For many travellers, Chiang Rai, Thailand is little more than a launching pad for hill tribe treks and explorations into the Golden Triangle, the border region of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar (Burma), as well as a departure point for Chiang Khong on the Thai-Laos border, for Mekong River cruises.

The first time we visited Chiang Rai in northern Thailand many years ago it was a rushed trip while updating hotels and restaurants for the Dorling Kindersley Thailand guidebook, and our ultimate destination was the Four Seasons Tented Camp in the Golden Triangle. This time, unfortunately, it was another brief trip on our way to the Mekong.

EXPERIENCE Chiang Rai

Chiang Rai has a handful of temples, the most-visited of which is the whimsical white Wat Rong Khun, known as the White Temple, at Ban Rong Khun, 13km away. Designed by artist Chaloemchai Khositphiphat, it was built in 1998 and is adorned with tiny pieces of white glass. Two other temples would probably be more famous if they didn’t contain replicas. The beautiful 14th century Wat Phra Kaew was once home to the Emerald Buddha, housed at the Royal Palace in Bangkok; the replica here is apparently slightly shorter. Wat Phra Sing was once home to an important Buddha statue, now in Chiang Mai, and contains a replica of that image instead. Art buffs should enjoy Baan Dam, the Black House, designed by artist Thawan Duchanee, which actually consists of some 40 black houses, made from various materials and in different architectural styles, containing Thawan’s collections of art, sculpture, and artefacts from around the world.

About Chiang Rai

Around 12% of Chiang Rai’s population is from Thai ethnic minorities such as the Akha, Karen and Lisu hill tribes. To learn about these minorities visit the Hilltribe Museum and Education Centre, which has exhibits on history, culture, agriculture, hunting and fishing, as well as the opium trade and exploitation of tribes for tourism. The Centre offers hill tribe tours, with tour fees going directly to the tribes. At the Mae Fah Luang Art and Cultural Park, you can learn about Lanna art and architecture as you take in the Royal Collection of Lanna Art from the 17th century Lanna kingdom, considered the finest collection in Thailand, as well as the beautiful Haw Kham or Golden Pavilion, set amongst luxuriant botanical gardens.

VOLUNTEER in Chiang Rai

Established in 1981, the Thai-ran Association for AKHA Education and Culture in Thailand receives funding from a dozen different sponsors around the globe, including the UNDP, and operates diverse programmes that help develop 268 Akha hill tribe villages in areas such as education, health care, human rights, agriculture, etc. They have an office in Chiang Rai and offer a range of volunteer opportunities. Arrange these before travelling to Chiang Rai as you’ll need to obtain a work permit. Information here: www.akhaasia.org.

SHOPping in Chiang Rai

Don’t expect chic boutiques or a sprawling night market like you’ll find in Chiang Mai, but the compact Chiang Rai Night Bazaar, between Phaholyothin Road and the bus station in the centre, is a fun place to shop. As you’d expect there are plenty of stalls selling hill tribe handicrafts, including multi-coloured textiles, bedspreads, bags, purses, and clothing, as well as Thai silk, wood carvings, incense, etc, along with cheap clothes, t-shirts, and the like. On weekends, larger markets are set up on two streets closed to traffic with hundreds of stalls selling handicrafts, clothes and food. ‘Saturday Night Walking Street’ takes up some four blocks of Thanalal Road, while the slightly smaller ‘Sunday Walking Street’ is on Sankhongnoi Street.

DRINKing in Chiang Rai

I sipped a decent glass of Thai white wine and Terence an icy Singha in the beer garden-cum-alfresco dining area at the Chiang Rai Night Bazaar Restaurant where two musicians started playing at around 6.30pm. It was a balmy evening and it was a very pleasant spot. The Turntable Jazz Bar at the North Hotel, between the Night Bazaar and Sirikorn Market came recommended for its colossal collection of vinyl jazz records and library of jazz books in its lobby bar. I wouldn’t have minded watching the sunset at Chill Bar by the riverside at Le Meridien Chiang Rai Resort either, but I was eager to eat some Lanna food…

SAVOUR the cuisine of Chiang Rai

Breakfast and lunch were scrummy at Le Meridien where we stayed (see below), which has three restaurants, Lattitude 19 (Lanna style tapas), Favola (Italian) and Latest Recipe (International). Had the tapas place been located overlooking the river where the Italian restaurant is we probably couldn’t have resisted dining there, but instead we opted for the Night Bazaar Food Court. Stalls started to set up around 6pm, when groups of backpackers were already forming big tables to down beers and polish off mixed plates of deep-fried tempura, spring rolls, fritters, and fries. Things were up and running around 7pm and by 9pm the place was packed with locals. There are lots of stalls selling fried insects, as well as the deep fried snacks popular with tourists, but the busiest stalls, boasting the longest lines of locals, were #8 and #41. Stall #8 offers 16 different types of Pad Thai noodles and rice, served within or without egg, while #41 (along with neighbouring #40) specialises in hot pots.

From #8, the stall consistently busiest with locals throughout the night, we ordered the Pad Thai noodles everyone else was ordering, with pork, chicken, seafood, and cashew nuts, in egg, and doused liberally with chilli oil. It was colossal, it was delicious, and it cost just 60 baht or UK£1.2/US$2. The hot pot from #41 was equally scrumptious and loads of fun. You order at the counter and they bring to your table a coal burner, terracotta pot brimming with hot fragrant stock, plates of raw seafood or pork/beef/chicken (for 100 baht or around UK£2/US$3), along with baskets of fresh green beans, cabbage, basil, egg, and sauce, and you cook your ingredients just the way you like. We were very much focused on our food, but there were some periodic performances of classical Thai dance on the centre stage. Bangkok’s Cabbages and Condoms restaurant also has a Chiang Rai branch next to the Hilltribe Museum; profits go to the parent Population and Community Development Association to fund family planning and sex education programmes.

Staying in Chiang Rai

We checked into the beautiful Le Meridien Chiang Rai Resort, which is a 10-minute drive out of town on the tranquil Mae Kok River. The hotel provides a regular free shuttle service into town and back, stopping at the Night Bazaar and key stops, such as popular restaurants. We were upgraded to a very stylish, spacious and comfortable Grand Deluxe Room with a long veranda overlooking the swimming pool and river. Had we not have been staying in such heavenly accommodation, I’m sure we would have explored Chiang Rai more than we did, however, the property was so alluring it was hard to tear ourselves away. For the first time in a long time (and we can’t remember when) we had naps (we’d been up since 4am), read books, and did laps in the swimming pool for much of the day. With lush frangipani-filled gardens, three restaurants (see above), a waterside bar, a massive swimming pool, sprawling landscaped lawns, and a spa, this is easily the best accommodation in town and is ideal if you want to relax.

Getting to Chiang Rai

The easiest way to get to Chiang Rai from Bangkok is to take a 90-minute flight with Thai Airways or Air Asia. We flew Air Asia, leaving Bangkok at an ungodly 6.45am, so we were in Chiang Rai at 8am, just in time for breakfast. The Mae Fah Luang Chiang Rai International Airport (CEI) is 8kms from the centre and a pre-paid taxi (pay at the desk at Arrivals) costs THB 200 (£4/US$6) to Chiang Rai. Last time we were in Chiang Rai we booked a car online from Avis that we picked up on arrival. There are also buses from Chiang Mai, 200kms southwest, and you can get to Chiang Mai by plane, bus or train from Bangkok. Chiang Rai is 62kms south of Mae Sai on the border with Myanmar and 60kms southwest of Chiang Saen on the Laos border. You can get around Chiang Rai by tuk-tuk, songthaew or taxi.

Have you been to Chiang Rai recently? Feel free to leave some tips for our readers in the Comments below.

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