Chiang Rai is a Thai province nestled in the north of the country, near the borders with Laos and Myanmar. It is best-known for the White Temple, but is a distinct region of Thailand and absolutely worth exploration. Even if you just have time for a Chiang Rai day trip, you can get a lot in. This guide has what to do, see and taste in Chiang Rai in a day.
Everything listed can be done on your own, but for those who prefer to book a tour in advance or with a guide, links are also provided.
To make things easy for you, everywhere mentioned in this post is ALREADY PINNED in the embedded Google Maps below!
One day in Chiang Rai – overview
Most people have heard of Chiang Rai’s iconic White Temple. But what about its other colorful attractions? Is it worth the trek from Chiang Mai? Well, yes, two nights with one full day is the perfect amount of time to experience this small city’s eccentric mix of attractions.
Chiang Rai’s relaxed atmosphere a welcome relief from the hectic Chiang Mai traffic. Definitely worth the journey.
Ready to kick off the day? Don’t forget to dress modestly for the temples with covered knees and shoulders.
Getting to Chiang Rai
The VIP bus from Chiang Mai is the easiest and most comfortable way to pass the 3-hour journey. The bus station is centrally located. A short walk or tuk tuk should get you to your digs.
Arriving in Chiang Rai late morning leaves you a few hours to explore downtown and hire a scooter from Chiang Rai Big Bike Rentals ready for tomorrow’s adventure. A scooter is a quick and practical way to hit the key attractions at the best time of day.
What to do in Chiang Rai in a day
A Chiang Rai day trip can be filled with temples and culture. You can make your way around easiest by scooter, but if you aren’t comfortable driving yourself, you can use tuk tuks, a tour or maybe give yourself an extra day to explore by foot.
To make things easy for you, everywhere mentioned in this post is ALREADY PINNED in this Google Map!
Wat Rong Khun (The White Temple)
Set your alarm early. To get the best of the number one attraction, you need to be there early to beat the crowds. Head off between 7.00 am – 7.30 am if you can on the main road south (Highway 1) towards Doi Luang National Park and Lampang. Watch the traffic on this busy dual carriageway. At times, you can ride on a parallel side road which is less hair-raising.
At first sight, the temple is striking, its mirrored mosaics glimmering in the early morning sun. Before you pay to enter, grab some wide shots across the water before too many people in their garish shirts crash your pictures as they cross the temple bridge.
The 50-baht ticket price is a great value for this unconventional, contemporary work of art. Privately owned by Chalermchai Kositpipat who designed, constructed and opened it to the public in 1997. Construction is still ongoing. Take your time soaking up the intricate details.
The mural inside the main building, Phra Ubisoft, is particularly unique depicting western idols such as Michael Jackson, Harry Potter and Superman as well as technological developments like mobile phones and nuclear weapons. This melds around the walls to more peaceful images of worshipers floating on clouds towards the Buddha. No photos are allowed inside. It’s worth looping back around for a second look.
The grounds are also worth exploring, lots of little details. The ticket price also includes an exhibition by Kositpipat, which shows how his unusual style has evolved.
Turning left out of Wat Rong Khun, you can take the back road back towards Chiang Rai, passing Singha Park.
A fairly clinical looking place that is too large to walk around. You can hire bicycles (150-baht p/hour) or take the electric shuttle tour (50-baht p/person, 1 hour, in Thai). We skipped this as it felt quite pricey and touristy. Still good for a quick stop for a cold drink and a photo with the infamous golden lion.
Baan Dam Museum (Black House Museum)
Heading back toward Chiang Mai, scoot passed the town onto Highway 1 north. A little way out you will find another unusual artistic creation by Thawan Duchanee, the Baan Dam Museum (located at 414 Moo 13, Chiang Rai).
Almost 40 wooden, glass and concrete structures in various styles litter the large grounds. Inside many buildings, you will find Thawan’s collection of paintings, sculptures, animal bones, skins and horns. Being animal-loving vegetarians this didn’t really do it for us, we preferred the outside architecture instead.
Eighty-baht entrance, with a number of restaurants nearby.
Rong Sear Tean (The Blue Temple)
Heading back toward Chiang Rai, before crossing the Mae Kok river you will find Rong Sear Tean (located at 306 Moo 2, Rim Kok, Muang Chiang Rai).
Smaller than the White Temple, but still packing a ‘wow’ punch, a blue one. Completed in 2016, the contemporary Buddhist art is simultaneously striking and peaceful. With no admission fee, the Blue Temple is a unique and welcome addition to the multitude of Thai temples.
Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha)
Head back toward the town center. Wat Phra Kaew is a few streets north (located on Trairat Road, Wiang sub-district, Muang Chiang Rai).
Understated but still one of the oldest and most famous temples in Thailand. Wat Phra Kaew was the original home for the translucent green Buddha which graces the Emerald Buddha Temple in Bangkok’s Grand Palace. It was discovered in 1434 after lightning struck an old Chedi. In October 1991, a replica carved out of Canadian jade and installed in the Wat.
Wat Chet Yod
This small temple felt well-loved and used by the locals. The large seated Buddha was undergoing a new golden spray paint when we visited.
A fairly unusual attraction to say least. This large clock tower which acts as a traffic roundabout undergoes a nightly light and sound show (at 7 pm, 8 pm, and 9 pm). For about 7 minutes loud music blares out whilst brightly colored lights sweep over the clock tower. And the traffic keeps swinging by as tourists snap their pictures.
What to eat in Chiang Rai in a day
Chiang Rai and the North of Thailand are known to have a uniquely spicy take on Thai food. So go past the cafes and on to the street.
Cat ‘n’ a Cup Cafe
In need of a caffeine fix? Try Cat ‘n’ a Cup on the corner of Prasopsook Road and Phaholyothin Road (located at 430 Prasopsook Road, Chiang Rai).
Not a cat person? Neither are we! But the curiously diverse selection of kitties sways even the hardest anti-feline heart. Great coffee, icy cold air conditioning and kitty kisses make this a perfect place for an afternoon break.
Jet Yod Road
Pick a spot for a pre-dinner beer or cocktail and watch the world go by. Jet Yod Road is the perfect place with a number of bars and cafes.
A 3-minute walk from the Clock Tower, you will find Barrab (located 423/3 Banphaprakan Road, Chiang Rai). A popular restaurant with all the Thai favorites, including Khao Soi, a delicious northern Thai dish.
Full disclosure, we didn’t eat here by we tried to! It was closed for some renovations. The menu looked delicious with veggie and non-veggie options. The reviews for food and service look great too.
Spend the evening hanging out with the locals at the Night Bazaar. Skip the more touristy and expensive peak restaurant area, opting for the open-air food court with food stalls down each side. Soak up the local live music show whilst you cook your own Pad Thai at your table.
Where to stay in Chiang Rai
A quick 5-minute walk from the bus station is the friendly Guesthouse, Grandma Kaew’s. Clean and comfortable rooms with a simple breakfast provided. Well-located for exploring the key sights.
Other options to stay in Chiang Rai:
- Airbnb: There are plenty of options for Chiang Rai on Airbnb, most private homestays for around $20. Save $40 on your first booking with this link.
- Booking: There are hundreds of options on Booking; save $20 on your first booking with this link.
Chiang Rai day tours
If you prefer to do any of the above with guides, or book in advance, here are some great options.
- Viator offers Chiang Rai tours starting at $10 for rock climbing, and range from temple tours to cultural visits.
- GetYourGuide has full-day Chiang Rai and temple tours, and even a cooking class.
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