Mountains, hill tribes, the Golden Triangle and high altitude cultivation of opium poppies; this is what Chiang Rai used to be all about. Today, the poppies are gone, but the other attractions remain.
Chiang Rai city, the provincial capital, is the discovery point but don’t rush out of town! This bustling little metropolis – founded in 1262 by Phaya Mangrai, but never part of Siam until 1786 – is always rewarding and a capital way to prepare for later adventures.
Chiang Rai can be reached by air, land or water. There are daily flights operated by One Two GO Airlines and an armada of buses arrive each day from Bangkok, Chiang Mai and nearby towns like Chiang Saen and Mae Sai. The city’s location on the banks of the Kok River also makes it possible to arrive by boat. The adventurous can glide into Chiang Rai, after a three day journey from Tha Ton (a village near Fang) on a raft complete with sleeping and cooking facilities. Those in a hurry roar into town on a long-tail boat that makes the journey from Tha Ton in five hours.
Chiang Rai is equipped with loads of samlors (three-wheeled bicycles), three & four wheeled tuk-tuks, and pick-up trucks with seats in the back that will transport you about town. The pick-ups follow fixed routes and charge fixed prices; other transport will take you directly to your destination, but you must negotiate your fare. Avis, Budget and National – as well as lots of local companies – have car rental facilities in Chiang Rai. Taxis from the airport run at a pricey 200 baht; trips to the airport in a tuk tuk can be negotiated for about 100 baht.
There are loads of places in and around Chiang Rai to spend the night. For splendour and elegance the Dusit Island Resort (0-5371-5777) is happily ensconced on its own little island in the middle of the Mae Nam Kok. Other upmarket choices include The Legend Chiang Rai (0-5391-0400), found on the shores of the river and the Wiang Inn (0-5371-1533) located right in the heart of Chiang Rai town. Of the less expensive hotels, the Golden Triangle Inn (0-5371-1339) located in the middle of town is a perennial favourite. If you are into the guesthouse scene, Chiang Rai is loaded with places to stay. Good things are said about the White House Guest House (0-5371-5081 on Thanon Phahonyothin and Ben Guest House (0 5371-6775) at an out-of-the way location, near Thanon Sankhong Noi.
You won’t starve in Chiang Rai as the city is teeming with restaurants. For budget travellers, vendors can be found on every street corner – especially at evenings in the area near the Night Bazaar, by the bus station. Local restaurants are noted for being spic and span; several - with gleaming stainless steel tables - can be found on Thanon Banphapprakan. A Thai restaurant that is popular with farang is the Teak House Restaurant, located a couple of blocks from the Clock Tower. Chiang Rai has several restaurants serving Western food, including the Old Dutch Restaurant and Nova, an excellent Lebanese snack shop, both on Thanon Phahonyothin. Around the corner, the gleaming Mayura Bakery and Café has long been a favourite. Italian food lovers head for Da Vinci near the night market. Two Chinese places that draw rave reviews are the Meuang Thong next to the Wiang Inn hotel and the Yunnan Restaurant on Kwae Wai Road. If you are looking for elegance, try The Peak at the Dusit Island Resort.
Chiang Rai is a quiet town, but if you are into karaoke you will be pleased. There are numerous bars ranging from the humble and rundown to elegant spots at hotels and resorts, like Torino Karaoke at the Wiang Inn and the Music Room at the Wangcome Hotel. There are several Thai-style discos in town, including the Pa Klab at the Inn Come Hotel. Expats in search of a beer often head for Teepee on Thanon Phahonyothin. For those who can’t live without Pattaya-style beer bars, there are a few in the middle of town on a small soi near the Clock Tower.
Chiang Rai’s most revered temple is Wat Phra Kaew, thought to be the original home of the famous Emerald Buddha - now found at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok. In 1990, a new Buddha crafted from Canadian jade was created. Named the Phra Yok Chiang Rai (Chiang Rai Jade Buddha), it is similar, but slightly smaller than the original. It can be found at the wat in a beautiful structure called Haw Phra Kaew. Lanna architecture admirers should head for Wat Phra Singh, once home of a famous Buddha image that is now found at a wat of the same name inChiang Mai.
The Hilltribe Museum and Education Centre, operated by the Population & Community Development Association - a non-profit organization best known for its Cabbages and Condoms restaurants - has a museum and handicraft centre devoted to hilltribe displays, open daily from 9am – 6pm.The Oup Kham Museum on Na Khai Road is a private museum devoted primarily to traditional Tai household utensils; open daily.
Chiang Rai is packed with tour operators, all of which operate tours to hilltribe villages and other popular tourist sights. Other options are trips to Chiang Saen, Sop Ruak and the Golden Triangle. More ambitious trips are overnight sojourns that include lodging and visits to places such as Doi Mae Salong, Doi Tung, Mae Sai and Chiang Tung in neighbouring Myanmar. It is also possible to head for the river and simply rent a longtail boat for an hour or so. It is a good way to experience life on the river and, perhaps, visit a village or two.
Many visitors to Chiang Rai combine cultural sightseeing with time on the golf course. Nearby courses include the Robert Trent Jones designed course at Santiburi Country Club (0 5366-2821). It is located 9km from town on route 1152. Farther afield – 35km from town on route 1173 – is the Waterford Valley Golf Club (0-5395-3445), an 18-hole par 72 course.
All of the large resorts have spas to soothe and pamper. Highly regarded is the Chiang Saen Spa at the Legend Hotel (0-5391-0400) found right in town. The River House Hotel and Spa (0-5375-0829), just out of town and overlooking the Kok River, has a large menu of treatments. For a traditional Thai massage, try Kasemrat Siburin Hospital or Kand Hatthawet in front of the Wang Kham Hotel. There are numerous hot springs near Chiang Rai with mineral baths. Pong Phra Bat Hot Spring, turn left at km marker 836 on Phahonyothin Road, is very popular and open each day from 9am.
Hilltribe handicrafts are what visitors buy in Chiang Rai. One of the best and least expensive places to buy is from the vendors who appear each evening at the Night Bazaar. Although usually clad in traditional costumes, they are used to the ways of the outside world so you will have to bargain hard to get a good price. Several shops along Thanon Phahonyothin, including Silver Birch, Gong Ngoen and the upmarket Ego, sell handicrafts, silver and antiques, sometimes at prices cheaper than in Chiang Mai. There is a One Tambon One Product (OTOP) shop at Plaza Hayaphokun and a large handicrafts centre just out of town on the A2 highway on the route to Mae Sai.
Published: Jun 2018
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