Sitting at the northern tip of Thailand, Chiang Rai is not far from the borders of both Laos and Myanmar. Thanks to this location, the city is the perfect jumping-off point to the neighbouring countries but is also strewn with history itself.
Due to fewer tourists and more attractions centred around nature, you’ll experience a slower pace of life in Chiang Rai compared to the lively Chiang Mai. which is only 3-4 hours drive.
Just like Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai is a temple lovers’ paradise thanks to the iconic White Temple that fills every cover image of the city. This white temple is a reason on its own for many visitors to visit Chiang Rai, as it breaks the mould when it comes to traditional Thai temples.
What fewer people know, is that you can go on a hiking adventure in this mountainous region, visit hot springs, go river dipping or chasing waterfalls.
If you don’t have time to plan your visit to Chiang Rai, we highly recommend checking out this private tour to the Black House, White Temple and Blue Temple. With this tour you will see the highlights of Chiang Rai in one day.
New to Chiang Rai? We’ve written this compact Chiang Rai guide to show you the best areas to stay, restaurants you don’t want to miss and many more tips for your visit to Chiang Rai!
#1 See what’s inside the White Temple
When you imagine a Thai temple, Wat Rong Khun (White Temple) is likely to not be the first thing that comes to mind.
Unlike most temples in Thailand, the White temple is a relatively modern temple that was only completed in 1997 by Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat.
On top of that, the exterior is embellished with intricate white and silver detailings as well as dragons, snakes and a (slightly creepy) moat of hundreds of reaching hands.
The interior is decorated with fascinating paintings hung from floor to ceiling, depicting everything from movie stars and cartoons to politicians. This pop culture theme continues throughout the whole temple, so keep your eye out for the likes of Darth Vader and Iron Man.
Unfortunately, photography is only permitted around the exterior of the temple, so you can’t take photos inside.
That’s not all, next door the artwork continues at the Chalermchai Kositpipat gallery with beautiful pieces from both Chalermchai himself and other local artists.
How to visit the White Temple
Entrance to the temple is 100 baht, which is open from 9 am to 5 pm. The White Temple is located 13km south of the city, and can be reached by songthaew (300 baht), taxi (500 baht) or bus (20 baht) roundtrip.
However, if you are short on time, why not combine all three of Chiang Rai’s most popular temples into one day? Klook offers a private tour to the Black House, White Temple and Blue Temple from 720 baht ($22.75), including hotel pick up.
Top-Tip: The White Temple can get extremely busy, which can often ruin the experience, so try to get there early to avoid the crowds.
#2 Take a trip to the Black House
On the other end of the colour spectrum is the Black House (Baan Dam), a collection of more than 40 buildings designed by a number of Thai contemporary artists, most notably Thawan Duchanee.
Interestingly, his controversial work triggered outrage from conservative Thais, which seems to add to the fascination surrounding the place.
Inside each of the uniquely designed buildings, you’ll find carved pieces of furniture, paintings, animal skins and sculptures purposely placed around the space.
The entrance fee for the Black House is 80 baht. Alternatively, you can book the private tour with Klook that we mentioned above which covers all of the popular temples in the area.
#3 Visit the Blue Temple
Also included in Klook’s private temple tour, Wat Rong Suea Ten (Blue Temple) is a new addition to Chiang Rai’s temple collection, having only been completed in 2016.
A largely underrated temple, or perhaps the news hasn’t spread yet, is intricately decorated with gold detailings which are stunningly contrasted against the blue background.
The Blue Temple is an interesting opportunity to observe the difference between old and modern temple designs, whilst breathing in the energy that seems to radiate from the vibrant colour.
If you choose to visit this temple independently, the entrance is actually free! You’ll just have to organise your own transport.
#4 Watch the light show at the Clock Tower
By day the Clock Tower, situated at the centre of Chiang Rai, isn’t really anything to shout about, especially considering it’s surrounded by a ton of traffic.
When you come at nightfall, the Clock Tower comes alive as it’s lit up with a flurry of lights dancing to the music played around the intersection.
Almost just as amazing as the spectacle, is the atmosphere created by the crowd that builds around the streets to watch the show.
The show occurs every night at 7 pm, 8 pm, and 9 pm, lasting 10 minutes each time.
Whilst watching, see if you can spot any similarities with the White Temple, as the Clock Tower was actually designed by the same artist.
#5 Sample some delicious street food at the Night Bazaar
If you’ve already experienced other night markets throughout Thailand, it may be a welcome relief to walk the rows of Chiang Rai’s stalls.
Believe it or not, you actually have some room to breathe, something very rare in Asian markets!
The night market is open Saturdays 4:30pm-12:30am, and boasts some really incredible food that you just have to sample.
A mostly unknown gem is Khao Soi, a variation of a noodle curry soup. This mouth-watering dish is famous to northern Thailand and we guarantee you’ll be craving it once you’re back home!
#6 Hike some of Chiang Rai’s beautiful trails
Chiang Rai is a mountainous area, so what better place to go hiking?
Wander down Jeyton Road and you’ll find plenty of tourist offices offering guided tours of the surrounding areas. These range from day trips to 2-3 day explorations, with stays in rustic hilltop homestays.
One of our favourite hikes is to the peak of Phu Chi Fa, a 2 – 2.5 hour drive outside of Chiang Mai. The hike to the top is only about 1 kilometre, so can be done in around 15 minutes.
Once you reach the top, it’s hard not to be stunned by the landscape that spans in front of you! You’ll be rewarded with panoramic views of valleys, villages, Laos and part of the Mekong River. And if you’re lucky you may have the whole viewpoint to yourself!
Top tip: Get to the peak for sunrise to feel like you’re on top of the clouds as the fog fills the valleys below you.
#7 Relax in a natural hot spring
After all the trekking, Chiang Rai’s hot springs can be the perfect place to rejuvenate and refresh your muscles.
Huay Mak Liam hot spring sits within a lush forest along the Kok River. These springs are actually too hot to bathe in as they’re 65 degrees celsius! It’s quite crazy that a natural spring can reach temperatures that high.
Nam Roo has to take the crown though. It’s 120km outside the city, but trust us the journey is worth it! This naturally heated lake is mother nature’s idea of an infinity pool. The lake is high in the mountains of Doi Pha Hom Pok National Park, offering spectacular views whilst you relax.
#8 Go swimming in one of Chiang Rai’s waterfalls
The mountainous topography of the area has created some of the best waterfalls in the whole of Thailand, meaning you shouldn’t visit Chiang Mai without seeing at least one!
Not too far from the city centre is Huay Mae Sai, largely unknown to most people which creates an intimate and private experience. The waterfall has a deep, refreshing plunge pool at its base and idyllic sunbathing spots dotted around on the rocks.
A little further out is Khun Korn, some 30km away from the centre. This 70m waterfall will 100% give you goosebumps as you cast your gaze upwards towards the surging wall of water.
You’ll need to follow a 1.5km trail to reach the waterfall, the perfect opportunity to work up a sweat before plunging into the pool.
#9 Conquer your fears at Tree Top Adventure Park
If you’ve ever watched I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here, you’ve probably imagined what it’s like to cross a swaying rope bridge high up in the jungle canopy.
Tree Top Adventure Park has built a 300 meter long walkway among the trees of the Mae Fah Luang Garden, 30 meters above the ground. Do you have the nerve to make the crossing?
The park is about an hour’s drive north of Chiang Mai and a ticket costs 150 baht.
#10 Escape to Chiang Rai Beach
It may involve a bit of imagination but even hundreds of miles away from the sea you can visit a ‘beach’ in Chiang Rai.
Situated along the River Kok are a number of bamboo huts that offer some much needed shade whilst grabbing a bite to eat of local cuisine.
Chiang Rai beach is a favourite amongst the locals, providing a place to swim in the river and escape city life.
#11 Stand on the border of 3 countries at the Golden triangle
Chiang Rai is one of Thailand’s largest northernmost cities, putting it close to the Myanmar and Laos borders.
This is how the Golden Triangle came about. It’s the spot where Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet, alongside the Mekong and Ruak River intersection.
How many people can say they’ve seen three countries all at the same time?
The Golden Triangle isn’t much more than a photo opportunity, so to make the most of the trip you can visit some of the nearby markets and admire the large golden Buddha statue.
#12 Party at Par Club
Chiang Rai may not be the liveliest city in Thailand, but Par Club can certainly keep you entertained once the sun has set.
The club gives you a great insight into how young Thais like to party as you’ll likely be one of the only tourists in the club! It’s the perfect place to make friends with some locals whilst enjoying some live performances and DJ sets.
#13 Eat at Cabbage & Condoms
After reading the title you’re probably a bit confused (we’re not into eating condoms either)! Don’t worry you won’t be. Cabbage & Condoms is actually a social enterprise restaurant whose profits support The Population and Community Development Association.
The program helps to improve a range of social priorities including; health, education, HIV/AIDS, environment and rural development etc.
Starting as a small roadside stall, the initiative is now a fine-dining restaurant that can seat up to 400 people and hosts amazing live bands.