In a nutshell
One of the oldest settlements in Northern Thailand, Chiang Saen has gone through alternate fortunes for ages before being totally forgotten and abandoned in the 19th century.
Why go to Chiang Saen
Slowly repopulated at the beginning of the last century, it is nowadays a picturesque and charming riverside town with a laid back atmosphere which is ideal for a few relaxing days on the Mekong River.
With way more touristy opportunities that one could expect, it is surprisingly overlooked by the western mass tourism, with the majority of the guided tours quickly stopping here in the afternoon after spending the day in the nearby Golden Triangle, and almost no one deciding to stay overnight. An interesting National Museum, historic temples, ancient ruins and the lazy riverfront are all good reason to stop in Chiang Saen at least for a couple of days.
A few solid accommodation options suitable to every budget, appealing dinner opportunities and the good transportation connections to Golden Triangle and Mae Sai make of Chiang Saen a great starting point if you want to visit the area independently and with more freedom without having to rely on one of the overcrowded and superficial day tour from Chiang Rai.
When to go to Chiang Saen
The dry and cooler season between November and February is the best part of the year to visit Chiang Saen. In December and January expect some of the nights to be quite cold, so don’t forget to bring a jumper with you. April and May can be as hot as everywhere else in Thailand. The rainy season is still a pleasant time to visit if you don’t mind a few hours of rain, usually in the late afternoon. If you want to avoid the worst months in terms of precipitation, don’t plan your visit in July, August and September.
If you’re travelling during Songkran (Thai New Year, mid of April), don’t miss the annual boat racing festival on the river, where boats from 4 different country (Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and China) will compete against each other. Cultural performances and beauty contests will also take place during the festival.
Where to stay in Chiang Saen
There’s not a huge choice of places to stay in Chiang Saen, but the fact that the majority of the tourists will not stay overnight makes it easy to find a bed at any time even without reservation.
A couple of cheap guesthouses can be found on the riverside, immediately north of the police station. Chiang Saen Guesthouse (45/2 Rimkhong Rd) is one of the older establishment in town, and even if it has lost a bit of the charm that make it a mythical place among backpackers in the 90’s, it is still one of the most affordable choices with a great location on the Mekong. Prices start at THB200 for a small bungalow with private toilette. In newer hotels with better facilities and river view, an air-con room with private toilette will come at THB600. Walk south from the police station for 10 minutes to check out Mekong Sunshine Resort. A wide offer of different rooms and bungalows, organized around a beautiful garden right on the river bank. Prices start at THB800.
What to eat in Chiang Saen
If you have only one night in Chiang Saen, the best way to spend it is by far at one of the barbecue stalls that appears every late afternoon along the river. Simple low tables with mats to sit on the floor, fantastic views of the Mekong at sunset, cheap and delicious food grilled on the spot in front of you and a cold beer, what else do you need? Some of the places don’t have an English menu, but ordering will be easy anyway pointing out whatever you want them to cook on the grill. Try the bamboo fish, where bamboo stick are used to cook the freshwater fish right on the charcoal.
If you prefer a more comfortable solution, there’s no shortage of restaurants with air-con and English menus. Decent western food is usually available in many of them.
How to get around Chiang Saen
Even if it’s quite a large town, almost everything you want to see and do in Chiang Saen is located at walking distance from where your bus will drop you off. In case you stay longer than one day and you want some freedom to explore the area by yourself, motorbikes can be rented at few different shops for THB250 a day, or you can ask your guesthouse and they’ll be able to arrange it for you. Bicycles can also be rented and they’re a practical and easy way to move around.
How to get to and from Chiang Saen
The most common way to reach Chiang Saen is with a day trip from Chiang Rai. All the travel agencies from there will offer you a day tour combining Chiang Saen and the Golden Triangle, but we would suggest you to consider it only if you’re on a strict schedule and you don’t have time to plan it by yourself. An independent tour with overnight staying is easy to organize.
Several buses and minivans departs all day long from Chiang Rai. They cost THB40 and it will take 2 hours to cover the distance. In Chiang Saen they will drop you at a bus stop near the police station, not far from the river.
Direct buses from/to Bangkok Mo Chit Station are available leaving from different points on the main road. Ask your hotel to give you the right directions. Departures are mainly in the evening to cover the 15 hours trip overnight, but there’s also a morning bus if you prefer to travel during the day. Prices start at THB650 for a regular air-con bus, while the most comfortable VIP will cost you THB950.
A public blue songthaew travels between Mae Sai and Chiang Saen stopping in the Golden Triangle. Tickets are THB50 but keep in mind that this service is available only in the morning.
Safe travel in Chiang Saen
Chiang Saen can be considered a very safe place to travel, especially for all those tourists who hardly move from the riverfront. If you decide to rent a motorbike, always wear a helmet and be careful in the traffic that at certain hours can be a bit problematic. In the unfortunate case you would need it, the main hospital is located just west of town.