A complete travel guide to Chiang Rai. From hidden gems like a FREE TRAM to all the highlights like the White Temple. Including a two day itinerary.
We visited Chiang Rai for three days in 2023. Here’s our comprehensive and honest travel guide including hidden gems like a FREE TRAM as well as all the highlights like the White Temple – Plus a complete 2-day itinerary.
Yes, Chiang Rai is worth visiting – if you have the time.
Whether you should visit Chiang Rai or Chiang Mai is a different question. The short answer is: Visit Chiang Mai if you only have a limited amount of time. It’s easier to reach from Bangkok and you can do similar activities like trekking and visiting hill tribes.
The major advantage that Chaing Mai has over Chiang Rai is the picturesque old town and the quality of life – also due to the many digital nomads.
Why should you visit Chiang Rai in addition to Chiang Mai you ask? It’s less touristy. When visiting a hill tribe in the Chiang Mai area, it was crowded with other tourists. In Chiang Rai, we were the only group. Additionally, the unique White and Blue Temple are worth a visit.
Taking a direct bus from Bangkok to Chiang Rai is cheap, easy, and convenient.
Bus from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai: Buses from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai leave every 30 - 60 minutes throughout the day.
One Day Tour from Chiang Mai: A Chiang Rai day trip from Chiang Mai is a relatively cheap and easy option if you’re short on time.
Chiang Rai is a great first stop when you come from Laos – it’s only a 1.5 hours drive from the border. Transfers are widely available from Houayxay but you can also take public transport.
There are six major modes of transportation in Chiang Rai:
Most places in town are within walking distance.
Other destinations like the White and Blue Temple are a bit outside of the town centre so you need some form of transportation.
Tourist destinations like the White Temple can be reached by bus from bus terminal 1. The stop is easy to find and signposted in English but we cannot comment on the frequency of the buses.
Taxis are a good option if you want to stay more flexible. Don’t just flag down a taxi in the street but use an app like Grab or Bolt.
If you want to be flexible and dare to drive a scooter or motorcycle, rental places are widely available.
We also met some tourists on bicycles (just putting it out there as an option 😉).
If you’re short on time, a tour is the best option to see all the sights in one day.
Chiang Rai has two bus terminals which can lead to some confusion.
Buses to Chiang Mai leave from bus terminal 1 which is in the city centre and hence within walking distance to most points of interest.
Chiang Rai Bus Terminal 2 is a 15-minute drive out of town. This is where buses to Bangkok leave. We could not buy tickets anywhere in town (not at our guest house, any travel agency or bus terminal 1) so you either have to go there in person or buy your ticket online.
You can reach terminal 2 by bus e.g. from terminal 1 or by Grab/Bolt.
Depending on your time and interests, 1-2 days are enough to see the major sights of Chiang Rai (see our itinerary below).
The dry season in Chiang Rai is from October to February, so this is the best time to visit.
From January to March, it’s the burning season or smokey season. Make sure to check the air quality during this time of the year because it can be detrimental to downright dangerous. When we were there in March, we had to wear a mask pretty much the whole time.
Our favourite Chiang Rai guest house is Baan Bua Guest House. It is a green oasis right in the centre of Chiang Rai.
Chiang Rai is famous for its coffee. We loved Kalae Cafe for its Thai coffee and delicious food. They also had super fast internet and power outlets if you need to get some work done.
The food court of the Chiang Rai night bazaar is the single best place in town to eat. Period.
The nightlife in Chiang Rai cannot be compared to Chiang Mai or Bangkok. There are some bars in town like the Reggae Bar, a Bavarian Pub, or O'Kane's Irish Pub but partying is not the reason to come to Chiang Rai.
The single best way to explore Chiang Rai city centre is by the free tram. Yes, you heard right, there’s a free tram taking tourists around town. We have no idea why this is not talked about more.
The tram leaves twice per day (9:30 am and 1:30 pm) in front of King Mangrai Monument. While the announcements are only in Thai, a lady boarded the tram with us, translating all the information.
The first stop is the impressive Busabok Royal Chariot Hall.
The free tram stops at all the major temples in the city centre:
The last stop of the tram is Chiang Rai Clock Tower.
For this day, you need to rent a motorcycle, hire a driver, or go on a guided tour. As we don’t dare to ride a motorbike and we’re too cheap for a driver, we went on a guided tour and could not recommend it more.
The undisputed highlight of the Chiang Rai area and an Instagram hotspot. You can spend a lot of time here getting lost in the details. Not only the exterior is stunning but also the interior with its super unique art. Unfortunately, you are not allowed to take pictures inside.
Constructed by a student of the guy who built the White Temple, the Blue Temple is equally as interesting – with the added bonus that you can take pictures inside.
A super dark and interesting museum. Using Instagram, you can scan QR codes on the paintings which will bring them to life.
You can visit one building but there are many more buildings on the premises you can admire from the outside.
To be honest, we thought that visiting the Chiang Rai hill tribes would be a tourist trap. To our surprise, our van was the only one in the parking lot and we were the only group. Leaving the stalls and wandering into the back alley, the experience was surprisingly authentic.
The locals even invited us to sit with them and have a beer although we did not share a common language.
When you don’t go in the smokey season as we did, you can see Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand from one spot.
We love tea so we had to visit Chui Fong Tea Plantation. Here, you do not only get a free tea tasting but also amazing views over the terraced tea fields.
Every Saturday, Thana Lai Road turns into Chiang Rai walking street. Open from 4:30 pm to 0:30 am, you can find everything your heart desires from souvenirs to food.
The market stretches for roughly half a mile. Your best option for food is the square in the centre where you’ll also find live music and dancing.
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