This Chiang Rai itinerary will focus on helping you make the most of your time by providing some of the best things to do in Chiang Rai while avoiding the crowds as much as possible!
Chiang Rai is home to some of the most unique and photogenic temples in all of Thailand. Most notably, the unbelievably Instagrammable White Temple! While Chiang Rai is an increasingly popular tourist destination and one that has been firmly on the backpacker trail for years, it is still less explored than Chiang Mai and many other big cities in Thailand.
This is designed to be a two day itinerary. However, it is possible to visit Chiang Rai from Chiang Mai as a day trip. I don’t recommend this option as it is a 3-4 hour drive each way along windy roads. With this in mind, I’d suggest spending at least one night in Chiang Rai if your schedule allows. If you’d prefer to do a tour, then I’d recommend checking out Get Your Guide.
Things to know before you go
When to visit
Chiang Rai is typically slightly cooler and less humid than the rest of Thailand. It has three seasons; cool season, hot season and rainy season. The dry season incorporates both the cool and hot season. While you can enjoy travelling to Chiang Rai year-round, there are pros and cons to each time of year.
Cool season is from November to February and is generally considered the best time to visit Chiang Rai. The weather is cooler and less humid, and the landscape is lush and green following the rainy season. December and January are the coldest months, with day time temperatures averaging 21°c (70°F) and dropping to a chilly 10-15°c (50-59°F) at night. However, it is also the peak season for tourism in Thailand, so you may find larger crowds and increased prices.
Hot season is from March to May. April is usually the hottest month of the year with temperatures of around 36°c (97°F). This is also the time of year when the farmers burn their fields, creating some of the worst air quality in the entire world. It’s worth taking this into consideration if you’re planning to visit during these months, particularly if you have any respiratory conditions. We visited at the end of April, just as the air quality was nearly back to normal.
Rainy season lasts from May to October, with the wettest weather typically occurring from mid-July to mid-August. However, it is worth keeping in mind that even during wet season you are likely to have sunshine for most of the day, accompanied by an hour or so downpour of rain in the afternoon.
Getting to Chiang Rai from Chiang Mai
While it is possible to reach Chiang Rai by bus (or even boat!) from Laos and Myanmar, as well as other locations within Thailand, the most common route to Chiang Rai will be from Chiang Mai.
It is also worth noting that Chiang Rai does have an international airport, with direct flights to Bangkok, Phuket, China, Macau, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore, so if you’d prefer to fly in, that is an option.
As we have been living in Chiang Mai for the past few months, we opted to take the Greenbus from there. The bus departs from Chiang Mai Bus Terminal 3 and drops you off in the centre of the old town in Chiang Rai, taking 3-4.5 hours depending on which class of ticket you buy and traffic. Tickets start from 140 baht ($4.50 USD) and leave several times per day (click here for ticket prices and times). If you’re travelling in peak season, you may want to book tickets in advance. Tickets can be reserved up to 60 days in advance, either online or at the bus station.
It is also possible to get a private driver for the day, although as you’d imagine, this is a considerably more expensive option. Prices are likely to start from around 1500 baht ($48 USD).
If you are confident riding a motorcycle, then renting a motorcycle would also be a great option to give you full freedom. I am an absolute wimp when it comes to bikes, and being that there were four of us, taking the bus just made more sense. You are supposed to have an International Drivers Permit to legally ride a motorbike in Thailand. While most (if not all!) motorcycle locations will rent you a bike without one, the police may stop you and fine you for not having one. If you plan on riding a motorbike, PLEASE make sure you have good travel insurance as, unfortunately, motorbike accidents involving tourists are all-too common in Southeast Asia.
Getting around Chiang Rai
Chiang Rai is a fairly small town and the city centre is easy to navigate by foot. However, most of the main attractions are well outside the city.
We used Grab to get around, which works similarly to Uber. As there were four of us (our friends Greta and Hanna joined us!), it made for a budget-friendly option. Furthermore, Grab offers 70 baht off your first 4 rides for new users, so we used a few of these codes between us to make it even cheaper! This also saved us having to navigate public transport and we could usually find a driver within minutes of booking (except in one instance where we ended up hitch-hiking, but more on that later!). Most of our Grab rides were 150-200 baht ($5-6 USD) one way.
With that said, Chiang Rai does have local buses that will take you to the White Temple, but some of the other attractions are not accessible by public transport. You can rent a motorbike in Chiang Rai which will provide you with the flexibility to get around on your own schedule. and will cost around 300 baht ($10 USD) per day. Otherwise, you can get a tuk-tuk or taxi to help you get around.
Most of the guesthouses and travel agents will also offer tours to the main sites and/or drivers for the day, and the rates for these are often negotiable.
Where to stay
There is plenty of accommodation within walking distance of the city centre that range from cheap hostels to luxury hotels. As we were only staying for one night, we weren’t too fussy about where we stayed and opted for a cheap guesthouse that we found on booking.com. It was nice enough for one night but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it! If you are visiting during hot season, I strongly recommend finding somewhere with air conditioning! We chose a room with just a fan and struggled to sleep due to the heat.
As this Chiang Rai itinerary will focus primarily on some of my favourite temples, I feel it is important to discuss proper temple etiquette.
While you are allowed to photograph the exterior of all of the temples, some temples do not allow you to photograph inside; the White Temple is one such place. In those that do allow photography inside, such as at the Blue Temple, ensure your flash is off.
It is important to dress appropriately, which means dressing conservatively. In Asia, this means clothing that covers your shoulders and knees. If you are not dressed appropriately, you will likely be denied entry to some of the temples. This also does not mean put a shawl around your shoulders only to take it off for photos! Please be respectful and consider yourself an ambassador of your country.
If you are entering the interior of any of the temples, make sure you take off your shoes. There will usually be numerous signs reminding you to do so, as well as piles of shoes outside!
Remember that temples are religious places of worship for local people. If they are there to worship, do not get in their way for a photo and make sure you are quiet inside so as not to disturb them. This means remembering to put mobile phones on silent mode and not smoking. If in doubt, there’s usually signs in English that tell you the do’s and dont’s!
Chiang Rai Itinerary: DAY 1
We arrived in Chiang Rai at around 11am after catching the 7:15am Greenbus from Chiang Mai. We took some time to check in to our guesthouse and grab a quick lunch before heading out to explore.
Wat Rong Suea Ten (Blue Temple)
Our first stop was Wat Rong Suea Ten, more commonly referred to as the Blue Temple, which is located a few kilometres north of Chiang Rai. The name Wat Rong Suea Ten actually translates to Tiger Temple, named for the tigers that once roamed the area. The temple was still under construction on my first visit in 2013, only opening to the public in 2016. I was very excited to see it for the first time when we returned this year. Entrance to the temple is free.
The artist that created the Blue Temple, Putha Kabkaew, was a student of the artist that designed the White Temple, Chalermchai Kositpipat. While you will undoubtedly notice some similarities in styles between the two temples, the Blue Temple lacks any of the more obscure, darker imagery that is prevalent in the White Temple.
Sapphire blue and gold adorn both the exterior and interior of the temple, with intricate artwork and carvings throughout. You will find numerous carved statues depicting various elements of Buddhist mythology and Thai folklore. What struck me the most were the fine details and the range of vibrant colours, from emerald greens to deep indigo, all accentuated with opulent golds. I found the entire temple truly mesmerising.
For now, Wat Rong Suea Ten is a lesser-trafficked location. However, it is becoming increasingly popular and was fairly busy when we arrived around 3pm. There were still quiet areas and we were able to get plenty of photos without other visitors in them. I also found the natural light in the late afternoon to be perfect!
If you get hungry or need refreshments, there are plenty of vendors selling food and drinks. I highly recommend trying the coconut ice cream; it makes for the perfect afternoon snack!
Sunset at Wat Rong Khun (White Temple)
Of all the things to do in Chiang Rai, sunset at Wat Rong Khun (more commonly known as the White Temple) is the one thing you cannot miss! We had read online the White Temple closes at 6pm, so we left the Blue Temple with the intention of arriving around 5pm to enjoy exploring the temple during golden hour. You can imagine our disappointment when we arrived at 5:01 to discover that the temple actually closes at 5pm!
This would end up being a bit of a blessing in disguise, however, as it meant we were able to photograph the temple from across the small moat with a gorgeous sunset and no one else in the photos. We sat and watched the sun go down in peace as the busloads of tourists started leaving once the temple closed.
If you were to get there just before 5pm, you may be able to get some great shots inside the temple without anyone in them as the crowds are being ushered out, depending on how many people are competing for that last second shot.
As for us, we got some quality photos from the outside and decided to be the first ones in the next day to explore the temple grounds and get some photos from there!
Chiang Rai Night Market
After dropping all our camera gear off at the guesthouse, we walked to the Night Bazaar and were hit with a bit of paralysis by analysis due to all the food options we were presented with! While the night market in Chiang Rai isn’t quite the size of those in Bangkok or Chiang Mai, it still has a lot of food stalls. Eventually, I settled on some stir-fried chicken followed by some mango sticky rice!
If you’ve not yet tried Khao Soi, then I would definitely recommend trying it. Khao Soi is perhaps my favourite traditional dish of Northern Thailand. It is a coconut curry soup with both soft yellow egg noodles and crispy fried egg noodles, and usually chicken. It is delicious, but I eat it at least twice a week in Chiang Mai so opted for something different!
You’ll also find various clothing and souvenirs stalls throughout the bazaar if you fancy doing a bit of shopping. One thing that is worth trying or buying as a gift is fresh local tea, as Chiang Rai has numerous tea plantations around the province.
If you are there during the weekend, you will also have the option of visiting the walking street markets.
Chiang Rai Itinerary: DAY 2
Sunrise at Wat Huay Pla Kang
As we were aware that the White Temple didn’t open until 8am and sunrise was around 6am, we decided to begin the day by visiting Wat Huay Pla Kang for sunrise.
Many incorrectly refer to Wat Huay Pla Kang as Chiang Rai’s Big Buddha temple, due to the large white statue there. However, that statue is not Buddha, but actually the Goddess of Mercy. It is one of the newer temples in Thailand and is becoming increasingly famous among photo seekers for the dragons that embellish the staircase leading to the statue. It is located on a hill about 6km outside of Chiang Rai, and provides sweeping views over the countryside.
As the sun rises you will get some beautiful golden light on the staircase. Throughout the hour or two that we were there, there were only 3 other visitors… this was a blessing and a curse.
We got to the temple easily with a Grab, so when the driver offered to wait for us, we politely declined. This was a mistake!
It turns out it was pretty much impossible to get a Grab FROM Wat Huay Pla Kang at 7am and we were worried that our perfect plan to get to the White Temple before 8am to be first in line was going to be foiled! We could think of only one solution as there was pretty much no-one around at the time… walk to the main road and try to hitch a ride! Luckily, a very kind couple picked us up (despite speaking very little English) almost immediately and took us back into Chiang Rai, taking us all the way to a bus stop and giving us directions on how to get to White Temple. Not wanting to wait for a bus, we ordered a Grab, which arrived within minutes!
Morning Photoshoot at Wat Rong Khun (White Temple)
Miraculously, not only did we arrive at the White Temple prior to its opening, but we also managed to be first in a quickly growing line! We had devised a careful plan to leave Adam (my partner) outside with the camera, and for each of us girls to run in to get photos without anyone else in them. I had my 50 baht for the entrance fee ready so I wouldn’t even have to wait for change and waited patiently at the entrance for the gate to open at 8am.
I am happy to say that our plan was a success! After we got our initial snaps, we took time to explore the temple and take in all its intricacies as the crowds began to pour in by the busload. If you are hoping for that perfect Instagram photo in front of the White Temple, make sure you get there by 7:30-7:40 to be at the front of the line!
It is also important to know that traffic goes ONE DIRECTION once you’ve entered the grounds. This means that once you start down the walkway toward the temple, you will not be allowed to go back! It is therefore imperative that you are quick and ready for any photo that you want, as you will only get one shot at it.
About the White Temple
Wat Rong Khun was both designed and funded by artist Chalermchai Kositpipat and is actually still being constructed. When completed, it will have 9 buildings, although it is not expected to be finished until 2070.
The White Temple is the single most unique and memorable temple that I’ve visited and is my absolute favourite as a photographer. The bizarreness of this unconventional temple is something that needs to be witnessed in person.
It is entirely white, with glass embedded into the plaster which sparkles in the sunlight. From a distance, its luster and grandeur is accentuated by a fairytale-like twinkling of reflected light. As you get up close, however, you’ll notice a much darker tone. Sculptures of skulls and outreached hands line the walkway toward the interior, which feels like walking into the mouth of a dragon. And yet, this still remains aligned with the religious symbology of the temple; of escaping greed and progressing towards enlightenment.
What I’ve yet to understand is the heavily contrasting inclusion of famous characters… there is a tree with sculptured heads of various superhero and horror movie characters hanging from it, a rock wall and waterfall with ninja turtles hiding amongst it, as well as depictions of Michael Jackson, Angry Birds and even Hello Kitty. It is a true oddity.
Afternoon bus to Chiang Mai
After a satisfying morning photo shoot at the White Temple, we got some lunch nearby before catching our afternoon bus back to Chiang Mai. These three temples were our primary motivation for visiting Chiang Rai, and we were limited with the amount of time we had. However, there are a lot more things to do in Chiang Rai city and province if you have the time and desire, which can be found below.
Other things to do in Chiang Rai
Baan Da (Black House)
Baan Da, or the Black House, is commonly mistaken for a temple. It is designed by the artist Thawan Duchanee and is actually more of a museum. The grounds consist of 40 different buildings, although not all are publicly accessible, each filled with an eclectic mix of art. It has been described as dark and sombre, and I would advise looking into it further to decide if it’s a place you’ll enjoy. There is a large collection of animal skulls, skins and other paraphernalia, as well as somewhat lewd artwork that would possibly offend some people.
The clock tower itself is extremely underwhelming during most of the day. While the structure itself is nice enough, it is sat in the middle of a busy intersection. However, there is a light show at night that is set to music and occurs at 7pm, 8pm and 9pm. If you’re in the area, it might be worth seeing!
While the temples I’ve mentioned in the 2 day Chiang Rai itinerary above are the most unique, there are plenty of other temples within the city that are worth a visit if you have more time. Personally, after seeing so many temples in Chiang Mai, I was a bit “templed out,” and this itinerary was enough for me. If you’re feeling up to it then I would recommend at least checking out Wat Phra Kaew as it is one of the oldest in the city and is where the Emerald Buddha was discovered.
There are numerous indigenous hill tribes around the Chiang Rai Province, each with their own distinct culture, and there are plenty of tour companies that will take you to visit them; some even offer homestays! While it is great to learn about and experience other cultures, please ensure that if you do take a tour, it is done so ethically. There have been villages inundated with tourists that have had negative implications, affecting these people both socially and economically. These are real people you will be visiting in their homes. I would advise you to do some research before deciding if this is something that you’d like to do and ensure the company you go with is working alongside the tribes.
Close to the border town of Chiang Sean, you will find the Golden Triangle; the point where northern Thailand meets Laos and Myanmar. The Golden Triangle used to be one of the world’s largest opium producers. You can learn about the history of the opium trade in this area at the interactive museum, “Hall of Opium.”
I have personally never bothered to visit the Golden Triangle as most people I’ve spoken to were pretty disappointed. If you do go, then I’d suggest taking some time to explore some of the ancient temples in Chiang Saen to make the long journey more worthwhile. Some that are commonly recommended include:
- Wat Pa Sak
- Wat Phra That Chedi Luang
- Wat Roi Ko
- Wat Phra Buat
There are numerous tea plantations around Chiang Rai that you can visit. Here you’ll be able to see tea growing in the fields and sample various teas. Some looked like they could be photogenic, especially from the sky, but they were just a bit too far away for us to squeeze into our itinerary.
Chiang Rai is one of the most popular places in Thailand for trekking. There are a number of different trails through the nature of Lum Nam Kok National Park that will travel through forests to waterfalls and rivers. They are mostly multiple day hikes and it is advised to have a guide, so this will require greater preparation.
There are several waterfalls within a 35 minute to one hour drive from Chiang Rai. These are generally better visited in the cooler season after the rains but can be beautiful any time of the year. Some of these include:
- Khun Korn
- Huay Mae Sai
- Huay Kaew
- Pu Kaeng
Chiang Rai Province is home to several natural hot springs. This is definitely something worth doing in the cooler months, though I couldn’t have imagined visiting them when we went in April as it would’ve been far too hot to sit in even hotter water! Some of these include Huay Mak Lium, Pong Phra Soet, and Fang Hot Springs.
Onward travel to Laos?
For those of you passing through Chiang Rai on your way to Northern Laos, you may be interested in reading my itinerary for Northern Laos. This travel guide provides all of the information you will need to know regarding visas, currency, travel info, and things to do in Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng. There are also some great photos to get you inspired!