On a trip to northern Thailand, Chiang Rai is an excellent spot to spend a couple days. It's a quieter town than the more touristy Chiang Mai which is further south. But its unique temples, relaxed vibe, and beautiful countryside make it a worthy destination. In this post, I'll show you how to make the most of 2 days in Chiang Rai.
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Traveling to/from Chiang Rai
Depending on the rest of your trip itinerary, you can choose from a few options to get to/from Chiang Rai. On our trip, we flew into Chiang Rai, via Bangkok, from Hong Kong. However, we left Chiang Rai on a bus to get to our next destination in Laos.
Traveling to Chiang Rai by Plane
As it was the first stop on our trip, we flew into Chiang Rai International Airport on an AirAsia flight from Hong Kong. Because there are no direct flights from Hong Kong to Chiang Rai though, we had a layover in Bangkok.
From Hong Kong, we took an evening flight to Bangkok's Don Mueang International Airport. I'm not a fan of sleeping overnight in airports, so spent the night in a local hotel instead. The next day, we returned to the airport for a short flight to Chiang Rai.
What Happens to Checked Luggage on Layover in Bangkok?
Since we booked our flights from Hong Kong to Chiang Rai on the same ticket, our luggage was checked through to Chiang Rai.
So even though we went through Immigration to leave the airport during our layover in Bangkok, our checked bag stayed in the airport overnight. Luckily, we'd packed a change of clothes in our carry-on luggage for the night!
Once we arrived in Chiang Rai, airport staff directed us to the International Arrivals instead of Domestic. There, we picked up our bag and went through Customs with the luggage. However we didn't have to go through Immigration again.
After arriving at the airport in Chiang Rai, we took a taxi to our hotel. It cost 300 baht which seemed expensive given the distance. But we didn't see any metered taxis running so we took what we could get!
Traveling to Chiang Rai by Bus
If you're coming to Chiang Rai from northern Thailand or Laos, buses are your mode of transportation! Depending on the route, buses vary in type and level of comfort.
After we visited Chiang Rai, we headed to Chiang Khong so we could cross into Laos at the Friendship Bridge. We left from the downtown Chiang Rai bus terminal on a local Thai bus - no aircon + chickens - to Chiang Khong.
The trip was roughly 2 hours and the bus made several stops along the way to let people off and pick others up. Read more about our trip here!
If you're arriving from or going to Chiang Mai or somewhere in Laos, you'll most likely find yourself at the bus terminal outside of town. There are nicer, air-conditioned buses that run on the longer routes.
Traveling to Chiang Rai by Train (not direct)
Although you cannot get the entire way to Chiang Rai on the train, you can get as far as Chiang Mai. The overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai takes ~12 hours. Then from Chiang Mai, it's only a 2-4 hour bus ride to Chiang Rai. A cheaper option than flying and more pleasant than taking the bus the entire way!
2-Day Itinerary for Chiang Rai
Since we arrived mid-afternoon on our first day, we technically had 2.5 days in Chiang Rai. We didn't do a lot on our first afternoon though. Just ate some khao soi - a northern Thai noodle soup with a spicy, coconut broth that you have to try - and found a cute coffee shop near our hotel.
If you have 2 full days, you should have enough time to explore Chiang Rai's temples plus see some of the countryside. I'll share what we did so you have an idea what you can do on your trip!
Day 1 - Exploring Chiang Rai
Getting Around - Motorbike Rental
When Jeremy and I lived in Laos, we drove motorbikes on a daily basis to get around. So whenever we're back in Southeast Asia, we like to rent a motorbike to explore on our own. Chiang Rai has lots of motorbike rental offices around town so it's a convenient option if you're comfortable driving one.
We rented an automatic motorbike (plus 2 helmets) from a place right across the street from our hotel for 250 baht for 24 hours. They required either 1) leaving your passport with them; or 2) leaving a copy of your passport and 3,000 baht deposit. We chose option 2.
Tip: When renting a motorbike, it's a good idea to take a test drive around the block to make sure you're comfortable with it. Check the brakes, air in tires, make sure you know how to lock it, open the seat, etc.
We ended up with a flat tire several kilometers outside of town. Luckily, we found a repair shop and got it fixed for 180 baht in about 15-20 minutes!
Wat Rong Khun - White Temple
No visit to Chiang Rai is complete without visiting this unique and strange temple! Privately owned by local Chiang Rai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, who designed and rebuilt the temple using his private funds. It's one of the weirdest temples I've ever visited!
That it's completely white is odd enough. But as you walk across the bridge to enter the White Temple, hands are below you reaching upward as though from Hell.
Once inside the temple, murals depicting demons as well as modern-day superheroes and villains adorn the walls.
It's fun to walk through and a great spot for photos, but get there early if you don't want to fight with the crowds! Tour buses start arriving by 9am. Trust me, it's not a tranquil scene once they show up!
It took us ~30 minutes to reach the White Temple from our hotel on the motorbike. Admission cost when we visited was 100 baht per person for foreigners.
Like exploring temples? Check out this Guide to Visiting Temples in Bangkok!
Wat Huay Pla Kung (Big Buddha Chiang Rai)
Though I was drawn to visit this temple due what I thought was a big Buddha statue, come to find out - it's not Buddha! The large white statue, which I saw from the plane as we landed in Chiang Rai, is actually a representation of the Goddess of Mercy.
Situated inside the Wat Huay Pla Kung temple complex, you can climb up the stairs to this impressive statue for lovely views of the surrounding countryside. The temple complex also includes a large white hall as well as a 9-story pagoda.
While you can walk around the temple complex for free, if you'd like to climb the statue, you'll have to pay a small entrance fee.
Wat Rong Suea Ten - Blue Temple
Since blue is one of my favorite colors, this new temple, completed in 2016, was a hit with me! The vibrant, deep blues of Wat Rong Suea Ten are so different from most Thai temples. Even the interior paintings were primarily blue!
Although we visited in the afternoon, I think the lighting on this temple would be better in morning when the sun hits the front of the temple.
Admission to this temple was free when we visited. As it grows in popularity, they may have to start charging!
Other Ideas for Day 1
After seeing these three temples and getting our motorbike repaired, we were ready to call it a day.
If you have more time, you could explore some of Chiang Rai's other temples, such as Wat Phra Kaew. This temple once housed the famous Emerald Buddha which now sits in the Royal Palace's Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok.
Or perhaps you might want to check out the Black House, or Baan Dam. I've heard it's strange, disturbing, and maybe not the best attraction for animal-lovers. Haven't visited, so cannot verify those opinions one way or the other!
Day 2 - Day Trip Excursion
Getting Around - Day Excursion by Car with Guide
After seeing a good deal of Chiang Rai on our first day, we decided to explore outside of town. Although the motorbike worked for getting around to the temples nearby, after our flat tire from the day before, we decided to hire a car for our second day.
We signed up for a private tour through our hotel for 2,000 baht per person. This included a driver/guide plus all our entrance fees and our lunch. It seems a bit pricey to me and we probably could've found a better deal not through the hotel. But our guide was friendly, knowledgeable, and let us set the pace for the day which I liked.
Group tours were cheaper but included things we'd already done (i.e. Blue Temple). Also, I think the group tour would have been very rushed since it included several things that we didn't do, but in about the same time frame.
Need itinerary ideas? Check out this Perfect 3-Day Itinerary for First Timers to Bangkok!
Choui Fong Tea Plantation
Our first stop on the tour was the Choui Fong Tea Plantation - about an hour's drive north from Chiang Rai.
Since northern Thailand had a rather dry rainy season this year, most of the surrounding countryside was quite brown already by the end of December.
By contrast, the tea leaves were beautifully green! Since the tea plantation was so lovely, we wandered through the fields taking a bunch of photos!
At the main tea house, we tasted three of the teas they grow on the property. They also have a cafe and gift shop where you can purchase tea products... and we did!
Mae Fah Luang Garden on Doi Tung
My favorite stop on the tour was probably the Mae Fah Luang Gardens on Doi Tung. These beautifully landscaped gardens were in full bloom during our visit in December.
Originally this land was part of the opium trade route, but as part of a development project, it was transformed into gardens that visitors can enjoy. With a combination of temperate and tropical plants, it's a lovely place to wander while admiring the surrounding mountains.
Tip: The parking lots are located a short distance from the park. Shuttles are provided up to the park, but sometimes the queues are long so you may have to wait. Visiting on a weekday, the lines are shorter.
Mae Sai - Thai-Myanmar Border
The town of Mae Sai is a major border crossing between Thailand and Myanmar. Every day, many people from Myanmar cross the border to shop at the markets in the border town. As a result, you'll find a vast array of shops selling all sorts of trinkets and goods.
Since we've visited many markets in Myanmar and Thailand over the years, we walked through them quickly. I recognized a lot of the souvenirs for sale since I've purchased many of them at one time or another!
Although interesting to see the northern most district in Thailand, in my opinion, we could have skipped this stop. My feelings could also stem from the fact that I was super hungry by this point!
Lunch in the Rice Fields
Because we took our time at the stops, we ended up eating lunch quite late. This meant we had the little restaurant where we stopped almost all to ourselves. Not a bad thing since I have a feeling it's a regular stop on the tour group circuit.
Set in the middle of the rice fields, it was a very picturesque place. It would be even more amazing during rainy season when the rice fields are a vibrant green instead of the dry brown.
All our dishes were delicious and bursting with flavor! We ordered:
The Golden Triangle
Our last stop of the day was at the Golden Triangle - the spot where Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet at the joining of the Ruak and Mekong rivers.
For years, this area was the largest opium-producing region in the world. Since they still have trouble with drug trafficking today, you'll have to go through several police checkpoints as you drive north from Chiang Rai.
If you're on a group tour, you may take a boat across to Laos (without going through immigration) while visiting the Golden Triangle. Since we were spending the rest of our trip in Laos, we decided to skip the boat part and just took photos.
Another activity at the Golden Triangle is the Opium Museum. It's included in the tour, but the museum is kind of small with a worn-down feeling. It only took us a few minutes to read through everything.
After the Golden Triangle, our tour was finished so we headed back to Chiang Rai (~1 hour). As we drove, we watched the sunset light up the rice fields then dip below the mountains. It was beautiful!
Heading to Laos? Check out How to Spend a Relaxing Holiday in Luang Prabang!
Chiang Rai Night Markets
Once you're finished with your day's sightseeing, what do you do at night in Chiang Rai? As with many places in Southeast Asia - shopping at night markets is a good option!
Every night, you can visit the Chiang Rai Night Bazaar in the heart of Chiang Rai. These shops sell scarves, purses, wood carvings, and other souvenirs. You can also eat at the large outdoor food court which feels similar to the hawker centers in Malaysia.
Night Bazaar Location: Wiang, central Chiang Rai - across from Bus Terminal 1
Pro Tip: Don't miss the nightly light and music show at the ornate Chiang Rai Clock Tower at the intersection of Thanon Baanpa Pragarn Rd. and Jetyod Rd. It plays at 7pm, 8pm, & 9pm for ~10 minutes as traffic continues to speed around it.
Saturday and Sunday Night Markets
On the weekends, the night markets are livelier with a more local flair. Spilling out onto the streets, many vendors set up shop to sell all kinds of everyday goods in addition to handicrafts. You'll find discount clothing, shoes, electronics, and more food!
Personally I enjoyed the Sunday Night Market the best. Even though many of the vendors are the same as Saturday's, the food options are more plentiful. At the eastern end of the market across from Wat Chetupon, a band plays music in the square while people dance and eat the food they've purchased in the market.
Saturday Night Market: Walking Street Chiang Rai (Thanalai Rd.). Walk north from the Clock Tower on Suk Sathit and you'll run right into it.
Sunday Night Market: Happy Street (Sankhongnoi Rd.) towards Wat Chetupon.
If you're going to Luang Prabang, check out these Tips for Visiting Kuang Si Waterfall!
Other Recommendations for Chiang Rai
Since I only spent a couple days in Chiang Rai, I cannot claim to know all the "best" spots. However, I found a couple great places that I'd like to highlight. Plus, I'll give a brief review of our accommodations in Chiang Rai - the Laluna Hotel & Resort.
A Couple Restaurants I Liked in Chiang Rai
If you're looking for a relaxing place to unwind at the end of a long day, this is a great spot! This charming cafe + bistro + bar along the Kok River is an excellent place to grab a drink and/or dinner.
Pro Tips: If you go for sunset, reserve an outside table ahead of time so you have a good view. And if you forget your mosquito repellent, ask the staff - they have some you can use!
They serve a wide range of food here - both western and Thai - but the northern Thai sausage platter and the spring rolls we ordered were delicious. Also - HUGE portions! It's also one of the only places in Chiang Rai serving craft beer on tap.
For a more affordable and local experience, head to Larb Sanamkeera (or, Lab sanam keela on Google Maps). In a nutshell - a large, open-air restaurant with lots of flavorful meat!
We ordered grilled pork, pork larb, and fried fish with garlic, plus some sticky rice. The larb was spicy and made how locals eat it - chewy innards and all! Although the cats got most of our innards, the flavors were delicious!
The portions were large and we definitely over-ordered. We could have probably ordered two dishes and it would have been plenty of food!
Cute Coffee Shops for Staying Caffeinated
Both of these spots are a little south of downtown near the Laluna Hotel where we stayed. They may be out of the way, but they have good coffee and a laid-back vibe so perhaps still worth the trip?
Fresh and organic, locally grown coffee served in a bright, open, and well-designed shop. The staff are welcoming and the coffee is delicious!
A tiny coffee shop serving delicious espresso and single origin from abroad. Our barista was friendly and knowledgeable about the coffee and happy to make recommendations. It seemed popular with expats and several were working on their laptops when we visited on a weekday morning.
Check out this 2-Week Adventure Itinerary in Northern Thailand & Laos for more ideas!
Where to Stay in Chiang Rai
Chiang Rai has a wide variety of places to stay ranging from budget hostels to luxury hotels. Use the map below to start your search for the perfect place to stay!
Laluna Hotel & Resort Chiang Rai
We chose to stay in the Laluna Hotel and Resort in Chiang Rai, which is located a couple kilometers south of the downtown area. Its bungalow rooms are nestled in a shady jungle garden which provides a peaceful atmosphere.
And though the pool in the garden looked inviting, despite my best efforts, we never got a chance to use it!
Although we enjoyed our stay, in retrospect, I think I would've preferred staying in the center or northern part of town. We seemed to end up further north at night so it would have been more convenient for walking to places. However, a tuk tuk from the Laluna Hotel to the Night Bazaar only cost 60 baht (US $2) for 2 people.
As you can see, Chiang Rai has lots to do on a 2-day visit! It's a quiet town that is a great entry point for exploring northern Thailand or before heading over to Laos.
Are you thinking of visiting Chiang Rai? Let me know if you have any questions in the comments below or send me a message! If you've already visited, tell me what you liked best!
Read the next post -> How to Travel Cheaply from Chiang Rai to Houayxay, Laos