Photo: Scenery surrounding Chiang Rai.

Introduction

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Remote hill-tribe villages perched on rugged, mist-shrouded mountains; opium warlords leading mule trains through the dense jungles of the Golden Triangle; ancient temples set in picturesque riverbank towns aside the mighty Mekong: call us romantic but Chiang Rai can conjure up some evocative and exotic images.



Yet both the province and provincial capital of this northernmost region of Thailand largely defy preconceptions. Mountains skirt its western borders with Burma (Myanmar) and Chiang Mai Province while another range paralleling the Mekong to the southeast culminates in spectacular Phu Chee Fah but otherwise much of the landscape is predominately flat agricultural land. Chiang Rai City itself, though actually predating its larger, southern neighbour, has a busy, modern air and is far from the mini-Chiang Mai you may imagine.

Not your typical temple. Photo taken in or around Chiang Rai, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Not your typical temple. Photo: Mark Ord

The mountains to the west, including Doi Mae Salong, Doi Chang and Doi Tung (doi meaning mountain in the northern dialect if you hadn’t guessed) are truly spectacular but descend abruptly into a wide valley, broken with occasional low hills and scattered karst outcrops that stretch to the province’s eastern border with Laos—the Mekong River. This is the location of a clutch of riverbank towns; touristy, kitsch Sob Ruak—officially designated the Golden Triangle; charming Chiang Saen—ancient city and now river port for China trade, and cutesy Chiang Khong—guesthouse-laden entry point into Laos and embarkation stage for the popular boat journeys to Laos’ Luang Prabang.

The high western mountains, inhabited by numerous hill-tribes, were until recently pretty wild spots but are better known today for trekking, royal projects and coffee and tea plantations rather than opium, while Burmese border crossing Mae Sai’s main contemporary illicit trade is in dodgy Chinese goods, duty-free cigarettes and fake Viagra. Plenty of illegal drugs still do flow over the Burmese border—principally methamphetamines these days—and rural Chiang Rai consequently sees more police roadblocks than just about any other northern province.

Another day at the office. Photo taken in or around Chiang Rai, Thailand by Stuart McDonald.

Another day at the office. Photo: Stuart McDonald

The sparsely populated southwestern sector has extensive, teak-covered, rolling hills and includes Khun Chae and Doi Luang National Parks, but is generally bypassed by visitors as they bus along Highway 118 between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai cities. The stunning limestone peaks south of Chiang Khong in Thoen and Phu Chee Fah districts, while popular with locals, are also little visited by foreign tourists.

The western mountains are home to Karen, Akha, Lahu, Lisu and even some Yao ethnicities, with a smaller population of White Hmong inhabiting hills to the east near Chiang Khong. Towns such as Pathang and Mae Salong are old Kuomintang settlements and most districts have substantial Yunnanese Muslim minorities. In addition, many hill-tribe populations have converted to Christianity so again in both the provincial capital and regional towns you’ll see Buddhist wats, Christian churches, Islamic mosques and Chinese temples.

Oh so pretty. Photo taken in or around Chiang Rai, Thailand by Stuart McDonald.

Oh so pretty. Photo: Stuart McDonald

The provincial capital was founded in the mid-13th century by King Mengrai as a stepping stone between his hometown of Chiang Saen and his eventual base of Chiang Mai. In subsequent times the area was ruled by the Burmese for lengthy periods and indeed didn’t fall under Siamese control until 1786 and only became a province as late as 1933. Today its population of Northern Thais, Shan and Chinese officially stands at some 200,000.

Chiang Rai City forgoes the cute narrow lanes and spectacular ancient temples that characterise Chiang Mai’s old town and we feel results in a more touristy than usual, but largely nondescript and charmless, busy provincial town.

Nonetheless, before we completely fall out with its friendly residents, it does have its good sides and with plenty of great eating and sleeping choices makes for an excellent base for exploring the spectacular surrounds. Furthermore, Chiang Rai has a central location in the province and excellent road and transport links including a busy airport and of course the boat service to and from Tha Ton on the Kok River. The riverbank area is pleasant with a couple of fine riverside cafes and the fun Chiang Rai Beach, while in town there are some very good markets plus of course the lively Night Bazaar.

Come for the temples. Photo taken in or around Chiang Rai, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Come for the temples. Photo: Mark Ord

For us, the province’s highlights lie in the spectacular mountains and charming Mekong riverside towns, but the city does have a few extraordinary sites of its own and dashing through without taking in fascinating Baan Dam, the famous Wat Rong Khun or even the Disney-esque Wat Huay Sai Khao would be a great shame.


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Orientation
Chiang Rai is a mid-sized provincial capital, considerably smaller than Chiang Mai, but more substantial than neighbouring Phayao, Phrae and even Lampang. The town centre is restrained to the north by the Kok River and bordered to the east by Highway 1, while the southern and western suburbs sprawl off into the surrounding paddy-fields. Though dating from the late 13th century, little remains of the old town’s structure, walls and moat.

Pace yourself. Photo taken in or around Chiang Rai, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Pace yourself. Photo: Mark Ord

It is a rather featureless town; many streets look similar and it can be a confusing city to negotiate with perhaps its most prominent landmark being the famous clock-tower. The ultra-ornate, gold-painted monument is something of a town icon with people even gathering to watch the daily, evening light show.

Despite the inevitably sprawling ‘burbs, Chiang Rai town centre is relatively compact with many of the tourist facilities contained within a small rectangle formed by the main north-south axes Phaholyothin Road and Jetyod Road. This main drag is lined with travel agents and restaurants as it passes through the town centre and the bus station and Night Bazaar lie just to the side of it. One block west, past the huge Wangcome Hotel eyesore and a curious proliferation of dodgy massage parlours, is Jetyod Road with its non-stop array of cafes, trekking agents, bars and motorbike hire shops.

Jetyod culminates in the clock-tower and it’s along or close to this short route that you’ll also find many of the town’s budget and flashpacker sleeps. Beyond the clock-tower you’ll hit the east-west Thanalai Road with more eateries, the Hilltribe Museum and the entrance to the vast municipal market as well as being the site of the Saturday Walking Street.

Enjoy the scenery. Photo taken in or around Chiang Rai, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Enjoy the scenery. Photo: Mark Ord

Winding through the closest thing you’ll find in Chiang Rai to a Moroccan souk you’ll reach Singhaklai running parallel to the river. This is a pleasant and leafier section of town with even a few old 19th-century villas remaining and the town’s most important temples. Wat Phra Singh is just one block past the northern end of the market while a couple of low, still wooded hills to the west are the site of Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Ngam Muang and Wat Doi Tung. The rundown—almost barrio-like area—where tin and wooden shacks line the winding lanes between these hills seems to have been completely over-looked in Chiang Rai’s concrete evolution and offers an idea of what the whole town must have looked like until fairly recently.

Beyond these hills, further west, are Mae Fah Luang Park and Chiang Rai Beach while back on Singhaklai Road itself is the large Overbrook Hospital as well as the useful TAT office. Just east of the tourism office you’ll meet a crossroads with the left turn leading to a bridge over the Kok taking you to the Blue Temple and Ban Chivit Thamma Da Cafe while taking a right will find you on Rattana Khet Road, the prolongation of Phaholyothin and location for the town’s main police station. Beyond the crossroads, residential lanes lead down to another pleasant waterfront area known as Koh Loy, housing more cafes as well as the luxury Legend Resort and Spa.

In a southerly direction Phaholyothin passes the main government-run hospital and site of the Sunday Walking Street before merging with Highway 1. Shopping malls are down here on the southern edge of town as is the new bus station and further on, Wat Rong Khao. For Baan Dam and the city airport take Highway 1 in a northerly direction.

Safety
We can’t think of any safety issues specific to Chiang Rai Town but the province does contain more than its fair share of steep and curvaceous mountain roads so it’s a good area to take care in when motorcycling. We’d draw your attention specifically to popular highland spots Phu Chee Fah, Mae Salong and Doi Tung with the latter in particular possessing some treacherous routes.

Certain of the remoter border regions are low-risk malarial areas if you’re overnighting in those parts while as of early 2018 there was a minor rabies outbreak in the province. We emphasise the word minor but it is a very nasty thing to catch so, as much as we love our doggy friends, a stick and or stones are a reasonable precaution when walking or cycling around areas such as quieter temple grounds where semi-wild mutt populations will be present.

Police
Municipal and provincial police facilities are clustered around the prolongation of Phaholyothin, Rattana Khet Road, between the town centre and the riverside while a tourist police bureau is to be found at the eastern end of Uttarakit Road. The immigration office is off Highway 1 just north of the town centre on the way to the airport which also has an immigration police office of its own.

Chiang Rai Police Station Rattana Khet Road. T: (053) 711 588
Emergencies T: 191
Immigration office Off Highway 1 north of the bridge over the Kok, Chiang Rai T: (053) 731 008-9 Mo–Fr: 08:30–12:00 & 13:00–16:30
Tourist Police Uttarakit Rd. T: (053) 717 779 https://www.facebook.com/touristpolice.chiangrai

Hospitals
The large and frequently very busy public hospital is on the south side of town on Sathan Payaban Road. English levels aren’t always very proficient and you can sometimes wait a while here. Two prominent private hospitals in town are Overbrook, located on Singhaklai Road, and Kasemrad Sriburin on the main highway just south of town. Overbrook has an interesting history having been established by Christian missionaries way back in 1903. The delightful and well-preserved old building at the front of the now modern hospital apparently dates from this time.

Chiang Rai Prachanukhro Hospital 1039 Sathan Payaban Rd. T: (053) 711 300, (053) 711 009 http://www.crhospital.org/crh-en/
Emergencies: T: 1669
Overbrook Hospital T: (053) 711 366 http://www.overbrook-hospital.com/
Kasemrad Sriburin Hospital Just off Highway on the east side before the junction with Phaholyothin T: (053) 700 200 http://kasemrad.co.th/Sriburin/en/site/home

Post
The main, in-town post office is on Uttarakit Road near the municipal market, (head east from the old clock-tower), though as a decent-sized city most sub-districts and suburbs also come with local offices including a new one just before bus terminal 2 and another inside Central Shopping Mall. Opening times then vary although the main branch claims to have new opening times extending to 20:00. All of these branches will have money transfer and EMS facilities.

Chiang Rai Post Office Uttarakit Rd. T: (053) 713 685 Open weekdays 08:30-20:00 and weekends 08:30-12:0

Climate
As with surrounding areas, the rainy season usually gets underway by May and lasts until October. Showers occur sporadically throughout this period though there may well be periods of several days at a time without any precipitation. Rainfall will naturally be high in mountainous areas and peaks will often be shrouded in clouds.

Rains generally abate towards late October and by November the cool, dry season should be underway. Winter temperatures, lasting into February are relatively mild in the city which averages a mere 400 metres in altitude but montane readings do regularly descend to zero. Temperatures can be noticeably cooler at all times of year in upland areas, particularly night-time and early mornings.

The hot dry period starts to kick in most years by late February lasting until the rains break in late April or early May. Conversely, the mercury in the low valley and built up areas reaches uncomfortable levels during this time with high 30s and low 40s common.

When to go
As with neighbouring destinations the choice of when to go will depend upon what you’re aiming to do. For the city then rainy season is ideal since you’ll benefit from far fewer fellow tourists as well as obtaining discount room rates. For nature lovers, wet months offer the lushest flora, the greenest forests and the brightest emerald-coloured paddy-fields but highland cloud cover makes visiting mountains areas a riskier proposition.

Winter months from November through to February offer the best mountain and trekking weather though conversely, towns can get very busy, rates increase and many of your first choice accommodation options will be full unless you reserved in advance. Popular destinations such as Wat Rong Khun or Baan Dam can get seriously crowded during high season too.

The subsequent dry, hot period has the disadvantage of baking temperatures in lowland areas and poor visibility from smoke and dust ruining your mountain views. It’s not a good time for outdoor activities including boat trips—whether on the Kok or Mekong—as water levels can drop considerably.



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What next?

 Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Chiang Rai.
 Check prices, availability & reviews on Agoda or Booking
 Read up on where to eat on Chiang Rai.
 Check out our listings of things to do in and around Chiang Rai.
 Read up on how to get to Chiang Rai, or book your transport online with 12Go Asia.
 Do you have travel insurance yet? If not, find out why you need it.
 Planning on riding a scooter in Chiang Rai? Please read this.
 Buy a SIM card for Thailand—pick it up at the airport when you arrive.
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