Chiang Rai is the northernmost large city in Thailand and was a former capital city of the Lanna Kingdom under the reign of King Mangrai in the 13th century. It is also sometimes referred to as the “Art Capital” of Thailand, and was the birthplace of many Thai artists including Thawan Duchanee and Chalermchai Kositpipat.
The somewhat sleepy mountain town has several notable temples, galleries and attractions to visit, and is a great place to unwind and relax. In comparison to Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai is more laid-back so don’t head over expecting a pumping nightlife scene! Nevertheless, Chiang Rai is worth a quick visit for its unique temples and landmarks showcasing design features that you wouldn’t find elsewhere in Thailand.
Important things to know before visiting Chiang Rai
- To get into Chiang Rai by plane, you will likely need to fly to Bangkok first. You are exempted from visa requirements or can get a visa on arrival in Bangkok if you hold a passport from one of these countries.
- Chiang Rai International Airport has domestic flights to and from both Bangkok airports (Suvarnabhumi Airport – BKK or Don Mueang Airport – DMK). For this trip, I flew with AirAsia from Bangkok Don Mueang Airport to Chiang Rai Airport in just under 90 minutes, and was pleasantly surprised by the ease of travel with the budget airline. Though the amenities are basic, you can check-in to your flight up to 14 days in advance. The seats are comfortable enough for short-haul flights, and you can pay a small fee to upgrade to what AirAsia calls “hot seats” for priority boarding and more legroom.
- To get to the city centre from Chiang Rai International Airport hop into a taxi, which is the fastest and easiest way to get to your hotel. Turn left once you are in the arrivals hall and head all the way own to the end of the terminal. I paid a flat rate of 160 Baht (5 USD) for a 10-minute drive to my hotel.
- Stay connected and buy a local SIM card at the airport. I usually go with DTAC and get excellent connectivity not just in Bangkok but throughout Thailand. If you are visiting Bangkok before Chiang Rai, you can purchase your DTAC SIM card ahead of time and pick it up at BKK or DMK airports, or in town at Siam Center. Get your 8-day DTAC SIM card for just 131 Baht (4 USD) here! If you are visiting Chiang Mai before Chiang Rai, get your 8-day DTAC SIM Card for 149 Baht (4.5 USD) here.
- Unlike Chiang Mai where you can get around easily on foot or by songthaews and tuk tuks, the best way to get around Chiang Rai is by Grab (similar to Uber), as the major Chiang Rai attractions are not within walking distance of each other. Make sure you download the app ahead of your trip.
- The currency in Thailand is the Thai Baht. The exchange rate is approximately US$1 to approximately 32-35 Baht. Cash is king so exchange some money when you arrive at the airport or withdraw cash from an ATM. There are several ATMs around the Night Bazaar area.
- Like Chiang Mai, the best time to visit Chiang Rai is from November/December to February, though the temperature in Chiang Rai is even cooler than that in Chiang Mai and Bangkok. The weather in Chiang Rai is also less humid and more dry, so make sure you bring a light jacket for the mornings and evenings.
- Chiang Rai also tends to be less crowded than Chiang Mai in general. However, when I visited Chiang Rai in December, the White Temple, Blue Temple and Black House were all packed full of tourists as there are fewer major landmarks to visit in the city, which means all the tourists tend to congregate in the same areas.
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Where to stay in Chiang Rai
If you have the time, I recommend staying a minimum of 1 night in Chiang Rai. Though many people opt to visit Chiang Rai as a day trip from Chiang Mai, the 200-kilometre drive takes approximately 3.5 hours each way if you don’t stop, which means you will spend nearly 8 hours on the road if you do a Chiang Rai day trip from Chiang Mai.
Chiang Rai accommodation options aren’t exactly plentiful, and when I researched hotel options I didn’t see too many that “jumped out” at me. Apart from the Le Meridien Chiang Rai, there are few luxury hotels in Chiang Rai and I didn’t see many options for independent travelers who want a private room at a boutique hotel with great facilities. I ended up staying at Meesuk Residence, a 5-minute drive away from the main town and just 10 minutes away from Chiang Rai airport.
It is a small budget hotel located in a quiet neighborhood without a pool or restaurant, but the rooms are spacious and very clean, and the staff are incredibly friendly. In fact, I had asked the lady at reception for directions to the nearest ATM and she kindly drew a map for me, and as I was walking away from the hotel she pulled up next to me on her scooter and offered to give me a lift! Click here to see current rates and availability at Meesuk Residence or click here to see other highly rated hotel options in Chiang Rai.
Only have time for a day trip to Chiang Rai from Chiang Mai? Head on over here to read my guide on 10 things to do in Chiang Mai that don’t involve riding elephants or petting tigers, and make sure you also plan a day trip to Doi Inthanon National Park from Chiang Mai!
How to get to Chiang Rai from Chiang Mai
While you can fly from Bangkok to Chiang Rai, it is also easy to travel from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai.
By private tour from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai: One of the most popular ways to get to Chiang Rai is by booking a Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai private tour. I joined TakeMeTour for a guided tour around Chiang Rai and for a delicious Thai lunch at a local restaurant. TakeMeTour is one of the biggest travel booking websites in Thailand, and connects travelers with local Thai experts to learn about culture and insider secrets for an authentic tour experience.
Their latest project, LocalTable, is a platform developed in partnership with the Tourism Authority of Thailand and offers unique tours around Thailand that not only feature sightseeing, but also gives tourists an opportunity to feast on Thailand’s gastronomic delights. I booked myself onto the “White Temple, Blue Temple, Black House, Lotus Temple & Best Khao Soi” tour with Sakon, a local guide who knows both Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai like the back of his hand. Sakon speaks fantastic English and is a very patient guide who explained the history of the Blue and White temples as well as Black Museum. It was a great day and the pace was leisurely – I never felt rushed at each of the sites.
The private LocalTable Chiang Rai tour can start in Chiang Mai if you need a driver to take you on a Chiang Rai day trip, or Sakon can pick you up from your hotel in Chiang Rai if you are flying in directly. The full-day tour costs 7700 Baht (US$238) for 2 people, and includes hotel pick up/drop off & transportation from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai, lunch, a private guide, and all of your entry fees.
By private car from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai: If you prefer to travel to Chiang Rai by yourself, you can also charter a private car to take you there from Chiang Mai. A 1-way transfer will cost anywhere from 3200 to 3600 Baht per vehicle (US$100-110) depending on which car service you go with. You can look through some private car transfer options by clicking here. As with any booking on Klook, make sure you read through the reviews and terms carefully, including potential surcharges for pick up/drop off outside the designated areas.
Note: The Chiang Rai private tour I mentioned above costs just US$119 per person (less than return private transfer between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai) and includes transportation, entry fees into all of the temples, a local guide and a massive Thai lunch. I highly recommend booking yourself onto this LocalTable tour with Sakon if you get a chance, but make sure you book early as Sakon’s tours in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai are very popular! You can book the LocalTable Chiang Rai one day trip by clicking here.
Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai by bus: If you are on a tight budget, you can take a Greenbus between Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai – buses depart throughout the day with at least 1 bus every hour or so. Check the bus schedule here.
Self-drive from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai: If you have an international driver’s permit you can rent a car to drive from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai. Click here to book your rental car ahead of your trip. Bookings can be cancelled or amended if your plans change! Meesuk Residence in Chiang Rai has plenty of parking spaces available if you are staying overnight, and the various temples also have on-site parking lots.
What to do in Chiang Rai in 2 days
There are a handful of attractions in Chiang Rai that you shouldn’t skip. The temples and galleries in Chiang Rai are not traditional to say the least, and if you are an art lover or fan of quirky design and architecture, then you will appreciate what these Chiang Rai attractions have to offer.
1. Visit Wat Rong Khun
Wat Rong Khun (sometimes referred to as the “Chiang Rai White Temple”) is the famous non-traditional Buddhist temple constructed, designed and opened by Chalermchai Kositpipat, a Thai artist. The unique structure is almost entirely white, and you must cross a bridge surrounded by creepy concrete hands, grasping upwards. These hands are supposedly the fallen souls of evil-doers, and you must make your way over the bridge to get to the main temple.
You’re not allowed to take photos inside the temple, but the walls are adorned with paintings of characters from pop culture – Neo from the Matrix, Freddy Kruger, Batman, Hello Kitty, Michael Jackson and more. Very quirky!
Admission to the temple is free for Thai nationals and 50 Baht for foreigners, and it’s important that you abide by the dress code here – cover your shoulders and knees. My long maxi skirt has a slit up one side (to the knee), and I was even asked to tie a rubber band around the skirt to make sure it didn’t blow open.
2. See Wat Rong Suea Ten
Photo credit: TakeMeTour
Wat Rong Suea Ten (sometimes referred to as the “Chiang Rai Blue Temple”) was designed by a student of Chalermchai Kositpipat, the artist who designed the White Temple. It is actually a relatively “young” temple and was only completed around 3 years ago. Its name means “Temple of the Tigers Jumping Over the Channel” as Tigers supposedly used to live in this region and would leap across waterways.
The deep blue colour of the temple’s exterior symbolizes the sky, and the interior features intricate paintings detailing the life of Buddha. Much like the stone Buddha head in Ayutthaya, you must sit down or kneel if you are taking a photo with the Buddha statue at the Blue Temple.
3. Check out the Black House Museum
Photo credit: TakeMeTour
Though some people (myself included) mistakenly think that this is the “Chiang Rai Black Temple”, Baan Dam (Black House) is actually a museum and gallery by Thawan Duchanee, an eccentric Thai artist known for his artwork made mostly from animal parts. As you walk through the various houses and structures you’ll see plenty of skulls, hide, skin, bones and even whole skeletons. All a bit creepy!
His ashes are currently stored within a statue of a mythical bird – it is believed that the bird will take him from hell to heaven and fight off the spirits of the animals Duchanee hunted while he was alive. Being an animal lover, it made me deeply unsettled being around so many hunting trophies – just something to be aware of if you are planning to visit the Black House. Entry costs 80 Baht.
4. Eat khao soi
Khao soi is a northern Thai dish that you absolutely cannot skip. Egg noodles are bathed in a coconut yellow curry soup, and many people add a dash of lime, red onions and picked vegetables before devouring the noodles.
It is a popular lunch dish for Thai people who only have time for a quick meal, and good khao soi places often close after 3 PM. Sakon, my guide, took me to a local restaurant known for its khao soi, and we also feasted on fresh spring rolls with vegetables and glass noodles as well as deep fried dumplings.
5. Wander through the Chiang Rai Night Bazaar
The Chiang Rai Night Bazaar is a happening night market in the heart of town. There are plenty of shops selling clothing (expect tons of elephant-print pants), handicrafts, street food and souvenirs. There is a outdoor food court section with plenty of options – from hotpot and seafood to noodles and skewers – you can pretty much eat to your heart’s content!
If you have more time in Chiang Rai, you might always want to check out the Choui Fong Tea Plantation (about 1 hour away from downtown) or the Golden Triangle where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet.
Where to eat in Chiang Rai
Apart from eating khao soi and stuffing your face at the night bazaar, make sure you also check out Chivit Thamma Da. It’s a beautiful coffee house-slash-restaurant-slash-bar by the river, and serves up the most delicious local and international fare.
Their food is made with fresh, high-quality, fair-trade ingredients produced nearby by sustainable agriculture, and they grow most of their rice themselves. All of their coffee, fruit, vegetables, herbs, pork, chicken and eggs are locally produced supporting the Chiang Rai community. Plus, their cocktails are to die for!
Chiang Rai dress code and what to bring
It is warm all year round in Chiang Rai but the mornings and evenings can be chilly, so dress appropriately and wear light, breathable clothing for the mid-day heat but bring a scarf or light jacket. The Buddhist temples all have strict dress codes and you will need to cover your shoulders and knees. Do not wear crop tops or low-cut dresses and tops.
As you will need to remove your shoes to enter the temples, wear shoes that you can slip on and off easily as well as some wet wipes to clean your feet. Keep yourself hydrated by bringing a refillable bottle of water, and wear plenty of sunscreen and a hat. Click here for more Southeast Asia travel tips.
Bring cash for entrance tickets for the temples if you are not joining a tour; your entrance fees are already covered if you are joining the White Temple, Blue Temple, Black House, Lotus Temple & Best Khao Soi tour with Sakon. Though tips are not required, they are always appreciated so bring some cash if you want to tip your guide.
I used my Canon 6D DSLR camera for the majority of these photos, though you can take excellent photos with a smartphone as well. Click here to read some of my go-to mobile photography tips or check out some of my favorite photo editing tools here.
Ready to plan an amazing trip to Chiang Rai? Click here to book a private tour to Chiang Rai from Chiang Mai and book your Chiang Rai accommodation in advance here!
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I participated in the LocalTable campaign hosted by the Tourism Authority of Thailand and TakeMeTour. My flights to and from Chiang Rai were sponsored by AirAsia, and my stay at Meesuk Residence was also sponsored. However, no compensation was received for this review, and as always, the opinions on Yogawinetravel.com are (and always will be) my own! I only recommend products, services and hotels that I have had positive personal experiences with.
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