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Northern Thailand: Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai Travel Guide

January 23, 2020

There's something incredibly special about Thailand's northern region. It's a place of ridiculous beauty - both natural and cultural. A place that's home to the sweetest locals that always make me feel so welcome when I visit. A place that is very affordable, but loved equally by both backpackers and luxury travelers. And a place where it's perfectly okay to chill 24/7 because everyone else is doing the same thing. But what amazes me most about this place is the diversity of experiences that can fill a quick visit. In a mere week, I can pack an itinerary with temple hopping, night markets, cooking classes, luxury spas, tea plantations, waterfalls and rice fields. There's so much to do in the north, and one of Thailand's strengths as a travel destination is its tourist infrastructure - the ease and accessibility of these experiences make it incredibly easy to play tourist, especially in Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai. 

 

It's one of Chiang Rai's newest temples, and also one of the most beautiful. 

 

CHIANG RAI

 

DO

Baan Dam (House of Black and White)

The creation of local artist Thawan Duchanee, Baan Dam is a museum that houses contemporary art pieces. Unlike most sights in Chiang Rai, Baan Dam's collection of structures is very dark - lots of wood, and lots of black. (Address: 333​ หมู่ 13 พิพิธภัณฑ์บ้านดำ Nang Lae, อำเภอเมือง Chiang Rai; Hours: 9 AM-5 PM; Admission: 80 baht)

 

Chou Fong Tea Plantation

It's a half day trip to reach this beautiful tea plantation in the north's Mae Chan District, but definitely worth the journey. There are several viewpoints with 360 views of the rolling tea fields, but the place is massive so it's helpful to have a car. We hired a private driver, and it was about an hour's journey each way. (Hours: 8:30 AM-5:30 PM; Admission: FREE)

 

Wat Huay Pla Kung

Chiang Rai really is home to some of the prettiest temple settings in Thailand. Wat Huay Pla Kung is a cluster of several pretty sites, particularly a massive white Buddha, dreamy white dragons and a nine-story pagoda. (Address: 553 Mueang Chiang Rai District, Chiang Rai; Hours: 7 AM-9:30 PM; Admission: FREE)

 

Wat Rong Kuhn (White Temple)

Arrive at opening to avoid crowds of people - this is the most popular tourist attraction in Chiang Rai. Known to most tourists as the White Temple, Wat Rong Kuhn is actually a privately owned art exhibit, designed by local artist Ajarn Chalermchai Kositpipat. The structure is incredibly ornate in its imagery, and everything is designed in white with flecks of silver. (Address: 60 หมู่ที่ 1 Phahonyothin Rd, Pa O Don Chai, Mueang Chiang Rai; Hours 8 AM-5:30 PM Monday-Friday, 8 AM-5:30 PM Saturday and Sunday; Admission: 100 THB)

 

Wat Rong Seur Ten (Blue Temple)

Another place to visit early. This is one of the newer temples in Chiang Rai, but arguably one of the prettiest. Wat Rong Teur Ten is designed with a vibrant blue and gold exterior, and surreal interior blues that seems to glow around a massive white Buddha. (Address: หมู่ที่ 2 306 Maekok Rd, Mueang Chiang Rai; Hours: 7 AM-8 PM; Admission: FREE)

 

EAT

Chiang Rai Night Bazaar

It's not the largest night market in Thailand (in fact, it's quite small), but it's definitely my favorite! Dozens of food stalls surround a sea of yellow tables and fairy lights where locals and tourists alike flock for pad thai, fried fish, hot pot, curry, rice dishes, stir fry and more. The food options are endless, and very cheap. (Address: Wiang, Mueang Chiang Rai; Hours: 6 PM-11 PM daily)

 

Full Moon Wellness Cafe

I hit the jackpot in Chiang Rai with the Full Moon Wellness Cafe. This local gem sits in the heart of the city, serving up the tastiest vegan options, smoothies and granola. It's the perfect stop on a hot humid day, in between temple visits. (Address: 118/9 Sankhongnoi Rd, Rop Wiang Sub-district, Mueang Chiang Rai; Hours: 8:30 AM-5 PM, closed Wednesdays)

 

STAY
Le Meridien Chiang Rai Resort

Unlike Chiang Mai, the luxury options in Chiang Rai are far and few between. For just a few days in town, the Le Meridien is far from fancy, but it's clean, modern and the prices are very reasonable. The property is also situated in town, ideal for Night Market runs in the evening, as well as daytrips around the region. (Address: 221 / 2 Moo 20 Kwaewai Road Tambon Robwieng, Amphur Muang Tambon Robwieng, Chiang Rai)

 

GETTING THERE

Bus

The easiest (and most affordable) option traveling from Chiang Mai is direct VIP bus. I've used Green Bus Thailand - the company schedules buses almost every hour starting at 8 AM, and the ride is smooth and comfortable. Price was approximately 320 baht, one way.

 

Fly

From Bangkok, Chiang Rai is a quick one hour flight. There are several budget air carrier options - I flew Nok Air, and the flight was under $30 USD one way. Value Alliance is the world’s first low cost carrier alliance in Asia Pacific, I've used them before for flights to Singapore and The Philippines. 

 

 Soaking in the artistry of Baan Dam (House of Black and White).

 

 We were so hungry after a full day of sightseeing that we were the first ones to eat dinner at the city's famous night market.

 

 Found myself a dragon in Chiang Rai.

 

 Smoothies, fresh juice and avocado toast at the cutest little cafe.

 

 Inside the incredibly ornate Blue Temple.

 

The intense heat and humidity made this short climb to Wat Huay Pla Kung's white Buddha very intense.

 

Such a grand parking entry to Chiang Rai's Blue Temple.

 

The White Temple is actually a privately owned art exhibit.

 

CHIANG MAI

Please note that Chiang Mai has become synonymous with elephant rides. For whatever reason, there is a romanticism about it and uninformed tourists show up and book elephant trekking tours. Please, DO NOT ride an elephant. And do not partake in any type of activity that involves climbing on an elephant's back, trunk or any part of its body. The abuse an elephant goes through to become domesticated, as well as the abuse they suffer as a tourist attraction is completely horrifying and heart breaking. And be weary of organizations that call themselves an elephant sanctuary or elephant rescue - several of them are not, so please do your research and be an informed tourist There are many articles about the subject online, here are a few for reference: BBC, The Guardian, The Dodo

 

DO

Bua Tong Waterfalls (Sticky Waterfalls)
While waterfalls are notoriously slippery from slimy algae, the mineral deposits at Bua Tong give the rocks a sponge-like grip, making them much easier to climb. It's a 90-minute drive north to reach these crystal clear waterfalls set in the lush Thai jungle. (Location: Mae Ho Phra, Mae Taeng District; Hours: 8 AM-5 PM)

 

Mae Wang 

Mae Wang is home to some of the loveliest trekking in the Chiang Mai region. There are multi-day treks available that include rice fields, waterfalls, jungle and overnight homestays is some of the local villages. Be sure to book with a company that does not sell elephant trekking. 

 

Night Market

The sprawling night market of Chiang Mai is one of the most famous in Thailand, and for good reason. Spend at least one evening eating, shopping and bargaining your way through the endless sea of stalls. One evening will give you a taste, but it would probably take a week to see everything, the market is massive. (Address: along Chang Klan Road between Thapae and Sridonchai Roads, Chiang Mai; Hours: 6 PM-10:30 PM)

 

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

An iconic Chiang Mai temple located on the outskirts of the city. From the base of the temple, it's 306-steps to reach the top, or a quick ride up a funicular. (Address: 9 หมู่ที่ 9 Mueang Chiang Mai; Hours: 5 AM-9 PM: Admission: 50 baht)

 

Wat Lok Moli 

One of the older temples in Chiang Mai. It's worth a visit to see the historic chedi, ONLY if you won't be visiting Ayutthaya, Sukothai or Si Satchanalai. (Address: 298/1Manee Nopparat Rd., Chiang Mai; Hours: 6 AM-7 PM; Admission: FREE)

 

Wat Sri Suphan 

Often called the silver temple of Chiang Mai because of the ornate hand-crafted silver design. (Address: 100 Wua Lai Rd., Tambon Hai Ya, Amphoe Mueang, Chiang Mai; Hours: 8 AM-6 PM; Admission: FREE)

 

Wat Suan Dok

This beautiful group of white-washed mausoleums and temples sits tucked away in the heart of the city. Wat Suan Dok has become a bit more popular in recent years, so visit early in the morning to experience the place alone - it's completely serene. This is my favorite spot in Chiang Mai. (Address: 139 Suthep Rd, Suthep, Mueang Chiang Mai; Hours: 6 AM-9 PM; Admission: FREE)

 

EAT

Baan Rai Yam Yen 

Completely local, and one of my favorite restaurants in Chiang Mai, although I was recently told that the establishment has changed ownership (not sure if this has affected the food). My favorite dishes are the Pla Rad Prik (fried whole fish with sweet chili sauce) and the Pad Yod Fak Maew (stir fried chayote). (Address: หมู่ 3 เจริญราษฎร์ 14, Fa Ham, Mueang Chiang Mai; Hours: 11 AM-12 AM)

 

Rustic & Blue

The cutest cafe in Chiang Mai is Rustic & Blue. You'll go for the photos, but stay for the food. With its teal on brown decor, tiny green plants and Wanderlust selfie wall, the charming little cafe is made for Instagram feeds. Menu includes colorful smoothies, acai bowls, soups, baked goods and fresh sandwiches. As healthy as it is cute. (Address: Nimmana Haeminda Rd Lane 7, Tambon Su Thep, Mueang Chiang Mai; Hours: 8:30 AM-9:30 PM

 

Tropi Hoola Cafe

The cutest little cafe front fully equipped with outdoor swings to enjoy while sipping on a drink. Photo opps are better than the actual boba. (Address: Nimmana Haeminda Rd. Lane 13, Tambon Su Thep, Amphoe Mueang Chiang Mai; Hours: 12 PM-8 PM)

 

STAY

Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai

For a completely serene escape from the bustle of town, I suggest retreating to the Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai. A haven of wellness, the property sits amongst lush green rice terraces that serve up an epic backdrop for the resort's iconic infinity pools. The resort pavilions and villas are wonderfully, several of them overlooking the rice paddies. Definitely one of the most luxurious properties in Chiang Mai.

 

GUIDE

Window of Thailand

For anyone in need of a guide (or just good company) while exploring northern Thailand, I whole-heartedly recommend Tui from Window of Thailand. She is based in Chiang Mai, but takes guests all over the north for both day and multi-day tours, everything completely tailored to the guest. I've visited Chiang Mai twice and Pai once with Tui, and she's become a dear friend over the years. Tui is a wealth of knowledge and knows all the best spots when it comes to culture, sightseeing, food and shopping. 

 

Another visit to my favorite temple in Thailand - Wat Suan Dok. 

 

Absolutely love the palace setting of the Dhara Dhevi Resort. 

 

Four Season Resort Chiang Mai has one of the prettiest pools in the region - set in the middle of the rice fields. 

 

 Thai lunch feast at Four Season Resort Chiang Mai.

 

 The most delicious spread of welcome treats in my suite.

 

 Wat Suan Sok.

 

 All the vibes at Rustic and Blue.

 

 The cutest cafe in Chiang Mai.

 

 

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