The sleepy little sister of Chiang Mai is well worth a visit while in Northern Thailand. I’m here to share the best things to do in Chiang Rai to help you explore the region.
I hadn’t heard of Chiang Rai until recently. Everyone’s heard of Chiang Mai and most people take a detour to Pai as well. However, I’m so glad I took a trip earlier this year. One of my best Southeast Asia tips is to get off the beaten path and discover hidden gems. Chiang Rai is one of them!
CHIANG RAI ESSENTIALSThailand e-sim data planAccommodation – Booking.com / HostelworldGetting there – bus / day tourActivities: Viator / GetYourGuide
Guide book: Lonely Planet Thailand
Chiang Rai travel guide
Honestly, I didn’t love the city itself. It’s a small dusty city without much charm, and the modest local restaurants and Aussie sports bars somehow don’t seem to blend, unlike the busy centre of Chiang Mai where locals and tourists dine together at atmospheric street food markets.
But that’s okay because few people visit for the town itself. Thanks to its countryside surroundings dotted with temples, mountains and waterfalls, there are plenty of fun things to do in Chiang Rai, making it a worthy addition to your Southeast Asia bucket list.
Getting to Chiang Rai
Most travellers add Chiang Mai to their Thailand itinerary before making the pilgrimage to Chiang Rai. For that reason, you’ll probably be catching the bus from Chiang Mai.
I was assured you could turn up on the day without pre-booking but alas, I was turned away and had to return to Chiang Mai only to find my hostel was fully booked. I then had to re-home for one night and try again the next day, something that would have been troublesome had I been on a tight schedule!For that reason, I’d recommend booking with 12Go. The journey takes a little over 3 hours. The bus leaves from Arcade Bus Station (Chiang Mai Bus Terminal 2) which can be reached in a Grab taxi for 90 baht or a red songthaew for 30-50 baht.
It gets into Chiang Rai Bus Terminal 1 which is right beside the Night Bazaar. Don’t get off at the first bus station because you’ll need to catch a taxi into Chiang Rai.
You can make the return journey to Chiang Mai unless your Southeast Asia itinerary is taking you to Laos next, in which case you can book the slow boat at your Chiang Rai accommodation or any tourist office.
By day tour
If you just have a day to spare, your best bet is an organised day tour from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai. These generally include a boat tour and buffet lunch before returning to Chiang Mai at the end of the day.
Getting around Chiang Rai
Your options for getting around while sightseeing in Chiang Rai include:
- Hire a scooter for 200 baht a day
- Take an organised day tour
- Get Grab taxis between the sights (80-120 baht per journey).
As a solo traveller who isn’t a confident scooter driver and doesn’t enjoy organised tours, I went for the third option. Calling Grab taxis started to add up but it was still less than a day tour. It’s worth noting you can get to the White Temple cheaply on the local bus.
Where to stay in Chiang Rai
Hostel – The Stay In Chiangrai Hostel is conveniently located on San Khong Noi Road, close to the Sunday market. It’s also just a 15-20 minute tuktuk or taxi drive away from Wat Rong Khun and about a 10-15 minute tuktuk or taxi drive away from Wat Rong Suea Ten. It’s also the top-rated hostel in the city according to Hostelworld. Check availability and book from $7.Budget hotel – Huen Chan Thip is a budget-friendly hotel with a beautiful pool and garden. It’s located a 10-minute walk away from the Clock Tower. Check availability and book from $17.
Midrange – Another gorgeous hotel option is the Blue Lagoon Hotel with an inviting pool, garden and beautifully decorated rooms complete with folded swan towels. It’s situated just a 7-minute walk from the Night Bazaar. Check availability and book from $36.
Browse all hotels and self-catering apartments on Booking.com. For hostels, use Hostelworld.
Things to do in Chiang Rai
Chiang Rai is a relaxed place to spend a few days as there aren’t realms of activities. But they say less is more, don’t they? This certainly applies to Chiang Rai because the main sights and temples are incredible!
1. The White Temple
Easily one of the top things to do in Chiang Rai
The White Temple is the most visited tourist attraction in Chiang Rai, as well as the most iconic and photographed. It’s not overhyped, although the crowds of excitable tourists may leave you feeling exhausted. Selfie sticks are actually banned on site, thank God!
I’d recommend spending at least an hour at the White Temple, especially since the crowds take some navigating. What I found interesting is that the White Temple isn’t a real temple but a modern art installation of one, built in 1997 by a wealthy Thai artist. But plenty of locals were praying there so I guess a temple can be anything you want it to be!
While you can take photos outside, they’re not allowed inside the main temple hall. You’ll have to see it to believe it: the contemporary paintings feature the Minions and Michael Jackson. Bizarre!
Entrance fee: 50 baht.Opening times: 8am-5pm.Getting to the White Temple: Simply turn up at the central bus station and wait for a bus to depart. It was basic and cramped but very easy, convenient and cheap. You’ll know you’ve arrived when the rest of the tourists get off. I paid 20 baht.I hoped to get the same journey back but I couldn’t find the stop. Instead, I hailed a passing songthaew (the blue shared taxis) and paid around 20 baht.
You can also hire a scooter to visit the White Temple, go as part of a day tour, or pay about 300 baht in a taxi.
2. The Clock Tower light show
This colourful daily light show is worth seeing. I saw it by total accident when I arrived off the bus from Chiang Mai feeling tired and hungry. I sat down on a street corner with some pad Thai and just as my food arrived, the otherwise plain clock tower lit up.During the next 15 minutes, it turned pink, orange, red, green and blue while a small crowd snapped photos of it.
Catch this colourful show at 7pm each evening. Set your Google Maps to Clock Tower.
3. The Blue Temple
This popular place to visit in Chiang Rai is a house of worship is painted bright blue and decorated with elaborate gold details. Like the White Temple, it doesn’t feel like an ancient temple – probably because it isn’t!
Locally known as Wat Rong Seur Ten, this temple was only completed in January 2016, although the locals were building it from 2005. I can’t help but wonder if tourism had to play in the contemporary temples.
Even if they’re not entirely authentic, it’s a savvy business move considering Chiang Rai is such an easy journey from popular Chiang Mai.
Although Wat Rong Seua Ten is a new temple, it has a long history. There was a temple on this site once but it was abandoned around the 1940s.‘Seua Ten’ means dancing tigerwhich dates back to rumours of wild animals who once lived in these parts. Now the only animals are the bus loads of eager selfie-hunters!
My top tip is to visit early (it opens at 8am) to beat the crowds, especially if you want nice photos.Getting to the Blue Temple: You can’t catch public transport so your best bet is hiring a scooter or catching a Grab taxi. I did the latter, then walked back to town which took 40 minutes. Several day tours stop at the Blue Temple if you fancy seeing all Chiang Rai’s sights in one go.Entry fee: free!
Opening times: 7am-8pm.
4. Wat Huay Pla Kang
Goddess of Mercy – an iconic place to visit in Chiang Rai
How stunning is this place!? It may look like a giant Buddha perched on the hilltop but actually, it’s a giant female Goddess of Mercy.I almost didn’t make it to Wat Huay Pla Kang because the Grab ride was a little pricey and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to hail one back. I decided to take the 7km journey anyway and I’m happy I did. Like the Blue Temple, it’s clean and modern while still depicting images from Buddhist mythology.As I hadn’t seen any photos before visiting, I had no expectations and it ended up being one of my favourite places in Chiang Rai.
Sadly the lift was closed for the day but you can usually take it up inside the statue and look out over the countryside, literally through the eyes of the Goddess. I believe this was 30 baht but it’s the only bit you’ll pay for because entrance to Wat Huay Pla Kang is free.
Opening times: 7am-9.30pm.Entry fee: free.Getting to Wat Huay Pla Kang: Like the other main Chiang Rai attractions, you can drive a scooter there or see if it’s included in local day trip itineraries.
Alternatively, a Grab taxi will cost around 100 baht each way. I’d suggest asking your driver if they can wait because it was a little difficult to hail one after visiting. In the end, I did manage it but there aren’t so many drivers waiting around.
5. The Black House
Also known as Baan Dam, this museum and gallery displays the work of the late Thai artist, Thawan Duchanee, inside black teak buildings. It’s located 3km from the city but is a worthy addition to your itinerary.If you’ve seen the White Temple and the Blue Temple (and the colourful clock show), why not complete the colour spectrum with the Black House!?Opening times: 9am-5.30pm.
Entrance fee: free.
Related activity: Chiang Rai Sightseeing Tour
6. Wat Phra Kaew
One of the most religiously and historically significant temples in Chiang Rai is Wat Phra Kaew. This is where the Emerald Buddha was originally enshrined before being moved to a temple of the same name, Wat Phra Kaew, in Bangkok. There’s now a replica of the Emerald Buddha at Chiang Rai’s Wat Phra Kaew made of green jade along with a prayer hall and museum of Lanna artefacts. Entrance fee: free.Opening times: temple hours = 6am-6pm; Museum hours = 9am-5pm.
How to get there: located on Trairat Road, the temple is easily accessible via tuk-tuk or taxi.
7. Art Bridge
For a cultural thing to do in Chiang Rai, the Art Bridge is a private gallery that displays paintings, sculptures and other art by Thai and international artists. There are multiple large gallery spaces and a restaurant with delicious food such as traditional Thai curries. Plus, it’s right by a river with a beautiful view of the surrounding mountains.Art workshops and courses are offered on-site and the exhibitions change so there’s always something new to see. Entrance fee: free.Opening times: 10am – 7pm.
How to get there: located just 6km north of the city, Art Bridge is accessible via bus or taxi.
8. Hill Tribe Museum
The Hill Tribe Museum is a popular place to visit in Chiang Rai, containing a wealth of information, history, traditional clothing, harvesting equipment and other artefacts from 6 different Thai hill tribes. See hill tribe textiles, wickerwork, handmade baskets and ornaments, and learn about the issues Thai hill tribes face. Find the museum located on the third floor of the nonprofit Population & Community Development Association building.Entry fee: 50 baht.Opening times: Monday to Friday 9am-6pm; Saturday and Sunday 10am-6pm.
How to get there: located on Thanalai street, the museum is easily accessible via tuk-tuk or taxi.
9. Sop Ruak & Golden Triangle Park
Being an hour or so north of the city, Sop Ruak and the Golden Triangle Park is one of the most visited countryside attractions near Chiang Rai.In Thai, the name ‘Sop Ruak’ signifies the place where the Ruak and Mekong rivers connect. It’s called the ‘Golden Triangle’ in English because it’s where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet. With vibrant jungle and mountain views, photo opportunities at the Golden Triangle itself, a giant golden Buddha, a nearby temple and the Hall of Opium, this is a popular tourist destination. It’s well worth a visit because there’s so much to do and see. There are boat services that will take you right up close to the Golden Triangle. You can also visit the Laotian island Don Sao or Thai towns such as Chiang Saen or Chiang Kong.Entrance fee: free.
How to get there: It’s a 1.5-hour taxi ride or 2-hour bus ride. There are also group tours available.
10. Chiang Rai Night Bazaar
The Night Bazaar is a lively place to see in Chiang Rai when the sun’s gone down and the market’s lit up. It’s divided into distinct sections: one is a dining area, another is for souvenirs and there’s also a section for local produce.You can enjoy delicious local dishes and shop for souvenirs. There’s often live music and dancing later in the evening.Entrance fee: free.Opening times: 6pm-11pm.
How to get there: it’s a 6-minute walk from the Clock Tower. Also accessible via tuk-tuk or taxi.
11. Phu Chi Pha Mountain
Mount Phu Chi Fa Mountain is part of the Doi Pha Mon sub-range, situated near the border of Laos. The best time to hike the mountain is between November and January since the weather is cooler.There are many hiking trails to choose from and most of them aren’t too long or difficult. The trail to the top takes only around 20 minutes. If you love nature and you’ve ticked off the main things to do in Chiang Rai city, you can go camping at Phu Chi Pha as there are multiple campsites as well as tent and sleeping bag rentals available. Entrance fee: free.Opening times: 5am-6pm.
How to get there: the easiest way to get there is via taxi since the bus takes a longer route. You could also get there pretty easily with a car rental or motorbike rental. Phu Chia Pha is a 1 hour 45-minute drive to the east.
12. Pong Phrabat Hot Springs & Waterfall
If you visit in the cooler months or just want to take a day to relax, then head up to Pong Phrabat Hot Springs. With natural hot springs feeding into man-made pools, you can enjoy a wonderful soak surrounded by nature.There’s also a nearby waterfall that you can hike to first if you’re up for more of an adventure.Entrance fee: 40 baht.Opening times: 8am-6pm.
How to get there: Pong Phrabat is just a 20-minute drive away from the city. The best ways to get there are via taxi, car rental or motorbike rental.
13. Khun Korn Waterfall
There are lots of waterfalls to explore near Chiang Rai, but the tallest at 70 meters, is Khun Korn. It’s about a 30-minute hike through bamboo trees and tropical lush forest to get to the waterfall. Once there you can go for a refreshing dip in the water to cool off. Entrance fee: free.Opening times: 8am-4:30pm.
How to get there: located 30 minutes driving distance west of the city, Khun Khon is easily accessible via taxi, car rental or motorbike rental.
14. Doi Mae Salong Mountain
Located in the Dan Lao range of mountains near Myanmar, the summit of Doi Mae Salong is near the SantiKhiri Village.This village was built along the mountain ridge and was settled by the former Chinese 93rd army division who got lost in the mountains after the end of the Chinese civil war. They were granted permission to live on the ridge by the Thai government in the 70s. Now you can hike up through the village and to the mountain summit and enjoy incredible views plus all the amazing Yunnanese food, oolong tea fields, and shops the town has to offer. Entrance fee: free
How to get there: Doi Mae Salong is a 1.5-hour drive from Chiang Rai. It’s easily accessible via taxi or local songthaew buses.
Related activity: 1 Day Trekking Group Tour with Bamboo Cooking
Foodie things to do in Chiang Rai
The foodie scene here isn’t hugely renowned compared to the food scene in Chiang Mai but it’s still Thailand, so one of the best things to do is eat!
15. Eat Chinese food at Nakhon Pathom Restaurant
Tuck into some local food at Nakhon Pathom. Chinese settlers have been serving their food in Thailand for generations and this Hainanese restaurant is a great place to try it. I tucked into a giant feast of Peking duck and barbeque pork served with rice, crunchy cucumber and a soup on the side.
Peking duck at Nakhon Pathom Restaurant
Related activity: Chiang Rai Private Cooking Class – Cooking with Ann
16. Support a local enterprise
Cabbages & Condoms might be the world’s weirdest restaurant name but it’s all for a good cause. Access to healthcare and contraception is limited for many Thai people, especially in rural areas. This can lead to various problems including teen pregnancies, infant mortality and death during childbirth. This non-profit aims to provide contraception where possible, using this restaurant to fund the project.
There’s also a branch in Bangkok so if you visit, check out the restaurant which is full of quirky furnishings entirely made of condoms. Anything for a good cause, right!? The dishes at C&C are pricier than street food but it’s well worth it.
17. Play with cute cats over coffee
I don’t know what was better, this matcha latte or hanging out with these beauts! I researched Cat ‘n A Cup long and hard before visiting as I wouldn’t want to condone any animal mistreatment. However, these lazy felines are real princesses and seem very well pampered.
My only complaint is that there are so many strays in Thailand and these pure breeds definitely weren’t them! But for a chilled afternoon with cats and coffee, you won’t do any harm by visiting.
Unlike other cat cafes I’ve been to, you don’t pay per time spent. Just buy a drink or slice of cake (for the same price you would in any other cafe) and stay as long as you want. My matcha latte and cheesecake were both delicious.
2 day Chiang Rai itinerary
Day 1: Take a morning trip to the White Temple, then head back to the city for lunch. Eat local food at Nakhon Pathom or do a good deed by visiting Cabbages and Condoms. In the afternoon, you could chill at the cat cafe or visit Wat Huay Pla Kang (the goddess on the hill). Shop and eat at the Night Bazaar in the evening.Day 2: Start your day at the Blue Temple, then visit the Black House. Return to Chiang Rai in the evening for pad Thai while watching the Clock Tower Light Show.
Only got one day? I’d suggest hiring a scooter or taking a day tour. If you have a scooter, you could whizz around the White Temple, Blue Temple and Wat Huay Pla Kang during the day, then have dinner in the city.