Thought to be one of the oldest settlements in Thailand, the peaceful city of Chiang Rai is found in the beautiful northern highlands. Although often overlooked in favour of its larger sister Chiang Mai, this city is blessed with ancient culture, beautiful temples and fantastic local cuisine. To give you a better idea of what’s on offer, here’s our pick of the top things to do in Chiang Rai.
Explore the unconventional White Temple
Known locally as Wat Rong Khun, the White Temple of Chiang Rai is arguably Thailand’s most unique temple. Designed by Chalermchai Kositpipat, a local artist, this Buddhist temple features a brilliant white exterior and an unconventional interior.
Rather than using traditional characters, Chalermchai chose to tell the Buddha’s stories and teachings using icons from modern culture. The striking murals inside feature Superman, Elvis and Hello Kitty, as well as spaceships and even a scene of a plane crashing into the Twin Towers.
Construction on the White Temple began in 1997 and it’s still a work in progress today. No pictures are allowed inside though, so you’ll have to visit to see this remarkable piece of architecture for yourself.
…and Chiang Rai’s more traditional temples
Alongside the spectacular White Temple, Chiang Rai offers an array of more traditional temples to visit. The first being the beautiful Wat Klang Wiang, which was built in the 15th century and features particularly ornate golden decor.
Wat Phra Singh also boasts an elaborately sculpted front gate, which is sure to draw you inside. Check out the door to the main viharn (chapel), which was designed by the Lanna artist Thawan Duchanee and tells the story of the four elements through mythical creatures.
If you have the time, Wat Phra Kaew is also well worth a visit. The Emerald Buddha, which is the most revered image of the Buddha in Thailand, was first discovered here in 1434. Although it’s now housed in the Grand Palace of Bangok, this temple contains a replica carved from Canadian jade and guarded by two serpent deities at the entrance.
Browse the night market
Night markets are commonplace in Thailand as the cooler temperatures make for much more pleasant shopping. And locals and tourists alike are drawn to Chiang Rai’s vibrant Night Market, which is open daily from 6pm to midnight.
Located by the bus station, you’ll find a huge range of hand-crafted items for sale here. Expect clothing, jewellery, shoes and many other items embroidered by Thailand’s northern hill tribes. Be sure to barter for the best prices, but always with a smile on your face (this is the Land of the Smiles after all).
If you’re not keen to shop, the night market is also a great place to sample authentic Thai street food. You’ll find two food courts with stalls selling delicious Thai dishes, with live music played by local artists.
Go hill tribe trekking
The breathtaking scenery of northern Thailand offers plenty of opportunities for trekking. However what makes this region all the more special are the colourful hilltribe communities that call it home.
There are seven main tribes living in Thailand and it’s possible to visit groups such as the Karen Hill Tribe on trekking excursions from Chiang Rai. You’ll find treks ranging from two day to week-long itineraries, with longer treks taking you to the more remote communities.
You’ll also get the chance to stay with the hill tribes along the way, providing a fascinating insight into their daily lives. Trekking in Thailand can therefore be as much a cultural experience as it is an adventure.
Visit the Golden Triangle Viewpoint
Just over an hour’s drive northeast of Chiang Rai, you’ll find the infamous Golden Triangle. Once a major center for opium production and trade, this beautiful area marks where Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet by the Mekong River.
Head to the viewpoint to look over the three countries and enjoy the scenery dotted with temples, markets and villages. Alternatively, enjoy a boat ride along the Mekong in a traditional long tail boat.
Close by you’ll also find the Hall of Opium. This museum educates visitors about the role opium played in Southeast Asia’s history through fascinating multi-media exhibits.
Try authentic Lanna food
Northern Thai cuisine originated during the era of the Lanna Kingdom, which dates back to the 13th century. And Chiang Rai is the perfect place to try authentic Lanna food today.
Must-try dishes include a mild, coconut based curry called Khao Soi and a noodle soup called Khanom Jeen Nam Ngiao. Traditionally, meals were eaten around small, round tables, but there are now plenty of different dining options to choose from.
Ran Lab Sanam Keela is one of the most well known restaurants in Chiang Rai. Of the delicacies available, Yang Ruam is particularly recommended and consists of grilled pork, liver and intestine dipped in soy sauce. Moommai Restaurant is another great spot, with the staff dressing in traditional Thai clothes and live folk music at night.