Chiang Rai Travel Guide

Chiang Rai

Chiang Rai Province is the northernmost province of Thailand. As the province is at the very top of Thailand, it borders Myanmar and Laos. The close proximity to these countries has allowed the cultures to influence the province of Chiang Rai.

The province is average sized and is home to approximately 1,130,000 citizens.

There are an abundance of different people from the different cultures from the surrounding countries, and the rest of Thailand obviously. The provincial capital, also named Chiang Rai is a honey pot of mixed races and mixed language citizens.

Arriving by plane really is a joy when flying into the nearest airport to Chiang Rai. ‘Mae Fah Luang-Chiang International Airport’ is only 8km from the city centre, so really isn’t far. Flights are available from all parts of Thailand.

The Mekong river, although not the biggest river, runs through the centre of the provincial capital, and is home to many hill-tribes along its banks. The Mekong links to other rivers such as the Mae Rim Valley River and acts as a carrier river. It has an amazing and fascinating mix of colours that varies between locations.

Chiang Rai city lies 565 metres (1885 feet) above sea level in a large fertile valley. Along the valley there’s an abundance of wildlife and vegetation of all different kinds. The river banks are lined with trees. The cool refreshing climate is a favourite of local Thai people and of world travellers alike.

There is a very famous and popular night market with a more subdued atmosphere than that of the bustling city centre of the provincial capital and the other cities and towns in Chiang Rai Province. Surprisingly, the pollution levels around the night time market are very low, some of the lowest levels in the whole of Thailand in fact. Local sellers are given special precedence in the market to sell their wares to the weary travellers. The market is not for from the city centre of Chiang Rai, and if you don’t want to walk you can always take a ride on a local form of transport, such as the Tuk-Tuk.

Hill tribe fabrics, beads, needlework, and silver dominates the city and whole province of Chiang Rai. There are many food courts in Chiang Rai city, selling a number of northern Thai dishes, and Asian dishes. Day time and night time snacks are available. Or, you can go into one of many pubs and just relax, enjoy the city, and people watch.

Geography of Chiang Rai

The province of Chiang Rai, and its capital city that is also called Chiang Rai is Thailand’s northernmost province. The province is situated between north latitude 14 degrees and east longitude 49 degrees.

The whole province covers an area of 11,678 square kilometres, making it the 12th largest province in Thailand. The provincial capital is approximately 785 km north of the capital of Thailand, Bangkok.

The province is divided into administrative districts, sub-districts, amphoes, or king-amphoes. There are 13 in total, some larger than the others for political and economical reasons.

Chiang Rai city is 62 km from the Burmese border, so is easily and quickly accessible from Myanmar. The city is also only 60 km from the Laos border, so again is easily accessed from Laos. This has allowed an influx of immigrants from the border countries to move into the city and province of Chiang Rai.

The landscape within and surrounding Chiang Rai is flat and heavily vegetated, or is hilly with various rivers running through and around them. Many of the hill tribes are located within the limestone hilled areas of the province. Limestone cliffs are visible from miles around, and the view really is breath taking.

The climate of Chiang Rai province is actually quite stable throughout the year. On average the yearly average high temperature is approximately 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius) and the yearly average low is approximately 65 degrees Fahrenheit (18 degrees Celsius). The hottest month is April with an average high of 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius). During this month weather warnings are often issued due to the hot and humid weather and the frequent thunderstorms experienced this time of year.

The official population of Chiang Rai city is 62,000 people, but this does not include the suburbs, towns, villages, and local tribes, so the actual population could be well over 200,000 citizens. 12.5% of the population of the city are members of local hill tribes, which is a collective term for the ethnic minority groups of northern Thailand such as the Karen, Akha, Lisu, Meo, and Muser tribes.

Many Chinese immigrants have moved to the province of Chiang Mai. The Chinese population has merged in with the native Thai citizens, and has created a “Thainese” ethnicity. Well over half of the businesses in the Chiang Rai are owned by the Chinese population.


Transportation in Chiang Rai province, and especially within Chiang Rai city is relatively well organised, if not a little hectic at different times of the day and at different times of the year. The province is easily accessible by plane from the major cities of Thailand. As Bangkok holds the country’s largest and most important International airport, daily flights are available from the airport to Chiang Rai International Airport with flight times of approximately 1 hour and 30 minutes, with flights run by Thai Airways, Air Asia, Nok Air, and One to Go Airlines. Trains are not available to the city, as the train lines end at Chiang Mai city, but boats along the rivers, and buses which run along the Burmese border are available with travel times of approximately 14 hours.

The geography of Chiang Rai is very complicated and a little confusing, but it is an amazing province, and must be visited.

The History of Chiang Rai

Chiang Rai is absolutely steeped in history, both from its past rulers, and from its past inhabitants. Many reminders of these historical events can be still be seen today.

Chiang Rai was founded in the year 1262 AD by King Ramkhamhaeng (1279-1299 AD) of the Sukhothai Kingdom of Thailand. Thirty four years later, King Ramkhamhaeng founded Chiang Rai as a capital city, and centre of the Lanna Thai Kingdom (circa 1262-1558 AD). The Lanna Thai Kingdom covered the areas of Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, Phayao, Nan, and many other provinces in the North of Thailand at present.

During the years 1558 to 1774 AD, the Lanna Kingdom was a Burmese colony, and many of the native Thai people were oppressed by their rulers. But finally, King Taksin (1767-1782 AD), the King of Siam of the Thonburi period, won the realm back from the Burmese, and the Lanna Thai Kingdom became a dependency of Siam (former name of Thailand). Until 1933 Chiang Rai was ruled as a frontier town when it became a province of Siam.

Legend has it that King Ramkhamhaeng was chasing down a runaway prize elephant and finally recaptured it at the foot of Doi Tong Hill. Taking this as a good sign, the King founded the city of Chiang Rai on that spot. The King built the temple of Wat Phrathat Doi Tong at the top of the Doi Tong hill. A short way down from the hill there is a Chinese shrine that backs into the hillside under the temple. The sign reads Hall of the Godfather of Doi Tong. It is written in Thai, and was erected as a thank you shrine to the founding Father of the city and province of Chiang Rai.

The Capital Chiang Rai was once a walled city along with the neighbouring city of Chiang Mai. The walls were constructed as defences and the protection of the city, as being on the border it was prone to attack from neighbouring forces. In the 19th century the walls were knocked down on the advice of a visiting Dutch engineer who believed that the walls were bad for public health.

Apparently, the walls restricted the flow of fresh air to the city. A few years ago, the city Fathers tried to make the city walls more appealing to visitors, but due to the lack of any actual archaeological of photographic evidence, the rebuilding effort failed.

In the last 50 years, many Chinese immigrants have arrived into the city to escape from Chinese Communist oppression. The village of Doi Mae Salong is extremely unique and over the years since the Chinese arrived, the village has changed and merged with the local Thai traditions. The Chinese have planted hundreds of Soolong tea plantations.

Remnants of Ancient Burmese occupation are very evident in the local traditions and buildings in the different areas of the city. Kaow Soy curries, which are an ancient Burmese food, are widely available in Chiang Rai.

Local citizens are just as proud of their ancient historical Bangkok royal family as they are of their founding father, and of the multiple cultures that have merged over the years to create the modern city and province of Chiang Rai.

Local Thai people and expats really are friendly and welcoming in Chiang Rai. The Thai people will show you their legendary charm and will always be there for you, just to have a chat with, or to help you if you are in need of it.

There are many adventure and health resorts in the province of Chiang Rai. You can take a relaxing break to forget the world and your problems at home, or you can take an adventure break, taking elephant treks along the rivers and in the forests.

What to see and do

Chiang Rai is famous for many things. There are popular events that tourist and locals alike all love. The cultures and traditions in Chiang Rai city and the Chiang Rai province have all added to the effect.

Everyone knows about the famous Thai food, so what can be better than learning to cook and create the food for yourself? The Suwannee Thai Cooking Class is a privately run cookery school. The school is run by Suwannee, who takes you around the Chiang Rai city market to gather the necessary ingredients for your Thai dishes, and then she takes you to the school and shows you how to cook the food using traditional Thai methods. This is a must for the food connoisseur, and you get a free tour of the famous city market included.

Chiang Rai night market is a magnet for all kinds of visitors to the province. Every tourist wants to buy something as a souvenir to take home for family and friends, or to keep so that they can remember their trip. At the Chiang Rai night market you will be able to buy local Thai clothing, pottery, beads, etc. and when you have no energy left after all the shopping, then why not have a relaxing foot massage by a local Thai woman? It’s cheap and relaxing, and you won’t want it to stop.

Chiang Rai may not have a beach, but it does have many different bodies of water that should be visited at least once whilst in the province. The ‘Golden Triangle’ is the most famous body of water in the region, where the borders of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet. The rivers of Chiang Rai provide the people with transport, food and leisure and getting out of the water allows you to get closer to the culture of Chiang Rai.

January is probably the most lively and eventful month in the Chiang Rai calendar. The whole month is set aside to commemorate the founding Father of the city and province. The ‘King Meng Rai Festival’ is an event to celebrate the 13th century creation of the city. Parades, culturally driven performances and songs are sung to celebrate the past. Extremely colourful and atmospheric, it’s undeniably an unforgettable experience.

The most important Buddhist festival in the Buddhist calendar is the ‘Visakha Bucha’ which is held on May’s full moon. On this day in history, Buddha was supposedly born, achieved enlightenment, and died (all on separate occasions).

Candlelight vigils, parades, and religious ceremonies are held in temples right across Chiang Rai. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to help the locals celebrate the event. Travellers and pilgrims from right across the globe come to Chiang Rai and you should join them.

There is always something to do and see in Chiang Rai. Once you have seen and experienced the sights and sounds of the city and province, you will want to return with all of your friends and family.

Attractions of Chiang Rai

There are many tourist attractions in the city and province of Chiang Rai. With many a reference to the history and culture of the region, the attractions range from markets to temples. There is always something to do and plenty of experiences for all travellers, young and old.

Located outside of the city walls, some 200 metres from the visitors centre, the most famous historic site, Wat Pa Sak lies. On the site there is a deserted temple with ornamental stucco motifs. The temple is regarded as one of the most beautiful examples of Lanna architecture in Northern Thailand. In 1925, Prince Saen Phu built the temple to contain Buddha’s relics. He planted 300 teak trees in the grounds of the temple. There are 22 historic remains on the site of the temple, the most famous of these being the main bell-shaped chedi with its 5 tapering spires. The spires were designed in the design of the pagan (Phukam) architecture.

A major attraction that is popular with both tourists and locals is called ‘The Golden Triangle’ in English. The English name comes from the meeting of Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand, but to the locals it is called ‘Sop Ruak’, since this is where the Mekong and Ruak rivers meet.

The area has in the past been famous for the sinister growth of opium, but those days have passed and today the area is one of the largest tourist traps in Thailand. At the ‘Golden Triangle’ you will see the natural boundaries that the river provides between the 3 neighbouring countries. The rivers flow through the hills and forested areas of the area and the views are absolutely stunning. Many people take a private boat ride on the rivers, and visit the Phra That Doi Pu Khao temple which is located on the hill just before the Golden Triangle and is believed to have been built by a King of Wiang Hirannakhon Ngoen Yang in the mid-8th century. Remains of antiquities are in the Viharn with crumbled Chedis.

The Chiang Rai province is very famous for its natural healing and relaxation centres. The most famous of these is Wang Jao Clinic and Spa in which you can have certified massages by professional therapists to help you forget your troubles and relax. There are various treatments available for all of the troubles that everyday life may bring with it. The most famous massage offered in the spa is a coffee spa and coffee massage. Locally grown coffee is used in many various ways. You will just have to experience these for yourself to understand the true potential that is offered.

Chiang Saen, next to the city of Chiang Rai, but still in the province of Chiang Rai, south of the Golden Triangle is home to the Chiang Saen wall ruins. The walls that were built during the occupation periods from 1262 to 1803 as homes and businesses can still be vaguely seen today. In 1803, Chiang Saen was left as a ghost town until 1900, but the town has still not repopulated much since then. The walls really are a must-see and cannot be missed for all travellers to Chiang Rai province.

Chiang Rai photo Gallery

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