Things to do in Chiang Rai
Table of Contents
Things to do in Chiang Rai: introduction
This is just a random list of the things to do and things to see in Chiang Rai. It is a very personal list of Chiang Rai attractions and it is a work under construction. The city of Chiang Rai and surroundings have a lot to offer if you look a bit further than the mundane attractions of Chiang Rai. If you miss anything on this list, please let us know. We love to get your feedback.
The Buddhist Temples of Chiang Rai
I decided to make a separate section for the temples of Chiang Rai to set them apart from other things to do. Chiang Rai has a surprisingly interesting mixture of old and new temples. It is nowadays known for the White Temple, Wat Rong Khun, but before the opening of this object of art Wat Phra Kaew, the former home of the Emerald Buddha was the best-known temple of Chiang Rai.
Make a tour by samlor
The samlor is the traditional bicycle taxi. “Sam” means “three” and “lor” means “wheel” in Thai. A samlor is a vehicle with three wheels. It was introduced in Thailand in the 1930s. There were once thousands of these bicycle taxis on Thai roads but numbers are on the decline. If this trend continues the samlor will disappear which would be very sad. According to local people, there are at least 70 samlors in Chiang Rai but I only found a single one at the main market, Kad Luang. A samlor ride is featured in some of our tours. On one of my last visits I made a lovely ride of about one hour with driver Somboon. I paid him 200THB for this. These men are usually elderly and don’t make a lot of money. Sometimes it is very good to be generous.
Cycling in Chiang Rai
The countryside is perfect for cycling. It is very traditional, and there are many nice country roads, villages and local temples. Spending half a day or a full day cycling is a great experience. Chiang Rai is a much smaller city than, for instance, Chiang Rai. It doesn’t take long to leave the traffic behind. If you are interested in a bicycle in or around Chiang Rai, please let us know. Cycling is a fantastic way to explore Chiang Rai.
Trekking in Chiang Rai
One of the great activities in Chiang Rai is trekking. Chiang Rai province has an enormous diversity when it comes to tribal villages. There are some fantastic trekking areas north and northwest of the city. It only takes a drive of about half an hour to get there. There are waterfalls, magnificent views as well as Karen, Lahu, and Akha villages. We can take you to areas where it is improbable you will meet other trekkers or really anyone. Give it a try. The area of Doi Bo offers great trekking.
Boat Trip on the Kok River
The Kok River is a tributary of the Mekong River. It originates in Shan State, Myanmar, and flows from Thaton to Chiang Rai and onwards towards the Mekong. The boat trip from Thaton to Chiang Rai has always been one of the great activities in Chiang Rai. The trip takes 2,5 to 3 hours in a local boat. It is still a great adventure. If you don’t want to make the full trip, it is also possible to make shorter trips, get off the boat and continue by car. This boat trip features in our Explore Chiang Rai Tour.
Oub Kham Museum
The Oub Kham Museum is a small private museum not far from the center of Chiang Rai. It exhibits artifacts and pictures of the former Lanna Kingdom and areas that are now part of Laos and Myanmar. The entrance fee is 300THB. You will get a guided tour for that. If you are interested in the history of North Thailand, this museum is worth a visit. It is open every day from 0800 until 1700.
The Black House
The Black House (aka Ban Dam or Baan Dam Museum) is just off the road from Chiang Rai to Mae Sai, about 15 mins drive from the center of Chiang Rai. It is the former residence of national artist Thawan Duchanee. It is a collection of buildings and structures that exhibit rather morbid objects such as skeletons and buffalo skulls. It’s all pretty dark and gloomy. Baan Dam is not everyone. The entrance fee is 80THB. Open daily from 0900 until 1700.
Rai Mae Fah Luang Art and Cultural Park
The Rai Mae Fah Luang Art and Cultural Park is a very beautiful and extensive park with some fantastic traditional Lanna-style buildings. It houses the largest collection of folk art and teak artifacts from the Lanna Kingdom. The three main buildings are the Haw Kham (the Golden Pavillion), the Haw Kham Noi, and the Haw Kaew. If you are interested in traditional architecture the Rai Mae Fah Luang Art and Cultural Park is worth a visit. It is one of our favorite Chiang Rai attractions.
The Field Marshall Plaek Phibunsongkram Museum
The Field Marshall Plaek Phibunsongkram Museum is also known as the Army Museum. The house was constructed in the years 1940-41 for the Field Marshall who was the Prime Minister of Thailand and dictator from 1938 to 1944 and 1948 to 1957. It is one of the lesser-visited Chiang Rai attractions.
The exhibits in the museum are related to the life of the Field Marshall and to the invasion of Shan State and four districts of Mong Pan State in 1942. The Thai Payap army occupied these territories, known as Saharat Thai Doem (“Unified former Thai Territories”), until the end of World War Two.
The house is beautifully located on the hill overlooking Chiang Rai. There is a nice coffee shop right next to the house. All explanations in the museum are in Thai so you need someone to translate for you. It is worth a visit if you are interested in history.
Kad Luang, the Central Market
Every city in Thailand has a central fresh food market. “Kad” means “market” in northern Thai language, “luang” means “big”. In short, Kad Luang is the big market. These central markets are a must-visit, as far as I am concerned. They are great places to meet and chat with local people while you can shop around for some fruit of the season or local delicacies. There is so much to see, to learn and to enjoy at these markets. Like most of these markets, the one in Chiang Rai comes alive at a very early hour, a couple of hours before sunrise. Most of the early morning trade takes place on the roads around the market.
Chiang Rai Walking Street
I believe that the “Walking Street” concept started in Chiang Mai, more than 15 years ago, correct me if I am wrong. Since then every city or major town has adopted this formula. One or two days a week local people are allowed to set up a stall on a public road that is blocked on both sides to traffic. These markets usually take place of Friday, Saturday or Sunday, start at around 1700 and last until 2200.
Initially these walking streets were rather unorganized and amateuristic but that has changed since they started drawing huge amounts of people. In Chiang Rai there is walking street on Saturday and on Sunday.
Wat Tham Pla (The Fish Cave Temple)
This temple is located a couple of km from the main road from Chiang Rai to Mae Sai, about 17 km before you reach Mae Sai. It is a very special place in a gorgeous setting. Wat Tham Pla is not on everyone’s itinerary but it should be. You can easily spend an hour here and you can have a lot of fun as well!
Santikhiri on Doi Mae Salong
Santikhiri is a town on the mountain Doi Mae Salong, northwest of Chiang Rai. Everyone knows the town as Doi Mae Salong. It is here that Chinese Nationalist troops settled after having been ousted from Burma. After communist troops under Mao defeated them in 1949, they move to Burma and eventually ended up in this part of Thailand. They are now Thai citizens. Doi Mae Salong has a distinct Chinese atmosphere though.
The landscapes around Doi Mae Salong are spectacular. Tea plantations and Akha villages surround the town. It is certainly one of the most scenic and fascinating destinations in North Thailand. Most people visit Doi Mae Salong out of Chiang Rai on a day tour, but we recommend staying at least one overnight there.
Wat Phrathat Pha Ngao
This temple is a must-visit for any visitor to the Golden Triangle or Chiang Saen. Wat Phrathat Pha Ngao is an extensive and very interesting temple complex on the Mekong River. There are several museums, a Buddha footprint and a chedi on a hill, from where you have the best view over the Mekong River and Laos.
Chiang Saen Historical Park
Chiang Saen is a lovely and quiet town on the Mekong River. It has a rich history though that goes back to the 7th century. It is about an hour’s drive from Chiang Rai. Chiang Saen has been an independent principality that was under Lanna and Burmese rule in the past. In the late 19th century it became part of Siam, now Thailand. There are some impressive ruins, Buddha statues, and leftovers of city walls that are worth visiting. The city walls are the best preserved in the country.