Thailand

Chiang Rai, Thailand: A Sleepy Mountain Town with Stunning Scenery

THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO CHIANG RAI, THAILAND

Planning a trip to Thailand with the luxury of taking my time through the country (or rather, thirty days on a visa exemption), I knew I wanted to visit more places than I would if I were limited to a two week holiday.

Chiang Rai has long been on my radar, at first because of the White Temple, but then because of other beautiful temples in the area and its comparisons to Chiang Mai- but a more laid back version.

Amidst lush mountains, Chiang Rai in far north Thailand is a place filled with magic.

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Bordering Laos and Myanmar, it’s the oldest city from the ancient Lanna kingdom. Chiang Rai is a growing digital nomad hub, but quiet in comparison to its sister city- Chiang Mai.

It was the perfect three days to kick off my time in Thailand (after spending a hectic day in Bangkok). Chill enough for me to start to relax, and enough activities to keep me occupied for when I felt like sightseeing.

If anything, I’d love to actually go back to Chiang Rai to do a few of the things I didn’t have time for- a visit to the Hill Tribes and seeing the Golden Triangle. Arguably, I could have fit these in on my last day, but opted instead to see more of the town and relax.

Nonetheless, I did enough in my three days to write this guide to Chiang Rai, Thailand- packed with recommendations for where to eat and have coffee, and what to do.

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The Complete Guide to Chiang Rai, Thailand

Day 1

I flew to Chiang Rai from Bangkok early afternoon, arriving at 3 pm. Originally, the plan was to leave Bangkok early am and arrive in Chiang Rai before lunch. But, my bed at Baynon Tree was so comfortable and I was feeling jet lagged, so I decided to move my flight a few hours later and have a slow morning.

It was a great decision. I arrived in Chiang Rai feeling refreshed and ready to explore.

My first day, I took it easy- wandered town a bit, checked out the Night Bazaar (such great food options!) and visited Monmuang Lanna for an hour long aromatherapy massage so good I made an appointment for two hours of massages the following evening.

With it getting late (8 pm), I made my way to Smiling Moon, a place I heard did good Thai food at a backpacker friendly price. Full of excellent pineapple fried rice and a fruit smoothie, I popped in 7-11 for water and coconut juice, then made my way back to my poshtel. I had a long day ahead of me and was keen to get to bed.

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The Complete Guide to Chiang Rai, Thailand

Day 2

Waking early, I called a Grab to take me to my first stop- Wat Huay Pla Kang.

I decided to visit the temple after seeing A Girl Who Bloom’s sunrise capture of the dragons shroud in mist from the surrounding mountains.

Even though I had a clear morning on my visit, the temple was no less beautiful. Walking up to temple, I couldn’t get over the intricate details carved into the dragons.

Most photos taken of the temple are of Guan Yin, the statue at the top, but the dragons guarding the stairs are the real showstopper, in my opinion.

The temple is mistakenly referred to as Big Buddha, but it’s actually a depiction of Guan Yin, Goddess of Mercy. In Thai Buddhism, Guan Yin is a female Bodhisattva, which means someone who has reached enlightenment. Guan Yin is a compassionate being who responds to people who cry out for help.

If the dragons leading to Guan Yin don’t impress you, then the view from the top should. For 40 baht, you can take a lift to the top, which offers stunning views of Chiang Rai’s hillsides. The inside of the temple is also beautiful- such intricate details.

Also on the property is a nine tier pagoda, guarded by golden and green nags (snake/dragon-like mythical creatures). And, there’s a white temple in traditional Thai style also available to view.

All in all, it’s a pretty impressive temple and made all the better when you visit early and pretty much have the entire place to yourself. Watching the sun rise over the heads of the dragons is a sight I won’t soon forget.

The temple is outside of city centre, so when my Grab came (110 baht to take me to the temple), I asked if the driver would wait and then take me to another temple on our way back into the city. He agreed to wait for 100 baht for an hour (plenty of time to explore), and then we put on the metre to go to the next temple, which ended up being 80 baht.

If you rent a motorbike, it’d definitely be easier to reach but it’s also possible to rely on taxis.

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Next stop: Wat Rong Seur Ten, the blue temple.

The area of the temple once was the natural habitat of tigers, that’s why the name of the temple translates as ‘House of the Dancing Tiger’.

The temple itself is relatively new, having opened in 1997. There was a previous temple here, but its condition had become so dilapidated that residents decided to destroy it and rebuild.

The outside is stunning- rich blue and gold detailing and inside is no less impressive with a large seated white Buddha a striking image against the blue interior.
If you wanted to head back to the city after visiting the blue temple, it’d be easy enough to get a Grab from the temple. However, I wanted to check out a nearby cafe I’d heard good things about.

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Walking ~8 minutes from the temple, I passed palm tree plantations and cicadas hummed in the trees lining the path to the river- I decided even if the cafe was a bust, the walk there was lovely enough to be worth it.

Imagine my surprise when I arrived to a beautiful, quaint cafe decorated in white wood, lanterns strung across trees, plenty of plants and colourful, punchy umbrellas. It was perfect. I ordered an iced mocha and vegetable omelet, excited for brunch with a river view.

Manoram may be a bit out of the way from the city centre, but is definitely worth a pop over if you’re visiting the blue temple. Even if you’re on a budget, it’s a beautiful cafe worthy of a visit- chances are you’ll find something on the menu.

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When I was ready to leave, I called a Grab to take me to another cafe, where I planned to do some reading- The Roast. On the way there, I hopped out early to peek inside a cafe we’d driven past that I’d heard was worth visiting- Nangnon Coffee.

Definitely wasn’t disappointed- it was adorable! Noting it was a 15 minute walk to The Roast from Nangnon, I ordered a mango passionfruit smoothie to walk with- so good! Fresh, creamy and reasonably priced for an upmarket cafe (50 baht).

The Roast was everything I’d hoped it’d be- excellent cold brew in the heart of Chiang Rai.

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I ordered my brew to go and walked back to my hotel (5 minutes away) to chill for a bit before my final temple stop of the day, which I wanted to time with sunset.

Wat Rong Khun is one of Thailand’s most iconic temples. It gets its name from the stunning white colour, which has inlaid mirrored glass.

I was so excited to visit the White Temple, but had heard it was an absolute madhouse during the day- tour groups come from all over, even as far as Chiang Mai, arriving before the temple opens and staying right up until it closes at 5 pm.

I’d read visiting around 4 pm and trying to stick out the crowds until 5 was the best strategy for photos of the temple where you could actually see the temple (vs. the hundreds of people visiting).

So, at 3:45, I called a Grab and headed to the temple.

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Open since 1997, and about 15-20 minutes outside of Chiang Rai, the White Temple is the story of crossing over from human suffering and being reborn.It symbolises breaking free from greed, desire, and other worldly things in order to find true happiness.

It’s exquisite.

Sure enough, what I’d read was right. I wandered the temple for a bit then headed back to the entryway to wait for the crowds to thin- which really, didn’t happen until 4:45/4:50. I managed a few quick shots with minimal people and then hurried outside to call a Grab.

I’d also heard Grabs are hard to get from the area after the temple closes, so it’s a delicate balance. If you’re travelling with someone and can split up the task of photography and securing a ride home, that’s best. Other options would be paying a driver to wait for you or renting a scooter.

Exhausted from a day of temple hopping, I headed to Nangnon for a smoothie pick-me-up (coconut mango peach this time) and then returned to the same spa I visited on my first day for an hour long lavender aromatherapy massage and an hour long foot reflexology massage.

Magic.

I didn’t visit any other spas in Chiang Rai because I liked Monmuang Lanna so much.

For dinner, I perused the night market but decided to eat at Smiling Moon again- the pineapple fried rice was so good!

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The Complete Guide to Chiang Rai, Thailand

Day 3

Waking on my last day in Chiang Rai, I looked forward to a day relaxing at some of the city’s cafes.

I’d debated doing a day tour to the Golden Triangle or to see the hill tribes, but was concerned with potential for delayed return to the city since I had a 10 pm flight to Bangkok that evening.

If I’m ever back in Chiang Rai, they’re activities I’ll definitely look into doing. At the triangle, it’s rare you can view three countries in one sight. And, I’ve heard you can take a bus to visit the border city in Myanmar. 

Hanging in Chiang Rai for the day, I started the morning with strong cold brew at The Roast, then headed to Nangnon for another smoothie and a breakfast croissant- both excellent.

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Before I knew it, it was mid-afternoon and so I decided to change up cafes and head to Melt in Your Mouth. I took a quick stroll by Half Cafe, which looked cute but closed too early for me to post up.

The only recommendation anyone who’d visited Chiang Rai had to offer me for food was interestingly Melt in your Mouth, another riverside restaurant. Far enough from city centre to be a hot, muggy walk (or ~10-15 minute Grab ride)- in other words, not convenient to visit.

But, so worth it.

I arrived at Melt just as the sun had started to set and couldn’t believe how beautiful the view from the expansive river-front porch was. The inside of the cafe is beautiful too- comfy chairs situated around low tables, it’s the stuff afternoon tea or evening dessert dreams are made of.

The menu is interesting as well, expansive and covering a range of cuisines, it’s also a touch innovative. To start, I ordered a cold brew and coconut water.

Sounds like separate drinks, right? Not at Melt.

Here, they combine the two for a layered hydrating coffee refreshment. Normally I’m a cold brew purist, but I even surprised myself by how much I liked it- the sweetness of the coconut water was offset by the bitterness/acidity of the cold brew. I don’t think it’s something I’d order first thing in the morning, but for a mid-afternoon drink, it was great.

After spotting a power outlet, I decided to commit to staying for sunset and ordered a pizza for dinner.

It may be a bit out of the way from the centre of the city, but that also means fewer people, which only makes a serene sunset here more appealing.

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Heading back to the city, I grabbed my bags from my hotel and then headed to the airport. There was a bit of an incident with me collecting my bags- I’d left them earlier in the day, noting reception was open until 9 pm. Returning at 8 pm, imagine my distress to see reception closed. Apparently there’d been a miscommunication with hotel staff and the woman on duty left for the evening with my luggage locked behind the desk.

Not to worry, the owner flew across town and drove me to the airport herself- I made it two mins before my baggage check-in closed. If you need a ride to the airport, Grab works or just ask your hotel to call you a taxi. It’s a small airport- you’re probably find arriving an hour or so ahead of your flight if it’s domestic, perhaps an hour and a half ahead of time if it’s international.

Just as I felt I was settling into Chiang Rai, it was time to move on. I would have been upset about it, but it was time to visit a city I’d long anticipated seeing- Chiang Mai.

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If you have time time, I can’t recommend visiting Chiang Rai enough- there’s so much beauty, it leaves a lasting impression on you. There are plenty of day trips from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai, but you should know they’re crowded and all on the same schedule.

Chiang Rai may be a sleepy mountain town, but it’s worthy of a few days to visit.

Hopefully this guide to Chiang Rai, Thailand has been helpful, have you ever been to Chiang Rai? Is it somewhere you’d like to visit one day?

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