Remote hilltribe 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: Chiang Rai conjures up evocative and exotic images.
Yet both the province and provincial capital of this northernmost region of Thailand largely defy preconceptions. A mountain range skirts its western borders with Burma and Chiang Mai and mountains lie along the Mekong to the southeast culminating in spectacular Phu Chee Fah, but otherwise the landscape is predominately flat, agricultural land. The busy, modern town of Chiang Rai is far from a ‘mini-Chiang Mai’.
The mountains to the west, including Doi Mae Salong, Doi Chang and Doi Tung (Doi means 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 karst formations that stretches to the province’s, and country’s, eastern border with Laos – the Mekong River. This is the location of the riverbank towns; touristy, kitsch Sob Ruak – officially designated the Golden Triangle, Chiang Saen – ancient city and river port, and cutesy Chiang Khong – guesthouse-laden entry point into Laos and starting point for boat journeys to Luang Prabang.
The high western mountains, inhabited by numerous hilltribes, were until quite 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 sees more police road blocks than just about any other northern province.
The sparsely populated southwest sector does have extensive teak-covered, rolling hills and includes Khun Chae and Doi Luang national parks, but is generally bypassed by visitors as they bus along Route 118 between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai cities. The spectacular range south of Chiang Khong in Thoen and Phu Chee Fah districts, while popular with locals, is also little visited by foreign tourists.
Chiang Rai city was founded in the mid 13th century by King Mengrai as a stepping stone between his home town of Chiang Saen and his eventual capital of Chiang Mai. Today its population of Northern Thais, Shan and Chinese stands at 200,000. 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. Many hilltribe populations have converted to Christianity so again in most towns you’ll see Buddhist wats, Christian churches, Islamic mosques and Chinese temples.
Despite being older, the town is nowadays more Chiang Mai’s snotty little brother than any miniature version of and, while fine as a base for a couple of days, is somewhat lacking in charm. Chiang Rai forgoes the narrow lanes and spectacular ancient temples that characterise its larger southern neighbour and presents itself as a slightly more touristy than usual but largely nondescript busy provincial town.
The riverbank area, where the Kok River descends into town from Tha Ton), is pleasant though, and the night bazaar is good fun. As well, there are sufficient decent places to stay and eat to make a short stay enjoyable. Being the region’s transport hub thanks to its central location and airport, it is difficult to avoid anyway. As we said, the province’s highlights lie in the mountains and Mekong riverside, but closer to town Chiang Rai does have a few extraordinary sites 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.
Chiang Rai is a mid-sized provincial capital, considerably smaller than Chiang Mai, but more substantial than neighbouring Phayao, Lampang and Phrae cities. The town is restricted to the north by the Kok River and bordered to the east by Route 1, while the southern and western suburbs sprawl off into the surrounding paddy. Though an old city – King Mengrai constructed it on the site of an ancient Lawa or Mon settlement in the early part of the 14th century – little remains of the old town’s structure, walls and moat.
Apologies to the townsfolk but it is a rather featureless town; many streets look similar and many downtown ones are one-way, so it can be a confusing city to negotiate and your only decent landmark is the famous clock-tower. The ultra-ornate, gold-painted monument is something of a town icon and visitors actually gather to watch the daily evening light show.
The main public hospital is south of town on Tri Rat Road with another, Overbrooke, on Singhaklai Road. The latter is a private hospital and doctors and nurses speak English, but payment is required promptly! T: (053) 711 366. The central post office is on Uttarakit Road near the municipal market while the principal police station is also on Singhaklai. Change facilities and plenty of ATMs can be found on Phaholyothin. The largest shopping mall is Central Plaza Chiang Rai, a couple of clicks south of the centre on Route 1.
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 lanes and sois interconnect. There is a TAT office opposite the old town hall on Singhaklai, open 08:30-16:30, with some useful maps and pamphlets.
Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Chiang Rai or check hotel reviews on Agoda and Booking . Hungry? Read up on where to eat on Chiang Rai. Want to know what to do once you're there? Check out our listings of things to do in and around Chiang Rai. If you're still figuring out how to get there, you need to read up on how to get to Chiang Rai, or book your transport online with 12Go Asia.
By Mark Ord.
Last updated on 8th October, 2016.
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