Our dreamlike getaway from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai, Thailand
By relocating to Chiang Mai we unlocked the less touristy and more authentic Thai feel. For my birthday, I got treated to a trip away from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai, the northernmost province in Thailand.
Initially, were planning to spend my birthday in the South of Thailand on the remote islands. Adverse weather conditions and heavy rain in the South of Thailand in November and December simply were a deal breaker to see the islands. At the same time, the North of Thailand was alluring us to see the less known, vibrant culture of its more isolated provinces.
We spent a few days stunned by the remoteness of the supposedly one of the bigger cities in Northern Thailand. When we reached Chiang Rai, it somehow felt like the time has mysteriously stopped there.
I cannot justify squeezing our entire stay into a single article so I’m going to briefly write about each place we visited. Click on the ‘Read more’ under the option on places that captivated you to read more on individual articles.
If you’re planning your trip to the North of Thailand and don’t know whether to pick Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai, my advice is to spend at least a few days in both Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai.
How to get to Chiang Rai
How to get from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai
Depending on the duration of your stay, you may consider taking a bus or renting a car. If you’re travelling in a group and your stay is going to be short, then hire a driver or a tour guide to make the most of the trip.
Fancy a ride by bus from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai?
If you’re a solo traveller or a couple and are not pushed for time, taking a bus from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai may be the best option. It will probably take longer than what’s written on the bus timetable.
I can reassure you that despite short stopovers it took us about 3 hours to get to Chiang Rai instead of 1.5 – 2 hours. It’s the same thing with boat estimated time of arrival in Ko Chang or in the South of Thailand.
One of the things to consider is the timing of your travel. If you live in Chiang Mai, buy a ticket from the ticket counter a day earlier. We did not do it and ended up waiting over 1.5h for the bus to Chiang Rai. If you are not in a rush, it probably won’t bother you but if you have things planned, a little organisation will pay off.
Be prepared for the queues as Chiang Mai is a fairly busy station and you may be waiting between 20-30 mins before you get served so make sure you don’t just show up for the next available bus from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai.
It takes about 3 hours to reach Chiang Rai and the bus tickets come at various prices. The mid and high range tickets will get you a ride in a quite comfortable bus with Air-con and allocated seats.
There is one main bus station in Chiang Rai. However, when we visited Chiang Rai, there was a makeshift bus station located right off the Clock Tower and the local market, very much central. The bus station in Chiang Rai will take you to several places in Thailand, including a 13 hour bus journey to Bangkok, and neighbouring countries.
Beware of the local drivers that are waiting for tourists to bump up the price of a ride so negotiate the price first. Also, make sure you have the name of the accommodation on the picture with both English and Thai name as people here do not speak English as much as they do in Bangkok, the South of Thailand or Chiang Mai.
If you aren’t coming from Chiang Mai
Chiang Rai airport is quite limited in choices, offering only several flights inside and outside the country. If you’re planning on visiting Chiang Rai, you can get direct flights from three airports in Thailand, one in Hong Kong and two in China without having to stop in Chiang Mai. So where exactly can you fly from?
- Thailand – Bangkok, Hat Yai, Phuket
- China – Kunming, Haikou
- Hong Kong – Hong Kong
If I were you, I would not recommend a 13 bus journey from place like Bangkok despite being a little bit cheaper. Even if you are travelling on a shoestring budget, I would opt in for a flight from Bangkok or Phuket as the plane tickets are very affordable.
Otherwise, fly to Chiang Mai, spend there a few days and get the bus bus to Chiang Rai. This way you get to see Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. Why not kill two birds with one stone?
Mode of Transport in Chiang Rai
Chiang Rai is noticeably smaller than Chiang Mai and if you like walking or cycling, it is a place to be. It is a lot quieter than Chiang Mai so you won’t see as many expats as you will in Chiang Mai. This makes it for a perfect getaway from Chiang Mai for a few days.
Songtaew and tuktuk are the most popular mode of transport and are easily accessible. We also saw a few timeworn public buses, however, even looking from the outside they did not seem very appealing.
Somehow it felt like the centre of Chiang Rai had more taxis than Chiang Mai but I guess it’s primarily for tourists who explore the surrounding area. We used songtaew and tuktuk but primarily walked to see more of the town. We also hired a private taxi via tour company so we could see more things in one go.
Where to stay in Chiang Rai
Aim to stay around the town centre. You don’t need to be in the strict centre but we always try to stay pretty close from the main attractions.
Finding the best place to stay in Chiang Rai won’t take you long but it depends on your budget. The low range accommodation would vary from shared dorms to guesthouses and some pretty nice low range hotels that will cost you around 1000 Baht or less.
Ultimately, if you do not mind spending more on a good quality accommodation and your budget can be stretched, you can expect to stay at the good quality hotel located right in the centre with a swimming pool and sizeable room.
Our hotel in Chiang Rai
We stayed at the Corner Hotel, decorated in the English cottage style and offering breakfast and the Wine house! It is definitely one of the underpriced hotels and I would snatch that deal again. This cosy hotel is located a little off the main area, about 10-15 minute walk to the main touristic area.
On our way to the centre we discovered the local place offering Khantoke dinner a couple of minutes away from the hotel which you should check out. That’s if you want to taste the traditional Thai food from the North in the most authentic way.
If you’re spending Christmas in Thailand, you will love it as this type of dinner will add festive feel to your Christmas celebration.
Best things to do in Chiang Rai province
Chiang Rai is a heaven for those who do not like hectic places and like exploring local culture. If you happen to be around, be sure to see a few of the local landmarks, customs and Northern Thai cuisine influenced by Lanna culture.
Chiang Rai tea plantation – do not miss!
You cannot leave without visitng Choui Fong tea plantation and Mae Salong tea plantation! If you love serene landscapes as much as I do, this will be an amazing fairy-like experience, whether you are visiting during day time or planning to stay until sunset.
I fell in love with rice paddies and ever since I discovered tea plantation in Sri Lanka, I wanted to experience it. When we found out that there’s an opportunity to see a tea plantation in Thailand, this place was on the cards. It is totally breathtaking when you turn to the fields and all you can see in your horizon is blissful nature.
We bought so much Thai green tea from Choui Fong tea plantation including Matcha and this was one of the best gifts for our families and friends, they finished everything in no time that we wished we had bought more! Make sure you stroll around the more remote areas of that tea plantation as you can totally disconnect from the world.
Mae Salong tea plantation is quieter and it almost feels that the surrounding area has a life of its own. There are only few available places to stay overnight. Even if you cannot stay for the night, make sure you try 5 flower tea and Thai green tea, like Oolong. We got both after tea tasting as it was too good to let go of it.
A brief note for all sunset lovers: Because Doi Mae Salong village is inconveniently located in the remote area high up in the mountains, it is also a totally amazing place to see the sunset from. No pain, no gain they say!
Wat Rong Khun – The White Temple in Chiang Rai
By all means, if you are going to Chiang Rai, it is probably because of one of the most renowned landmarks, Wat Rong Khun, also referred to and known as the White Temple in Chiang Rai.
We went to visit this spectacular Chiang Rai White Temple but we were not aware of how busy it can get! Show up some time after 10 am and all you see is the crowds of people from each side of you, comparable to seeing Angkor Wat temple in Siem Reap!
On the bright side, the White Temple entrance fee is 50 Baht per person with no time limit and there are less crowded spots within the temple. Not to mention that the true whiteness will be a great spot for the photoshoot.
Muang Chiang Rai
Muang Chiang Rai, in other words, Chiang Rai town, is where you may want to have your base for day trips. The town is the largest in the province and is home to many temples, hotels, restaurants and night markets.
If you haven’t planned your day trips, it will also be easy to start your sightseeing in Chiang Rai and find reasonably priced transport. There’s simply more supply of taxis and local tour guides and you will be spoilt for choice.
Muang Chiang Rai is a more chilled out small sister of Chiang Mai with friendly people and some expats around.
Northern Thai cuisine influenced by Myanmar and Laos
Huang Lay Curry and Barrab
Even if you think you know it all about Thailand, the typical Northern Thai dishes around Chiang Rai vary from the ones you will see in Chiang Mai. The restaurant list is quite long. For the good service and well prepared, tender and flavoursome food, Barrab restaurant will tick all the boxes. If you are in Chiang Rai, don’t steer away from the Traditional Thai food made with authentic thai recipes from the North.
You will be amazed with the variety of Northern Thai street food
Northern thai street food is influenced by Lanna culture. The colourful mix of food combined with freshness and bizarre shapes somehow make it more appealing. If you think that Chiang Mai street food is cheap (hands down it is!), then check out street food in Chiang Rai.
What’s on the list? The best smoked bacon I’ve ever tried wrapped in bamboo leaf, skewers and chilli filled pastries for the brave ones! Don’t be fooled by the look of it, it may be a bit less appealing than what you would see in the shopping malls in Chiang Mai or Bangkok but it is probably your one and only opportunity to try something less known than Pad Thai, Morning Glory or Thai Green Curry!
Get lured into Thai style Hot Pot served in an earthenware
This type of food was absolutely heaven to my taste buds and every time the topic of hot pot comes up, the Northern style Hot Pot in Chiang Rai never fails to be mentioned. We are currently working on a video of us trying the food which is a total bargain for anyone who wants to taste typical food that locals flock over for an evening get together, either with friends or family.
Chiang Rai night market scene
Although smaller than the Night Bazaar in Chiang Mai, the Night Bazaar in Chiang Rai feels less touristy and more local. Local handicraft and food are inseparable parts of the night scene. You won’t miss it as long as you are near the Clock Tower right in the centre of Chiang Rai, one of the most recognisable landmarks in Chiang Rai.
If you like mixing your evening meals with music, then the local professional dancers performing traditional finger dance will get you tuned in. Their sophisticated make-up, elegant moves and rainbow dresses will keep you almost hypnotised.
It’s a must-see place for any culture lovers of unspoilt nature and well-preserved tradition. Although it requires some pretty decent 4x4 to get up the steep road with sharp turns. We hired a driver who took us all the way from Chiang Rai to Mae Salong village and was kind to stay with us until sunset despite many switchbacks that requires even more focus after dusk.
Once you reach Doi Mae Salong village, it will undeniably be one of your favourite spots. I rank this spot very high thanks to its almost untouched, well-preserved Chinese style that this village embraces since the former soldiers who fought Mao during the civil war and have settled in the remote hills of Northern Thailand, forming their own little country. In here, you will get to see the ethnic minorities who some people refer to as Chinese tribes.
Don’t forget to try local 5 flower tea (which I mistakenly took for a 5 ‘power’ tea before I read the packaging – lost in translation), oolong and crispy, salted maggots! If you want to know more about this place, here’s the full article about this truly fascinating place.
See the Golden Triangle – Thailand, Laos and Burma’s borders’ unique connecting point
You won’t see many places in the world with three countries sharing the same border. In this case, it’s the river that forms a natural border. That’s not the only reason why this place is so special. It is also one of the largest, globally recognised connecting points for opium-extensive production since the 1950s.
Whilst Thailand feels ashamed for the long history of this infamous trade, the Royal family set up the Royal Project for development of this area which has been turned into coffee plantation and other labour intensive production.
The Hall of Opium Museum in the Golden Triangle Park
We also visited the House of Opium in Chiang Saen that commemorates the past and has been erected to educate people about the history and the punitive law against traffickers and those who consider smuggling or even using drugs in Thailand.
Phu Chi Fa
If you’re staying for a few more days, you should get a bus from Chiang Rai to Phu Chi Fa instead of getting it from Chiang Mai as you are already half way through to the place. Make sure you find accommodation beforehand as you will be regretting not having anything booked beforehand and hoping for the best. If you don’t come during busy winter period, you will be able to find something without booking it well in advance.
It’s best you book it in advance as there is simply too many people who get to the place for the sunrise the afternoon before and there is only one bus per day that will take you there and back. The times are scheduled the way that you would need to stay overnight so best to come prepared.
La Sante Chiang Rai Winery and Mae Chan Winery
If you like wine, you will probably enjoy visiting the Chiang Rai Winery. We did not know about its existence until we discovered a shop in Muang Chiang Rai that sells wine from La Sante Chiang Rai Wintery.
Despite missing the opportunity to see how our wine was produced, we were lucky enough to at least bring back with us the end product of the Chiang Rai winery – the delicious Mangosteen wine.
It was the first time we tried Mangosteen in wine but definitely not the last one. For me, it could be a little more sweet as I generally go for sweeter wines. If you fancy, you can also get the Lychee or Green tea flavour. As the Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve were only a few days ahead, we made sure to celebrate both occasions with this unique-flavoured tropical wine.
Just like Chiang Rai Winery, Mae Chan Winery is located in Chiang Rai province. It’s best if you hire a driver to get you to place. Alternatively, if you don’t want to sample the wine but get a bottle, try the specialist wine shops around the main centre in Chiang Rai.
We hope that you will be as excited as us during our little getaway from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai province. If you have any questions, we are happy to share our knowledge and experience gained during our stay!
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