Photo: Scenery surrounding Chiang Rai.


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.

Search Chiang Rai hotels
Arriving on:
Leaving on:

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’.

Not your typical temple.

Not your typical temple. Photo: Mark Ord

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.

Another day at the office.

Another day at the office. Photo: Stuart McDonald

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.

Oh so pretty.

Oh so pretty. Photo: Stuart McDonald

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.

Come for the temples.

Come for the temples. Photo: Mark Ord

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.

Possibly related discussions on the forum about Chiang Rai

Bus from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong Posted by ACattrall on 20 Mar 2014. 2 replies and 1,764 views
Chiang Mai help... Posted by rudder6 on 7 Oct 2014. 3 replies and 927 views
Chiang Rai ATV Posted by ChiangRaiATV on 25 Jan 2014. 0 replies and 1,233 views
Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai? Posted by Boohoo on 12 Nov 2013. 4 replies and 1,731 views
Anyone in Chiang Rai now??? Posted by qazxc on 27 Feb 2015. 4 replies and 765 views
Around Chiang Rai Posted by metsker on 4 Sep 2015. 1 reply and 829 views
gym in Chiang Mai Posted by loudneighbors on 23 Dec 2015. 1 reply and 884 views
Phi Phi to Chiang Mai on Air Asia Posted by simonesa on 18 May 2014. 1 reply and 851 views
THINGS TO DO AROUND CHIANG MAI Posted by charlottem92 on 11 Jun 2014. 3 replies and 1,803 views
From chiang mai/rai to burma Posted by dolicadol on 11 Jul 2014. 4 replies and 1,236 views
Help with 3 weeks in Chiang Mai Posted by Annielay on 15 Jul 2014. 1 reply and 828 views

By .

Onward travel

Chiang Rai is on the way to or near ...

Travel Insurance. Simple & Flexible.

When we travel internationally, we always use World Nomads.
Find out why.