Yes, I admit. I chose to visit Chiang Mai because of the White Temple. But also for the Blue one. And also for the other temples, which are absolutely unique and peculiar and definitely, bizarre. I chose, however, to visit this town in the far north of Thailand not on a fleeting day trip from Chiang Mai, as is often done, but by staying a couple of nights to visit all the colorful temples and get to the heart of the Golden Triangle, where the borders of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet as they plunge into the brown waters of the Mekong.
Although Chiang Rai in itself is not a town we can call beautiful, it definitely deserves to be included in a Thailand itinerary, if only for its temples.
Unlike most Thai temples, Chiang Rai’s temples do not have a long history and tradition but were built more recently with the desire to surprise, attract attention, and be photographed. Okay, in general, Thai temples ARE a riot of shapes and colors, golden pagodas and a whirlwind of details, but let’s say that Chiang Rai’s temples reach somewhat the Instagrammability levels of Kaohsiung’s Lotus Pond temples.
Chiang Rai is then located within the so-called Golden Triangle, the area so named after the large amounts of money that circulated because of opium cultivation. Nowadays Thailand has banned opium poppy cultivation, and thanks to an association founded by the grandmother of the current King of Thailand, a lot is being done to improve the living conditions of the people in the Golden Triangle area, who were devastated by the years when the opium economy flourished. Stopping in Chiang Rai, you will have time to visit the area where the three Golden Triangle countries meet, separated only by the waters of Southeast Asia’s most important river.
What to see in Chiang Rai
As already written, I do not recommend visiting Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle with one of the countless tours you find on the Internet or promoted on the streets of Chiang Mai. You would not have time to appreciate what you are seeing and would find yourself tossed from one side to the other. The temples in Chiang Rai can be visited independently using public transportation and Grab, while to visit the Golden Triangle from Chiang Rai, you can contract with a private taxi driver and visit the northern end of Thailand, I will write a post with all the details shortly.
To use Grab you will need to register a Thai number in the app, you can easily get this by purchasing an e-sim to install on your phone without needing to remove yours. I used Airalo and with the code MICHEL5108 you will also get a $3 discount on your first e-sim.
Wat Rong Khun, the White Temple
Undoubtedly the most famous of things to see in Chiang Rai and the main reason tourists come to the city! Chiang Rai’s White Temple is absurd: entirely white and covered in light-reflecting mirrors, with endless sculptures and decidedly fascinating details. One can stand for hours peering into that expanse of hands and skulls, representing human desires and suffering. Sirens from which to escape by walking the bridge of the “cycle of rebirth” that rises above earthly temptations condensing at the “Gate of Paradise.” A paradise that well is actually very pop! On the temple’s interior walls, Buddhist images mingle with fantasy characters from movies and manga, such as Pikachu or the Avengers, as well as celebrities and events that have left their mark on the modern world, such as Michael Jackson or the Twin Towers. Definitely something unusual, bizarre, touristy yes, but able to captivate you, engage you in a search for details and finally, push you to think about the most disparate things and somehow reflect on life….which after all, is kind of what Buddhism does!
The White Temple is a recent temple, built in 1997, the brainchild of Chalermchai Kositpipa, a prominent local artist.
In addition to the main part of the White Temple, the Wat Rong Khun area also includes other golden buildings and small waterfalls, also inhabited by statues that mix the sacred and the profane, including buddhas and ninja turtles…
To get to the White Temple, take the local bus from Terminal 1 in the city center for only 20 baths (around 15-20 minutes). The stop should be number 5, but asking the attendants at the station will point you to the correct bus and the driver will yell “White Temple!!!” at the corresponding stop, so you can’t miss it!
Entrance to Wat Rong Khun costs 100 bath, allow at least an hour for the visit, and opening hours are from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. I have read that many have found it crowded and recommend going early in the morning or late in the afternoon…I traveling at the end of September (so low season) found practically no one by going just before lunch!
Baan Dam Museum (Black House)
In contrast to the purity of the white temple, the Baan Dam Museum created by Thai artist Thawan Duchanee is known as the “Black House” from the color of the dark teak wood used for the various buildings scattered around the park. A museum that is also a space that houses art installations and hunting trophies, such as skinned crocodiles, horns of various animals, and wood carvings with a particularly emphasized member……
Here again, the adjectives bizarre and alternative really fit well in short…. There are about 40 buildings in all, set in a beautiful, mostly shady park that is very pleasant to visit, perhaps while enjoying a charcoal ice cream, strictly black!
Admission to the Baam Dam Museum costs 80 bath and is open from 9 am to 5 pm.
You could also get there by local bus and a walk of about 1.5km but using Grab is definitely the best option.
From the White Temple to the Black House we paid 248 bath and took just under half an hour, decisively optimizing our time, since the two complexes are located outside the city center, right at opposite ends!
What Huay Pha Kung – Big “Buddha”
I admit, I fell into the “Instagram trap” and decided to include this temple as one of the things to see in Chiang Rai because of a photo of the white dragon staircase leading to the huge statue of the Buddhist deity of mercy, called “Big Buddha” by us secular Westerners.
Once I got here, however, I discovered the history behind this place, and for once, the fame gained through social media leads to something positive. The complex was built in the early 2000s, in a very poor area of Chiang Rai, precisely with the lìintento of attracting visitors and thus giving support to the area’s economy.
Next to the large majestic white statue of the Buddhist goddess of mercy and the imposing staircase with dragons is another white building that is very rich in decoration and bas-reliefs, both outside and inside, and a little further on, a 9-story pagoda that blends the Chinese style with the Lanna style, two cultures that have greatly influenced this area of northern Thailand.
Behind the pagoda is also a Buddhist canteen and a free school for local youth who cannot afford an education, and you can leave offerings or even get your car washed (!) to support the local community.
I have to admit that I was very excited about this place, perhaps because we arrived just as the sky was clearing up again after a downpour of rain, with only a few people present besides us and a cute little dog accompanying us part of the way. Or because I got here “just to take a picture” and instead was impressed by the beauty of the temple’s details….
The whole complex is free to visit, open from 7 am to 9:30 pm, and to get there we took a 10-minute Grab from the Black House for 148 bath.
Of all the decidedly unique and spectacular temples in Chiang Rai, Wat Rong Seur Ten or Blue Temple is probably the one I liked best. In traditional Lanna style, with a pointed roof and golden decorations, it stands out for its beautiful electric blue color that combined with the golden color of the details makes for an absolutely spectacular sight. There is no shortage of trim and detail here either, and the interior is richly decorated with paintings depicting the Buddhist Garden of Paradise.
The temple is tiny, and access is free and allowed from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. The ride with Grab from What Huay Pha Kung takes a few minutes and costs about 97 bath.
Wat Phraw Kaew
A walk of about 20 minutes from the Blue Temple takes you to Chiang Rai’s most important temple and one of the oldest, Wat Phraw Kaew, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The statue of the Emerald Buddha was found in 1434 when lightning struck the building in which it was kept, thus revealing its presence. The original has now been moved to Bangkok’s Grand Palace temple, while a jade replica can be found here.
The temple is in the classic Lanna style, decidedly more restrained than its predecessors, but just as fascinating and rich in detail. This temple is also free and always open.
At the center of Chiang Rai is the Clock Tower, gilded, exaggerated, and perhaps a bit flamboyant, but a representation of the grandeur of the royal family. The clock tower is located in the middle of a traffic circle, but you can still admire it in all its sparkle despite the traffic even standing on the side of the road-do not unnecessarily risk causing accidents by catapulting yourself into the middle of the road to take pictures! In the evening, the tower is lit up, and at 8 p.m. there is a light show that makes it even more kitschy, perfectly in keeping with the bizarreness of Chiang Rai’s temples.
Chiang Rai Night Bazaar
To end a day full of sights on a high note, stop by the Chiang Rai Night Bazar, where stalls and small stores selling local handicrafts and clothing appear starting at 6 p.m. with good prices, slightly lower than Chiang Mai’s night markets. The Chiang Rai night market is not huge, but there are two areas with street food and outdoor tables where people eat every night while listening to live music. We opted for a meat hotpot, noting that it was the dish that was the most popular on other diners’ tables, and I must say that the choice was just right!
From Chiang Rai you can visit the Golden Triangle area, which is where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet. The famous lookout point on the Mekong is at Sop Ruak to be precise, a small village with a few small restaurants, the famous photo point and the embarkation point from where to take the small cruise down the Mekong with disembarkation in Laos. A short distance away is the Hall of Opium, a very interesting newly built museum on the history of the area and poppy cultivation and subsequent problems derived from opium. A stop to learn about history and reflect.
Mae Sai, is the northernmost point of Thailand, where it is also possible to cross the border into Laos and visit Tachilek. You can also get to Mae Sai by bus from Chiang Rai, but to visit the area you need to either rent a vehicle or have a driver available as we did. I will post an article soon with all the information and details for visiting the Golden Triangle on your own.
Where to stay in Chiang Rai
To visit the temples of Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle, it is worth staying at least one night here. The center of Chiang Rai is not huge, but I recommend choosing accommodation near Bus Terminal 1, from where you can catch both local buses and buses to Chiang Mai. You will also be close to the Night Bazaar, which is the best place to dine, since there is not a lot of choice of restaurants open in the evening hours.
We stayed overnight at SuanTung Coffee & Guesthouse, paying just over €20 per room per night. A very nice guesthouse with a small terrace overlooking the garden where you can enjoy breakfast consisting of toast, eggs and vegetables. The rooms are spacious, and very clean and every day you will find two free bottles of water. Even the bathroom has a dedicated shower space, something not taken for granted in northern Thailand!
The location then is great for getting around on foot, just minutes from the Bus Terminal and the Night Bazaar, and the owners are super nice and friendly. If you want, you can also book excursions or a chauffeur-driven car through them, but surely going to the station and haggling directly with the cab drivers will get you better rates 😉
Chiang Rai is located in northern Thailand and has an airport, but no train station. There are then several buses that connect Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai, Bangkok, and Lampang.
Getting to Chiang Rai from Bangkok
The best way to get to Chiang Rai from Bangkok is to take a plane because of the excellent time taken/price paid ratio. There are several flights every day and several companies covering this route. We, looking for a one-way Bangkok – Chiang Rai Skyscanner flight paid about 25€ with Thai Smile, which is in the same group as Thai Airways included checked baggage and meal on board. The flight takes about 1½ hours, and once you arrive in Chiang Rai, you can catch a cab meter just outside the airport to the center of Chiana Rai. The fare should be a fixed 500 bath.
Connections between Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai
To travel between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai there are many agencies that offer private transfer with a proven car for about 2,500 bath, but I would honestly advise against this option because there are frequent and convenient Green Bus buses that connect the two cities with prices between 200 and 320 bath, taking 3 1/2 hours, which is practically the same time as private cars.
Green Bus buses leave from Terminal 1 and there are frequent runs. Tickets can be purchased directly at the station, but I highly recommend purchasing them in advance by going to the station the day before or buying them online through the 12go website.
Although we were traveling in the off-season and I found virtually no people at any tourist spot in Chiang Rai, we were unable to get Green Bus tickets from Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai because we went to the station that morning and all the rides until 3:30 pm were full!
At the suggestion of the staff at the station, we used local transportation, first a public bus similar to the one taken for the White Temple visit, to Mae Suai, on the border between Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai provinces, then from there we boarded a songthaew to the Chiang Mai bus station. This option is definitely a special and unforgettable adventure, allowing a closer look at the everyday life of Thais, with people getting on and off making signs to the driver, packages and correspondence (as well as live chickens) being loaded and unloaded on the way, and open windows the place of air conditioning. It is an experience I really enjoyed doing and if you have some adaptive spirit and curiosity about the world I would recommend it too (if it is not raining), but keep in mind that it is not the most comfortable. The trip however lasted about 4 1/2 hours and cost only 120 bath.
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