The variety of sights and activities which Chiang Rai province can offer to a traveller is greatly diverse. Whether you are after archaeological wonders of Chiang Saen, finest teas of hilly Mae Salong, arguably the best Thai coffee of Doi Tung, or busy vibe of border towns of Chiang Khong or Mae Sai, Chiang Rai will not disappoint you. The provincial capital itself is a charming little city with relaxed atmosphere, friendly locals and tasty food. Elegant northern temples, misty mountainous vistas and Western-style cafes do not lack. Taking into account good accommodation options, chances that you will stay longer in Chiang Rai than you have expected, are high.
How to get from Bangkok to Chiang Rai
The northernmost province of Thailand, Chiang Rai lies some 800 km to the north of Bangkok, so be prepared for at least a twelve-hour journey.
From Bangkok to Chiang Rai by busDirect buses from Bangkok to Chiang Rai leave from the Northern Bus Terminal in Bangkok, Morchit. The majority of buses depart in the evening and arrive early in the morning – in fact, it is the most convenient way to get to Chiang Rai from Bangkok as you save both the precious daytime of your journey and some baht on a hotel room. In peak periods, i.e. in winter and during festivals in October or April, it is highly advisable to book tickets at least a couple of days in advance.
Bangkok Busline and Siam First, among others, operate overnight VIP buses from Morchit to Chiang Rai. The former has a VIP bus at 6.10pm (arriving at 5.55am) and the latter offers two buses at 7pm and 7.20pm, both arriving around 6am. Tickets cost THB720, and the service provided on board is very much similar: all buses have toilets, serve a bottle of water and some snacks and make at least a couple of stops at larger gas stations with convenience stores, coffee shops and food courts. At the beginning of your journey be ready for an ‘entertainment TV program’, but it is usually shut down in an hour or so. All the long-haul overnight buses provide blankets, but sometimes even those are not enough as the temperature inside the bus tends to be freezing, so have some warm clothes at hand.
*Bangkok Busline also has an Express bus leaving at 8.30pm and reaching Chiang Rai at 7am with tickets sold at a bit lower price (THB620). It is also ok, though you will have less knee and elbow space. In general the company gets great reviews from travellers, so a ride with Bangkok Busline is a sure bet.
From Bangkok to Chiang Rai by trainNo, there is no railway line passing through Chiang Rai. If you want to travel by train by all means, head from Bangkok to Chiang Mai first and then cover the final leg by bus. There are numerous bus departures from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai throughout the day with tickets easily bought right on the spot.
Tip: Chiang Rai bound buses depart from the Arcade bus station in Chiang Mai, located three km from the train station. You can get there by tuk-tuk (THB80). The journey from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai takes about three hours. On their way to Chiang Rai, buses pass by the famous Wat Rong Khun, aka the White Temple. You can ask the driver to let you get off the bus near the temple and continue your journey to Chiang Rai a couple of hours later, just flagging a passing by bus down.
From Bangkok to Chiang Rai by planeTo cut your travel time from Bangkok to Chiang Rai, consider flying between the two cities. Instead of spending about 12 hours travelling by an overnight bus, you can get to the northern city of Chiang Rai in an hour and a half.
Thai Lion Air, one of the latest additions to the low-cost carries scene in Thailand, operates four daily flights from Don Mueang airport in Bangkok to Chiang Rai Airport and offers very competitive prices. On most days you can get tickets at as low as THB1000, but in busy periods be prepared to pay up to THB2000 per person one way. This fare includes 15 kg of checked-in luggage and 7 kg of cabin luggage; if you need more luggage allowance, you can always buy extra kgs for THB400. There are flights at 8.20am, 12.35pm, 5.15pm and 6.40pm. The last two arrive in Chiang Rai after dark, so it is a good idea to have your accommodation already booked.
In Bangkok Lion Air is based in Don Mueang International Airport to the north of the capital. To get there, use airport shuttle buses (routes A1 and A2). A1 starts from Morchit bus terminal and A2 originates at the Victory Monument, calling en route to Sanam Pao, Ari, Saphan Kwai and Morchit BTS stations (THB30). The latter is also served by A1 route. Travel time depends on traffic and is from 60 to 80 minutes. There are commuter trains between Hua Lamphong train station and Don Mueang airport, too. Trains take about 50 minutes to get from the railway station to the airport and are always a secure bet. Operating time is from 4.20am till 10.25pm.
Chiang Rai International Airport serves almost exclusively the Chiang Rai–Bangkok route, though there is at least one international flight to the Chinese city of Kunming. The airport is located 8 km to the northeast of the city centre and the only way to get to the city from the airport is to use a taxi. Rates fluctuate between THB100 and THB200 depending on whether you take a metred cab or the airport service with a flat rate. If you book your accommodation in advance, it is worth inquiring at your hotel whether they provide a complimentary pick-up, but only some of the more expensive ones do. Tuk-tuks are not allowed to pick up passengers at the airport; you can walk out and try to catch one in Phaholyothin Road, but there is not much sense in doing it, as you most probably will be asked to pay about THB150 for a ride to the city centre.
Tip: There are counters of car rental companies at Chiang Rai Airport. If you are planning to rent a car, shop around as the rates offered are sometimes very reasonable.
Chiang Rai is rather flat and relatively small which makes bicycles a great choice for getting around. You can rent bicycles through the majority of guesthouses (from THB100 per day); motorbikes are also available with daily rates starting from THB200. For short rides around the city tuk-tuks charge about THB60.
For many travellers Chiang Rai serves as a convenient base for trekking in the nearby mountains and visiting local hill tribes. The easiest way to do it is to join a package tour offered by some of the guesthouses. There are several highly revered temples in the city, including Wat Phra Kaew, where, as the legend puts it, the famous Emerald Buddha image was discovered in the 15th century. While in Chiang Rai, do not miss a modern creation of Charlemchai Kositpipat, an otherworldly white temple, which has actually become the most recognizable symbol of Chiang Rai.
Sop Ruak, a small town one hour to the north of Chiang Rai, is a touristy heart of the Golden Triangle. The borders of the three countries – Thailand, Laos and Myanmar – meet there. A vast area around it is notorious for opium production – for many years, the Golden Triangle remained the world’s largest opium producer. Two museums of Sop Ruak, the Hall of Opium and the House of Opium, have comprehensive expositions dedicated to the opium-related past of the region. The Hall of Opium is a large modern museum with multimedia displays; the House of Opium is much smaller but has a good historical collection of tools and implements used in the trade.
From Chiang Rai to Laos: cruising along the Mekong and zip-lining in Bokeo
Chiang Rai is a popular starting point for getting to Laos through Chiang Khong–Huai Xai border crossing. Buses for Chiang Khong depart from Chiang Rai from morning till early afternoon and bring you to the border in 2½ hours. Visas to Laos can be obtained on arrival at the Lao side of the border on the other side of the Mekong River. In December 2013 the fourth Thai-Lao Friendship bridge linked Thai Chiang Khong with Huai Xai in Lao, replacing thus a previously used ferry crossing.
Most travellers head to Huai Xai to take a slow boat to Pak Beng and Luang Prabang. The landscapes along the way are idyllic, true, though a two-day trip with a night stop in Pak Beng is sometimes too much. IIt is not a bad idea to consider taking a touristy cruise instead which follows the same route but offers more comfort.
There is another popular activity to try in Huai Xai, which is zip-lining in Nam Kan National park in Bokeo. Though there are a lot of opportunities to do canopying or zip-lining in Thailand, too, Bokeo operator offers much more interesting experience bringing you to the jungle for a two nights and three days tour. You will sleep in tree houses high above the ground and most probably meet rare black gibbons which were discovered in Bokeo in 1980s. The whole thing is not dirt cheap, but is you can afford it, definitely do.