This guide to the best things to do in Chiang Rai is essential reading for anyone thinking of making their way to this must-see destination of north-central Thailand. It's a great place for those who like to stroll off the beaten path and is rightly famous for its unusual temples.

    While Chiang Rai has few major attractions and a very subdued nightlife, staying in Thailand’s northernmost city gives you a glimpse into the real Thai way of life. From mystical temples that glimmer a pure alabaster white from head to toe to mind-boggling locations where you can see 3 countries in a single moment, there are all sorts on offer in Chiang Rai.

    What are the best things to do in Chiang Rai?


    White Temple (Wat Rong Khun)

    Chiang Rai’s unmissable Buddhist temple

    • History
    • Photo
    • Unusual

    The White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) is a symphony of eye-catching design and religious art that stands out as one of the most incredible landmarks in Chiang Rai. It's not in the city centre, but rather out on the main roadway to the southwest, visible to all who move up the highway from Chiang Mai and Bangkok.

    Entry to the site gives you access to fantastical features that hearken back to the days of the Lanna Kingdom. However, the temple is actually a modern construction, having been started in the 1900s by local artist Chalermchai Kositpipat. Highlights include the Gate of Heaven, which represents good and evil on the way into the temple, and the Ubosot main building, which is inlaid with glimmering mirrors.

    Location: 60 1 Phahonyothin Rd, Pa O Don Chai, Mueang Chiang Rai District, Chiang Rai 57000, Thailand

    Open: Daily from 8 am to 5 pm

    Phone: +66 (0)53 673 967


    Baan Dam Museum

    Learn about local architecture and arts

    • Families
    • History
    • Photo

    The Baan Dam Museum (Black House Museum) is a whole collection of architectural gems that spans the ancient Lanna era and the modern. It's located on Highway 1 as it leaves Chiang Rai northwards, about 20 minutes in a tuk-tuk from the city centre.

    You will get to see 40 or so individual buildings at the Baan Dam Museum. Anchoring the whole place, the Main Sanctuary Hall is often said to resemble Chiang Rai's legendary White Temple, only with dark wood and dusky hues. Also notice the Small Temple, a fusion of Thai and Burmese styling, along with the Tri Phum, a 3-sided building surrounded by meticulously carved wooden pillars.

    Location: 333 13 Nang Lae, Chiang Rai 57100, Thailand

    Open: Daily from 9 am to 5 pm

    Phone: +66 (0)53 776 333


    Chiang Rai Night Bazaar

    Get shopping after dark

    The Chiang Rai Night Bazaar buzzes into life when the sun dips low behind the hills of northern Thailand. It sprawls across a whole block just on the south side of the downtown, within easy walking distance of most central hotels and the main Phaholyothin Road.

    What awaits is a cacophony of sellers, hawkers, stalls, and noise. For a few hours, you can shop your way through stacks of twinkling electronics and unusual handcrafted souvenirs, knock-off designer threads and traditional Thai clothing. There are also regular dance shows, along with more food than you can hope to stomach – BBQ squid on a kebab stick, anyone?

    Location: Night Bazaar, Tambon Wiang, Mueang Chiang Rai District, Chiang Rai 57000, Thailand

    Open: Daily from 6 pm to 11 pm


    Buffalo Horn Hill

    Work for the best view of the city

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    • Budget

    Buffalo Horn Hill is the name that's been given to a medium-high lookout point on the southern side of Chiang Rai. To get there, just hop in a tuk-tuk and take the old Chiang Mai road for about 10 minutes. There's a place where drivers can wait at the trailhead while you climb.

    A zigzagging path can take you right to the summit point. That's where you'll get the 180-degree vistas that run north to encompass Chiang Rai itself and the rising karst peaks of Nam Ha in the distance. The top is also the home of the Wat Phrathat Doi Khao Kwai, a gold-tipped temple that's said to be the lair of a mythical, bear-like beast.


    Saturday Walking Street

    Taste your way into the evening

    The Saturday Walking Street is a nocturnal bazaar that pops up in Chiang Rai after sunset. It only takes place, as the name implies, on the weekend, and spreads all the way down the length of the main road of Thanon Thanalai in the heart of the city.

    There's shopping galore here – everything from high-street fashion to shoes is on the menu. Speaking of menus, it's the food that takes centre stage. The entire street is occupied by open-air cooking courts, where you can sample all manner of northern Thai delicacies – think deep-fried insects and soy-doused kebabs straight off the coals.

    Location: Thanalai, Tambon Wiang, Mueang Chiang Rai District, Chiang Rai 57000, Thailand

    Open: Saturday from 3 pm to 10 pm


    Kok River boat cruises

    Sailing the backcountry

    • Families
    • Couples
    • Photo

    Kok River boat cruises promise a true adventure in the greater wilds of the Chiang Rai region. The river snakes past the city just to the north, but excursions up and down its length can take you deeper into the unchartered hills that run the length of the nearby Laotian and Burmese borders.

    Most trips will take in the sylvan valleys that spread between the remote villages of Tha Ton and the city of Chiang Rai itself. You’ll travel on traditional Mekong-style longboats, going on a wiggling run of murky water that reveals visions of mist-topped forests and rural hamlets for a whole afternoon.


    Pong Phra Bat Waterfall

    A serene spot in the jungles

    • Families
    • Couples
    • Photo
    • Budget

    The Pong Phra Bat Waterfall gushes over the hills of the Lam Nam Kok Forest Park. That puts it just to the northwest of the city proper, at the end of Route 1151 before the jungles and the mountains take over in earnest. You're looking at about 25 minutes from central Chiang Rai by car.

    An easy hike of less than 2 km will take you to the site of the falls themselves. Though certainly not the largest in Thailand, the Pong Phra Bat Waterfall is something of an idyllic sight. Set in a lush grove strewn by vines and overlooked by old fig trees, the site is a photographer's dream come true.


    Cooking lessons

    Learn how to make northern Thai cuisine from friendly locals

    • Couples

    Cooking lessons are great for culinary-minded travellers all over Thailand. Up here in the far northern reaches of Chiang Rai province, they promise a taste of regional cuisine that fuses elements of Southeast Asia, China, Laos, and Myanmar. There are multiple providers on offer, usually located in the heart of the city.

    You can request to learn some of Thailand’s staple dishes. Menus in many cooking classes will reveal the secrets behind dishes like keng keaw wann gai (green curry) or tom yum goong (spicy soup with prawns).


    Golden Triangle Viewpoint

    See 3 countries in one day

    • Photo
    • Budget

    The Golden Triangle Viewpoint straddles the spot where 3 of Southeast Asia's biggest nations converge. To the east, you'll gaze out into the wild, untouched, rainforest-clad Laos and to the north, you'll peer into Burma, which sits across a snaking tributary to the Mekong River.

    The viewpoint is an amazing location to stand at, and only about a 1.5-hour drive from Chiang Rai. Taking in 3 countries isn't the only pull, either. There's an enthralling museum about the opium trade, along with a whole park – the Golden Triangle Park – that's topped by a gleaming golden Buddha statue.

    Location: 1290, Wiang, Chiang Saen District, Chiang Rai 57150, Thailand


    Hill Tribe Museum and Education Centre

    The rich cultural threads of northern Thailand

    • Families
    • History
    • Photo

    The Hill Tribe Museum and Education Centre chronicles the history of the not 1, not 2, but 6 hill tribes that make their home in the surrounding Chiang Rai region. It's situated on the 3rd floor of a community building just north of Walking Street, meaning it should be within walking distance of most hotels in the centre.

    The exhibits will reveal the secrets of surviving in the jungled hills that the tribes have mastered over the centuries. You'll learn about bamboo whittling, vine weaving, house building, and a whole load more. There's also a focus on the curious long-neck tribespeople of the Karen, who have villages in the close vicinity.

    Location: Hill Tribe Museum, Thanalai, Mueang Chiang Rai District, Chiang Rai 57000, Thailand

    Open: Monday–Friday from 8.30 am to 5 pm, Saturday–Sunday from 10 am to 5 pm

    Joseph Francis | Contributing Writer

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