In a nutshell
Located just over 3 hours by bus from Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai is a city of around 200,00 people that is rapidly growing more popular with travellers.
Why go to Chiang Rai
Proximity to the borders with both Myanmar and Laos make Chiang Rai a convenient stop for travellers on their way to cross into Laos for the slow boat journey to Luang Prabang. Now, however, it is becoming a tourist destination in its own right, and many travellers in northern Thailand choose to spend several days taking in the city sights.
Chiang Rai is a popular spot in part due to its location and natural beauty, surrounded by stunning mountain ranges and thick rainforest, whilst the city itself features attractive temples and historic buildings. It’s a busy city though, so don’t come with too many preconceptions about the area - it’s a real mix of modern industry and the amazing landscapes of northern Thailand. There’s a lot to do in the area, whether your preference is for history and culture, trekking and appreciating nature or relaxing with a few drinks and exploring night markets.
When to go to Chiang Rai
Attr: Edgardo W. Olivera (cc by)
When planning your visit, it’s best to try and avoid rainy season and to avoid some of the hotter months, where temperatures in and around Chiang Rai soar.
November to January is winter in this region of Thailand and the weather is fairly cool, whilst summer runs from March to May and can be extremely hot - often in the 40s. We visited in February and found it pleasantly warm without being too hot to enjoy.
Rainy season runs from May to September, and whilst it is possible to work around the rain showers to enjoy mild weather and lush green countryside and forests, many prefer to avoid this season if they can.
Where to stay in Chiang Rai
When it comes to staying in Chiang Rai, you’ll be spoilt for choice. As tourism in the area has increased, so has the range of different accommodation options and you’ll find everything from hostels for the tightest budgets right the way through to luxury hotels, should you want to treat yourself for a couple of nights.
Generally backpackers will find themselves staying around the Jedyod road area, where there is a cluster of budget guesthouses and hostels. These can cost just a few dollars per night for a shared dorm that’s basic but clean and comfortable. High-end hotels, resorts and spas can be found along the riverbank and outside of town, and have all the amenities you could want for your stay in Chiang Rai.
Where to eat in Chiang Rai
Similarly when it comes to food and drink, as with all traveller-friendly cities in Thailand there is an array of choice to suit everyone’s tastes. Don’t, however, expect it to be cheap – sometimes you’ll find yourself paying far more than you might expect to in Thailand for very average food.
Many travellers, especially those on a budget, choose to eat at Chiang Rai’s night bazaar, where you can find any street food you can imagine and prices are a little more purse friendly.
There are lots of bars and restaurants both around the night bazaar and in areas towards Jedyod road, many offering decent northern Thai food, although there are some western eateries as well - including a couple of fairly popular but pricey Italians.
How to get to and from Chiang Mai
There’s plenty of transport options to help you get in and out of Chiang Rai, whichever way you’re travelling. The city even has an international airport, so some travellers find it easy to fly to Chiang Rai and get a taxi to and from their hotels, which typically costs about THB300 (less than 10USD).
Most people however, will find themselves taking the bus - whether it’s a budget friendly public bus, an air conditioned coach or a private mini van transport. Like we said, there are a lot of options so it’s a very easy place to include in your Southeast Asia itinerary!
If you’re travelling to or from Chiang Mai, as most people are, the buses take around 3 hours and there are three different classes of bus to choose from, everything from the most basic options to those offering water and snacks.
There are also buses between Chiang Rai and Bangkok, which take around 10-11 hours and run a couple of times per day, both during the day and overnight. As always, take care when travelling by night bus in Thailand and be sure to use a reputable company that follows decent safety standards.
Daily buses run to Mae Sai, which is on the border with Myanmar (Mae Sai–Tachilek border crossing) and takes just over an hour to reach, whilst the border town with Laos, Chiang Khong (Chiang Khong–Huay Xai border crossing), is also served by several daily buses and takes 2 to 3 hours. This wealth of transport as well as the easy ability to get to Myanmar, Laos or other regions of China makes Chiang Rai a great place to visit.
Is Chiang Rai safe to visit?
When it comes to safety in Chiang Rai, it is generally known as a safe city, with the biggest problem and risk of injury coming from traffic and road accidents as with much of the rest of Thailand.
Drug crime is another serious problem in the area and drugs should be avoided without question. As a border province in Thailand’s golden triangle, it’s a bit of a notorious place for contraband flowing between the borders with Myanmar and Laos.
Finally, the usual issues like food poisoning and illnesses common to Thailand in general have as much chance of affecting you in Chiang Rai as anywhere else so it’s worth taking sensible precautions.
Chiang Rai station guide
Mae Sai - Bus
Mae Sai is the northernmost town in Thailand and at first might look like a huge outdoor market. However, this town provides an ideal base for discovering the mysterious Golden Triangle, Mae Salong, and Doi Tung. In addition, its location across from Burma makes Mae Sai a stepping-off destination for those travellers wanting to explore some of the Shan States’ more remote regions.
The bus station of Mae Sai is about eight kilometres away from the immigration office. From Chiang Rai, ordinary as well as air-conditioned buses to Mae Sai depart frequently, a journey of an hour and a half. From Chiang Mai, first class, ordinary and VIP buses depart daily, taking about three hours. There’s a ‘bus stop’ sign at Phahonyothin road, soi 8. From here blue songthaews follow daily routes to Sop Ruak and Chiang Sean (Golden Triangle) every 40 minutes.
The one-street town of Mae Sai is rather overlooked. Most travellers just pass through on their way to the border with Myanmar for new visas. However, for those wishing to explore an original border community there are plenty things to see for them. There is also a good selection of places to eat and a number of accommodation options.
About 12 kilometres from Mae Sai are the Tam Pla caves, a worthwhile excursion. Don’t forget to bring a torch as there’s no electric lighting here. Also about the same distance away is the fish cave.
The impressive Phra That Wai Dao temple has been constructed on a hill. Tourists can reach the temple by climbing the steep stairs. From here there’s a nice view over Mae Sai and the Burmese border town of Tachilek.
Renting a motorcycle and making a tour through the mountainous area is a great experience. Just before the border, a road turns off to the left; this route is one of Thailand’s most panoramic, but care needs to be taken on the twisting road.
Golden Triangle - Bus
The Golden Triangle is where the borders of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet. The rivers of Ruak and Mekong also intersect in this region known to locals as Sop Ruak. Although many consider the Golden Triangle to be a tourist trap, there is still much to explore in Thailand's northernmost region.
Guided bus and boat tours are popular ways to explore the Golden Triangle, but those who prefer independent travel can board Greenbus minivans which depart from both of Chiang Rai's bus terminals and stop at a restaurant behind the area's famous Big Buddha statue.
These minibuses operate once every 30 to 60 minutes, and take about two hours from Chiang Rai, which is also where the closest airport and rail station are located. Chiang Saen, the Golden Triangle's closest community, can be reached by motorcycle taxi, tuktuk, or boat. Mekong River boat tours are another popular way to explore both Chiang Saen and Chiang Khong. Visitors can even board a boat to the small Laotian island of Don Sao.
During the dry season, a sandbar marks the location where the Mekong and Ruak rivers meet. The surrounding area contains plenty of elaborate shrines, souvenir shops, and elephant statues. Tourism may have replaced opium as the region's most important industry, but the Hall of Opium and the smaller House of Opium both contain plenty of interesting information. The Anantara Golden Triangle Resort and Spa as well as the Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle both support elephant rescue charities.
Bus Terminal 2 Chiang Rai - Bus
Designed about 17 years ago by Chalermchai Kositpipat, Wat Rong Khun is a stunning, brilliantly decorated white Buddhist temple situated in the province of Chiang Rai. In May 2014 the structure was severely damaged in an earthquake.
After the quake, Chalermchai announced that he was planning to destroy the entire temple and not reconstruct it. However, as it seemed that all of the temple’s building structures had actually been spared, Chalermchai promised to rebuild the white temple within two years. Visitors should check before visiting.
The city of Chiang Rai has two major bus stations. Wat Rong Khun can be reached from the city by taking one of the public buses (platform 7 and 8) that depart from the old bus station. The trip takes about 20 minutes.
Chiang Khong - Bus
Chiang Khong is a rapidly expanding town in Thailand’s northern Chiang Rai province; every month new restaurants, bars and pubs open in the centre of town. This overlooked border town is mostly visited by travellers on their way to Laos just across the Mekong River. Like most border towns, Chiang Khong is bustling with commerce yet the place is kind to visiting tourists without being extremely commercial.
Operated by Green Bus, the first bus station of Chiang Khong is located opposite the 7-11 shop and the small market. From here first class bus services cover the route to Chiang Rai, from where there are frequent connections to Bangkok’s Mochit terminal. Run by 999, the second bus station is situated just before the Friendship Bridge. Bus tickets sell out rapidly, particularly for second class services. A new bus terminal is being built about two and a half kilometres outside of town, closer to the border with Laos.
Travellers wishing to explore Chiang Khong are advised to rent a motorcycle. This will be the most convenient way visiting the local communities as well as the banks of the mighty Mekong River. The pace of life in the town itself is laid-back and unlike other regions of Thailand; most of the tuk-tuk drivers won’t hassle tourists and there are various pleasant places to stay.
Chiang Saen - Bus
Situated on the Mekong River in Thailand’s northern Golden Triangle region, the friendly town of Chiang Saen is an interesting destination for those appreciating historic temples and ruins and can be accessed by bus from either Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai.
The bus station in Chiang Saen is situated on the Mekong River’s banks, around 50 metres before Highway 1016 comes to an end. Departing from opposite the bus station, blue songthaews cover routes to Mae Sai, Sop Ruak and Chiang Khong.
From Chiang Rai, regular buses travel to Chiang Saen, a trip of an hour and a half. Travellers taking the new bus route from Chiang Mai should expect a more than four- hour journey.
Chiang Saen is an ideal place from which where to take daytrips to the Golden Triangle. Sam Liam Thong Kham is situated about 10 kilometres north of the town. It is here where the Mekong River and the Sai River meet. Visitors will find numerous stalls that sell souvenirs such as hill-tribe clothes, opium pipes, and Burmese cigars.
Accommodation with basic amenities in Chiang Saen can be found on the road along the river. There are several guesthouses. Centrally located, the only hotel is just a stone’s throw away from the post office. The restaurant at the end of this road offers nice dining, as well as spectacular river views.
Doi Luang - Bus
Situated in the territory of Chiang Dao’s scenic wild life sanctuary, ancient Doi Luang is Thailand’s third tallest (2,225 metres) limestone mountain. Positioned on the summits of Kiw Lom and Doi Chiang Dao, visitors will find two wonderful viewpoints from which where they can enjoy the amazing scenery created by the mountain mist and surrounding vegetation.
From Doi Luang, the nearest bus station is located in Chiang Dao. From Chiang Mai, there are six daily bus services to Tha Ton that stop here en-route to Chiang Dao, a trip of about an hour and a half. Getting around Doi Luang is best done with a hired motorcycle, available at most guesthouses.
Chiang Rai Bus Terminal 1 - Bus
Mueang Chiang Rai is a city in northern Thailand and a good base for exploring the surrounding region. The city’s old bus station is located in the city centre and is a hub for buses to destinations in Chiang Rai province. The city’s new bus station is seven kilometres south of the city and serves bus companies operating on intercity routes.
Bus operators call the old station Terminal 1 and the new one Terminal 2. Options for travel between the two are songthaew or tuktuk. Songthaews are cheap and depart when they have a full load of passengers. Among destinations served by Chiang Rai Terminal 1 are Mae Sai and Chiang Khong, the locations of international border crossings for Myanmar and Laos respectively.
People heading to Mae Sai have a choice of regular buses or air-conditioned mini-buses. Regular buses depart every thirty minutes in the daytime, but stop frequently and can take up to two hours to travel between the locations. Mini-buses are quicker. Buses from Mueang Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong leave every hour between 06:00 and 17:00 and take two hours.
Terminal 1 has several food and beverage stalls as well as public toilets. This depot is close to the city’s famed Night Bazaar. Accommodation within five minutes’ walk includes perennial backpacker favourite City Home Guest House and the more upmarket Wangcome Hotel Chiang Rai. Songthaew and tuk-tuk drivers are usually on hand to transport arriving bus passengers.
Terminal 2 is just off Highway 1, the principal route between Bangkok and Mae Sai. Buses from Mochit terminal in Bangkok take around 14 hours to cover the 850kms to Chiang Rai. There are several different classes of bus on this route. Most of the services depart in the evening. It pays to make an online booking to avoid waiting at Mochit at peak holiday times.
Thoeng - Bus
Nestled between the Doi Lan and Doi Kham mountain ranges, the town of Thoeng is built on the site of an ancient Lanna kingdom. Regular buses make the three-hour journey from Chiang Rai. Daily buses also travel to Thoeng from Chiang Khong, as well as the Arcade terminal in Chiang Mai and even all the way from Bangkok’s Mochit terminal.
There are the usual tuk-tuks, songthaews and motorcycle taxis for charter in Thoeng, and you will find a selection of them parked outside the bus station. Close to the bus station are many street vendors, and there is no shortage of restaurants and eateries in town.
There is a small selection of budget accommodation available, but the area is renowned for its upmarket hotels. Lanna Thai Villas and Upcountry Bungalows are two of the best, and both offer free pick-up services from the bus station. For an extra cost, they will even pick you up from Chiang Rai Airport.
The Khun Plong reservoir is a popular fishing spot, and along the riverbanks of the Ing River fresh fish is on sale. For a view over the Ing River's lowland plains, head to Wat Phra That Chom Cho. This ancient site plays host to a traditional ceremony every year on 6th May.
Mae Chan - Bus
Situated 29kms from Chiang Rai, the colourful town of Mae Chan serves as a trading post for communities of Yao and Akha tribal people, who make regular trips out of the mountains to sell silver and other handicrafts.
Situated on the highway between Mae Sai and Chiang Rai, Mae Chan is easily reached from Chiang Rai. A bus from the main bus station in Chiang Rai takes 30 minutes. Trains also depart for Mae Chan from Bangkok’s Hua Lumphong station on the Chiang Rai line regularly. Mae Chan district contains a good number of temples, plus the Doi Tung Royal Villa and Mae Fa Luang garden. Accommodation is available in the area, or visitors may make daytrips from Chiang Rai.
Wiang Kalong - Bus
Two ancient city wall layers and a moat surround the village of Wiang Kalong, which is also the name of a Wiang Pa Pao subdistrict in Thailand's Chiang Rai province. Wiang Kalong is less than 750kms north of Bangkok and well worth a stop along the well serviced bus route between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai.
Wiang Kalong's most famous attraction is the ceramics factory which has produced the village's famous terra cotta pottery for centuries. Wiang Kalong's namesake temple is an impressive complex containing a community learning centre. The nearest noteworthy hotels are Suanthip Vana Resort, Montharntham Resort Ruknailuang, and Mohn Mye Horm Resort.
Phan - Bus
Phan is small urban area 50kms south of Chiang Rai and 750kms north of Bangkok. It provides easy access to Khunchae and Doi Luang national parks. Highway 1 runs all the way down from Mae Sai on the Myanmar border through Chiang Rai, Phan and on to Bangkok.
Buses between Mae Sai and Chiang Rai and Bangkok’s Mochit terminal call at Phan en route. Northbound VIP buses from Bangkok take around 11 hours to reach Phan, but the trip is slightly longer on standard buses. The VIP buses tend to have cold air-conditioning and passengers should have some warm clothing on. Journey times to Chiang Rai are one hour.