Chiang Rai Thailand is one of the most undervalued areas in Thailand. There is so much to see and to do. The majority of the tourists won’t spent more than 2 or 3 days there. But why ?
Chiang Rai is located in the North of Thailand about 3 hours east of the famous Chiang Mai. Chiang Rai got it’s own airport and bus terminal so getting there and away is quite easy. From major cities in Thailand and even from some international destinations, you can fly directly to Chiang Rai.
I have so much to write about Chiang Rai, I decided to make 2 posts of this town.
I recommend flying to Chiang Rai. If you plan your trip ahead and look at the various cheap airlines, like Thai Lion Air, Thai Air Asia, Thai Smile, etc., you can get really cheap deals. The bus is an option but takes 12 hours 🙁
So back to the question. I think the answer is that everything you can see and do is wide from eachother. From north to south, east to west, there are things to see and do in Chiang Rai. Most peole don’t have the time to go there or simply don’t know about it. Chiang Rai is mostly an in-between city for the trips to Laos or for people who stay in Chiang Mai and come for a day or 2. You can see this in downtown Chiang Rai. They go to the Night Bazaar, do some Hill Tribe visit, see the White Temple, walk around in town and then, they are gone.
But there is so much more. Like the tea plantations in Doi Maesalong and Doi Wawee, The Phu Kaeng Waterfall, Kun Korn Waterfall, Singha Park, The endless rice fields near Wiang Chai, the various Hotsprings, Phu Chi Fa (well not in Chiang Rai, but well worth a visit !), etc.
Huay Mae Salong
Various tourist shops selling local maps. I suggest to get one (About 20-50THB). The local maps provide a lot of info and for me it was very useful to get around. Also rent a motorbike. ST Motorbike rental have good bikes. They are a bit more expensive than others but their bikes are excellent. I rented 2 bikes in a period of 6 weeks and didn’t had any trouble. In those 6 weeks I drove around 2500km with no problem at all. ST motorbikes is located at Yetyod Road (near the famous Clock tower). That is also the street where all the foreigners hang out. Plenty of guesthouses, restaurants, coffee, bars, internet, etc. From there it is also walking distance to some of the night venues in town like the Night Bazaar and Walking Street (Saturday only).
Buses are available. There are 2 bus stations. One is about 20km south of Chiang Rai and is the main bus terminal. Here you can get busses to Bangkok, Laos, etc. The second bus station is in Chiang Rai town. Here you can get those nice small pick up truck based taxis and small open air busses (no aircon).
There is no train station in Chiang Rai. You have to go to Chiang Mai if you want transport by train.
I heard there is a boat from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai. The boat leaves from the Kok River somewhere in town. I didn’t had enough time to check it out, but I will do that next time 🙂
Moving from one place to another in Chiang Rai town is easy. There are tuk tuks everywhere and they don’t rip you off like in Bangkok. I took some tuk tuk rides from and to the main bustation and paid a decent 100 THB for a ride. To me, that is very ok.
You can also find taxi’s in Chiang Rai. They all have a meter and don’t rip you off. I took a taxi from the bus station to the place I was staying in Wiang Chai. That’s 25km from the bus station and paid 205 THB (meter price). Compared to the taxi from the airport, this is cheap. From the airport to Wiang Chai was 400THB and from the airport to Wiang Chai is 17km.
What to see and what to do ?
Waterfalls. There are plenty of them. The ones you should go to are Pu Kaeng Waterfall in Doi Luang National Park and Khun Korn Waterfall in Tambon Mae Korn. If you like tea plantations, go to Doi Wawee (very nice!) and Doi Maesalong. I really had a great time there. When you come around the end of January you can see how the rice farmers start making the famous Thai rice. About a week later, all the fields are green. Lovely scenery. Then, there is the basic tourist stuff like temples (there are a lot), elephant riding and visiting the hill tribes. I have not been to the Hill Tribes nor riding elephants, but most of the tours are loaded with tourists. Same for the temples. But if you up for it, go !
The waterfalls, hotsprings and the tea plantations are highly recommended.
Pu Kaeng Waterfall.
Is located in Doi Luang NP and about 55km south of Chiang Rai. Getting there is not that easy. The signage on the main road is terrible, I write more about that later, but from Chiang Rai Town you follow the highway down in the direction Phan. On the way you will see a sign ‘Doi Luang NP Pu Kaeng’ with an arrow to the right. Fine.. There is no way to go right. So what it means is that you have to u-turn at the next u-turn and then take a right. (left in the case you made the u-turn). From there follow the road (direction: Doi Luang National Park) until the end. The road stops at the National Park.
At the NP they have tents for rent so you can stay overnight. It’s really basic accommodation. There is a restaurant with a small shop and the rangers are nice and friendly. But bring food and water. The restaurant closes at 5pm. No internet available.
From the campsite you can walk to the first level of Pu Kaeng Waterfall. Takes about 10 min. From the first level, a jungle trail goes up the mountain and you can visit all 9 levels. Beware: the jungle path is slippery so no flip flops or slippers. Wear sturdy grippy shoes for your own safety. Pu Kaeng Waterfall is a dream. Also a photographers’ dream. You can do these long exposures and work with various filters. Bring wide angle lenses, a tripod and filters, you can come close to the action.
In Doi Luang National Park are more waterfalls. If you want to see the other waterfalls, you have to go out of the park and drive around it. Take the other entrance and from there you can visit the other waterfalls.
Pu Kaeng Waterfall shots taken at level 1 to 5.
Chiang Rai is known for its hotsprings. There are quite a few around and I can recommend to visit them. The more quiet ones are found out of town. My personal favorite is Lana Onsen about 55km south of Chiang Rai on the highway to Chiang Mai. Another good one is Prasert Hotsprings. Also about 50 km out of town. To get there, rent a motorbike. The ride through the Chiang Rai landscape is very nice. You can stop to make photos and have a coffee.
Lana Onsen Hotspring offers bungalows for rent as well. The hotspring is located about 5 km from the main highway (highway 118) to Chiang Mai. Prasert Hotsprings are located in Doi Hang. Follow the directions to Ban Ruammit, cross the bridge over the Kok River and follow the signs to Prasert Hotsprings. This is the fastest way. On the otherside of the Kok River, there is also a road that leads to or from Chiang Rai but it is in a terrible state. Though, the ride is quite scenic. Up to you which road you take 🙂
Lana Onsen Hotspring
Doi Wawi (Doi Wawee)
Ban Doi Wawi (or Wawee) was one of the highlights during my stay in Chiang Rai. The motorbike ride to Doi Wawee, the scenery and finally the huge and beautiful tea plantations in Ban Lao Lee. (4km after Ban Wawee). An amazing experience and scenery. And that smell ! You can smell the tea ! Such a nice smell !
From Chiang Rai follow the highway 1 south until the intersection with highway 118 to Chiang Mai. Follow the 118 until you see the sign Ban Doi Wawee. Take a right turn and keep following the road. Now 40 km of climbing start. At certain points it gets really steep up and down. But it’s all worth it. you will be rewarded with some very nice landscape views and mountain scenery. If you do it by motorbike, fill up your tank at the intersection when you come off the highway. The road condition is good in general, but certain parts are full with potholes and at some stretches there is no road at all. But that makes the trip so nice. 🙂
Ban Wawi is a small town. In certain parts you think you are in China. Everywhere red lanterns and signs in Chinese. In Ban Wawi there are no hotels, guesthouses or bungalows. The only place that offers accommodation is in Ban Lao Lee, 4km further. The town is like a labyrinth. When you drive on your motorbike you can go to the small streets that brings you up the mountain. The surrounding area is the same. Tons of small streets and dirt roads, going up and down (and steep !) following the landscape. Plenty of nice views and opportunities to shoot some nice photos.
Ban Lao Lee.
The only place that offers acccommodation. Finding the accommodation was a bit tricky 🙂 In Ban Wawee, there is just 1 sign advertising the Lao Lee Resort. Everybody knows it. And everybody says: “over the mountain”. So I went “over the mountain”, 6 times…… And didn’t find it. Until iI got smart and decided to drive further than the 3 km everybody was saying. And, hallelujah, there it was. After 5km. In the Village of Ban Lao Lee. Ban Lao Lee is actually one big tea plantation and everybody who lives there works more or less in the tea business or in the resort. Lao Lee Resort is surrounded by a huge tea plantation. You can drive with your motorbike through the plantation and it is very nice. The resort offers a tea tasting area, and you can buy all the tea from their own plantation.
You can drive with the motorbike over the various dirt tracks leading you through the landscape. There are many many small dirt tracks and it requires so skills to keep your motorbike on the track. Once you have reached the top of one of the many hills or mountains you have a spectacular view over the area.
Ban Lao Lee (Lao Lee Resort)
Tea tasting is very nice. In Lao Lee Resort they have their own tea tasting area with their own tea, from their own plantations…. 🙂 Various kinds of tea from Jasmin to Oloong, it’s all there. I spend about 2 hours tasting 6 different kinds of tea. You can buy the tea at the tea tasting session.
Problem is that you need to have a translator with you. In Doi Wawee they speak a mountain dialect of the Thai Language and/or Chinese. (like in Doi Maesalong, later more about that). My Thai is pretty ok, but i could understand only half of what they said. So i missed quite a bit of the explanation about the tea.
Lucky for me, there was/is one restaurant in Ban Lao Lee. And the sweet woman who runs it, speaks very well Thai and a bit English too. She explained a lot about the area and which tea goes where and belongs to who. Also which kind is organic and which one is sprayed with a lot of poison. 🙂 Her food is also very good and affordable.
Anyway, I can really recommend this place. You will see nearly no foreigners, it is a very quiet place, there is no nightlife, fantastic landscape and scenery. And it’s off the beaten track. It is a place where you go because you are interested in it, because of the tea, because of the scenery, because of…. well many more things. I certainly will go back to Doi Wawee.
Coming in Chiang Rai Thailand – Part 2.
Khun Korn Waterfall