If there is a region that we had heard good things about and had not had the opportunity to visit during our world tour, it is the north of Thailand. Several travelers had told us about Pai, Chiang Mai (the hub of digital nomads), or Chiang Rai. We had also been advised to explore this region by scooter or to make treks by sleeping at the local’s house.
But this time, we had only 4 days at our disposal before a conference in Bangkok, so we had to make choices. Honestly, we didn’t hesitate long: direction Chiang Rai! We saw the famous White Temple on other blogs about Thailand and it impressed us well! On the program: breathtaking temples, tea plantations close to Myanmar, the flowered gardens of the royal villa, and tandem rides! In short, you’ll see, we had a lot of fun!
We took this trip in 2015, but the article was completely revised and updated in July 2022. If you see any price changes or have additional information that might be relevant, please feel free to leave us a comment!
The city of Chiang Rai
Honestly, we didn’t expect much from the city of Chiang Rai itself. We had rather planned to spend 3-4 nights there to explore the surroundings during the day. After a long trip from Switzerland and a heavy night’s sleep, we preferred to discover Chiang Rai on foot, rather than going directly to explore the area. Moreover, it was the occasion to glean some information for the days to come. Here are the essentials of the city that deserve a little stop!
The Chiang Rai tourist office
It’s not always easy to get good information from hotels or travel agencies. They all have the best tour of the city! So, when we saw that there was an official tourist office, we directly paid them a little visit.
What was not our surprise to be received by 2 ladies speaking acceptable English and gave us several very well-designed leaflets in English! Thanks to this information, we were able to organize our visit without any problem. We warmly recommend you to visit them!
Wat Phra Kaew
Do you know the most sacred Buddha of Thailand? Yes, you do! It is the emerald one in the Grand Palace of Bangkok and changes clothes 3 times a year! Well, it would have been found in Chiang Rai in 1444 after lightning struck the temple to reveal the Buddha to the public. I can’t tell you if this story is true, but Wat Phra Kaew houses a replica of the original. Admission is free, as is the Hongluang Saengkaew Museum next door.
The Night Bazaar
So do not confuse it with the night market of the city! The latter only takes place on weekends, while the Night Bazaar takes place every night. As we were in Chiang Rai during the week, we only went to the Night Bazaar.
This market is worth a visit! First, the merchants didn’t jump on us as soon as we stopped to look at an object, which is rare enough to be noted in Thailand! Moreover, there are 2 very nice squares with live animations and great food stands. By the way, we advise you to go to the square farthest from the market entrance! There, you will find more local food choices at low prices!
Central Plaza Shopping Mall
Located in the south of Chiang Rai, Central Plaza is the place to go if you want to buy branded items. Since we had room to bring back a few things, we admit we let ourselves go a bit. Here are the new Converses for $25 and Osprey backpacks for $50-60! Brands are a hell of a lot cheaper here than back home. So if you need to buy specific items, that’s the perfect place!
Other activities in the city
Chiang Rai has other points of interest that are worth a visit:
- the mythical clock tower and its sound and light show every night;
- Wat Si Koet, Wat Chet Yot, and Wat Huay Pla Kang temples;
- the superb Chiang Rai Blue Temple or Wat Rong Suea Ten;
- Wat Doi CEE park, a pleasant park to escape from the city with a nice view over Chiang Rai, peacocks, and other animals in the wild.
If you prefer to have a guide by your side, Civitatis offers, among other things, a guided bike tour of Chiang Rai or a trek through the surrounding area.
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Hotel in Chiang Rai
In Chiang Rai, we stayed at the Homey Dormy hotel, and we loved it! A great establishment, a staff who always tried to help us, the free tandem… Via this hotel, we rented our car with a driver for the Black House-Mae Salong-Doi Tung loop. In short, we highly recommend it!
To come to Chiang Rai the most common and cheapest way is the bus. You will have no problem finding a bus ticket from Bangkok or Chiang Mai.
The White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) of Chiang Rai in tandem
Since we saw pictures of the White Temple, we dreamed of being able to admire with our own eyes the wonder of the Thai artist Chalermchai. As it is located 13 km south of Chiang Rai, we thought going there by bicycle would make us discover the surroundings. Lucky us, our hotel put bicycles at our disposal for free! But while going to look for these famous bikes, we realized that our hotel also had a tandem!
Rent of the tandem and shock of Fabienne
Imagine the scene: the sparks in my eyes and the fear in those of Fabienne… Neither one nor two, I inflate the tires, and it a departure for one day of exploration, to the great displeasure of Fabienne! In my defense, it was a first for us, and we had once met a couple who was going around the world in tandem. In short, I was dreaming of trying this!
The advantage of the tandem is that it is not very common in northern of Thailand. So, the simple fact of riding on the small roads around Chiang Rai with this machine attracted the sympathy of everyone! We never received so many smiles, greetings, and laughs, during this day! For that alone, the tandem is worth it. And Fabienne will tell you it’s not that bad after all! She has found some significant advantages to tandem that she illustrates so well here:
The Singha Park in Chiang Rai
On the way to the white temple, we made a detour to Singha Park. At the entry, a giant statue of Singha has been erected: strange for a brand of beer! We spent a moment taking silly pictures in front of this statue.
We advise you to venture a little further in the park: a nice lake surrounds tea plantations! On a small hill, the Bhu Bhirom restaurant offers excellent Thai cuisine with northern specialties. Moreover, the view of the lake is magnificent. Frankly, we recommend it even if the dishes are a bit expensive. In addition to being a large green space, activities are proposed as climbing and zip lines. You can also do the Singha Park Farm Tour on a shuttle bus for 150 bahts per person.
The idea is to have your bikes from Chiang Rai so you may explore the park at your leisure. Otherwise, they rent them on site (150 bahts per adult for 1 hour), as well as electric scooters (300 bahts per person for 2 hours) and golf carts (600 bahts for 4 people). But we grant you the prices are quite high…
The white temple or a unique temple in Thailand
We then continued in the direction of the Wat Rong Khun or White Temple, always on our faithful steed. A few kilometers further, our objective is reached, and there, it is the visual slap, my friends! This temple is straight out of another world!
As much we have the impression of being in hell with suspended heads, skulls, and hands that leave the ground to ask for help. As much we have the belief to be in a sacred place after having crossed the bridge to enter the temple!
However, the mural inside the temple is very modern, with a curious mix of Buddhas and pop culture figures like Batman, Yoda, or Matrix. The combination is quite confusing but very successful! It is one of the most beautiful temples we have had the chance to see so far. It is a must-see if you come to Thailand. The entrance fee is 100 bahts per person.
After having made 2 times the tour of the White Temple, we get back in the saddle to finish our loop before nightfall. It will still take us a good hour to return to the hotel. One thing is sure: we loved the tandem ride, and we shall certainly renew the experience! Wait until I convince Fabienne to buy one for rides in Europe 😉.
Here is the map of the bike tour, available on a sign in front of the Chiang Rai tourist office. The complete loop should be about 30 km on flat ground (except for the climb to Singha Park).
The Black House (Baan Dam Museum)
After the white temple, we were strongly advised to visit the Black House (wrongly called Black Temple) created by the artist Thawan Duchanee. So believe us, we didn’t think we would see anything crazier than the white temple near Chiang Rai. Well, we were very wrong!
How to describe the black house in a few words? Macabre, gloomy, awesome, and captivating are the adjectives that immediately come to mind. As we arrived, the imposing black building was already quite impressive! We enter to discover a curious mix of paintings of the artist hung here and there, in the middle of a jumble of skeletons, animal skins, and other curiosities! It is strange but impressive.
And this is only the beginning! Going out in the garden, we discover that there are still a good dozen other constructions. Smaller than the main building, they are all interesting: some kind of small traditional Thai houses filled with bones, a kind of white dome whose interior looks like a satanic meeting room, or a building in the shape of an animal which must have been a torture room…
In short, we don’t want to know what Thawan Duchanee was doing in his den! Still, it’s such an interesting place to visit. So, if you are in the area, do not miss this marvel! The entrance fee is 80 bahts.
Doi Mae Salong
We also came to the north of Thailand for its nature, its mountains (undoubtedly small compared to Switzerland), and its flowers… Rather than trekking for several days in the region, we chose to explore the village of Mae Salong. The landscapes are splendid, and we made several stops to appreciate the sight and to take some photos.
In history, know that northern of Thailand, particularly the golden triangle located at the border of Laos and Burma, was a high place of production of opium. Well, OK, it still is a bit… But the Thai government has become much stricter about it. Result: we rather grow tea in the area!
After one hour of road, we arrive in the middle of the tea plantations of Doi Mae Salong. We take advantage of it to make a tasting at the tea plantation 101, have dinner with a view, and visit the temple Phra Borommathat Chedi which overhangs the village. Then, it’s time to return to the road for the last destination of the day: Doi Tung.
Doi Tung: the royal villa and its gardens
Doi Tung is the name of a mountain near the Burmese border, which was dedicated to the cultivation of poppies for the production of opium until the mid-1980s. At that time, the tribes of the region burned the land to cultivate poppies, which destroyed the forest. It’s a bit like in Indonesia today with palm trees…
The mother of the former king of Thailand Rama IX, Somdej Phra Srinagarindra, realized the problems caused by deforestation (landslides, floods…) and opium (many men were dependent on it in the northern populations). She decided to launch a development project to reforest the region by encouraging the tribes to plant and cultivate something other than opium.
25 years later, we have to admit that it paid off! The forest is back, the quality of life of the local tribes has increased (no more opium junkies who destroyed their families), and the queen mother has even built her summer villa there. By the way, do you know that the royal family had lived in Switzerland for a long time 😎? At the same time, her villa is a clever mix between a Thai house and an Alpine chalet!
You can explore the beautiful botanical gardens and the greenhouses where different trees are grown before being replanted in the wild. We also visited the Queen’s villa with an audio guide who told us more about who she was as a person. We then understood better why she was very appreciated by the different tribes of Thailand, who affectionately nicknamed her “the royal grandmother”.
Not only did we find the gardens sumptuous, but we also learned a lot about the queen and the current royal family of Thailand. In short, it is worth taking an afternoon to visit the Doi Tung complex. The entrance fee is 200 bahts per person. If you want to visit only the gardens, the specific entrance fee will be 80 bahts.
Getting around Chiang Rai
The day we visited the Black House, Doi Mae Salong, and Doi Tung, we had taken a car with a driver just for us! For a day, we paid 1500 bahts for the car and the driver and 500 bahts for the gas.
The reason why we had a driver is that the prices proposed for a group tour were similar. Moreover, we would not have had time to do everything by scooter, because we did 180 km that day! In the end, this solution offered us a lot of freedom: we could stop when we wanted to for the pictures. If we had more time, we would have rented a scooter (all the roads are paved).
Another way to discover the region is to take the bus! For the Black House, located about 10 km north of Chiang Rai, go to the bus terminal n°1 next to the Night Bazaar and ask at the information desk which bus goes to Baan Dam. A ticket costs about 20 bahts per person. Once they drop you off, you only have to walk about 500 meters to the Black House.
To get to Mae Salong and then to Doi Tung (60 km northwest and north of Chiang Rai), some minibusses leave every 20 minutes from the same bus terminal and charge 50 baths per person.
Other things to do in the Chiang Rai area
Being only 4 days on the spot, we did not have time to visit everything around Chiang Rai. Here are still some ideas of things to discover if you have more time than us:
- Phu Chi Fa: this forest park is located a 2-hour drive east of Chiang Rai, at the border with Laos. It is THE spot for a great sunrise (especially in winter, between November and February)! Well, it’s also a good spot for sunset, but the Thai people at dawn especially appreciate it. Moreover, the view of the Mekong and Laos is amazing! To reach the top and the viewpoints, count 30 min of walking. Because of the state of the road, it is best to take a car with a driver or rent a car if you are comfortable with driving in Thailand.
- Nam Tok Khun Korn: this other forest park contains one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Thailand, Khun Korn. A short 3 km round trip hike through the bamboo brings you to the foot of the waterfall. Go 30 km south of the city to enjoy the park. There is no entrance fee.
- Thaton: from Mae Salong, continue to the Burmese border, especially to Thaton, a little remote but authentic! The singular monastery Wat Tha Ton is worth a visit with its nine levels (it’s free!).
Map of Chiang Rai
To summarize the points of interest, here is a map of Chiang Rai with our good addresses!
That’s it, folks! We hope this article has made you want to explore this region! After Chiang Rai, are you ready to discover Chiang Mai, the other must-see stop in Northern Thailand 😉?
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