If you haven’t heard of Chiang Rai yet, then now is the time to get up to speed. This northern Thai province offers everything from misty jungle landscapes, to unique hill tribe cultures, mouth-watering local dishes and a burgeoning art scene.
The gateway to the region is the city of Chiang Rai. Wondering how to spend the day in this up-and-coming destination? Here’s what we got up to on Day 1 of our Chiang Rai province trip.
8:00 – Take off!
From Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, it takes a mere 90 minutes to fly to Chiang Rai. We travelled with Thai Smile airways – enjoying complimentary coffee (goodbye jet-lag!) enroute.
10:30 – It’s never too early for noodles
You know what they say, “when in Thailand… try Koi Soi”. This iconic northern Thai dish combines soft egg noodles, a creamy coconut broth and tender chicken thigh, topped off with crispy fried noodles and a dash of chilli. We stopped off at Khao Soi Wijitra, a local favourite, and enjoyed a steaming bowl on the terrace.
11:30 – The Temple of the Emerald Buddha
No visit to Chiang Rai is complete without a quick stop at Wat Pra Kaew, or “The Temple of the Emerald Buddha”. This glittering temple complex is the original home of Thailand’s national Buddha statue (now located in the Grand Palace, Bangkok).
The Emerald Buddha was discovered when a bolt of lightening struck the Wat Pa Yia monastery in Chiang Rai, damaging the stucco and revealing a splendid jade statue concealed beneath. Legend has it that the Emerald Buddha brings prosperity and luck to the Thai people, making it a revered national symbol.
Wat Pra Kaew is home to a replica of the original statue, as well as a wide range of religious artifacts that make it the perfect place to while away a morning.
12:30 – Lanna Culture Preservation Centre (Oob Kam Museum)
Oob Kam Museum is a treasure-trove of fascinating objects linked to the history and cultures of the region’s hill tribes. From authentic traditional costumes, to religious relics and jewelry; the founder has dedicated his life to scouring Asia for priceless cultural artifacts linked to the history of Chiang Rai province and its people.
With passionate guides, fascinating objects and arguably the best green tea in Thailand on offer, this quirky museum may just be one of the highlights of your Chiang Rai trip.
Top tip: Don’t forget to walk away with a bag of Emperor Tea – a sweet green tea blend – for only 600 bhat.
13:30 – Wat? More temples?!
With its witty and whimsical design, Wat Rong Khun never fails to impress. Not only is the temple an Instagram addict’s dream; it’s also the face of Chiang Rai’s flourishing art scene. The temple is the masterpiece of Chalermchai Kositpipat, a Thai visual artist who began the Wat Rong Khun project in 1997.
The exterior of the temple is bone-white; a deliberate departure from the rich gold and red palette of most Thai temples. Here, white represents the purity of the Buddha.
The design of the temple’s exterior is both ostentatious and bizarre. Visitors must cross a bridge surrounded by flailing hands, before reaching the main pagoda, symbolising the journey from heaven to hell; from profanity to the divine.
Inside, the temple boasts some pretty impressive (and somewhat bizarre) frescoes. Currently, the designs feature David Bowie, Michael Jackson and Batman (amongst others). The paintings are famously updated every year – so there’s always a surprise waiting for you at Wat Rong Khun.
Far from being just another attractive building, the temple is a rich work of art, which captures the creativity and unique spirit of Chiang Rai.
14:30 – Thai-m for a feast
Ma Long Ter restaurant (situated a stone’s throw away from the Chiang Rai Art Bridge) is a foodie’s paradise. Particular highlights of the dishes on offer include rice cooked in butterfly pea flower, fried pork belly with chilli paste and a rich lamb curry with coconut.
After our meal, we took a quick look around the adjacent art gallery, which is full of unique pieces created by local artists.
We also admired this mural situated outside of the gallery; a moving tribute to the divers who helped save 13 children from Tham Luang Nang Non cave in 2018.
16:00 – Heading up into the hills
Chiang Rai is the gateway to rural Northern Thailand. We finished the day by heading up into the hills, ready to spend our first night with the Akha hill tribe in Hloyo… but more on that tomorrow.
Have you travelled in Chiang Rai before? I’d love to hear your suggestions for a day in this unique Thai city.