With a far-reaching history before its 34-year stretch as the second capital of the Lanna Kingdom, Chiang Rai is considered one of the oldest settlements in Thailand. It may be less well known than Chiang Mai as a tourist destination on its own, but what makes Chiang Rai fascinating is its strong association with the Tai ethnic culture – the origins of Lanna people – which can still be seen in the temple and museum architecture around the city area.
While retaining a strong Lanna identity, however, Chiang Rai City has also been blessed by a new artistic movement, which attempts to modernize the Lanna’s cultural essence so that it offers a new perspective on what constitutes ‘Lanna-ness’ in the modern world. The famous White Temple is an extreme example of this movement, followed by the blazing red ubosot (main chapel) at Wat Klang Wieng. On the opposite spectrum, head over to Oub Kham Museum for a concentrated dose of ancient Lanna history and cultural heritage. Better yet, visit the recommended sights below to get both the ancient and modern perspectives.
Chiang Rai Clock Tower
If you have already paid a visit to the White Temple, you will not be surprised to see the twisting and swirling spires on the golden clock tower where Phaholyothin Road and Banpaprakan Road meet. Built-in 2008 to honor His Majesty King Bhumibhol Adulyadej, the clock tower bears the signature style of Chalermchai Kositpipat, the artist who conceived and built the White Temple. Every evening, at 19:00, 20:00 and 21:00, the clock tower comes to life in a light-and-sound display. While it’s not exactly a must-see, it still draws quite a gathering of visitors and is an interesting addition to the city’s central landmark.
Hill-Tribes Museum and Education Centre
If you plan to visit the hill-tribe villages, it’s a good idea to first drop by the museum and get familiarised with their culture. Part of a local NGO group, PDA Chiang Rai, which is the brainchild of former senator Meechai Weera-waithaya and Thailand’s most outspoken advocate for safe sex, the museum aims to build awareness for responsible tourism by educating visitors about Thailand’s ethnic hill-tribe communities and local etiquettes that they should observe when visiting the hill-tribe villages.
King Mengrai the Great Monument
The spiritual heart of Chiang Rai, this life-size monument is dedicated to King Mengrai the Great (r. 1262 – 1311), founder of the Lanna Kingdom. He established the first capital in Chiang Saen (1262), before relocating it to the west bank of the Ping River in Chiang Mai (1296).
Backed by three giant golden tungs (Lanna flags), the King’s monument is the first thing you see when approaching the city from the Highway 1 (Paholyothin Road). Locals usually stop here to pay respect to the city’s founding father before continuing on with their journey. Here is a good place to take a rest or buy some souvenirs from the nearby crafts center.
Mae Fah Luang Art & Cultural Park
If you are short on time but would like to get an over-arching introduction to Chiang Rai’s past and immediate history as well as its cultural heritage, then head over to Mae Fah Luang Art & Cultural Park (about 5km west of the city centre). Set in a lovely landscaped lake garden is a cluster of teak structures, constructed in the styles of traditional Lanna and Tai hill-tribes. Learn about the kingdom’s 400-year history, as you browse the museum’s fascinating collection of secular and religious art and artifacts.
Visit the Haw Kham pavilion and learn about animist and Buddhist rituals, which still co-exist in modern-day Lanna culture. Haw Kaew houses a permanent exhibition of teakwood artifacts. The museum’s admission fee, along with sales at the museum’s crafts shop, is used to support the northern ethnic hill-tribes and their crafts.
Oub Kham Museum
If you prefer to delve deeper into Lanna history, art, and cultural heritage, the splendid collection at Oub Kham Museum is a must-see. Witness all the different strands that come together, woven into the beautiful tapestry that is the Lanna Kingdom, from royal regalia and costumes to an assortment of rare antiques, pottery, ancient Buddha images, artifacts, and tribal costumes. The collections are housed inside five exhibition rooms and a man-made cave. Don’t miss the magnificent centerpiece: the golden throne of Chiang Tung, fashioned from nine pieces of ornately carved teakwood, gilded with gold.
The Naval City Pillar
Fusing ancient Khmer and Lanna concepts of the universe and man’s position in relation to them, the Naval City Pillar is a series of carved stone pillars – about 1m high – set atop Jom Thong Hill. The main pillar – set on a marble pedestal and slightly bigger than the rest – is surrounded by 108 satellite pillars which occupy the six-tiered concentric circles that radiate around it, representing the six lower levels of heaven. Together, the entire site has a supernatural air to it. While up here, catch a glimpse of downtown Chiang Rai, the Kok River, or visit Wat Phra That Doi Chom Thong located in the same vicinity.
October to February is the best time to visit Chiang Rai as the weather is much cooler and less humid. The average annual temperature is around 24 ℃, but it can go as high as 36 ℃, and as low as 10-15 ℃, depending on the more warmer or cooler seasons. Winters are an excellent time to trek and go on a cruise.
It is warm all year round in Chiang Rai but the mornings and evenings can be chilly, so dress appropriately and wear light, breathable clothing for the mid-day heat but bring a scarf or light jacket. The Buddhist temples all have strict dress codes and you will need to cover your shoulders and knees.
Thai baht (฿)
The ideal time to visit Chiang Rai is between October and April. Weather during this period is mostly cool and pleasant with light breeze, which is also why it’s peak tourist season.
⭐⭐⭐⭐Despite the long drive, a fabulous way to see the top end of Thailand
Our guide M, was very informative and certainly explained the day’s itinerary. Enough stops were provided for the toilet and refreshments if you wanted to. There was always cold water if you wanted it and a fresh face/hand wipe. The hot springs are not for swimming and just provide a chance to stretch and see eggs boiled from the natural hot springs.
⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐Wonderful guide who told a lot about Thailand’s culture
A great day trip which fully where as expected and written in the resume.
⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐Full country-side experience of Chiang Mai
Em (or M), our tour guide, was amazing. His unique experience and view is what made the trip unforgettable for us.
⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐Very comfortable trip despite long distance
Thanks to our guide and driver who did everything to make our trip comfortable
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