Chiang Rai is a city in northern Thailand, in the mountainous province above Chiang Mai. They city is known for its beautiful extravagant temples making it a pilgrimage city for local Buddhists as well as travelers. The city holds the white temple, Wat Rong Khun that is a symbolic temple done by a local Thai artist with lots of hands and skulls up the walkway portraying the idea of heaven and hell. The blue temple, Wat Rong Suea Ten houses the big blue Buddha inside a beautiful blue temple room. Wat Phra Kaew is a royal temple that once housed the jade Emerald Buddha and now displays a replica. Huay Pla Kang Temple complex outside the city center has the giant white compassion figure. There is also the Black House museum north of the city center that is a collection of wood buildings featuring works by Thawan Duchanee & other contemporary Thai artists. There are lots of artistic works to visit in the historical city.
How to get there
There is a bus that you can catch and take from Chiang Mai, you can rent a car or hire a private taxi. Those are the three main options available depending on your budget and timeline. The most common way to get to Chiang Rai is to take the Green bus. The Green VIP bus goes five times a day from Arcade Bus Station. The station is located at the far end of Kaeo Narwat Road. In order to get to the bus station the chepaest way is to catch a songthaew, the blue truck open back taxis that will cost you 50 THB ($1.5) per person from most places in the city. The old bus terminal (Terminal 1) is near the Night Bazaar. The new bus station (Terminal 2) is on the outer edge of Chiang Rai a 10 minutes drive to the old bus station. The Green Bus company drop off at both Chiang Rai terminals, but when buying tickets specify which station you prefer (the most convenient one for tourists is terminal 1 as you will get dropped off right in the city center.) The trip by bus costs $4-10 (130-300 THB) one way. Be sure to plan and book tickets ahead for return and on or around holidays. There are many green bus authorized dealers and they charge a 20 baht booking fee. The bus trip takes 3 hours one way. Check bus times and pricing here.
A private economy taxi car costs around 3800 baht (around $121 usd) one way for two passengers. This would bring your cost to visit this city roundtrip to $242usd. If you try to hire a local Thai taxi I have heard quotes for 3800 baht for a roundtrip day cost. However, that is a long ways for a day trip. This is the most expensive option and least practical. But if you are looking for air conditioning, space and privacy this is an option. There are public taxi companies and options you can check out here.
Rent a car
This is the most practical option if you want freedom, privacy and space then you can rent a car for cheaper normally a weekend than paying for a private taxi. Renting a car from Chiang Mai airport for 5 days traveling around the city and Pai and Chiang Rai cost us $200usd. This was a very practical option to have all of your transportation in and out of the cities covered on your own timeline and schedule. If you have an international or Thai driver’s license this is a great option. The buses are cramped and drive crazy on the winding roads making you sick as well as maybe no ac inside. The taxis are way too expensive and you don’t have freedom. Renting a car is a great option. The cost of renting a car for a 3 day weekend is $60usd without gas.
When to visit
We visited over new years eve and new years day which is a big temple pilgrimage time of year. The temples were packed with families traveling to pray for the new year. The monks pray all night in the temple ushering in the new year. The temple lines were very long and you actually were not allowed to walk freely through the temple because of the amount of people. They structured a walk where you were not allowed to stop and take many pictures. Around holidays and Buddhist holidays is not a good time to visit these well known temples. Before your trip be sure to check the years Buddhist holiday days here.
Things to do
Wat Rong Khun- The White Temple
The white temple is f made by a Thai artist named Ajarn Chalermchai Kositpipat. He was born in Chiang Rai, and has dedicated his life to restoring and further developing the White Temple, which is known locally as Wat Rong Khun. This is a very creative and symbolic temple the white showcasing the purity of the Buddha. There is a religious message in every part of this temple with a theme of escaping desire and moving towards enlightenment. The hallway leading up into the main part of the entrance has hands reaching up and skulls that symbolism desire and human suffering because in Buddhism desire is the cause of our suffering. The bridge is called the cycle of rebirth crossing over into a state free of suffering. The temple inside unlike other traditional Thai temples has images of modern day actors and famous figures showcasing some of the idols and things we must overcome. This is a tremendous historical site that is a fascinating walk through experience of Buddhism and its teachings.
Temple hours: 8am-5pm daily
Temple Cost: 50 baht per person (foreigners)
Dress Code: This is a very strict temple on the dress code. They try to find any way to get you to buy a scarf or cover up from them. They do not allow any shorts, skirts or anything that reveals women’s legs or shoulders or chest. This is a very special religious site for them and it should be respected. Be careful and sensitive and they will not let you in. I was wearing a loose fitting dress past my knees that fully covered my arms to my elbows and they still turned me away. I had to go change which luckily I had linen pants with me I could put on. Also be prepared when they let in locals in spaghetti strap tops and shorts or skirts that do show their legs. Locals were not being held to the same dress code as the foreigners which is just a reality.
Wat Rong Suea Ten- The Blue Temple
The Blue Temple is a recent temple that is an ongoing project. Chiang Rai is an artistic community that is one of the only places that has built such recent temples with such unique features and colors different than the traditional Thailand temples. These are definitely the top two temples to see while you are in Chiang Rai. There was a ruin of a temple on the same grounds 80-100 years ago and villagers decided to build a new temple here in the 90’s. The blue interior and paintings are intricate and beautiful. There is a large white Buddha figure in the temple that appears to be a light blue in the hues of the room.
Temple hours: 7am-8pm daily
Temple Cost: This temple had a free entrance with no ticket to enter. It is a free temple experience which is crazy because it is just as beautiful and unique as the white temple. The parking is hard because it is on a side back street in a neighborhood. The parking lot at the temple is small and limited. It is better to park down the street further and walk.
Dress code: There did not seem to be someone taking tickets or managing the entrance to this temple at all. I did not see anyone or their clothes being checked or stopped. Still try to be respectful when entering the temple and its grounds. It is good to have covered legs and arms with looser clothing as a woman.
Clock Tower/Walking Street
The clock tower is a central point in the main downtown area. This street becomes the walking street and main market at night. Most restaurants and coffee shops are found in this central area. This is the only night life of the city and since we were there for New Years Eve they have lots of live music and open bars in walking street with a new years eve celebration. There are fireworks that go off over the clock tower at midnight and it is a fun small town feel to the evening.
There are many cute trendy cafes in the city to explore. Melt in your mouth is a beautiful glass walled fancy tea house serving coffee, wine, deserts and a mix of Thai and western dishes including pizza and burgers. Their grounds are so beautiful and are used often for weddings. Chivit Thamma Da Coffee House, Bistro & Bar is across the river from the main downtown along the beautiful Koh River. There is a beautiful garden courtyard area as well as an old fashioned beautiful open porch with wicker chairs surrounded by greenery. They have an extensive drink list as well as thai and western dishes for around 200 baht a dish. Couple Cups CEI is a small trendy coffee shop with modern minimalist style with lots of plants. They roast their own coffee and sell homemade lemon cheesecake and many other cakes and deserts. Yellow Truck Coffee is a small local Thai spot for a cheap coffee in a unique experience in the center of town that serves local Thai food. This is a great spot if you are seeing the clocktower in the center of town. Sanfran Burger & Beer is a small trendy burger joint downtown that makes a pretty good burger for Thailand standards. However, I struggle to recommend it because the night that I ate this for lunch I got food poisoning and violently was throwing up for the next two days. I am still not sure if it was my lunch or dinner meal that caused the sickness. Heaven Burger is another popular burger spot in town.
Huay Pla Kang Temple
This is a Buddhist temple complex with a 9-floor pagoda and 12 surrounding structures & a giant white goddess of mercy figure with a long cascading staircase up. The climb up the stairs is a hike to a beautiful viewpoint of the city. There is an elevator option instead of the stairs for only 40 baht as well. This is a unique temple in Thailand because one of the highlight is the 9-storey Phon Choke Tham Chedi pagoda, which mixes Chinese and Thai style architecture in a beautifully artistic way. Another main highlight is the goddess of mercy Guan Yin in Thailand. This statue is 79 meters tall, or comparable to a 25- to 26-story building. The locals believe those who come here and pray for good health, money or a job will recieve a blessing.
Temple hours: 7 a.m. to 9.30 p.m.
Temple cost: 50 baht per person
Black House (Baandam Museum)
The Black House Museum is an art gallery featuring work from several Thai artists. The museum also contains a collection of wood buildings featuring works by Thawan Duchanee & other contemporary Thai artists. The architecture is beautiful and there are several buildings to explore that are filled with local art. The museum hours is 9am-5pm daily and the entry fee is 80 baht per person.
This is a large scenic park just outside the city in a farm like setting with tea plantations, orchards, trails, a tram & a petting zoo. There are many events that are held in the park including an annual hot air ballon festival. The activities you can do in the park like a zip-line and climbing wall are pretty steep prices but to just hang out in the park is pretty cheap.
Park hours: 9am-5pm daily
Entry fee: 50 baht per person
Where to stay
Bed & Bike Poshtel
We stayed at Bed and Bike Poshtel. This is a simple and budget clean hostel in downtown a 2 minute walk from the clock tower. There are many hostels downtown great for walking around. This hostel has bicycles for rent and has a cafe inside. There are private rooms for couples but public community bathrooms one for men and one for women on every floor. The hostel costs 400 baht a night or about $13usd a night. Hostels in smaller cities especially in Asia are normally more modern and fun trendy environments that give you the most for your money. The hotels normally cost more and are less nice or “new modern” spots.
This is another one of the more modern downtown hostels for 520 baht a night. This hostel is a bit more dormitory based and has less private rooms than Bed and Bike. This hostel has more common hangout areas. Depends on what you are needing and looking for but seems to be better for single travelers who are looking to meet people.
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This is a trendy and modern boho style higher end hostel that is a mix between a hostel and a boutique hotel. This hostel is 1300 baht a night a bit more of a mid range option in the city. There are several beautiful common areas filled with big windows and nice light. There are private rooms and dorm rooms.
Phu Chaisai Mountain Resort
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If you are looking for a higher end luxury stay look no further than this resort outside the city. There are beautiful jungle views and surroundings outside of the city with lush garden surroundings, koi fish ponds and infinity pools with a view. The resort’s starting cost is $150usd a night or 4800 baht. The perks are being in nature and the drawback is not convenient and close inside the city and to the restaurants and temples.