk tuks and even the odd taxi to take you where you need to go, all at reasonable prices.
Most of the action in town is within one or two blocks of the clock tower. Heading east or west from the clock tower there are lots of classy restaurants and internet cafes, as well as clothing and electrical stores. Heading south from the clock tower along Jed Yod Road, there are heaps of bars and clubs and some temples and backpacker places. Heading north from the clock tower you are into the city centre with its night market and the bus station. If you’re driving or riding, head east from the clock tower along Pahonyothin Road past the Hill Tribe Museum and turn left at the old city wall to enter the main highway north to Mae Sai or south to Chiang Mai.
If you take the first left on Pahonyothin Road, you’re on Ratanaket Road which takes you to the river with it’s laid back pavilions and restaurants. But most of what you’re going to want to do in Chiang Rai is not in Chiang Rai itself, but out in the provinces.
Places to go and see
Within Chiang Rai itself, the top of the pops in my book is the White Temple, otherwise known as Wat Rong Khun. Now we’re not big temple tourists (and you might say, so what do you do in Thailand?), but we really liked its glitzy, kitschy strangeness and the fact that everywhere you turn there’s something really weird going on. Anyway, read our visit report for more about this amazing temple built by a local artist and still being worked on.
Although we did not think so much of it, many people we’ve met rave about the Chiang Rai ”beach”. This is a popular picnic and relaxation spot for locals and travellers alike and is in walking distance of the city centre (just). Enterprising locals have set up open bures along the banks of the Kok River where you can sit down and relax, read a book, enjoy a Thai massage, have a beer or a glass of wine, eat some delicious Thai food and just wind back a bit. When we went there it was pretty hot, so we didn’t stay too long. And the river was pretty low too, so I expect to see it in much better form on future visits.
If you’re into museums and culture, there are plenty of places to spend time in and around Chiang Rai including the Hill Tribe Museum and Cultural Centre on Tanalai Road, where you can get a bit of an idea of what hill tribe life and culture are like and also pick up some souvenirs without traipsing into the mountains. And the money raised does actually go to the hill tribe peoples, so it’s a worthwhile place to visit.
But for my money, Chiang Rai itself is about the night life and most of that is on Jet Yod Road, between the clock tower and the Wat Jet Yod temple. Whether you’re looking for food, female company, girly boys, a massage (Thai or otherwise), a tattoo, or just a laugh with other travellers, this is the place to come once the sun sets. We had some great evenings at The Cat Bar, where host Sam and his lovely wife make sure you’re drink is never empty and that you always have something to snack on.
There’s a big screen TV with music videos playins and a well-used pool table where you need to put your name down to compete. You can also challenge Sam to a game of chess, or just sit around and chat with locals, expats or fellow travellers from all over the world. And Sam makes sure that you’re never bothered by the local night girls or other riff raff.
After 10 pm Sam gets his electric guitar out and is often joined in rock jam sessions by locals and expats playing guitar, drums and other instruments, or just singing. If you’re musically inclined, Sam will fond a way to get you involved. At 11.30, the banana roti wagon rolls by for a late dessert and the action goes on until about 1.30 or 2.00 am, when everyone staggers home very happy. It’s a great place to waste some time!
But the real action in Chiang Rai is not in town at all, but out in the surrounding countryside, which is some of the most beautiful and spectacular in all of Thailand (except there are no beaches).
If you’re at all into history the tiny town of Chiang Saen is a must see, with its crumbling ruins of temples, fortresses, massive city walls and grand palaces testimony to its critical position on the banks of the Mekong River. As one of the oldest river trading ports in Thailand, Chiang Saen was for a long time the gateway for goods to and from China, via Yunnan province – and it probably still is! There are still plenty of river boats doing trade up, down and across the Mekong but to revisit Chiang Saen’s glory days from the 13th century you now have to look hard along the roadsides and among trees and overgrowth. But what you find is awe-inspiring, including one almost intact chedi (the Grand Jedi) and an ancient 7th century walled temple that’s still in use by the monks today. If you dig a little deeper there are archeological excavations still under way uncovering older and older structures.
Nearby to Chiang Saen is the famous (or infamous) Golden Triangle, once the centre of the opium trade in south-east Asia, it’s now a much safer place and drawing many travellers to the place where Thailand meets Burma and Laos. Here, the mighty Mekong River is joined by the Ruak River at the small town of Sob Ruak, where tourists can look out into the neighbouring countries, eat at riverside restaurants and have their photo taken atop mighty (statuesque) elephants. There’s an opium museum where you can learn all about the illicit drug trade and the warlords who once controlled it. You can also take riverboat tours including shopping trips to Laos and Myanmar, where you don’t need a visa. If you have Thai friends, they might even get you across to a flashy casino now open on the other side of the river in Myanmar! If you’re heading into Laos, there are boats from here to Luang Prabang as well as to Chiang Mai and even to China!
If you’re really looking to get off the beaten track, there’s always a trip to Pai, a sleepy bohemian town popular with dreadlocked backpackers and wrinkled hippies that’s famous for being super laid back and non-touristy. It’s a four hour bus trip across some pretty scary mountain roads which are often closed due to accidents blocking one side or both. Although once incredibly sleepy, it’s becoming a hip getaway destination for young rich Thai kids from Bangkok so it can fill up on weekends and during national holidays.
If you like that frontier feel, then Mae Hong Son might be to your liking, but it’s no day trip. At best, it’s a three-day trip through some of the most rugged and beautiful mountain country in south-east Asia, emerging into a pretty, scenic valley unlike anywhere else in the north. Centred around a gorgeous lake and dominated by the Phra That Doi Kong Mu temple, Mae Hong Son has a kind of magical feel to it, with picture postcard views and real hill tribes.
For those wanting to stay a little closer to town, Mae Salong offers a cool break with amazing vistas, quaint mountain villages and cherry blossom trees if you happen on it at the right time of year. Established by Kuo Min Tang soldiers escaping from China’s communist revolution, it was once a stronghold for drug warlords but has been cleverly converted into what some are calling the “little Switzerland” of Thailand. Anyway it’s a very pretty place and you can get a decent Chinese feed there too!
Even closer to town is Doi Angkhang, another “little Switzerland” that’s been created by the royal family out of an old poppy-growing area now given over to growing trees and flowers for the royal villa that’s been built there. There are quaint hill tribe markets to explore and you can even go up to a military border post where you can look across into Burma and realise just how backward much of it still is today.