Chiang Rai is often overlooked, and tends to be a place used as a stopover for Thailand to Laos or Myanmar border crossings. If you take the time to stay here, you will find it has so much more to offer than a city to just breeze through.
Apart from the people, why else did I love Chiang Rai? Let us show you why you should visit Chiang Rai.
As it’s so far north, you will find many tour companies run day trips to the Golden Triangle, long neck village, Singha Park, White Temple, Black House and monkey cave so If you are short of time, you can certainly take your pick. We had a few days in Chiang Rai so were able to take our own sweet time and see everything we wanted to see on our own. For 250 baht a day (£5.68/US $7.56), we hired a little pink scooter from a man near to our homestay. We discovered it was really easy to get around; the roads are good and there wasn’t a lot of traffic.
Chiang Rai centre was a bit of an opulent surprise! On Banphaprakarn Road there is a magnificent golden clocktower which stands in the middle of a roundabout, flanked either side by impressive gilded street lights which line the street. Hoh Nalika Chalerm Prakiat was unveiled in 2008 in honour of the late King Bhumibol and is a tourist attraction in its own right. It was designed by Thai artist Chalermchai Khositpipat, the architect for The White Temple and, at 7pm, 8pm and 9pm, the gold lighting turns to pink then green (unfortunately it wasn’t working when we visited).
Entrance - Free
There are a number of tea plantations you can visit as part of a tour, but, as we had our little pink scooter, we drove to Singha Park.
Boon Rawd Farm, also known as Singha Park is only 10 minutes away from the famous White Temple, so it’s easy to visit the two together. The landscaped grounds are beautiful and aren’t too dissimilar to the look of a golf course. You could spend hours pootling around, we ended up being here for about two hours. At the entrance there is a giant gold lion statue which is the symbol for Singha and printed on all Singha beer bottles. Naturally, we wanted a photo here but other people had the same idea! We had to be very patient waiting for a few “photo shoots” to finish if we wanted a picture without anyone else in it!
We drove through the picturesque park to a viewing platform, and were greeted with a gorgeous view of the tea plantation fields, a misty hill was the backdrop. As we were at a tea plantation, and, being English, a cup of tea was most definitely the order of the day. We sipped a cup of Oolong whilst eating a slice of apple pie overlooking the field of tea bushes. Ooo how English can one feel?
The highlight of our trip to Chiang Rai was definitely spending a night and volunteering at Elephant Valley Thailand. Unlike other sanctuaries, you do not bathe in the water or mud with these gentle giants, you simply watch from afar with one opportunity to feed them bananas before lunch. If the elephants want to play in the mud, they will do so when they are ready, if they want to splash in the lake, they will do so on their terms.
What sets this sanctuary apart is it teaches elephants to be elephants again. Slowly and carefully, they attempt to reverse the pajan process (this is the process that will break the elephant’s will, making them submissive to do what they are told, when they are told). Here, they are showing the elephants that they can do what they want, when they want. To us, being allowed to bathe elephants didn’t feel right. It feels as though the elephants are still expected to “perform”, even though I know they are treated well and excellent work is carried out. I view it simply as: you wouldn’t bathe a wild elephant would you?
If you want to hear for yourself how content the elephants sound, watch this short clip of two elephants going for a dip.
When we visited there were four elephants but, as I follow them on Facebook, I have seen they now have six. If you are looking for a true elephant encounter, I implore you to visit Elephant Valley Thailand. The work they are doing here is solely for the elephants to be themselves with no other agenda. Thailand needs more sanctuaries like this, and elephants need to be elephants.
With Thailand comes Temples. Everyone knows Chiang Mai has stunning Temples, but don’t underestimate Chiang Rai, some of my favourite Temples are here. Admittedly a Temple Tour of Chiang Mai will take you around historical sites from the 13th Century, but the mixture of new and old in Chiang Rai is so interesting. I am not exaggerating when I say some are literally breath-taking. With less tourists in this part of Thailand, most (with the exception of the White Temple) can be enjoyed in relative peace and quiet, but that’s if you do it yourself, it will probably be busier if you take a tour.
As always, I must stress the importance of Temple etiquette. When visiting Temples, you are reminded to be respectful of the Monks’ religion, beliefs and way of life. As tourists, we should remember that we are visitors and must dress and act in a way that does not cause offence; wearing tiny shorts, small vests or see-through tops with plenty of flesh on display is inappropriate. A Temple is not a place to show off your body, it is a place of worship and if you visit, please treat it with respect and cover your shoulders and knees. Yes Thailand is hot, but just throw a sarong around you and cover up for those small periods of time.
This is the number one tourist attraction in Chiang Rai. On any day it is literally teeming with tourists (oh, and the odd visiting monks who pose for photos outside with their mobile phones!). However, it was unlike any other Buddhist temple I have seen to date.
These next two statues represent Death and Rahu who decide the fate of the dead.
Inside the temple next to the door are strange paintings of Ku Fu Panda, Michael Jackson, transformers, Freddy Kruger and Saw. On the other door was a ninja turtle, Superman, Harry Potter, Godzilla, Terminator, Predator and Star Wars icons.
Bizarrely there is also a mural of the Twin Towers exploding and images of nuclear warfare, terrorist attacks and oil pumps which are showing the destructive impact humans have on earth. These are all modern representation of good and evil … although I’m not sure how Superman and Harry Potter relate to Buddhism!
The Blue Temple - Wat Rong Suea Ten
I have to say this temple is breath-taking, the colours are phenomenal. The white pearlescent Buddha statue is the focus point inside the temple. This is complimented perfectly by the deep blue colour representing the Dharma, the Buddha’s code of morals.
The statues outside are reminiscent of a fantasy movie aka Clash of the titans. Deep blue blends into deep green and translucent purples.
This temple is very new and was only completed in January 2016. Some of the statues within the 6 acres are still under construction, but this does not affect the main temple itself. There is no public transport here and not all tours will stop, however if you have your own scooter, you can visit en-route to the Black House if you are planning to head there.
Lunch by the river
If you fancy a temple-break or lunch stop, around 200 metres before the Blue Temple is the wonderful Chivit Thamma Da Coffee House & Bistro which is thankfully signposted. It is a gorgeous riverside location with an extensive Western and Asian menu. The drinks are heavenly!
This temple plays an important part in Thailand’s history. It is here in 1434 that the Emerald Buddha was discovered after lighting struck the chedi in which it was kept. The Emerald Buddha is the most highly revered Buddha image in the Country which can now be seen at the Grand Palace in Bangkok. Emerald in Thai means “green coloured” but the Emerald Buddha is actually made of green jade.
Until 1434, the original name of this temple was Wat Pa Yeh meaning Bamboo Forest Temple as it was surrounded by a yellow bamboo grove known locally as Yah. It’s new name, Wat Phra Kaew means Wat of the Holy Glass Buddha, however it wasn’t until 1990 that a replica of the Emerald Buddha (known as the Jade Buddha) was commissioned. This Temple is a working Monastery and respectful dress and behaviour should be shown at all times.
If you are looking for an old Temple embodying the spirit of Buddhism, Wat Prah Singh is the one to visit. Built in 1385, it is one of Chiang Rai’s oldest temples and is a fine example of Lanna style. The revered Buddha image, the Phra Sing “lion Buddha” used to be housed here but is now in the much larger Wat Phra Singh Temple in Chiang Mai. A replica is held here.
This newly constructed site is an absolute must-see, you get 3-in-1 here! It’s about 6km north of Chiang Rai so a little out of the way, but if you have a scooter than head here before sunset. Believe me when I say it’s worth seeing during the day and night! I would say it is one of the top places to visit when in this area.
As you approach the hill, you are greeted with a giant white Buddha sitting on a lotus leaf, and it is stunning. We didn’t know which way to head first, to the left is the Buddha, to the right, a golden Chinese Pagoda and a white Buddhist Temple. We went for the pagoda first.
Looking up, the Buddha is absolutely massive, I seriously thought it was a contender for the biggest seated Buddha in the world (it’s about 120 feet/36.5 metres tall).
Visiting this Temple was an absolute highlight and if you can visit, I would definitely recommend it.
Address: 414 Baandam Nanglae Moo 13 Tumbol Nanglae, Mueang, Chiang Rai,57100
The Black Temple isn’t really a temple, it’s actually a museum built in the shape of one. Referred to as “The Black House”, it’s true name is Baan Dam Museum (Baan means house and “Dam” is black). A stop here is included in most tours. If you hire a scooter and plan to visit yourself, be warned … it’s difficult to find!
There were bone displays underneath wooden houses including an elephant skull and skeleton. There were also a number of lavatory exhibits with wooden penises hung on the wall …. hmmmmm.
"Chiang Rai has a beach?" Was my first exclamation when I saw signs for it. If you know me, you know I will seek out a beach wherever I go! So I thought I was on to a winner when I, but I did wonder how there could be a beach when the City is surrounded by land! As I have been to South Bank Beach in Australia, a man-made beach in the middle of a busy City, my curiosity got the better of me. With our friends Laura and Rory whom we had met at Elephant Valley Thailand, we took our scooters 10 minutes out of town. Hmmmmm “beach” would definitely fall short of the Trade Descriptions Act, admittedly there was some sort of sand-like stuff. Put it this way, I’m glad I didn’t plan on making a day of it and sunbathing!
We really enjoyed the Night Market in Chiang Rai! It wasn’t very busy which meant we could wander around and really see what was for sale. There were stalls selling knitted shoes and bags, clothing, wooden souvenirs, Buddha ornaments, jewellery, paintings, and various other beautiful handicrafts, the colours were fabulous. Naturally food was also sold, so we grabbed a kway teow take-a-way and found somewhere to sit.
The dearly departed King
When King Bhumibol, Thailand’s beloved King who ruled for 70 years passed away at 3.52pm on Thursday 13 October 2016 aged 88, the entire nation was in mourning. He had a long term illness of chronic cardiac arrhythmia which resulted in septicaemia and renal failure. When he died, the Thai Government announced a one year mourning period. He was the world’s longest serving constitutional monarch followed next by Queen Elizabeth.
The King wasn’t born to be a King. He was second in line to the throne and acceded when he was only 18 after his Brother, Prince Anada, was found dead in bed found shot in the head. After a seven-year murder trial, the Prince’s death was deemed an accident and no satisfactory explanation to his death has been found; was it murder or suicide? The young King Bhumibol had planned to be an architect. When he found out he would be King, he was studying at the University of Lausanne and changed his Architect course to Law and Political Science.
Adored by his people, he was committed to relieving them of distress, restoring their happiness and improving their way of life. He was convinced that improving poor people’s lives would be the best protection against the spread of communism, and he devoted his entire life to this cause. Every year he would travel around the countryside meeting local people and visiting rural projects. He was determined to help all students achieve the best from their education and use their knowledge for occupational pursuit.
King Bhumibol practised what he preached – literally! On 22 October 1956 he was ordained as a monk at Phra Si Rattana Satsadaram Temple (the Temple of the emerald Buddha). During his 15-day monkhood he stayed at Panya Monastic residence and faithfully performed religious duties. Throughout his ordainment, his wife Queen Sirikit, was appointed his regent.
Every Thai house contained a photograph of their monarch and Thailand has the enforced lese-majeste law. This means it is an offence, punishable by between three and 15 years in jail, for anyone to “defame, insult or threaten” any member of the royal family. Hollywood movies were banned “The King and I” and later “Anna and the King” which were deemed as disrespectful.
Hiring a scooter
If you want to explore the temples of Chiang Rai at your own pace, the cheapest and most convenient way is to hire a scooter. There are many places to hire scooters at a cost of around 250 baht per day. Ours was new and well looked after (and pink, did I mention pink?). Please always be sensible and wear a helmet, no day trip is worth dying for! You do not need an International Driving Licence in Thailand provided your licence displays a photograph and is in English, UK licences comply.
Have you been or are you thinking of visiting Chiang Rai? What are your thoughts on what there is to do. Let us know in the comments section below, we always love to know what you are thinking!
How to get to Chiang Rai
Flying: Air Asia fly to Chiang Rai from Chiang Mai, Bangkok, and many other places in Thailand, however it is also very close to the border of Myanmar and Laos if you wanted to travel overland.
By Train: You will need to get a train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, then a bus. We checked the train schedules and bought tickets online through 12GoAsia from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. They also travel all over Asia so you can check boat, train and boat schedules ahead of time. We caught the overnight train from Bangkok, but there are daytime options available.
By bus From Chiang Mai: All walks of life catch the bus from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai. We saw a mix of tourists, men from the Royal Thai Army and two monks. Buying a ticket is simple; from the Green Bus Thailand website choose your departure date, type of bus (Express buses are 4 seats across, VIP are 3 seats – we opted for the latter), time of departure, and your seat choice. You are given a numerical code (take a photo of the code on your phone) and show this number to the cashier at your nearest 7/11 shop. The cost was approximately 270 baht per person (£6.13/US $8.16)
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