Unlike nearby Chiang Mai, you don't frequently hear travelers getting excited about Chiang Rai. Most visitors passing through on a tour snap a few pics at the White Temple and maybe the Black House and then call it a day. So, without knowing much going in, we were pleasantly surprised to find that Chiang Rai had a lot to offer and it quickly became one of our favorite stops in Southeast Asia. The town itself is not particularly atmospheric (like Chiang Mai or Luang Prabang), but the lack of oppressive tourist crowds and the quiet streets make it arguably more enjoyable to explore. We spent three lazy days scootering around town, visiting the sites, and drinking coffee on the patio of our adorable guesthouse. Here are some of our favorite spots in town. *Tip: Although you can get to any of these places by Tuk-Tuk, we highly recommend renting a scooter instead. The traffic is light and it is far less intimidating to drive around than on the busy streets of Chiang Mai. And at only $9/day, it will wind up being much cheaper than tuk-tukking everywhere.
Chivit Thamma Da
Who knew that the most beautiful restaurant in all of Southeast Asia was in Chiang Rai? Seriously! It's in a stunning, ivy-covered house on the riverfront with tables spread throughout the sunny gardens. It felt like we were attending a garden party on a Southern plantation home. They have a huge menu encompassing everything from Western breakfast favorites, Thai classics, to freshly baked cakes. All their dishes are made with local ingredients sourced from farms around Chiang Rai. We could spend all day on the covered porch sipping a Thai iced coffee or mint lemonade.
Wat Rong Khun
Better known as the White Temple for obvious reasons, this picturesque temple was designed by the famous Thai painter and artist Chalermchai Kositpipat. Aside from the blinding white color, it may look similar to other Thai temples at first glance, but look closer and you start to notice a lot of strange details. Kositpipat incorporated all kinds of pop-culture imagery and strange elements into the design, like heads of superheroes hanging from the trees, disembodied hands reaching up at you along the walkway, and movie characters painted on the walls. Of all Chiang Rai's sights, the White Temple is by far the most popular so the crowds can get pretty dense. Come by in the early morning to avoid the tour groups.
Wat Rong Sear Tean
If you didn't get your fill of monochromatic temples at Wat Rong Khun, head on over to Wat Rong Sear Tean, otherwise known as the Blue Temple. Designed by a student of White Temple designer Chalermchai Kositpipat, Wat Rong Sear Tean is covered in different shades of blue and has a large, all-white Buddha as the centerpiece. It doesn't get nearly as many visitors so you will have plenty of room to explore the intricately painted interior.
Wat Hai Pla Kung
It might just be because we visited at sunrise and had the place all to ourselves, but Wat Hai Pla Kung took 1st place on our list of Chiang Rai sights. It's actually three sights in one. Located on a hill overlooking the surrounding farmland, there is a 9 story pagoda, a beautiful white temple, and a huge 25-story Bodhisattva statue. You can climb up the pagoda or take an elevator to the top of the Bodhisattva statue to take in the views. We highly recommend visiting at dawn so you can watch the sunrise with no one else around but the monks.
There might not be much in the way of nightlife in Chiang Rai (which suits us just fine), but the lively night bazaar is a good option if you are looking to get out of the hotel for the evening. It is open every night starting around 6 or 7pm. Along with the usual collection of souvenir vendors, there is also a large central plaza surrounded by food stalls. The plaza is always full of both locals and tourists enjoying some traditional hot pot, drinking beer, and listening to the live music.