Up in the north of Thailand, Chiang Rai is a small, safe, relaxed city that is definitely worth visiting for at least a few days of your itinerary in this part of the world.
A key stopover if you are travelling to or from Laos, Chiang Rai is located quite near the border with this country and also only a few hours from Chiang Mai – a very popular traveller destination in Northern Thailand too.
As such, it’s a classic destination for many on their Southeast Asia backpacking route… as it was mine!
So here’s my list of the best things to do in Chiang Rai, all handily arranged into an easy itinerary for you!
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How Long to Spend in Chiang Rai
First things first, let’s talk about how long you should spend in Chiang Rai.
This list of things to do covers 2 days in the city and as such, I’d allow 2 nights to spend in Chiang Rai as a minimum.
If you’re crossing from Laos and / or want to chill a bit while you’re in this city too, then I’d consider extending that to 3.
Learn more about crossing that border by boat in this post I wrote.
When to Visit Chiang Rai
I have to be honest with you here folks, I visited Chiang Rai at the end of April / beginning of May… and found it was definitely not the best time to visit.
With humidity and heat at its highest then (as it’s pretty much just before the rainy season starts), even for a sun worshipper like me, it was too hot.
Stinking temperatures near 40 degrees made sightseeing hard work and the extreme humidity definitely meant the whole thing was a bit of a sweat-fest!
Add into this equation the pollution levels (which were through the roof due to the burn off that occurs across the rice paddies at this time of year) and I have to admit April / May is not the best time to visit Chiang Rai.
Instead, I’d recommend visiting this city during the high season, which runs largely from November through February.
Even though Thailand can be quite busy at this time, as Chiang Rai is a little out of the way and not everyone visits here, I wouldn’t think it ever gets too full of tourists even at this peak time.
How to Get to Chiang Rai
Travel across Thailand is easy, well organised and cheap – the magic trio for budget travellers everywhere! – and getting to Chiang Rai from other destinations within this country is no exception.
Most travellers hit up this small city on their way from Chiang Mai to Laos, but many also come direct from Bangkok and other cities around the country.
Wherever you’re travelling from, including across international borders, my best advice is to check schedules, prices and book tickets for your bus to / from Chiang Rai online a few days in advance via the website 12Go.
I’ve used this site throughout my time in Southeast Asia and love it’s simple and straightforward process, as well as its secure online payment facilities.
The other option if you’re coming from / going to Luang Prabang in Laos after / before Chiang Rai, is to take a slow, local boat up the Mekong River.
Read all about how I made this journey in my dedicated blog post here.
During your first day in Chiang Rai, you’re likely to arrive after lunchtime if you’re coming either from Laos or Chiang Mai and, as such, I’d just spend your first afternoon exploring the city centre and attractions that lie to the south of here.
A small, compact city, you can easily get around central Chiang Rai on foot and luckily this is where most of the sights lie.
Must-sees include the central square, as well as its famous Clock Tower, where a nightly light show takes place at 7pm, 8pm & 9pm, which is definitely one of the best things to do in Chiang Rai.
You also have to try the food in Chiang Rai, which like most of Thailand, is delicious and cheap, especially if you eat off the street.
Run by a lovely Polish lady, the hummus, salad and wrap options here made me very happy.
The city centre in Chiang Rai also boasts several good museums, including the Princess Mother’s Museum and the Hilltribe Museum, as well as some interesting monuments like the King Mengral Monument.
After checking out the city centre, grab a tuk-tuk out to the famous White Temple (Wat Rong Khum), which will cost you around 200 Baht.
Otherwise, using ridesharing app Grab, which works across Chiang Rai may offer you a comparatively good deal.
Entrance to the White Temple costs 50 Baht, but it’s well worth paying for the chance to walk through and snap this very different sort of temple.
Seeing it is certainly one of the best things to do in Chiang Rai.
Built relatively recently, the White Temple is very modern in style and pretty quirky too, which some ornate decoration and a manmade lake setting.
If you have time, and you can negotiate a good deal with your tuk-tuk or Grab driver, checking out Khunkon Park with its beautiful waterfall, is a great option after the White Temple and is free to enter.
And then, on your return to Chiang Rai, head to the nightly market for a great feed at some great prices – without question one of the best things to do in Chiang Rai!
Where to Stay in Chiang Rai
The happy, chilled vibes at Na-Rak-O Resort in Chiang Rai are great and I really loved this well-priced guesthouse for its super location and quiet, clean atmosphere.
Set in a bright, new building, it’s all private rooms here, but they are incredibly affordable and even include breakfast and private bathrooms.
The staff are very friendly and can help you out with any Chiang Rai questions you may have.
Na-Rak-O Resort is also very near the central bus station and it provides excellent security and a safe, warm place to relax.
BOOK YOUR STAY AT NA-RAK-O RESORT HERE!
During your second day in Chiang Rai, it’s all about getting out to explore the attractions north of the city, which are its real highlight in my opinion.
With a full day set aside for discovery, you’ll have plenty of time to venture quite far north and, as such, get to see some super temples and landscapes.
After all, the mountainous terrain around Chiang Rai is definitely one of this city’s best assets.
While you can take a day tour to see most of the attractions I’m going to suggest you check out north of the city, the cheapest option is to rent a scooter, or find a backpacker friend to rent one with and share the costs.
No prizes for guessing which option I went for my friends!
Anyway, I digress, the first stop on your road trip north of Chiang Rai should be the Blue Temple (Wat Rong Suen Ten), another modern and quirky place of worship – visiting here is definitely one of the best things to do in Chiang Rai… and it’s free!
The stunning colour of this temple is not the only iconic thing about it however, the main hall almost boasts an impressive statue of Buddha and the ornate outside of the building is a great place to get some cool snaps.
After the Blue Temple, continue on to the Black Museum, also known as Ban Dam, which is another of the top things to do in Chiang Rai.
Entrance costs 80 Baht, but it’s worth it in my opinion, for the totally otherworldly feel of this place, which is part-temple, part-modern art exhibition space!
There’s several different temples / spaces to see here and the whole complex deserves at least an hour or 2 of your time.
Finally, it’s on to see the Big Buddha, which was actually my highlight when it comes to things to do in Chiang Rai.
Probably my favourite temple in the whole of Thailand (quite the accolade if you know how many there are in this country!), it’s best if you can time your visit here with sunset, when the fading colours of the day really bounce off this huge white statue, giving it a truly beautiful appearance.
There is a cool, weird-shaped Buddhist temple to visit here, but the best bit of the whole place has to be the huge statue of Lady Buddha and the grand, dragon-lined staircase that leads up to her.
Grab your Instagram shots here, scale the stairs and take in the view from the top, it really is quite spectacular.
Finally, make your way back to Chiang Rai to enjoy your last night in this chilled Thai city.
With More Time in Chiang Rai
And if you have any more time in Chiang Rai, then I’d definitely recommend getting out to enjoy some of the great hiking day trips that run from this city into the surrounding countryside.
This where you’ll see the real northern Thailand and get to stretch your legs among some amazing mountain scenery at this same time.
Trips can include visiting a tea plantation 45km north of Chiang Rai or the Golden Triangle at Chiang San, with its famous Opium Museum.
Check out this great option, which uses local guides and can be booked in advance, ensuring you make the most out of your time in this superb part of Thailand.
Best Travel Insurance for Thailand
I wouldn’t dream of travelling anywhere in Southeast Asia without good coverage and always recommend travel insurance from World Nomads, which I’ve used during my time in Thailand and beyond.
I love World Nomads’ great protection for outdoor activities like hiking – useful in a place like Chiang Rai – as well as their easy claims process and the ability to buy or extend coverage with them when you’re already overseas.
Alternatively, if you’re a digital nomad or remote worker, then look no further than Safetywing’s great Nomad Insurance policies.
These guys will cover you at some seriously great prices, including if you have to quarantine!
5 Packing Essentials for Thailand
#1 Lonely Planet Guidebook – The Thailand Lonely Planet is excellent and very helpful for any trip to this country with lots of top tips and recommended places to eat.
#2 Walking Shoes – There’s likely to be a lot of walking in Thailand’s cities, especially in Chiang Rai, so, I advise packing a pair of good runners, like these New Balance trainers, which are perfect for city strolling.
#3 European & British Power Adapters – Thailand has a mix of power outlets, but generally opts for a combination of the European and British ones, so make sure you come here prepared with a Skross world adapter.
#4 Camera and Lens – I love my Sony A6000 mirrorless, which was ideal for capturing this crazy country, its culture, countryside and cuisine, as it’s very best.
#5 Travel Scarf – A great multi-purpose item that can be used to safely store valuables and cover your shoulders while you explore Thailand’s temples, there’s no way I would come to this country without a travel scarf – just so damn handy!
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And there you have it, my list of the best things to do in Chiang Rai, all handily arranged into a neat and compact itinerary for you.
Are you planning on visiting this Thai city?
Do you have any questions about travelling there?
If so, please feel free to pop them into the comments box below and I’ll be sure to answer them to the best of my ability!