Today, temples abound, however, for many years, Chiang Rai was the turbulent center of the opium trade.
With the progress of time, the tumultuous past was encased in a time capsule and all that remains of it today is a museum.
This sleepy provincial town in northern Thailand holds some of the most well-kept tourist destinations that Thailand has to offer.
We only spent a day here thinking there wasn’t much to see, but I actually recommend two to three days and Chiang Rai will reward you with delightful experiences forever etched in your memory.
This list of the top 10 very best things to do in Chiang Rai will give you a headstart. But once you are there, you can plan according to your calendar.
- White Temple or Wat Rong Khun
- Black House
- Blue Temple or Wat Rong Suea Ten
- Khun Korn Waterfall
- Chiang Rai Night Bazaar
- Golden Triangle Park
- Wat Phra Kaew
- Monkey Temple
- Clock Tower
- Singha Park
When you visit Chiang Rai, visiting the White Temple is an absolute must! Officially known as Wat Rong Khun, the White Temple is a sparkling-white temple that looks surreal. The temple is located in the Pa O Don Chai subdistrict of Mueang Chiang Rai District.
Designed by Chalermchai Kositpipat, the White Temple has incredibly detailed carvings and sculptures. Covered in glass, the White Temple is painted in blinding white.
The entrance to the temple’s main ordination hall features the hell park where you will see hundreds of hand sculptures jutting out of the ground, depicting the sufferings in the afterlife.
Pro Tip: Dress respectfully while visiting the temple to avoid hurting local sentiments!
Oddity at its best, the Black House is one of the most famous attractions of Chiang Rai. Sometimes incorrectly known as the Black Temple, it is a unique museum officially known as Baan Dam Museum.
Interestingly, the museum isn’t composed of a single black house. It has 40 such structures decorated with bones, furs, crocodile skins and some more slightly risque (but intriguing) art and carvings.
Some of the buildings do look like temples, which explain its moniker. Contemporary Thai artist Thawan Duchanee is the brain behind the little black houses.
Despite its popularity, the Black House is of no match to the grandeur of the White Temple, however if you’re exploring Chiang Rai, it’s definitely worth a visit.
Yet another famed temple in Chiang Rai is the Blue Temple or the Wat Rong Suea Ten located outside the Chiang Rai city on the opposite side of Mae Kok River.
Colored in a dazzling aquamarine blue both on the outside and inside, this one-of-a-kind contemporary temple has many Buddhist-style patterns, depictions of heaven and hell, and many illustrations of Buddha’s life cycle.
At the entrance of the temple, you will see two statues of devas with massive nagas wrapped around them.
The details are eye-popping and awe-inspiring. And the temple is an Instagram influencers’ photographic dream!
Pro Tip: Morning light lights up the Blue Temple facade giving excellent photo opportunities.
Not far from the White Temple is the enchanting Khun Korn Forest Park where you will find the Khun Korn Waterfall.
A short hike along a 1.4-kilometer path through the snake-infested forest will take you to the magnificent waterfall.
On your path, you will find many small streams that you need to cross using bamboo bridges. Once you get close to the waterfall, you can hear the sound of the crashing water.
If you intend to swim at the bottom of the 70-meter-tall Khun Korn Waterfall, carry dry clothes and towels.
Pro Tip: Take the snake warning seriously and wear proper shoes. Snakes are quite common in Thailand and Chiang Rai is no exception.
Close to the Chiang Rai Bus Terminal is a daily market that showcases the Chiang Rai nightlife. Much smaller than the night markets at Chiang Mai, this night bazaar has fewer tourists and is less crowded.
The Chiang Rai Night Bazaar opens every day irrespective of the weather and offers delectable local Thai cuisines, live music, handmade souvenirs, and more.
You will find some vendors selling products on behalf of the hill tribes of Chiang Rai.
Image Source: YouTube
Your Chiang Rai itinerary will be incomplete without including the famous Golden Triangle. Located north of Chiang Rai, the Golden Triangle is where Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet.
You will see the Mekong River and Ruak River intersect in this area. To get breathtaking views of the rivers and the land, climb up to a hilltop balcony.
To get a better view of the three countries, head over to Chiang Saen, which is just south of the Golden Triangle and about 5 hours from Chiang Mai.
Chiang Saen has ancient ruins that will offer a glimpse of the history of northern Thailand. Chiang Saen’s Old City precincts have a few notable temples including Wat Pa Sak, Wat Roi Ko, Wat Phra That Chedi Luang, and Wat Phra Buat.
The Chiang Rai region is replete with incredible temples and yet another one is Wat Phra Kaew. It is one of the oldest temples of Chiang Rai.
No one knows when the temple was built. It is said that Wat Phra Kaew was the original home of the Emerald Buddha.
In 1434, lightning struck the stupa or the chedi of the temple, which led to the collapse of the building, revealing the hidden Emerald Buddha.
The Emerald Buddha quickly became a national symbol and was moved several times to Chiang Mai and Laos until it eventually rested in the Grand Palace in Bangkok.
What you see today at Wat Phra Kaew is the replica.
Image Credit: Fish Cave Temple Stairs
At the foothills of the Doi Nang Non mountain range is the Wat Tham Pla or the Fish Cave Temple. It is also known as the Monkey Temple because of the resident monkeys of the Northern pig-tailed macaque species.
These monkeys are everywhere and are quite menacing. They are known to snatch the belongings of tourists.
While the monkeys are definitely the mascot of the temple, the main tourist attractions are the stairs guarded by 7-headed Nagas and Chedi Nopha Chuta Gow Yot – a large, gloomy, and dark structure.
Up the stairs is a small cave where you can find a small Buddha statue.
Image Credit: User: (WT-shared) Roundtheworld at wts wikivoyage 13:06, 9 August 2010 (EDT), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
At the heart of central Chiang Rai is the spectacular Golden Clock Tower built by the same artist who designed the famous White Temple.
Traffic always shoots around the tower, but as evening descends on Chiang Rai, the clock tower light show is captivating as it stands out against the backdrop of the dark sky.
Located in the countryside of Chiang Rai and owned by the Singha Beer Company, is Singha Park – a perfect heavenly retreat for nature lovers.
With its many meadows and lakes, trails and bike paths, tea plantations, and a petting zoo to feed giraffes and zebras, the beautifully landscaped Singha Park is a perfect place for a family outing
At the entrance, you will get the Singha (lion) statue where you can click a few Instagram-worthy selfies.
Pro Tip: If there is a sudden adrenaline surge in you, there are wall climbing and zip line activities to keep you entertained.
I was so impressed by Chiang Rai and have really only scratched the surface of things to do there.
Here are some of the other Chiang Rai attractions:
45 kilometers from Chiang Rai is the Doi Tung Mountain. Atop the mountain, you will find some popular tourist attractions like Mae Fah Luang Garden, The Doi Tung Royal Villa, and The Hall of Inspiration. The entrance fee you need to pay depends on the tourist attractions you want to visit. But the Mae Fah Luang Gardens are beautiful and well worth exploring.
Image Credit: Wat Huay Pla Kang
Though not as popular as the other temples I mentioned earlier such as the White Temple and the Blue Temple, Wat Huay Pla Kang has a huge statue of Bodhisattva Guan Yin, which people often refer to as the Big Buddha or Goddess of Mercy.
You absolutely must explore inside the statue. There are steps and an elevator inside to take you all the way to the top, where the carvings inside the head of this incredible temple are stunning.
Next to the massive statue is a 9-story pagoda. You can climb up to catch sweeping views of Chiang Rai.
Saturday Night Market can be found at Thanalai Road which closes to traffic at 4 PM and becomes a walking street till 12 midnight.
You can find the Sunday Night Market on San Khong Noi Road which turns into a walking street between 6 PM and 10 PM.
These night markets will give you access to Chiang Rai’s best street food including Pad Thai and fried insects.
Chiang Rai has a number of natural hot springs where you can soak yourself and relax. Some of the popular ones are Pong Phra Bat Hot Spring, Huay Mak Lium Hot Spring, and Fang Hot Spring.
60 km north of Chiang Rai is Mae Sai where you will find the famed Scorpion Temple. From here, you can cross over to the Myanmar border to reach the border market in Tachilek where you can find a number of knock-off goods including not-so-great Burmese whiskey and terrible cigarettes.
Image Credit – Tourism Thailand
To truly get to grips with the history of Chiang Rai, don’t skip a visit to the Opium museum. This huge museum in Chiang Saen was built by digging through a mountain. You can learn about the history of the opium trade in the area.
The dry season that starts in November and lasts till March and sometimes till May is ideal for visiting this country in Southeast Asia.
November through February is the High season or Peak season with cooler weather and lush green scenery. This is the most amazing time to explore Chiang Rai.
March and April get a little hotter, but this is when the crowd gradually thins out and prices drop. Unless you can handle heat well, avoid this time. Avoid the rainy season between May and October.
There is no shortage of hotels, hostels, or Airbnb in Chiang Rai, so it completely depends on your requirements and budget.
I use booking.com as my preferred hotel booking app. I have tried many over the years and booking.com consistently offers me the best deals.
If however, you’re looking for super budget accommodation try hostelworld.com.
Here are the best budget and mid-range accommodation options in Chiang Rai, Thailand include:
Ban Lom Jen Homestay: Starting at $22/night [For budget accommodation]
Only 15 minutes drive from Chiang Rai City Centre, the Homestay offers air-conditioned rooms with private balconies overlooking the mountains and rice fields. Private bathrooms, free Wi-Fi, and a flat-screen TV are all available.
Baan Jaru: Starting at $23/night [For budget accommodation]
Approximately 500 meters from the Clock Tower, this budget-friendly hotel offers air-conditioned rooms with private bathrooms, free parking, and free Wi-Fi.
Doowall Hotel: Starting at $67/night [For mid-range accommodation]
Located 1.8 kilometers away from the White Temple, the hotel offers free Wi-Fi, a patio, an ensuite bathroom, air-conditioning, and a lovely lake view.
There is no shortage of trips and tours to make the best use of your time in this beautiful country. However, here are some suggested trips I recommend you explore further.
- The best way to get around Chiang Rai is by renting a moped or hiring a car and traveling by yourself. You can, however, always use a tuk-tuk or pick a tour company to show you around.
- Wi-Fi connection was pretty good almost everywhere in Chiang Rai, but remember that when you go to certain isolated locations like hot springs and Khun Korn Waterfall, you may experience connectivity issues. But most residential areas have high-speed internet available.
- Thailand’s currency is the Thai Baht and for the best exchange rates its best to pay in their local currency. Always carry some cash, as street vendors, markets, hawkers (and long boats) will expect cash (although many now accept payment via QR code if you have a local bank account or apple pay etc.) Technologically, Thailand is pretty savvy.
- Depending on how long you’re staying and the kind of phone contract you’re on, it might be worth getting a local SIM when you get there. Most times when I travel, a local sim is the cheapest option. A travel SIM from TrueMove will cost 599 Baht with 8GB of internet and approximately 50 minutes of talk time. You will have to top up in 15 days. It’s worth checking roaming fees with your phone company before traveling.
- If taking money out of an ATM, always choose the ‘convert from your own bank’ option, rather than the convert from the ATM option. This is a golden rule worldwide. I have tried multiple ATM’s in multiple countries and the bank conversion is always without fail cheaper than a local ATM conversion.
- Also when paying with your travel credit or debit card, always choose local currency. If you choose your own currency, the conversion will be done then and there by their bank. When choosing local currency, the conversion is done by your bank and will be cheaper. Not by much, but every little helps!
It’s tough when organizing your travels to know which companies offer the best deals and can be trusted with your credit card details!
The following resources are companies I have consistently used over my 11 years of travels and who I believe are the best in the business. I’m constantly updating this list as I find new and improved services.
Rome2Rio – a fantastic app which will show you the best routes to get from city to city or country to country. Simply enter where you’re traveling from and too, and they’ll show you how to get there via planes, trains and automobiles!
Skyscanner.net – always my first port of call when looking for the best flights. Easy to use and consistently highlights flights I can’t find anywhere else, they’re the best flight resource there is. Plus an easy to use app.
Flight Aware – a free, handy app showing flights around the world. I use this to track family or friends when they’re flying, to check whether my flight has left on time on previous days so I can be prepared for delays etc, and just to double check my own flight details as and when I’m traveling.
Trainline (for Europe) – I used to use this just for UK trains, but nowadays you can book trains all over Europe using their services. Cheap, reliable and with a great refund policy for canceled or delayed trains, they’re highly recommended.
Booking.com – I have tried all the other hotel booking sites and without doubt booking.com has consistently offered the best deals. One caveat to this, is always to just check the hotel website directly before finalizing your booking as sometimes they’ll have specialized deals.
Getyourguide.com – the easiest and most reliable activity booking agent. I haven’t had a bad trip to date with them. Plus an easy to use app which tracks all your bookings and includes the meeting point, trip details and everything else you need to ensure your activity goes smoothly.
Discovercars.com – Easy to use website to find rental cars in over 145 countries around the world. Pick up from one location, drop off in another. Find the best deals with the best reviews.
Safetywing – quite simply the best insurance for digital nomads and long term travelers. See my Safetywing insurance review for more details, but with cheap monthly plans and an easy to use claims process, you won’t find better on the market.
Light Packing Guide
I’m generally a very light packer so for a summer trip here is what I would usually pack, with a maximum weight of 7 KG;
Swimming costume or bikini
Light Beach dress
2 x pairs of shorts
2 x summer skirts
3 x t-shirts
1 x ‘going out’ dress
2 x night shorts & tee
14 x underwear (I always take a lot as I hate washing underwear in hotel sinks)
1 skin color plunge bra (can wear under black or white, and with posh dress or t-shirts)
1 x flip flops or thongs or sandals (depending where you’re from in the world)
1 x trainers/sneakers (which I generally wear when traveling from place to place or hang off the back of my bag
3 x trainer socks
1 x leggings
1 x light cardigan
Travel size all in one Shampoo/Conditioner (sacrilege to some women, but hey I want to travel light)
Travel size shower gel
Small battery powered toothbrush (with cap)
Travel size sun lotion
50SPF lip balm
Travel size body moisturiser
Ziplock bags – for anything and everything!
Travel Bags – for separating tops/shorts/underwear etc, and also great for laundry
My husbands bag usually weighs less than mine and he takes;
2 x shorts (Both double as swim shorts)
2 x tees
7 x socks
7 x boxers
1 x ‘going out’ shorts & tee
1 x croc flip flops
1 x trainers/sneakers
Travel size shampoo
1 x razor
Chiang Rai is the northernmost major city in Thailand. Chiang Rai is located in the Mueang Chiang Rai District of the Chiang Rai Province.
Chiang Rai is very safe even for solo female travelers.
As with all popular tourist destinations you’ll need to watch out for pickpockets and keep your valuables hidden, plus for females, use your common sense and don’t go wandering on your own in the middle of the night plus be careful when drinking in bars/clubs. (Sad but true across the globe).
But on a general scale compared to the rest of the world, for tourists visiting Thailand it would be considered a very safe city, for solos, couples & families alike.
Nevertheless, always ensure you have travel insurance wherever you go as it will protect you against theft, injury, illness, or cancelations. Use the form below to get your personalized quote.
The official currency of Thailand is the Thai Baht (THB) and you must pay in their local currency.
Though you can use international travel credit and debit cards that will allow paying in Thai Baht, I recommend carrying some local currency, because certain remote places and local shops do not accept cards.
The Thai language is the official language, however, many people speak English, especially in major tourist destinations.
Throughout the year Chiang Rai follows Indochina Time (ICT), which is seven hours ahead of the UTC or the Coordinated Universal Time. Daylight Saving Time clock changes are not followed in Thailand.
Chiang Rai is a small town replete with overwhelmingly beautiful temples that can keep you fixated for hours.
But that’s not all! Chiang Rai also offers stunning natural scenery, thriving night markets, comforting hot springs, quaint hill tribe villages, and so much more.
It is also the home to the famed Golden Triangle which was once notorious for its opium trade. Within the womb of its tumultuous past, Chiang Rai holds fragments of Thailand’s ancient and modern history.
Chiang Rai has much to offer.
From its mind-bending temples to scenic waterfalls and serene hot springs, Chiang Rai is an isolated time capsule in Thailand where ancient and modern history coexist.
Chiang Rai will take you on a rollercoaster ride of the architectural grandeur of its temples and many myths & legends, all of which harmoniously coexist alongside its enchanting natural surroundings.
I was completely bowled over by the experiences of the White Temple, Blue Temple, Black House, night markets, Golden Triangle, etc and can’t wait to return to explore more.
If you’re heading to Chiang Rai however, there are plenty more things to do and see in the land of smiles, so be sure to check out the following articles to complete your Thailand expedition!
Top 10 Very Best Things to do in Thailand
Top 10 Thailand Islands to Visit
Top 10 Things to do in Bangkok
35 Epic Things to do in Phuket
Top 10 Very Best Beaches in Phuket
Top 10 Very Best Things to Do on Phi Phi Island, Thailand
Top 10 Things to Do in Pai, Thailand
I hope you’ve found this list of the 10 very best things to do in Chiang Rai useful for your travels. Let me know how you go!