Nestled within the mountains of northern Thailand, only three hours from its border with Laos, Chiang Rai is a city that’s often overlooked by travellers – with many favouring the traveller hotspot of Chiang Mai or the mountainous village of Pai.
But – and you know I love my controversial opinions on where I like best – I think Chiang Rai is my favourite place in Northern Thailand. Scandalous, I know.
So what is it that I liked about Chiang Rai so much? I’d say it was a mix of its unique architecture, its urban city feel, its native cultures and its geographical position.
Reasons to Love Chiang Rai
It is culturally rich and diverse
So one of the top reasons that I think Chiang Rai is worth a visit is that it is without a doubt one of the most culturally rich areas of the country. The surrounding area is home to many native tribes, and in Chiang Rai, you can learn all about them.
The Hill Tribes settled into Thailand’s mountains centuries ago, travelling from as far as Nepal. Because of this, they have a distinctly different culture and language to the rest of Thailand.
I’d definitely recommend making your first stop in Chiang Rai the Hill Tribe Museum. Here, you’ll learn all about the Hill Tribe people and their culture, as well as some of the issues that they face today.
There are some really unique attractions
These are two for your Chiang Rai itinerary without a doubt! Probably the most famous attractions in the city are the White Temple and the Black House. These are completely unique to the city and make it well, well worth a visit.
- The White Temple is part temple, part social critique. From the outside, it looks absolutely magical (as my sister vocalised when she replied to my Instagram story of it), but on the approach the temple, you’ll see that this is no normal magical temple. It’s littered with sculptures, including the incredibly creepy hands rising up from what looks like the pit of earth.
Inside, there is a meditating monk alongside paintings depicting everything from superheroes to terrorist incidents. It’s meant to critique ‘fake superheroes’. It’s all very surreal – and that was just the kind of atmosphere that Chalermchai Kositpipat, the artist was intending to create. There is also a museum depicting his life and works on-site.
- The Black House is kind of related to the white temple, kind of not. It’s not a temple at all, but more a huge open-air art complex. Its niche is dark art, and while everything is black, foreboding and somewhat gloomy, it has a kind of irony to it as well. It’s definitely worth a vist for its unique-ness! It was created by Thawan Duchanee who was a student/ teacher of Chalermchai Kositpipat. Collectively, they are known as ‘heaven and hell’ – I’ll leave you to decide which one is heaven and which one is hell!
You can visit these attractions independently – I used these fab guides to finding the white temple and guide to finding the black house, or if you’d rather someone drive you around and want to maximise learning about these intriguing places, try out a tour.
This private tour includes the White Temple, the Blue Temple (which I didn’t get a chance to visit while in Chiang Rai) and the Black House, as well as Singha Park. The guide is English-speaking and very informative. Click here for more details and to book.
There’s the best hostel in the world
Sweeping statement, as I’m aware I’ve not stayed in every hostel in the world, but Get Hi Hostel is really really fab. Unlike the name suggests, it’s not a party or stoner hostel, but is still super social. There aren’t any rowdy bar crawls here, but instead you’ll get to hang out with First, the owner, who loves meeting backpackers and showing them around her city.
It’s only a small hostel, with around 16 beds and no private rooms. This means that everyone gets on like a happy family.
It has bunks with ‘pod’ style beds with thick curtains that actually block other people’s lights out, individual lights and plugs, spacious lockers, bathrooms with hot water and free soap and shampoo, high speed wifi, a fully equipped kitchen and lounge area and (wait for it) free, unlimited, 24/7 avocado on toast.
Yep, you heard that right. Every other hostel’s doing it wrong. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to stay anywhere that doesn’t have 24/7 avo toast ever again.
It has plenty of local conveniences
If you think that Chiang Rai is a sleepy city, you’re very wrong. It’s got plenty of shops, bars and restaurants, just like Chiang Mai. There aren’t as many tourist-focused restaurants as there are in Chiang Mai (but let’s be real, there aren’t as many of them like anywhere in the world), but there are still plenty. Plus, you’ll often find yourself drinking at the same spot as the locals rather than just another backpacker bar.
With amazing surrounding nature
If you’re wanting to go hiking in Thailand, the north is definitely the place to go. With incredible jungle scenery, dramatic mountains and amazing landscapes, it’s a really unique place. You could do hiking trips from Chiang Mai and Pai, and many people do, but due to the lack of tourists around Chiang Rai it’s a great place to see some nature.
It’s close to Laos
So close, in fact, that one of its attractions is ‘the Golden Triangle’ where Laos, Myanmar and Thailand meet. This makes it a perfect stop over city if you’re spending time travelling in Laos and are crossing the border into northern Thailand.
You can also head to the Golden Triangle to see three countries at once and visit the Opium Museum, which explains the history of Opium in the area and how it has impacted Northern Thailand and surrounding areas.
The tourists haven’t quite discovered it… yet
While there certainly are tourists in Chiang Rai, it’s nothing on Chiang Mai or Pai. But there’s plenty of things to do in Chiang Rai making it the ideal place to spend a few days – so get here before everyone else does!
Planning a Trip to Chiang Rai
How to get here
- From Laos there are buses shuttling tourists from the border to the city
- From Chiang Mai buses leave the main station frequently. You can buy tickets at the bus station or purchase online here.
- From Pai shuttle buses are available. You can buy tickets through your hotel/ hostel or purchase online here.
- From Bangkok you can take a bus, or train to Chiang Mai and then transfer to a bus. Book Bangkok to Chiang Mai bus tickets here
Where to Stay in Chiang Rai
Hostel: As I’m sure you’ll have guessed, my hostel option would be Get Hi Hostel. Click here for more information and to book.
Guesthouse: Baanbaramee Guesthouse has friendly and helpful staff, clean rooms, good WiFi and free breakfast – all you need for a no-frills stay in Chaing Rai! Click here to book and for more information.
Mid-Range Hotel: Nak Nakara Hotel is bursting with character: it has gorgeous decor and authentic architecture. On site is a pool, a gym, a bar and all room rates include breakfast. Click here to read more and to book.
Luxury Hotel: For a 5* luxury experience, check out the River House Resort. With spacious rooms with views of the river, as well as bathrooms with spa tubs, pool with hot tub, spa and fitness centre, you’ve got all you need for a deluxe stay in the city. Click here for more information and book today.
How Long Should I Spend in Chiang Rai?
To see all of the attractions in the city itself, I’d recommend 2 full days in Chiang Rai. If you are doing a tour that includes the Golden Triangle, this can be included into those two days – if not, you might want to add on another half-day to your time in Chiang Rai.
If you want to go hiking in the mountains, you’ll need to add anything from one to three days onto your time in Chiang Rai, depending on the hike you take.
Make sure you have these items while travelling in Thailand!
- A water-to-go bottle so you can drink clean water – click here to purchase
- A Thailand lonely planet (click here to see on Amazon) or a South East Asia lonely planet (check it out here)
- A Thai phrasebook – click here to purchase one
- Reusable straws – click here to purchase
- An unlocked smartphone to use a local SIM – I use and recommend the Samsung Galaxy S9
- A camera to capture your trip on – I use the Fuji X-A3and the Go Pro Hero 5
Where Else in Thailand?
I’ve got you covered for other destinations in Thailand. Click through to read my other posts about this wonderful South East Asian country!
- 3 days in Bangkok itinerary
- 3 days in Chiang Mai itinerary
- Is Elephant Nature Park (Chiang Mai) ethical?
- Taking the train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai
- Am I the only person who doesn’t like Pai?