Visitors to northern Thailand often overlook the small city of Chiang Rai, but not me. Just a three-hour bus ride from its larger, more popular sister city Chiang Mai, this laid-back destination is a convenient base for touring the surrounding countryside like Mae Salong (read this post for my day trip to this mountainous region). There are enough things to do in Chiang Rai to keep visitors occupied, and culinary travellers should know this is where I found the perfect bowl of khao soi and I’ll tell you exactly where to get it.
Situated in the Golden Triangle (the region bordering Myanmar and Laos), Chiang Rai was once a hub for the opium trade. Today, however, it’s famous for more benign attractions like the Black Temple and eye-popping White Temple yet it still doesn’t see the same influx of tourists that Chiang Mai does.
The major landmark in the city centre is a golden clock tower that serves as a traffic roundabout. Designed by the same man who created the city’s famous White temple, the tower is the site of a light and sound show at 7, 8 and 9pm.
Wat Rong Khun / White Temple
Most visitors are lured to Chiang Rai by the spectacular Wat Rong Khun, commonly known to foreigners as the White Temple, a famous Buddhist temple designed by artist Chaloemchai Kositpipat. Carved with painstaking detail, the pure white, ornate facade and path leading to the entrance are deeply symbolic of desire, greed, suffering and the heavenly. It’s a religious complex unique even in Thailand.
To learn more, read my blog post about the temple here.
Hours: 9:00am-5:00pm (closed for lunch 12:00pm-1:00pm).
Cost: Entrance was once free but non-Thai visitors must now pay 50 THB (as of December 2016)
Photography: Not permitted inside the temple.
How to get there: See the full blog post about the White Temple for details.
Baan Dam Museum / Black House / Black Temple
Just 30 minutes from the White Temple is its darker, twisted sibling Baan Dam Museum, commonly known as Black House or the Black Temple — except it’s not a religious attraction at all.
Once the home and studio of the late and renowned artist Thawan Duchanee, a native of Chiang Rai, Black House is now a museum for his legacy. His controversial and outlandish work drew sharp criticism from conservative Thais, but was then honoured by the Thai government after creative elites rushed to his defence.
What was all the fuss about? Scattered across the gardens are 40 buildings, mostly designed in traditional yet gothic Thai architecture. Nothing odd about that.
Then I stepped inside. Whoa. In contrast to their elegant exterior, the structures (including the restrooms) contain not just impressive, intricately carved woodwork, but bizarre and eerie exhibits of animal remains: meticulously displayed skulls and bones, black thrones made of antlers, an entire elephant skeleton and skins hanging from wood beams. As I entered one building after another, I found myself surrounded by death.
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It’s mysterious. It’s trippy. And it’s certainly not for squeamish vegetarians (it’s believed, however, the animals in Black House died of natural causes).
Black House isn’t nearly as popular as the White Temple, but that’s part of the appeal. The vibe here is dark and, for animal lovers, seemingly sadistic but surprisingly peaceful. There’s a serenity to the museum that you won’t find at its often crowded counterpart. Some visitors to Chiang Rai even prefer Black House over the White Temple. Personally, I found them equally fascinating but in different ways.
Hours: 9:00am-5:00pm (closed for lunch 12:00pm-1:00pm)
Cost: Entrance was once free but now visitors must pay 80 THB (as of December 2016)
Photography: Permitted both outdoors and indoors (a few exhibits, however, are closed to the public).
How to get there: A roundtrip tuk tuk from my guest house in the city centre cost me 300 THB. The driver waited 1 hour for me before driving me back. Another option is to take a taxi, which you can also hire for a half -day and combine trips to both the Black Temple and White Temple. Lastly, you can hop on a public bus from the Chiang Rai bus terminal (old bus station near the Night Bazaar) for only 20 THB, but this involves a bit of walking and may not suit everyone. The journey takes about 30 min.
Night Bazaar and Food Court
Smack in the city centre near the bus terminal and a 5-minute walk from the clock tower is the outdoor Night Bazaar. Think of the Chiang Mai Night Market but on a much smaller scale. Every evening from dusk to about midnight, you’ll find stalls filled with Thai souvenirs and clothing at bargain prices: beaded jewellery, hill tribe handicrafts, t-shirts, dresses and silk scarves. Don’t forget to negotiate.
Don’t care to shop? Then visit the Night Bazaar at least for the eats in the food court. One area offers wooden seating and a mix of Western and Thai food; the other is where you’ll find a wide selection of street stalls with traditional Thai delicacies at more affordable prices (some say the famous fried insects, however, are overpriced). Both areas provide live entertainment and a laid back atmosphere.
If you don’t get enough of this night market, you may also want to check out the Morning Market for local produce, seafood and products.
Khao Soi: the Quintessential Northern Thai Dish
Speaking of food, Chiang Rai is where I found the perfect bowl of khao soi, arguably northern Thailand’s greatest yet underrated culinary contribution to the world. I had many servings of it during my three months in Chiang Mai; it’s now one of my favourite Thai dishes. You won’t find it as easily on menus in Bangkok so it would be wise to fill up while in the north where it’s a specialty.
Believed to be Burmese-inspired, khao soi consists of soft egg noodles and a slowly simmered chicken drumstick in a mild, creamy, coconut curry broth. Khao soi is typically accompanied by a side of chopped red onions, pickled cabbage and a slice of lime.
The noodle shop is called Pho Chai and conveniently located in the city centre. At least half the menu is devoted to khao soi.
The noodles are perfectly al dente and not only do they serve the dish with chicken but also shrimp and white fish, which was sublimely cooked.
I haven’t been able to find fish khao soi since (sigh).
With a Thai iced milk tea (another one of my favourites), this meal cost me a grand total of 50 THB (approx. 1.40 USD).
Don’t look for an English sign for Pho Chai because it doesn’t exist. It’s just a 3-minute walk from the clock tower. Walk south on Jedyod Rd. from the landmark and you’ll find the open-air eatery on the west side just after Thanon Thaiviwat (Thai Viwat Alley).
Hours: 7:00am-4:30pm (note: they may start packing up at 4:00pm).
I stayed at Chiang Rai Hotel, which is conveniently located — just a 2-minute walk from the clock tower and 10-15 minute walk from the Night Bazaar. The staff were friendly and my room wasn’t very sound-proof, but it was clean and equipped with wifi (ask for a room on a lower floor for a stronger signal).
The bathroom didn’t have a separate shower stall (this is common in Thailand) so be prepared to wet the entire floor and toilet when you bathe. I should also note the water pressure was somewhat weak but, for one night, it mattered little to me.
The buffet breakfast was more room temperature than hot and while the Western food was substandard (also common in the country), the Thai food was satisfactory.
You can book taxis, tuk tuks and tours at the front desk.
Note: Chiang Rai Hotel does not have an elevator so it may not be ideal for people with mobility challenges.
How to Get to Chiang Rai from Chiang Mai
From the Arcade Bus Station in Chiang Mai (about a 50-60 THB songthaew ride from the Old City), take the Green Bus which runs throughout the day. Grab a numbered ticket from the machine and approach the ticket counter when your number is called. Cost: 185 THB for X-Class and 288 THB for V-Class (one way). I took the X-Class bus, which was a comfortable, air-conditioned 3-hour ride. My seat was assigned and I was given cookies and bottled water.
If you want to reach the city centre of Chiang Rai, get off at the old bus station (station 2) instead of the new station (station 1) which is located on the outskirts of town.
Book your ticket in advance if possible, especially during the holidays and high season. I arrived at the station at 8am and the 9am bus was almost full (this was in February). If you need to use the restrooms while you wait, you’ll need 3-5 THB to use them.
There is no train service between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai.
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What were your impressions? What are your favourite things to do in Chiang Rai? Between the White Temple and Black House, do you have a preference? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.