It took us a while – about three years – but we can finally say that we fully understand Chiang Rai’s appeal. We thought it was all about the city but turns out it’s not. You visit Chiang Rai for the province, for its beautiful nature and impressive history. In ten days we traveled to all corners of Chiang Rai and made an excellent top 10 of highlights you can’t afford to miss. Let’s go!
1. Phu Chi Fah – Magical sunrise
A good example of the beauty of Chiang Rai is Phu Chi Fah. This 1,600-meter high mountain on the border with Laos is the place to witness the most magical sunrise you’ll ever see.
We were lucky enough to experience this with many Thai, who also got up early to celebrate the start of the day. At half past six in the morning we stood, wearing our gloves and hats, at the top of the mountain as we counted down until the moment the first sunrays would appear.
It may not sound that attractive; getting out of bed at 5:00 AM and braving the cold (10 °C!), but it was worth it. We will always remember the sight of the green mountains, seemingly merging into a sea of fog and clouds!
2. White Temple: Wat Rong Khun
Okay, let’s be clear about one thing: the heavenly White Temple of Chiang Rai is something you just have to see with your own eyes. Thailand has thousands of temples, but this one is unique. The way it contrasts with the bright blue sky is indescribably beautiful.
And that’s not saying anything about the details; worked out to perfection, but also exceptionally bizarre; with skulls, grabbing hands and the contrast between heaven and hell. Also, if you visit this temple, don’t take a guided tour. You’ll be tied to a schedule and will only get the chance to see it for maybe half an hour on what will probably be the busiest part of the day.
You can take the shuttle bus from the center or arrange private transportation like a motorbike, a rental car or a private driver. This way you can take all the time you need and have a look around at your own pace. We were there around 2:00 PM, which turned out to be perfect because the big buses had already left by then. The entrance fee to the White Temple is only 50 baht.
3. Khun Korn Waterfall
Because of its many mountains, Chiang Rai is blessed with dozens of spectacular waterfalls. One of which is the truly unmissable Khun Korn Waterfall, only a 45-minute drive from Chiang Rai city.
The walk (about 30 minutes) to the waterfall alone is worth the visit; you’ll be walking a winding jungle trail along huge banana plants, vines, and bamboo forests. As you get closer, the sound of the mighty Khun Korn Waterfall – with a height of over 70 meters – gets louder. When you arrive at the first viewpoint, you’ll be able to experience it in all its glory!
Do keep in mind, however, that as you start your descent to the actual waterfall, you’re likely to get soaking wet. Unfortunately, as the waterfall was too powerful this time of the year, swimming wasn’t an option for us that day. Perhaps if we had visited a little later in the season (January to May), a refreshing shower might have been possible. The entrance is free.
4. The Golden Triangle
This tri-border area, where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos meet, is as famous as it is notorious. It’s here that in decades gone by, the (bloody) opium trade took place. And it was in the green mountains of The Golden Triangle that poppy flowers, the source of crude opium, were grown. Opium is the raw material for morphine, heroin, and codeine, among other drugs.
Nowadays, the opium fields in the Chiang Rai province have made way for coffee, tea and flower plantations (more on which later).
If you visit the tri-border area, we recommend renting a long tail boat and going on a trip along the Mekong River. We also recommend a visit to the House of Opium (within walking distance of the Golden Buddha at the Mekong River), a quick and interesting way to learn more about what exactly took place here.
5. Mae Salong Tea Plantations
If you want to visit authentic tea plantations in Thailand, look no further than Mae Salong!
This mountain village on the border with Myanmar is breathtaking. It literally takes your breath away, as it is very high up in the mountains. Also, it always seems to be foggy there. We spent one night in the village of Mae Salong and found it very special, as it felt a lot like being in another country.
Originally founded by the Chinese community that introduced Oolong tea to the area, it feels like a mini-Chinatown because of its many ethnically Chinese residents and Chinese restaurants. But the biggest attraction of Mae Salong is the views over the green hills, the tea tasting sessions and the smaller tea plantations along the road.
6. Baandam Museum – Black House
Another, rather peculiar, landmark in the Chiang Rai area is the Baandam Museum. The contrast with the White Temple, which seeks to depict heaven, is particularly striking. Here, the opposite is true. It is not heaven, but hell that seems to be represented.
The artist Thawan Duchanee (1939 – 2014) takes you to dark places. There are about 15 black buildings in which all kind of bones, skeletons, skins, tusks, and furs of wild animals are on display. Impressive or macabre?
We were rather bemused by the place and not sure what to think about it. When we almost stumbled over a ‘rolled out’ crocodile we decided it was time to move on. But it certainly was unique, especially after having visited the white temple. Tickets to the black museum are 80 baht.
7. Mae Sai – Town on the border with Myanmar
We’d already visited this small town, on the border with Myanmar, a couple of times before. Mae Sai is one of the places that in previous years we would go to renew our visa for Thailand. But this time we were there as tourists and decided to spend the night there.
Being a border town, it is a jumble of different cultures, and there are a lot of markets. So the best reason to visit Mae Sai is to shop. But there’s more!
Visit the impressive Scorpion Temple – Wat Thamphajoen – on Mount Doi Wao where you can see an enormous statue of a scorpion with its claws and stinger pointing in the direction of Myanmar. And while you’re at it, why not grab a bite to eat at the small-scale Anantapura Restaurant? Its view overlooks the mountain, the temple and the green hills of both Thailand and Myanmar.
8. Doi Tung – Mae Fah Luang Gardens
When the opium trade in the Golden Triangle was shut down, Princess Srinagarindra started a project to give locals a new source of income. The Mae Fah Luang Foundation, established in 1972, taught the inhabitants to use agricultural land for cultivating (non-opioid) flowers and plants.
These days it’s possible to go on long walks around the perfectly maintained flowers of the Mae Fah Luang Garden. You can also view the Royal Villa in which the Princess Mother lived during the Thai winter. The spectacular Doi Tung Tree Top Walk, where you can walk among the treetops, is also worth a visit. The entrance fee for the gardens and the royal villa is 90 baht per person. The tree top walk itself costs 200 baht.
Unfortunately, due to bad weather on the day – with unexpectedly heavy rains – we decided not to visit the gardens of Doi Tung. Do bring rain clothes, because this attraction is high in the mountains.
9. The Blue Temple – Wat Rong Suea Ten
After the white temple and the black museum, would you believe that since 2016, Chiang Rai has added a blue version, the Wat Rong Suea Ten, as well?
Granted, it’s less impressive than its two predecessors, but still worth a visit. Especially considering that the inside of the temple is decorated with a beautiful white Buddha and beautifully intricate murals. Also, it’s just a ten-minute drive from the center of Chiang Rai, so easy to combine with a visit to other landmarks near the city.
Though the main temple is completely finished, there is still construction going around it. By the way, the entrance is free of charge.
10. Day trip to Phayao
And what better way to close out this top 10 than with the little-known town of Phayao, that surprised us in every way? Though there are hardly any tourists, Phayao has a lot to offer. We organized our own trip around Phayao’s lake and managed to see lots of beautiful and surprising things.
First, pay a visit to the Wat Analayo and walk on until you have a view of the lake. Then travel on to the Jampathong Waterfall, a five-tier waterfall in the middle of the jungle.
Finally, you’ll end up at the lake, where you’ll board a boat to visit the Wat Tilokaram – a 500-year-old temple that is now entirely under water. On the site where the temple used to be there is now a small island with a Buddha statue in memory of the original temple. This is also the most beautiful place to watch the sun go down!
Map of Chiang Rai’s highlights
Getting to Chiang Rai
Chiang Rai is located in the north of Thailand, a three to five hour’s drive north of Chiang Mai. If you’re planning to go by bus, we can recommend the Green Bus. It runs on time and is comfortable, with spacious seats and excellent onboard service. Bus tickets cost, depending on the time when you want to leave, between 250 and 400 baht a piece. Click here for departure times and tickets.
You can also fly directly from Bangkok to Chiang Rai Airport. Prices for a one-way ticket are around $ 35 per person, especially if you book them well in advance. Here you can find the cheapest flights to Chiang Rai!
To visit the sights of Chiang Rai, you can rent a motorbike or car. If you’re looking for a private driver, you can easily arrange this through your hotel in Chiang Rai.