Chiang Rai is a small sleepy laid back town in northern Thailand which is bordered by Myanmar (Burma) and Laos. It is also the headquarters of the Northern most province of the country. Chiang Rai was once the glorious capital city during the reign of King Mangrai, in 1262 CE.
Today, Chiang Rai is home to a good number of hill tribes and Myanmar exiles who had come as refugees while escaping civil war in their own country and have today made this region their home away from home.
Chiang Rai is the north most point of Thailand and is located around 850 km from the capital city of Bangkok. There are multiple ways of getting to the town of Chiang Rai. The first option is to take a flight which is the fastest and also the costliest way to reach.
The second option is to take an overnight semi-sleeper air-conditioned bus from Mo Chit Northern bus terminal in Bangkok. Buses leave in the evening at 19:30 and 21:30 HRS. It’s always better to cross-check the timing a day before the journey. It takes around 12-13 hours to reach Chiang Rai.
The third option is to take a train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai and then a three-hour bus ride to Chiang Rai covering 199 km. Taking a direct bus from Bangkok to Chiang Rai is the most convenient and economical way to reach this mountain town.
Once in Chiang Rai, travellers will surely feel the mountain vibe which is distinctly northern and is discrete to Chiang Mai to the south in various ways. The food is definitely spicier and the ethnic composition includes a good percentage of hill tribes and Myanmar exiles such as the Kayan Karen long neck tribals.
Getting around Chiang Rai is actually pretty simple. There are a host of shops renting out motorbikes, scooters and cars. You can even hire a taxi for a day. The best way to explore the town is by hiring a 110cc or 125cc scooter, the latter is a better option if it’s two on a bike. Bike rental is easy, economical and all you’ll need to provide is just a copy of your passport.
Going around the sites and exploring Chiang Rai can be divided into two parts – the northern region which includes the border town (Thai-Burma) of Mae Sai which has a bustling Chinese market and is around 70km and roughly around a 90-minute bike ride from the city centre. On your return back a visit to the Golden triangle which has a giant Golden Buddha statue and the mighty Mekong River flowing through with a breathtaking landscape of Mayanmar and Laos.
Post that, a visit to the one of the many hill tribe villages which houses the Akha, Yao and Karen long neck tribe is a must and if you have time on the same day go on to visit the elephant farm, where you can either do a jungle trek on the elephant’s back or simply spend some time feeding these beautiful animals. The hot springs around the region are not really worth visiting.
The southern side of Chiang Rai includes the beautiful but controversial Wat Rong Khun, also known more commonly as white temple by tourists. A short 25-minute drive from the temple and one will reach Khun Korn Forest Park waterfall. It’s a short 4km hike to the waterfall. This is one waterfall and hike which is totally worth it and will surely be the best outdoor experience in Chiang Rai.
Exploring the north and south of Chiang Rai will take around 2-3 days. It’s better to keep time in hand while visiting Chiang Rai since it’s a place you’ll love more than you think you would.
Evenings are great in Chiang Rai with an amazing night market which has a galore of food stalls, live music and great street shopping. Remember to haggle while visiting the shopping stalls. The night market here is very unique and has plenty of crafts which are made and sold by the hill tribes from around the region. Check out for the souvenir hill tribe magnets which are sold in the block outside the first square with live music.
Eating options in Chiang Rai like the rest of Thailand is in plenty with a number of restaurants and bars serving great Thai, western and Indian food. The food court also a variety of things to eat most of which is prepared in tune to cater to the tourist. With over 50 small stalls and most of which serve batter-fried shrimp, squid, chicken and river fish. This goes extremely well with a bottle of chilled local Chang or Leo beer.
But while you’re in Chiang Rai a must-have is the Khao Soi which is a specialty of this region. It’s basically either pork or chicken drunk stick served in a bowl with veggies, noodles and a lot of curry. Khao Soi is originally, a Burmese style chicken curry with noodles which over the years has been adopted by the locals. It’s surely spicier and a lot better than what you’ll find in Chiang Mai.
Accommodation in Chiang Rai is in plenty and extremely affordable with great facilities. Every place has Wi-Fi and rooms are neat and clean. Staying around the town center is the best options since it’s always more convenient to get around with everything being walking distance.
Finally, if you happen to be travelling over the weekend to Chiang Rai don’t forget to visit the Sunday local market which has all the hill tribes from around the region selling a variety of fresh fruits and meat. The watermelons and Vietnam style sausages are a must-have while in this market.
Chiang Rai has excellent cell phone connection and you’ll get network all along the way till the border of Myanmar. So using Google maps to navigate while exploring makes life much easier. The town also has numerous ATMs and money exchange counters.
Chiang Rai is the kind of place you will fall in love if you like the laid back chilled out life of just roaming around on a scooter and exploring places on the go. It’s a must-visit if you’re travelling up north in Thailand. Spend at least 3-4 days to soak in and get a real feel of the place.
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