Exploring the Northern provinces of Thailand is where you can still experience many of the traditional heart and culture of the country. As part of the ancient Lanna Kingdom and influences from neighbouring countries of Laos and Myanmar (formerly Burma) to as far as India and China, it is a melting pot of rich customs, food styles, handicrafts, sights and travel experiences. Infused with old ethnic tribes from the hills of Laos and Myanmar all the way down to old settlements of Chinese heritage, you can see it all if you spend time to explore the different parts of this beautiful province of Chiang Rai.
I have spent many years in Thailand but mostly in the south and south-east regions of the country so I thought it was about time to explore a little of the north. Travelling with my review and photo partner, we allocated 3 days 2 nights in Chiang Rai as part of our plan. We prepared by listing as many places on our bucket list for Chiang Rai to review and explore.
We started our trip from Bangkok at Don Meung Airport Terminal 2 for a domestic flight by Nok Air to Chiang Rai. It was the first flight out so we decided to have breakfast at McDonalds in the airport. Much to our chagrin later, we found that the McDonald meal cost us more than our meal at the best restaurants in Chiang Rai. Therefore one word of advice, if you can wait till you reach Chiang Rai, you get your money worth of a great meal!
This was also the first time we were flying Nok Air as we wanted to try the local domestic airline. Nok Air is a local Thai budget airline servicing most provinces in Thailand. I was pleasantly surprised by their quick service at the check-in counter at the airport and even more surprised that we were served meals and drinks on board the flight which was an Auntie Anne pretzel, not bad for a budget airline to entice further customers to use their flight services. The response must have been good to their additional service as it was a full flight that early morning. The flight took about an hour and a little more to reach Chiang Rai and as you approach the province from the air you can see beautiful green rice fields and a good view of the mountain range that makes this province so unique. It is such a contrast to the aerial view of Bangkok, and an exciting one for us to get to explore this region.
We arrive at Mae Fah Luang Chiang Rai International airport and our pre-booked car rental from Bank Car Rent and Runway Car Rent was waiting for us at the arrival entrance. We got a brand new Toyota Vios with a full tank and instructions of what to do when we have completed our rental, which was very easy. All you have to do is just fill up a full tank and return it to the airport where the rental personnel will be waiting to collect the car. You pay the cost of the rental plus a small deposit when you collect the car and get your deposit refund when you return the car, absolutely no fuss and simple. I recommend that you do try and get a GPS system with the car if you can as some places can be difficult to find in Chiang Rai and lucky we brought our own GPS system.
The Mae Fah Luang Chiang Rai International Airport is half an hour from the city of Chiang Rai. If you do not plan to self-drive in Chiang Rai or join a tour, then there are taxis and buses that can bring you to the city centre and you can make your way there to any destination. The only inconvenience with public transport in Chiang Rai is the waiting time and it is best to get a bus route map and information from the information counter at the airport before you do so.
Our first stop of the journey which was on our bucket list of Chiang Rai was the Melt in your mouth Chiang Rai restaurant located in the heart of Chiang Rai along the Kok River. This place much like other places later on was difficult to locate even with the GPS as it brought you to the back of the restaurant rather than the front! The Melt in your mouth Chiang Rai restaurant has been touted as one of the Top 10 restaurants in Chiang Rai and rightly so as we had our brunch there. You can read the review here.
After our meal we made our way to Mae Sai which was an hour from Chiang Rai city as we had booked our hotel there since it was close to the Myanmar border. Driving along the highway from Chiang Rai to Mae Sai, there are plenty of places that we would like to put into our future bucket list for Chiang Rai, some of these are places less frequented by tourists from what we have seen. We drove north reaching Mae Sai, where you can see the immigration checkpoint into Myanmar. Our motel was located in a back lane behind the checkpoint which was a small lane on the left at the end of the highway through two rows of small shop houses. In a few minutes we reached Kongkam House a small motel with great personal service and a really nice place to stay for a few nights. You can read the review here.
A short walk from Kongkam House through an underpass and over a canal brought us to the Myanmar border. Here is the gateway that is the last point before leaving the Thai side into Myanmar. Please make sure you find out about your visas to Thailand before you exit Thailand into Myanmar or you might find yourself stranded with less days in Thailand than planned. There are many small shops along the walkway in the underpass and towards this gateway where you can browse for souvenirs such as wooden puppets, semi-precious stones, t-shirts, silk and more. If you are not pressed for time, you can spend a day or two in Myanmar to explore the border town or take a motorbike taxi at the border to go a little deeper into Myanmar. You can read about the city of Mae Sai here.
The next and last agenda of our first day in Chiang Rai was to head out to the much heard about and formerly notorious Golden Triangle. This location was known as the heart of the opium trade in the early 1920s till 1990s when the Queen Mother of Thailand encouraged alternate crops and incorporated Royal projects to entice, educate and change the image of the territory from opium production to cash crop agriculture on the Thai side. The Golden Triangle is a half hour drive from both Mae Sai and Chiang Rai city. Read the review for the Golden Triangle here.
Day 2 in Chiang Rai began in the early morning after breakfast at our motel. We heard it was fruit picking season in Northern Thailand and some of the fruits in season were Laici (a small succulent fruit that grows in bunches on trees with a thin red skin and opaque white meat with a singular seed), Longan (slightly similar to the Laici but with a brown skin), mangoes and starfruit. The Laici and Longan is an indigenous fruit to the northern provinces as well as the small but very sweet pineapples which are about the size of your hand. In the colder months you can get winter fruits such as strawberries here in Chiang Rai. We were invited to review PB Valley Chiang Rai and the well-known Kasalong Restaurant. This place is great for eco-tourism with more than 5,000 rai of land including a river and mountains to explore. You can read our full review here.
Next stop on our list was the iconic and very beautiful Wat Rong Khun or better known as the White Temple. Created by the famous Thai National artist Ajarn Chalermchai Kositpipat, it is a beautiful gallery of sculptures and art works which is depicted in the styles representing a Buddhist temple in design. If you ever visit Chiang Rai, this is one of the must see iconic venues in the province and you can read about it here. We spent around 2 hours and a little more exploring this place which has several smaller galleries of the artist’s works.
By the time we finished at Wat Rong Khun it was already evening and we headed back towards Mae Sai but stopped along the way to see the Choui Fong tea plantation. This tea plantation is one of the oldest and most famous of tea plantations in Chiang Rai and Thailand. Producer of the finest green tea, Pu Erh Chinese tea and off course the Thai black tea, it is a beautiful landscape of matured tea shrubs as far as your eyes can see in the valley and surrounding hills. There is also a tea production area and tea house where you can sample the teas and try one of the tea brewing methods. Please note that this place closes at 5.00pm but the viewpoints are open throughout and a great place to take pictures of sunsets and sunrises. You can read the review of the Choui Fong tea plantation here.
After all the walking and driving we were off course hungry enough to literally “eat a horse” and spotted this place along the route back to our motel. On the outside you would easily miss the Krua Sukhotai restaurant as the only indications are a few food banners fluttering in the wind next to another smaller restaurant which we mistook for the Krua Sukhotai. Smaller signs with arrows pointed inwards through a small lane to the actual restaurant and when you step into the restaurant the scene of rolling hills, valleys and landscaped gardens unfold before you. This restaurant not only has wonderful authentic Northern Thai cuisine but a view to short of the cliche “to die for”. If you want a wonderful sunset dinner to remember your trip in Chiang Rai, this is it. A true hidden gem in Chiang Rai as mostly locals and not tourists patronage this place, so it is a well kept secret among the locals. Read about the Krua Sukhotai here.
This is our final day in Chiang Rai and we wanted to make the most of it as our flight back to Bangkok was in the late evening. We had a very early breakfast and checked out of our motel as the plan was to go to places that was heading towards Chiang Rai city. We visited one famous icon yesterday and today we decided that we had to go to the contrast of the White Temple which was Baan Daam or more famous as the Black House. Created by another very famous artist with as much contrast as his creation is to the White Temple and it’s creator, fellow National Artist Khun Thawan Duchanee who was a poet, rock musician and artist personified. His creation of Baan Daam is as bizarre as the White Temple but on a darker note while both the creators depict teachings and interpretations of Buddhism in different light and mannerism. Read the interesting story of Baan Daam here.
Not to be missed are the ethnic hill tribes of the north. While there are many tribal villages scattered around Chiang Rai, we opted for this village where it is a consortium of five different hill tribes located in one village. The 5 hill tribe village of Chiang Rai is where you can experience the customs, traditions, lifestyle and do a home stay among the tribes. We did not have much time to spend here and will be back on another trip to explore more on this very interesting village as this is where you get to live among them and try their way of life in the hills. Find out more about this village in the review here.
Our last stop on this trip before going back to the airport for our flight back to Bangkok was another of the Top 10 restaurants in Chiang Rai for a late lunch. The Chivit Thamma Dar restaurant is just a little off from the Melt in Your Mouth restaurant but offering a different variety of cuisine. The natural environment and food was a delight and made our last meal in Chiang Rai a memorable one. Read about Chivit Thamma Dar here.
There were still many more places left in our bucket list with additional ones added in on-site but we will have to come back for a longer period to check them all out. While Chiang Rai may not have the excitement of a burgeoning city like Bangkok or Pattaya but it offers one of the most charming back to nature holidays on our lists of must visit places in Thailand. This lists has not even covered the wellness and health destinations or the national parks which Chiang Rai is also famous for but we shall leave it for the next few trips out to the north here in Thailand!