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Chiang Rai (not to be confused with Chiang Mai) is one of my favourite places in Thailand. It’s found just 60kms south of the Burmese/Thai border, right in the north of Thailand.
It’s a small city surrounded by vast swathes of countryside, imposing mountains and all the trappings of nature. But the landscape isn’t quite what you might imagine when you think of Thailand.
Instead of palm trees, exotic plants and sweltering heat, you’re met with a much more familiar environment, at least for someone more accustomed to Europe like I am. Hedgerows line the roads, the trees and fields look far from tropical and in the mornings you better be sure to have something warm to wear.
The city is great, although it for sure feels smaller and more intimate than other neighbouring cities, it’s the surrounding countryside that makes Chiang Rai so special.
Renting a scooter for a day or two is the best way to get around and see/photograph all the attractions I’m about to tell you about.
Below are 7 of Chiang Rai’s top attractions.
1) Blue Temple – Wat Rong Seua Ten
As we are talking about Thailand, it’s fitting that we start this list off with a temple. As anyone who’s ever been to Thailand will know, there are a lot of them around.
From the inside, the Blue Temple in Chiang Rai is perhaps the most beautiful temple I have ever seen in Thailand. There is a large white sitting Buddha at one end, the walls are painted a vivid blue colour and there are golden figurines and picture frames hanging all over.
I had fun using the blue light which illuminates the sitting Buddha to add a moody and dramatic feel to my images when I was taking photos.
Address: 306, 2 Maekok Rd, Chang Wat, Chiang Rai, 57100, Thailand.
How to get there: Since it’s a few kilometres outside of the city itself, the best way is either by renting a scooter or via taxi/grab.
2) White Temple – Wat Rong Khun
Wat Rong Khun, otherwise known as the White Temple, is probably the most visited Chiang Rai attraction. But not without good reason.
Normally I like to stay away from the more touristy things to do but, in this case, I don’t think that rule applies. The white temple is a masterpiece of abstract design, architecture and traditional Buddhist temple building mixed into one. There are some pretty strange murals and sculptures to be found all over…
It’s a relatively new temple that is actually still under construction. It was first opened to the public in 1997 by Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat who designed it and still owns it to this day. The main building is complete but the complex as a whole isn’t scheduled for completion until 2070.
If you want to make a day trip out of it, I went on this tour that involves visiting the white temple, the golden triangle (the point where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet) and a boat trip down the Mekong River where you are served lunch onboard while you cruise past breathtaking scenes. It was a truly amazing day and the crew are some of the friendliest people I met in Thailand!
How to get there: Again, renting a scooter or taking a taxi/grab is the best way since it’s a few kilometres outside the city. I recommend renting a scooter though as you’ll need to use it to get to the next place on this list, and it’s a special one.
3) Khun Korn Forest Park Waterfall
If you visit the White Temple in the morning, Khun Korn waterfall makes a great second stop for the day as it’s more or less along the same route. The waterfall is around 18kms from the White Temple or 30km from the centre of Chiang Rai.
Khun Korn waterfall is inside a national park but, unlike most other national parks in Thailand, it’s free to enter. Once you enter the park you’ll continue driving along the only road for a few more kilometres until you reach a carpark at the end. From there, it’s a short hike of about 30 minutes along a beautiful jungle path to get to the waterfall.
It’s one of Thailand’s tallest waterfalls and is simply stunning. Although its height makes it very hard to photograph, everything within 50 meters gets completely soaked. My camera gear got drenched and I had to drive back to Chiang Rai, along surprisingly chilly mountain roads, soaking wet and on a scooter.
It was worth it though.
Address: Highway 1208, Mae Kon, 57000 Mueang Chiang Rai, Chiang Rai, Thailand.
How to get there: The best way is to rent a scooter for the day. The drive there is one of the most beautiful in Thailand and you’ll have the freedom to explore the surrounding area some more. Just remember, the park closes at 5pm so you really want to aim to arrive by 3pm at the very latest.
4) Doi in Cee
As a photographer who loves capturing unique things, visiting Doi in Cee is one of my personal favourite things to do in Chiang Rai. It’s a temple complex that’s sat on top of a large hill overlooking the surrounding countryside.
There are several temples and a number of very large statues of Buddha scattered around. The large Buddhas are huge and extremely impressive, you can’t really get a good idea of their scale until you’re standing right below them.
As well as the temples and statues, there are wild peacocks roaming around everywhere and a viewpoint with benches where you can sit and take in the surrounding views.
Just visiting Doi in Cee makes renting a scooter for the day worth it.
Address: Doi Hang, Mueang Chiang Rai District, Chiang Rai 57000, Thailand
How to get there: You could get a taxi and try to negotiate a fair price, however, I recommend renting a scooter. The Doi in Cee complex itself is quite big so you’ll need a way of getting around. Also, then you’ll have much more freedom on a scooter and you never know what unexpected things you’ll find!
5) Clock Tower Show
In the centre of Chiang Rai, there is a golden clock tower that acts as a roundabout the in middle of a crossroad. Every night at 19:00, 20:00 and 21:00 the clock springs into action and puts on a multimedia show that includes a light show, music and figurines moving around inside.
It’s one of the more popular Chiang Rai attractions and worth going to see at least once. You can get a good view from any side of the road but there is a bar on one side if you want to have a drink while you’re watching it.
How to get there: The clock tower is right in the centre of the city so it’s easily reachable on foot.
6) Night Bazaar
While the Night market in Chiang Rai isn’t on the same scale as the one in Chiang Mai, it still has a wide range of everything from food to souvenirs. It does get shoulder-to-shoulder busy, but that’s what makes it a great place for street photography.
There’s a great food court style eating area in the middle of the market where you can find all kinds of great food from khao soi to piles of shellfish that get dumped on a paper tablecloth in front of you which you eat with nothing but a pair of gloves.
The general market opens at 6pm until 11pm and the food court opens at 7pm until 11pm.
Address: Wiang, Mueang Chiang Rai District, Chiang Rai 57000, Thailand
How to get there: Like most markets in Thailand, Chiang Rai’s night market isn’t found on just one street. It’s spread out over a whole area of the city but a good starting point is the address above.
7) Phu Chi Fa Viewpoint
This last attraction isn’t actually in Chiang Rai itself. But it makes for a great road trip. It is roughly 100km, or 2 hours drive, to the east of Chiang Rai and right on the border with Laos. At the summit, you’ll get an unobstructed view over the tops of the surrounding mountains into Laos.
The best time to visit is at sunrise because there is a very high chance of a cloud inversion like in the photo below.
Cloud inversions happen when the cold air in a valley meets the warmer air above that has been heated by the rising sun. It’s a stunning sight to see.
You’ll need to stay in the village overnight to make the 750-meter hike to the summit in the morning to catch the sunrise. It’s a small village with limited options when it comes to accommodation but you can find places if you don’t mind staying in a budget style room for one night.
How to get there: There is a minibus that leaves from Chiang Rai at 1pm every day and returns from Phu Chi Fa at 9am the next morning. As I said, you’ll need to find somewhere to stay for the night but that’s how I suggest you do it.
Alternatively, you can rent a car or motorbike and drive there yourself. Just be aware that the drive up to Phu Chi Fa gets a little precarious the closer you get. You’ll need to be confident in your driving ability, especially if you’re driving in the dark.
Getting to Chiang Rai
Most people get to Chiang Rai by first flying to Chiang Mai (although you can take a bus or train depending on where you’re coming from) and then jumping on a bus for the last leg of the journey to Chiang Rai itself.
There are multiple buses from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai each day which start at 6:45am and run almost every hour until 6pm (Monday-Thursday) or 7pm (Friday-Sunday). The bus company is called Green Bus and they operate from the Arcade Bus Station in Chiang Mai.
You can either buy tickets online or at the Green Bus counter at the Arcade Bus Station. Just bear in mind that it’s a popular route, so book your ticket a day in advance to guarantee your place.
Where to Stay
There are plenty of accommodation options in Chiang Rai. Below are a few places that I personally recommend for all budgets.
When I first visited Chiang Rai as a solo traveller I stayed in Mercy Hostel. If you’re on a tight budget but looking for somewhere in a great location with a lively and fun atmosphere, then you can’t go wrong.
There’s a great common area with a kitchen and pool table as well as an outside terrace where it’s super easy to meet some great people.
Backpacker private room
Tourist Inn is a great option for anyone looking for a comfortable budget private room. It’s no-frills but you would expect that for the price it is. But it’s clean, the staff are friendly and they serve a really great breakfast in the morning.
Last time I was in Chiang Rai, my girlfriend and I stayed in Nak Nakara Hotel. I can’t recommend this place enough!
The rooms are huge and decorated in a very oriental style, the bathrooms are also very spacious with all marble fittings. There is a huge swimming pool if you’re visiting in the summer months (or very brave!) and it has a very warm, welcoming atmosphere. Highly recommended!
I have it on good authority that The Riverie by Katathani is an extremely special place to stay. A close friend of mine stayed there for a couple of nights a few years ago and was blown away.
It’s a beautiful hotel located right on the river bank and has all of the facilities you would expect a 5-star hotel to have.
For a comparable hotel in western countries, you would have to pay 4 or 5 times the price for the same level of comfort and luxury.
So there you have it, my top 7 Chiang Rai attractions! If you’re planning to visit this amazing city, my best advice to you is to rent a scooter and explore the surrounding countryside. There are so many places to discover.
Which attractions on this list are you planning to visit? Or maybe you’ve already been to some of them? Either way, let me know in the comments below.
Likewise, if you want any more information about Chiang Rai then ask me below. I’ll get back to you ASAP!
Since 2016 I’ve travelled full-time working as a travel photographer and writer remotely. I move around at my own pace (I hate fast-paced travel) and like to spend a few months getting to know each place I base myself in. Currently in the north of España 🇪🇸 and loving it.