A friendly and charming city, Chiang Mai’s little brother, Chiang Rai is the gateway to the Golden Triangle and one of the best places in Thailand to go trekking from.
Although Chiang Mai is profoundly more popular, it’s a lot easier from Chiang Rai to get out into the real mountain wilderness in just a few days.
The longer you trek, the further into the Thai countryside you will go and therefore have more chance of stumbling across authentic hill tribe villages and a very traditional way of life.
Like Chiang Mai, the town is home to many Wats (temples) the most famous being Wat Phra Kaew. There’s also a must-visit night market which sells some delicious and cheap street food!
The area itself is much cooler (temperature-wise) than the rest of Thailand, particularly between November to February – when the city attracts many visitors. Riding a bicycle around town won’t have you sweating buckets like many other parts of the country.
Things to do in Chiang Rai
Find out about the ethnic minorities: Hill tribes around Chiang Rai include the Akha, Lisu, Lahu and Karen. Back in town, the Chiang Rai ‘Hill Tribe Museum’ is an interesting place to learn more about the culture and history of Thailand’s ethnic minorities; including their role in the opium trade of the past.
Visit the White Temple and the Black House: Two very unusual pieces of temple architecture within half an hour of each other, the White Temple and the Black House are known as the ‘Heaven and Hell’ of Chiang Rai. Eerie, unusual and bizarre, the strangest thing about the two, is that the White Temple was built by the student of the architect who built the Black House Temple.
Visit art galleries: Chiang Rai is becoming a hang out for artists and there are some great arty cafes and galleries in the town such as ‘Prataap Jai’ – which is an art gallery, yoga centre, craft shop and cafe popular amongst expats in the town.
Trekking: Many backpackers will tell you that trekking in Chiang Rai is better than Chiang Mai as you are able to get out into the remote hills much quicker than you can in the more touristy Chiang Mai. The Akha Hill House is a very popular base amongst trekkers.
Where to go next?
- Mae Salong: Remote Mae Salong in the far north is a landscape of tea plantations, rolling hills and Chinese temples – this place has an almost wild feel to it. The journey from Chiang Rai takes about three hours by bus.
- Phayao: Set around a shimmering lake, this peaceful and picturesque town is an undiscovered gem! Eat seafood around the lake, go fishing even take a swan boat! Around five hours by bus from Chiang Rai.
- Chiang Mai: Chances are you have just come from this backpacker hub – restaurants, cafes, live music, art galleries, temples, treks, festivals, yoga, meditation, bustling markets… it is easy to see why Chiang Mai is an extremely popular place for both travellers and expats.