Thailand’s northernmost province is a cultural crossroads, full of historical and religious landmarks, natural wonders, and ethnic charm.
by Percy Roxas.
Located in the north of Thailand, Chiang Rai—the name of both the province and its capital—is home to most of the region’s hill tribes, which enrich an already diverse melting pot of cultures and traditions.
The city was founded by King Mengrai in 1262 and became the capital of the Mengrai dynasty. In 1432, the most revered Buddha statue, the Phra Keaow (Emerald Buddha), was discovered in Chiang Rai when an earthquake split the chedi at Wat Phra Keaow and the beautiful jade figure concealed within was revealed. That forever etched Chiang Rai in Thai history.
The province is rich in natural attractions as well as history. Traces of its past are still everywhere, and they enrich modern-day Chiang Rai. Still a rural economy, Chiang Rai enjoys a slower pace of life, it is less crowded than other urban centers, and people are generally gentler. Several hill tribes—who still practice fascinating ways of life—make the destination a living repository of various cultures. Being a border province, it is also a tourism gateway for those looking to visit Myanmar and Laos.
When to Go
The cool season begins in late October and ends in February, and anytime between these periods is good for a visit. The coldest months are December and January, when the average evening temperature is between 10 and 15 degrees Celsius. Summer is from March to May, when the average daily temperature is 17 to 36 degrees Celsius. March is probably the best time to visit Chiang Rai, when the weather is between the hot and cool seasons.
What to See
For many visitors, the temples and historical landmarks—which are too numerous to mention here—are on top of the list. But don’t miss the Night Bazaar for its souvenirs, local products, and free cultural performances. Make sure you visit Chiang Saen, an ancient town located on the banks of the Mekong River. Tourist attractions farther afield include the Princess Mother Hall and Doi Mae Salong, located about 70 kilometers northwest of Chiang Rai and accessed by a scenic and sometimes quite steep road from Mae Chan. In Mae Salong, there is a museum detailing the plight of the Kuomintang after their exile from Mao Tse-tung’s China, and after they were forced to leave Burma from where they entered Thailand. Doi Tung Royal Villa is the final residence of the mother of the King of Thailand, known as the Princess Mother, located at Km 12 on Highway 1149. This magnificent villa was built on the mountain overlooking the surrounding hills and valleys in a unique mix of Swiss and Lanna architectural styles. Adjacent to the villa is a large flower-filled garden, and a memorial hall commemorating the Princess Mother. At the Gate of Siam on the border with Laos, you can stand high up on a mountain with Laos directly in front and the mighty Mekong River flowing below. Also see Saun Mai Ngam Park, featuring many beautiful trees and flowers, some of which are more than 100 years old. This is where the Chiang Rai Flower Festival is held every year, usually in December. And make an effort to visit at least one hill tribe village.
What to Do
Trekking, boat trips, elephant safaris, a side trip to the Golden Triangle, shopping for ethnic goods, whitewater rafting, border hopping—these are just some of the many activities you can enjoy in Chiang Rai. Of course, if you are a culture vulture, you should not miss out on the age-old temples, museums, and vestiges of an ancient civilization, when the province was under the rule of the Lanna Kingdom.
What to Buy
Chiang Rai is not a big shopping destination like Chiang Mai. If you want to buy souvenirs, you can go for local items such as handwoven cotton materials, dresses, silver ornaments, and woodcarving products. You might also want to sample popular local delicacies such as “naem” and “moo yo” (preserved and fermented pork sausages). Agricultural products include lychee, pineapple, tea, and other products from the Royal Projects are also abundantly available.
Chiang Rai’s location
- 200 kilometers northeast of Chiang Mai
- 62 km south of Mae Sai and the Burmese border
- 60 km southwest of the town of Chiang Saen, on the Mae Kong across from Laos
- 90 km north of Payao town
Visit the Golden Triangle, located about nine kilometers from the old town of Chiang Saen to the north, along the road parallel to the Mekong River. The area, locally called “Sop Ruak,” is where the Mekong meets the Ruak River and also where the borders of Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand meet. There are remains of many ancient places and structures that make this area great for sightseeing.