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Chiangrai, the northern-most province in Thailand, is rich in culture, natural beauty and history, notably for being the former center of the world’s notorious opium trade and the ancient city of Chiangsan which dated as far back as year 545. Bordering Laos and Burma, Chiang Rai was originally known for its role as part of the “Golden Triangle,” but recently tourists have been enticed here by must-see destinations like the “White Temple” or Wat Rong Khun.
Chiangrai is well-known as a nature-lover’s paradise, particularly “Phu Chi Fah” for its sea of mist at sunrise and ‘Doi Tung’ for its year round blooms of flowers and impressive gardens.
From Bangkok, the quickest way to get to Chiang Rai is on a short flight from either one of the two major airports, but be prepared to shell out at least 4000 baht for a round trip. If you want to save a little cash, you can catch an overnight van or bus and arrive 14 hours later well rested. From Chiang Mai, you can take a three hour ride on the “Green Bus,” which runs out of the Arcade Bus Station.
Getting around town is nice and easy once you get there. Near the bus terminal are tuk-tuks and songthaews at your convenience to drive you to and from destinations, or you can have the freedom to explore by renting a moped or motorcycle from nearby shops.
The Golden Triangle covers three countries: Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos, the former center of the world’s notorious opium trade. Due to the fact, there is a museum called ‘The House of Opium’ which exhibits the story of opium and related paraphernalia from back in the heyday of opium. Another fun activity to do is taking a boat ride to a nearby island named Don Sao in Laos, there located a small ‘duty-free’ market with cheap alcohol and the most noticeable product being ‘herbal’ liquor containing whole snakes. What’s special here is that even though the island is in Laos, no additional visa for Laos is required. Just pay a small fee and you can say you have been to Laos, although your visit is only limited within the perimeters of the island.
Mae Sai is a market and gateway town that leads up to an exciting border between Thailand and Burma. Just walk across an old bridge from the Thai border and you are in Tachileik, Burma. To cross into Burma, you can acquire a special 1-day visa for you to enter the country during daylight hours given you’re only staying within Tachileik and will return to Mae Sai on the same day.
Things to do here are shopping and sightseeing. Almost everything is counterfeited products from China, from DVDs, to hand bags or even cigarettes. Moreover, Mae Sai (and Tachileik) is an excellent place to buy gemstones, but beware if you don’t have a reliable source and cannot distinguish between the real and fake.
Huddled up against the banks of the Mekhong River and just a 30 minute drive north of Chiang Rai is the quaint and friendly village of Chiang Saen. This charming little town offers a laid back atmosphere and romantic eateries, but also holds on to its historical past with ruins leftover from the earliest inhabitants, scattered all throughout the city. Dating as far back as the year 545, you will see remains of temples and other structures influenced by Khmer and Chinese architecture set amongst the teak trees in harmonious fashion.
Doi Tung’s top attractions include Mae Fah Luang Park (not to be confused with Mae Fah Luang Art and Culture Park) and the Royal Villa, known for gorgeous winter flower gardens and stunning decorating plants which take turn to bloom all year round. In the center of the garden is a sculpture of children standing on one another, the art piece is recognized internationally for its design. At the top of Doi Tung are beautiful twin pagodas, named Phra That Doi Tung, believed to enshrine Lord Buddha’s left collar bone.
When visiting Doi Tung, coffee lovers should not miss an uplifting stop at Doi Tung Café (the local coffee chain is originated here,) the specialty coffee bean is Arabica. Nearby note-worthy destination is Akha and Lahu hill tribe village, famous for silver jewelries and woven textiles.
Doi Mae Salong is best known for its attractive landscape and fat-fetched panoramic views, with an elevation close to 1,800 meters. Past visitors would agree, however, that the best part about the trip are the stunning natural scenery and what you witness along the way to Doi Mae Salong. A popular stop on the way is a gorgeous tea plantation, enjoy tea samples and bring some back home for a light and light-hearted souvenir.
Once there stop for lunch at the Chinese village and visit their war memorial museum, with full blown Chinese architecture, and an interesting history of their settlement here. Another nearby attraction is Phra That Srinakarin or Pagoda at the peak of Doi Mae Salong, for the beautiful architecture and spectacular view.
Wat Rong Khun, also known as the White Temple, is an all-white temple with awe-inspiring architecture and intricate uniquely-designed elements you will not see anywhere else in Thailand or, for that fact, the world. Once you witness the all-white exterior of the temple, which represents Buddha’s purity, you may feel like you are witnessing heaven on earth. This masterpiece was designed and created by Thailand’s celebrated artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat, famous for his Buddhist-inspired contemporary paintings.
Even though Wat Rong Khun was just established in 1998, unlike most other famous places of worship in Thailand that date back centuries, the temple has become a national landmark and is on top of everyone’s must-visit list. Located nearby the temple is a gallery which exhibits the temple creator’s paintings, also well-worth a visit, as his paintings often go for millions of baht.
Chiangrai market is a great place to spend your evening. Here you will find unique items made by the hill tribe people, like silver jewelries, oriental bags, and carved wooden goodies. The price is especially good if you buy directly from their stalls on the market street. As usual, a night market is popular as a cheap, good-eat destination. A bonus here in Chiangrai is the free live entertainment to brighten up your experience. After dinner, you can grab a few drinks from neighboring bars before going back to your hotel for the night. The market is located in the center of town and open from 6 pm to 2 am.
Phu Chi Fah is the best known spot for viewing sunrises in Chiangrai. It is famous for the spectacular “Sea of Mist at Sunrise,” where the mountains below are covered with fog and the sky displays a stunningly vivid spectrum of colors. Once there, visitors will have to do a mini hike on a 1.8 km trail leading up to the viewing point on top of the hill. Before you reach the top of Phu Chi Fah however, you will realize that the massive cliff is a remarkable sight on its own. Standing there and looking below, you will feel like you’re on top of the world!
An overnight stay is recommended, there are many resorts nearby and camping sites are also available. Despite it being 140 km from Chiangrai city, you will be amazed at the crowd of sunrise enthusiasts, especially in the winter time.
Wat Phra Keaw in Chiangrai, with the same name as the famous temple in Bangkok, also shares similar religious significance. The temple once housed the nation’s most sacred Emerald Buddha, now situated in Wat Phra Keaw of Bangkok. Now, Wat Phra Keaw in Chiangrai houses a replica of the Emerald Buddha where you can have a closer appreciation of the statue without the crowd and the unattainable setting.
Even though the temple’s architecture and scale is not comparable to the Wat Phra Keaw of Bangkok, the attraction has its own enchanting adornment with beautiful landscapes, along with a small museum with wonderful antiques and artifacts.
Baan Dum Museum or the Black House is a unique attraction with a beautiful traditional Thai temple-inspired exterior and well-groomed landscape, inside however is filled with eerie decors like animal carcasses and skin such as snakes and crocodiles. The attraction is a complete contrast to Chiangrai’s ‘White Temple.’ While ‘The White Temple’ represents purity with heavenly decors, the Black House is dark in its ambience and has the theme of ‘death’ to it.
An interesting fact is that Baan Dum Museum was the masterpiece of late Thawan Duchanee, a renowned artist and teacher of Chalermchai Kositpipat, the mastermind behind the White Temple.
Boonrawd Farm or Singha Farm was established by the makers of Singha beer - the iconic go-to beer of Thailand. The farm was originally meant to grow barley for the brewery’s beer production, but now it has turned into an agro-tourist attraction with the main focus on its tea plantation. The 8,600 rai of land (3,400 acres) also produces fruits and crops such as Para rubber trees, jujube fruits, barley fields, strawberries, star fruits, mushrooms and green vegetables.
Don’t expect a walk through a brewery on this visit, but rather enjoy blends of tea, especially the farm’s specialty oolong tea, or sample fresh made ice-cream (Singha beer is of course available at the farm’s main restaurant). You can rent a bike and cycle around, see beautiful flower fields and rows of tea plants - a nice place to spend a relaxing day.
A short drive from the city center is Mae Luang Art and Culture Park, a historic museum with a peaceful surrounding garden. The Haw Kham, or Golden Pavilion, is a uniquely constructed teak building hosting a large collection of art and artifacts from the Lanna and Tai cultures. The gardens, or “Culture Park,” is a place of great beauty and tranquility; a great place to have a relaxing stroll or picnic.
Chiang Rai is hottest and driest in April, but cools slightly as the rainy season picks up starting in late May and lasting until October. The cool season breezes in during the months of December and January, bringing in comfortably mild temperatures with it.