Nestled in the hills of northern Thailand by the borders of Myanmar and Laos, Chiang Rai is the older sibling of bustling Chiang Mai. But while the younger city has become a stalwart on the itineraries of backpackers and package tourists alike, Chiang Rai remains relatively off-the-radar for most visitors to the country.

Founded in 1262 as part of the Lanna Kingdom (modern day northern Thailand), Chiang Rai was the first capital of King Meng Rai’s principality and today is a perfect destination for travellers looking to slow down the pace, escape to nature, and soak up the charms of Thailand’s smaller – though sometimes equally frenetic – northern city. Here’s our guide to the city for first-time visitors, covering everything from how to get there to the best places to stay.

Wat Phra Kaew temple: a small sloping-roofed building, adorned in gold leaf and surrounded by trees and plants.
Surrounded by forest, Wat Phra Kaew is Chiang Rai's most revered Buddhist temple © Aoddiinow / Shutterstock

Chiang Rai's incredible must-see temples

The wooden Wat Phra Kaew, set in an atmospheric spot surrounded by forest, is the city’s most revered Buddhist temple. An active temple, monks live and study within its grounds, while next door is a museum housing Lanna artefacts dating from the 13th to 16th centuries.

It is also famed for once housing the original Emerald Buddha – a figurine of the meditating Buddha made from a semi-precious green stone – which today can be found within the Grand Palace complex in Bangkok and is considered a palladium of Thailand. Legend has it that the Emerald Buddha (official title: Phra Kaew Morakot) was discovered after lightning struck one of the stupas here in 1434, revealing the statue inside.

Wat Rong Seur Ten, known as the Blue Temple, is a much more recent addition to the spiritual scene in Rai, having opened its doors in 2016. Suea Ten translates as ‘dancing tiger’ and within the temple you’ll discover ornate decorative patterns lining its walls and a magnificent Buddha idol taking centre stage, set against a striking, bright blue background. With no entry fee, and very few crowds, it’s well worth a visit.

Visit the White Temple, Chiang Rai (Wat Rong Khun)

For most visitors though, the "temple" that tops the Chiang Rai must-see list is Wat Rong Khun (with some visitors even making the journey to see it as a long day trip from Chiang Mai).

Known as the White Temple, Wat Rong Khun is actually an evocative art installation created by celebrated Thai painter-turned-architect Chalermchai Kositpipat. It is known for its oft-’grammed "moat" from which hundreds of yearning arms reach skywards, as well as the unusual murals on the interior walls, which pair religious motifs with pop-culture references, including images of Keanu Reeves and Superman.

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Chiang Rai is a gift for cyclists

Chiang Rai is a dream for those who enjoy a spot of cycling. Numerous spots in the city rent bikes, from which you can pedal out to the surrounding countryside. A great one-day itinerary is to meander along the country lanes crisscrossing the fields and villages southwest of the city, to Wat Rong Khun (the White Temple). Depending on your route, the ride should take you around two hours each way.Note: always agree on a price before renting the bike to ensure you don’t pay an inflated fee upon return.

A group of three hikers, all wearing red coincidentally or as an unusual fashion choice, stand at the top of a mountain in Chiang Rai province. The peak is grassy, and in the distance other peaks are visible, shrouded by cloud.
Hiking options are numerous around Chiang Rai province © Nattama Dechangamjamras / Getty Images

Pack your walking boots for northern Thailand

Nearly every guesthouse, hotel and travel agency in Chiang Rai offers hiking excursions in the hills, villages and countryside surrounding Chiang Rai, some of which have a grass-roots, sustainable or nonprofit emphasis.

Trek pricing depends on the type of activities and the number of days and participants. Everything from accommodation to transport and food is usually included in the price, but do compare prices and what's included before signing up. 

Do these day trips from Chiang Rai  

A few kilometres west of the city centre, Mae Fah Luang Art and Cultural Park houses one of Thailand’s largest collections of Lanna artifacts within its large, manicured grounds, which also features Buddhist temples. Easy to reach by taxi or bicycle, the museum showcases a collection of artefacts and art from across the region, as well as temporary exhibitions.

Though centrally located within the north of the country, aquatic adventures are also on offer as part of a day trip from Chiang Rai. There are waterfalls to soak in, Khun Korn and Huay Mae Sai chief among them, and hot springs to bathe in – Pong Phra Soet in the Lam Nam Kok National Park offers a large outdoor pool and private spa rooms.

Chiang Rai itself even has a ‘beach’ of sorts (more like a river bank) and, a few hours north, at the Chiang Khong border, travellers can board boats bobbing on the mighty Mekong en route to Luang Prabang in Laos.

 Food Court at Chiang Rai Night Market
Mingle with locals while sampling delicious street food at the Chiang Rai Night Market © Andrey X. / 500px

Browse Chiang Rai's markets and independent stores

Bargains abound in Chiang Rai, thanks to its daily markets and independent stores. The first stop for shoppers is the daily Night Bazaar (6pm-11pm). Located near the city’s Clock Tower, on a street just off Th Phahonyothin, here you’ll find all manner of items, from small wooden mak-hot (Thai checkers) boards to eclectic t-shirts that even the backpackers in their fluorescent elephant trousers would consider a little garish.

The Saturday Walking Street Market on Th Thanalai, held between 4pm and 10pm, is an ideal place to sample some local, inexpensive street food and mingle with locals.

How to get to Chiang Rai from Bangkok or Chiang Mai

Chiang Rai is easily accessible, with its own airport offering daily flights to and from Bangkok, as well as airports across Thailand and some international destinations. To arrive by land, take a bus from Chiang Mai’s Arcade Bus Station; Greenbus is the most popular operator. The journey time from Chiang Mai is around three hours and buses leave throughout the day. Unlike Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai is not connected to the country’s rail network.

If you’re comfortable on two wheels, hiring a motorbike makes for a great way to travel to Chiang Rai, and the journey takes in the verdant landscapes of northern Thailand en route.

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This article was first published October 2019 and updated February 2022

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