Chiang Rai is the name of both the province and its capital, located 200 kms northeast of Chiang Mai, 62 kms south of Mae Sai and the Burmese border; 60km southwest of the town of Chiang Saen on the Mae Kong across from Laos; and 90km north of Payao town. Most of the terrain surrounding Chiang Rai is either flat or has moderate hills, with the exception being in outward west and northwest directions, where limestone hills are evident, some of which have straight up exposed cliffs. Most of the region’s hill tribes live in villages, enriching an already rich melting pot of cultures and traditions. The city was founded by King Mengrai in 1262 and became the capital of the Mengrai dynasty. Subsequently, it was conquered by Burma and remained under Burmese rule for several hundred years until 1786 when it became a Chiang Mai vassal. In 1432, during the reign of King Sam Fang Kaen of Mengrai dynasty (1402–1441) the Phra Keow (Emerald Buddha), the most revered Buddha statue, was discovered in Chiang Rai when an earthquake split the chedi at Wat Phra Keow of Chiang Rai City. The beautiful jade figure concealed within was then revealed. Thailand (then called Siam) annexed Chiang Mai in 1899 and in 1933 it was proclaimed a province of Thailand.
The weather is almost always pleasant and the province is rich in natural attractions as well as history. Antiquities from its long checkered past are still everywhere, evidences of a past civilisation enriching the modern-day Chiang Rai. Basically a rural economy, the pace of life is slower and the people are generally gentler. It is a far cry from the big urban Bangkok and as such less crowded and a pleasure to explore. Several hill tribes, who still follow fascinating ways of life, make the destination a living repository of various cultures. Being a border province, Chiang Rai is also a gateway into those looking to include in their itinerary a visit to Myanmar and Laos.
Trekking, boat trips, elephant safaris, side trip to the Golden Triangle, shopping for ethnic goods, white water rafting, border hopping – these are just some of the many activities you can enjoy here. Of course, if you are a culture vulture, you should not miss out on the age-old temples, the museums, and remaining vestiges of ancient civilisation, when the province was under the helm of the Lanna Kingdom.
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 15o C. Summer is from March to May when the average daily temperature is 17-36o C. March is probably the best time to visit Chiang Rai when the weather is between the hot and cool seasons.
For many visitors, the temples and historical landmarks – which are too many to mention – are on top of the list. But don’t miss the Night Bazaar, located in the middle of downtown for its souvenirs and local products, and free cultural performances. Make sure you visit Chiang Saen, an ancient town located on
the banks of the Mekong River. This served as the main town before King Mengrai established Chiang Rai as the capital of Lanna in 1262. Tourist attractions farther afield include: the Princess Mother Hall and Doi Mae Salong, located about 70 km northwest of Chiang Rai and accessed by a scenic, and sometimes quite steep, road from Mae Chan. In Mae Salong, there is a museum of the Kuomintang detailing their plight after their exile from Mao Zedong’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 KM12 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 beneath. Also see Saun Mai Ngam Park, featuring many beautiful trees and flowers some of which are more than 100 years old, and where the Chiang Rai Flower Festival is held every year, usually in December. Also make an effort to visit at least one hill tribe village.
Chiang Rai is not a big shopping destination like Chiang Mai but if you want to buy souvenirs you can go for local items such as hand-woven cotton materials, dresses, silver ornaments, as well as 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.
Top hotels and resorts are probably your best bet for international standard fare, but don’t ignore the local flavours, which is quite different from Thai food in Bangkok, the Central Thailand or Northeastern Thailand. There are more than 40 restaurants in the downtown Night Bazaar alone. There’s also a Saturday Night Walking Street just north of downtown where hundreds of local folks display food (and crafts).
Actually this should be part of your main tour itinerary, but in case it wasn’t, the Golden Triangle, about nine kms from the old town of Chiang Saen, to the north along the road parallel to the Mekong River, should be at the top of your programme. The area is locally called “Sop Ruak” where the Mekong meets the Ruak River and also where the borders of three countries: Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand meet. There are remains of many ancient places and structures that make for great sightseeing.
Chiang Rai is 839 kms from Bangkok, about 14 hours by car or by bus. It takes approximately an hour and 30 minutes from Chiang Mai but the 175 km trip most often takes at least two and a half hours, especially during the rainy season. Several flights – including by Thai Airways, Air Asia, Nok Air, and One-Two-Go are available to and from Bangkok daily.
Chiang Rai International Airport flight time is about one hour and 30 minutes. There are currently no rail services to Chiang Rai; the railway line from Bangkok ends at Chiang Mai. In Chiang Mai, you can get the daily scheduled boat service between Chiang Rai and Thaton. The journey lasts about three to four hours; a pleasant alternative to a bus ride through the mountains.