Read more about my Self Care Sabbatical and the other places I’ve visited!
It seems that most people come to Chiang Rai en route to Laos. There are many people who just come for a (long) day-trip from Chiang Mai just so that they can see some of the sights in Chiang Rai, most notably the White Temple. Because it’s about 3 hours by bus from Chiang Mai, it could be worth spending the night if you have the time before returning to Chiang Mai. No matter what you decide to do, I would highly recommend visiting this city! You probably just need one full day to see most of what this city has to offer.
What to see in Chiang Rai:
There are a few major sights in Chiang Rai and you can definitely see all of them in one day. It’s also quite easy to see them on your own via public transit/songtheow rather than arranging a guided tour (this will also be much cheaper). If you do it on your own, you can probably spend most of the day seeing the 3 major temples, getting back to town before 5pm.
White Temple – This was the highlight of my trip to Chiang Rai. Even if you think you are templed out after visiting Chiang Mai, you will be blown away by this place. It was incredible! It’s artsy, it’s scary and weird. I totally loved it. I would definitely suggest going earlier in the day (arriving before 10am). Most of the tour groups will arrive by mid-morning and it will be VERY crowded suddenly. You can take a public bus from the main bus station in Chiang Rai that will drop you off close to the temple (there are signs in front of the buses with timetables so it’s quite easy to find). The bus costs 20 baht each way and runs about every 30-60 minutes. When you want to go back to town, walk towards the area where the bus dropped you off but on the opposite side of the road. You can either hail the bus from here or take a songtheow back to town. I met 2 other travelers that had been on my bus in the morning and we all jumped into a songtheow back to the bus station together.
Black Temple (Baandam Museum / Black House) – This is actually an art museum and quite expansive as well. It costs about 80 baht to enter, but there is a lot to see. Definitely worth visiting to see something a bit different in Thailand! Getting there is also easy – when you get back to the bus station from the White Temple, simply find the public bus taking people to the Black House. This will be another 20 baht bus ride. The bus will drop you a bit further from the actual entrance to the house, but it’s only about 10 minutes walking max. If you don’t want to walk, you can opt for a songtheow from town. There is a great restaurant nearby for lunch – Give Green Farm. Huge menu with lots of options, including many vegan and vegetarian choices. We had a really nice, inexpensive lunch here for less than 90 baht each.
Blue Temple – Admittedly, this was not even on my radar for my visit. But after meeting some other travelers and going to the Baandam Museum with them, I was convinced to join them for a trip to the Blue Temple. This may have been one of my favorite temples – the blue colors are vibrant yet also quite soothing. The paintings in the interior are gorgeous. The temple is on the way back into town from the Baandam Museum so you can either jump on the bus or grab a songtheow to get there. We found 2 more travelers to join us and our group of five was about to get a songtheow for 20 baht each. The driver even waited for us and charged another 20 baht to get back to the bus station in town.
After all this sightseeing, treat yourself to a massage of course! I had a really lovely hot oil massage at Monmeuang near the bus station. While it was a bit more expensive than the traditional Thai massages ($15), it was totally worth it.
In the evening:
Visit the Night Bazaar – It’s quite large with many vendors selling clothing, textiles, and other souvenirs. There is one main food stall area, but I found it a bit disappointing as the vendors all sold one of these things: fried stuff (veggies, shrimp), hot pot, the typical Thai dishes like fried rice and pad thai, and grilled fish. It is also a lot more expensive than the usual street food. It is quite like the night market in Chiang Mai. There’s also a stage where there are various types of performances throughout the night.
See the clocktower – The clocktower in Chiang Rai is in the middle of a roundabout so be careful of traffic when trying to take a photo! It was actually close to my hotel so I was able to snap some photos easily while getting around town. There are a couple of local restaurants nearby so recommend getting dinner nearby and enjoying the hourly light show at the clocktower.
Where to Stay:
I think it would be best to stay closer to the center of town near the bus station and night market, especially if you are only in town a few days. There are a ton of good budget options in town. I heard great things about Mercy Hostel, but it was all booked up while I was there. My hotel was a bit further outside of the main part of town which was okay, but the streets were a little desolate at night which was a bit creepy. I loved my hostel though so it totally made up for it – TongSiam. It’s quite new and everything is really nice and clean. The showers are incredible and the storage space in the dorms is very nice. There’s a simple free breakfast on the roof, cheap laundry facilities as well. The hostel also has a cafe on the ground floor. The staff here was so incredibly helpful – that was the best part. I had to get to the bus station very early after checking out (6:30am) and one of the guys at the hostel arrived early so I could have breakfast before leaving AND he gave me a ride to the bus station on his scooter. Would definitely recommend!
Getting There: Taking the bus from Chiang Mai is very easy and inexpensive. The bus ride is about 3 hours and there are frequent buses every day. For a day trip, organize a tour which will leave very early from Chiang Mai.