Mountainous and alluring, Chiang Rai is one of the best spots to do trekking in Thailand. The provincial capital of the same name is home to a wide range of excellent accommodation, from five-star international hotels to cheap backpacker guesthouses, as well as some great eating spots, with most cuisines covered and swish Western/Thai style coffee houses boasting free WiFi starting to multiply.
Chiang Rai also retains some of the small-town charm now relatively lacking in places like Chiang Mai and Bangkok, remaining the kind of place where a child might shout "Hello" from the back of their parents' motorbike as they speed past. Chiang Rai has a charm which has disappeared from many of Thailands cities, such as Chiang Mai and most certainly, Bangkok.
Chiang Rai was established in 1262 during the reign of expansionist Lanna ruler Mangrai. Inheriting the throne from his father in 1259, he embarked on a campaign to quickly conquer -- either by war or diplomacy -- the surrounding fiefs. Once he had established Chiang Rai, he moved his capital there and further expanded, with Chiang Khong, Fang and Phayao all falling under his sphere of influence. In the next twenty years his kingdom stretched to encompass the state of Haripunchai in Lamphun and in 1292, Mangrai established his final capital, Chiang Mai, which remains Thailand's northern capital to this day.
Chiang Rai town is a 'wannabe' kind of place -- it's not too sure what it wants to be. While it has a reputation as a superb alternative trekking base to Chiang Mai, it has great potential for more but somehow appears to want to be left alone. Its reason for being has more to do with local administration and agriculture than tourism, with the main items on sale motorbikes and farm machinery. Most everyone whizzes round without a care or a helmet, but one of the best ways to explore as an independent traveller is by bicycle, which can be rented for around 80B a day.
The city is small enough to meander around, be it down by the river and Chiang Rai Beach or in the nearby hills and forest parks. There are very few inclines so cycling is an easy and pleasant way to see the city. The main roads have some fairly heavy traffic, but the back routes and sois interconnect. TAT has a good free map available at the booking hall of Terminal One Bus Station.
One of the great attractions of this part of Thailand is the cooler temperatures from November through to February, which is also the high season. Local people will be wrapped in scarves as temperatures plummet as low 20 degrees Celsius -- for many visitors that's just about perfect.
Most travellers are in Chiang Rai to trek. Dozens of travel shops offer treks ranging from a couple of days to five-day tours in the mountains. With so many close by and grouped in the streets around the night bazaar area, comparing prices and content is easy and quick. Many of these places have been arranging treks for years and in some cases it shows. Having said that, they can arrange to pop you on a boat to Laos, sort out a visa and rent you a jeep all within a few minutes of entering the shop.
The hill tribe and trekking scene has developed a lot over the years. Some would argue that the villages are now just tourist attractions with few 'genuine' tribes. The Akha are the most prominent in the region, along with the Karen, whose lives have most definitely been affected by tourism. The further into the mountains you go, the more the hill tribes will still be living traditional lives, but if you want to see the Akha people at work, simply go to the main market in Chiang Rai, as this is where they sell their produce every day.
The excellent Hilltribe Museum and Population and Community Development Association (PDA) has the most comprehensive information on all the tribes, their culture, a history of the opium trade and displays of traditional crafts. The museum is on Thanalai Road and well worth a visit before heading out on a trek. It also has some very worthwhile ongoing projects which visitors can help support.
A favourite trip is west on the Mae Nam Kok to Tha Ton. Boats leave from the pier near the new bridge at 10.30 and the journey takes around three hours. Although a 'touristy' type of trip, there's still something magical about voyaging down these wide Thai rivers in a longtail. The real dense and untouched jungle is something you don't see close up from the road. To get a glimpse of any wildlife you really need to be floating silently along on a bamboo raft as the longtail is a noisy affair and scares most jungle residents away. The rafting trips are often combined with a hill tribe village and trek.
Chiang Rai has plenty of banks with international ATMs. Most 7-Eleven shops have an ATM outside. A regional charge of 20B is levied for taking cash from an ATM in the provinces, plus your own bank charges from home. Some travel agents do not have credit card facilities, so cash is needed
The most convenient hospital is Overbrooke, 17 Singhaklai Rd. T: 053 711 366. Doctors and nurses speak English, but these are private hospitals and payment is required promptly! Most pharmacies have English-speaking staff, including the Boots on Rattannkhet Road. Chinese and herbal remedy shops are all over Chiang Rai, but chances are that the shopkeeper will have limited English.
Internet is widely available, with many spots offering internet available for customers at 30B hour, or you are carrying a laptop/notebook, then WiFi is free.
For more information on motorbiking in and around Chiang Rai province, see our story Motorcycling northern Thailand -- the Chiang Rai loop.
Lastly, for travellers heading to Laos, Chiang Rai is often where you'll find yourself changing buses to or from the gateway to Laos, Chiang Khong. Do yourself a favour and at least break the trip up with an overnight stay here.
Motorcycling the Chiang Rai loop
Trekking in Thailand
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Download your Chiang Rai PDF guide
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Be sure to visit Wat Phra Kaew. Chiang Rai has a bunch of wats, but this is by far the most interesting. Do schedule in at least one feed at the city's night market -- it is ane specially traveller friendly set-up and the food is excellent.
If you're here to trek, try to go for at least a two night trip -- the longer the trip, generally the better.
Don't write off the Kok River trip. Yes it is touristy, but it is touristy for a reason and it forms an ideal approach to Chiang Dao.
lastly, if time allows, grab a motorbike and do some exploring -- Chiang Rai province is beautiful and, assuming you're a capable rider, is great fun to ride around.
Text and/or map last updated on 30th October, 2013.