Chiang Rai has the reputation for being rather boring and because of that many visitors to Northern Thailand give it a miss. Although it’s certainly not as exciting as its big sister Chiang Mai, we think that Chiang Rai is absolutely worth the detour. It has some very interesting temples and is surrounded by some stunning countryside. Chiang Rai is also only a short drive to the Golden Triangle, the region bordering Myanmar and Laos. That area used to be a hub for the opium trade.
Because many travellers don’t make it to Chiang Rai, we found it to be much less touristy (except for the White temple) and so much more enjoyable to walk around than Chiang Mai. We’d definitely recommend visiting Chiang Rai if you’re heading to Northern Thailand. You definitely won’t be bored!
Here are the top 10 things to see in Chiang Rai:
1- Wat Rong Khun/The White Temple
Many take a day tour all the way from Chiang Mai to visit this quirky temple and it’s easy to see why. It’s way different than any other temple we’ve ever seen! This famous Buddhist temple was designed by Chaloemchai Kositpipat and while still unfinished, what’s already completed is absolutely worth seeing.
The temple is painted bright white all over with an extremely unusual ornate facade and some pretty out there carvings. In particular, the path leading to the entrance is one of a kind! After you’ve visited a lot of temples in Thailand they kind of start to look the same. But you won’t find a temple like this anywhere else in Thailand!
The White Temple is a 30-minute drive from the city centre, so to get there you’ll need to hire a tuk-tuk (they cost about 300 THB and they wait for you there). Another option, which we chose, is to take the local bus. It leaves from the main bus station, next to the night bazaar. The bus has a big “White Temple” sign on it, making it easy to spot. Hop on and the conductor will collect payment in transit. The bus costs only 20 Baht one way; bargain! Your final option is to book one of the many organised tours advertised in town.
Opening Hours: 06.30 – 18.00 daily – Closed for lunch 12:00pm-1:00pm.
Entrance fee: 50 THB for foreigners
2- Baan Dam Museum/Black House
The Black House, also referred to as the Black Temple, is another quirky but darker place to visit in Chiang Rai. It’s actually not a temple but rather the studio and house of the late creative artist Thawan Duchanee. It’s now a museum showcasing his legacy and it houses a very odd collection of artefacts. As animal lovers, we weren’t a fan of some of his artwork but it’s certainly a very interesting place.
Opening Hours: 09.00 – 17.00 daily- Closed for lunch 12:00pm-1:00pm.
Entrance fee: 80 THB for foreigners
3- Wat Rong Sear Tean / Blue temple
Wat Rong Sear Tean, also known as the Blue Temple, is another unique temple in Chiang Rai. It is painted almost entirely blue (hence the name) with some stunning gold ornaments and detail work. It’s not quite as quirky as the White Temple but it’s still pretty out there compared to other Thai temples. This might have something to do with the fact that it was designed by one of Chalermchai Kositpipat’s students.
The Blue Temple is located just north of the Kok River. You can catch a tuk-tuk there, walk or make a stop on your way back from Baan Dam Museum.
Opening Hours: 08.00 – 20.00
Entrance fee: free
4- Clock Tower
Other than the White Temple, the main icon of Chiang Rai is its golden clock tower (designed by the same artist as the White Temple). This tower serves as a traffic roundabout and has a light and sound show every night at 7, 8 and 9 pm.
5- Wat Phra Kaew
Built in the 14th Century, Wat Phra Kaew is one of the oldest and most famous temples in Chiang Rai. Wat Phra Kaew is home to a replica of the original Jade Buddha that was discovered here (the original now resides in the Grand Palace in Bangkok).
Opening Hours: 7.00 – 18.00
Entrance fee: free
6- Wat Huay Pla Kung (Big Buddha)
Wat Huay Pla Kung is a new temple complex containing a big Buddha statue, a 9-floor pagoda and a beautiful white temple. You can climb to the top of the pagoda for some lovely views of the surrounding countryside. It’s located about 8 kilometres North of Chiang Rai’s city centre so you will need to get a tuk-tuk or go there as part of a tour.
Opening Hours: 8.00 – 17.00
Entrance fee: free (there is a fee to take the elevator to the top of the pagoda)
7- Shop and eat at the Night Bazaar
The Night Bazaar is in the city centre, a five-minute walk from the clock tower and right next to the bus terminal. The Chiang Rai Night Market is a smaller version of the one in Chiang Mai but it’s still worth checking out if you’re looking for souvenirs, clothes, jewellery or street food. Make sure you bargain!
If you are in town on the weekend, there are separate Saturday and Sunday night markets. Both are bigger than the Night Bazaar and once again sell an assortment of goods. The Saturday night market is located on Thanon Thanalal walking street and the Sunday night market is on Sankhongoi Road walking street. Both streets are in the centre of town.
8- Take a trip to the Golden Triangle
The Golden Triangle is the point where you can look out over three countries at once, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. It’s also where the Mekong and Ruak rivers meet. The lookout gives you a breathtaking view over both rivers and all three countries.
The Golden Triangle is around fifty kilometres from Chiang Rai and not far from Mae Sai (see below), so you can combine the two.
9- Visit Mae Sai Thailand’s Northern Most Town
Chiang Rai is only a short drive from Thailand’s northernmost point, the town of Mae Sai. You can actually visit Mae Say and stand next to the signpost and river that intersect the Myanmar border. There’s a bridge joining the two countries and you can watch people crossing between them.
Mae Sai is also home to shops selling all sorts of cheap items (apparently 30% cheaper than anywhere else in Thailand). There are also lots of jewellery shops selling ornaments supposedly made from Myanmar jade.
10- Visit a Tea Plantation
If you love tea, or simply love beautiful scenery, you can visit the nearby tea plantations. We stopped at the Choui Fong tea plantation on our way to the Golden Triangle and did some tasting, followed by some delicious green tea ice cream. The scenery up in the hills was beautiful.
So is Chiang Rai worth visiting?
Absolutely! As you can see, there are actually quite a few interesting things to do in Chiang Rai, so it would be a shame to give it a miss. I guess this leads to the next question, how long to stay in Chiang Rai? I think two days is enough to see the main attractions but if you’d like to get a better feel for this city, three or four days would be preferable.
How to get to Chiang Rai from Chiang Mai?
Getting to Chiang Rai from Chiang Mai is super easy. Take the Green Bus!
These buses run throughout the day from Chiang Mai’s northern bus station Terminal 3, which is a short 60 Baht Grab ride from the Old Town.
You can book your trip at the bus station or online here at 12go.asia. The cost varies depending on the bus you choose. It starts at around 220 Baht for the normal bus and more if you decide to go for the VIP option.
Use the search form below to find your bus to Chiang Rai:
The Green Bus arrives at the Chiang Rai bus station Terminal 1 which is in the middle of the town. Make sure you don’t get off too early because it first stops at another bus station further out of town. The whole journey takes around three and a half hours.
Where to go after Chiang Rai?
Chiang Rai is the starting point for travelling by land or boat to Laos. If you have time we’d recommend checking out Laos as well.
We took a slow boat trip to Luang Prabang from Chiang Rai and boy was this an adventure! We loved it! You can book the slow boat at most hotels or travel agencies in Chiang Rai. We paid 1550 Baht each for our tickets on one of the local slow boats but there are much fancier and less cramped options if you prefer. The local boat is usually packed with both tourists and locals, so if you’re more of a comfort traveller, look into the fancier version.
Either way, you will be picked up by minivan and taken to the border town of Chiang Khong. Then you’ll cross the border and take a tuk-tuk to the riverside to meet your boat. The boat glides along the Mekong River for two days and eventually arrives in Luang Prabang. All boats stop overnight in the little town of Pakbang which is roughly at the halfway point. The whole cruise is a fantastic experience and the scenery is just stunning.
What to eat in Chiang Rai?
As with Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai specialises in Northern Thai food and therefore sells the Khao Soy all over town. I’m such a fan of the dish, it’s just so delish! The best place to eat Khao Soy in Chiang Rai is at a local restaurant called Khao Soi Phor Jai. For 40 Baht you’ll get the nicest bowl of Khao Soy in town. Delicious and very, very cheap!
Where to stay in Chiang Rai
This guesthouse is centrally located, only a five-minute walk from the bus station and the night bazaar. It offers quiet, very clean and comfortable rooms with air-conditioning and free wifi. They also offer a free simple breakfast. We stayed here and really enjoyed it. Check out the latest prices here.
For a mid-range option, the Laluna Resort offers comfortable rooms and has a huge pool to cool off in after exploring the city. Laluna is located two kilometres south of town and is a short walk from the Sunday walking street market. Check out the latest prices here.
Looking for luxury? The 5 star Riverie by Katathani should fit the bill. Located two kilometres from the centre of Chiang Rai it overlooks the Kok River and offers some great mountain views. Check out the latest prices here.
If none of those hotels tickle your fancy, use the search box below to find one that does: