Many travelers think of Chiang Rai as a peaceful province that has very little going on besides mountain trekking and hill-tribe visits. The city area, in particular, is often dismissed as not worthy for a visit. In fact, Chiang Rai offers a whole lot more in terms of activities. With ecotourism as the main theme, you will find nature a major part of your travel experience here.While Doi Mae Salong and The Golden Triangle are ideal for embarking on overnight treks and home-stays at hill-tribe villages, you don’t really need to go far to experience the area’s adventures. The Mae Kok River is one launching point for a journey to visit hidden waterfalls, hot springs, caves and hill-tribe villages near the city area. You can charter a long-tail boat and customise your own itinerary to include as many attractions as you desire. Then, there are other excursions, such as golfing, wellness spa experiences, cycling, or temple tours by tram.
If you are not scared of the dark and enjoy a walk into the unknown, then try Chiang Rai’s Wat Tham Pla (‘Fish Cave Temple’, but also called ‘Monkey Temple’). Burrowed into a huge rock face about 13km south of Mae Sai, this cave sits on a steep hill behind the main temple building. Climb up some 200 stone steps and you will be struck by the sight of towering limestone walls festooned in leafy green closing in on both sides.
Inside, the cave is pitch black, with two large chambers housing a Burmese-style bejeweled Bhudda image. Exit the other end, and a series of steps await you as well as an all-encompassing view of verdant jungle bordering Thailand, Burma and Laos – The Golden Triangle. Closer to Chiang Rai is Tham Phra (Buddha Cave), sitting on the bank of the Kok River, accessible by long-tail boat from the C.R. pier. Inside, it houses a Buddhist shrine with over 80 ancient Buddha images.
City Tour by Tram
If you visit Chiang Rai from November to January, take advantage of the sightseeing trams that run a fixed route to nine popular attractions. Starting at the King Mengrai’s Monument, the tram will make a stop at Chiang Rai Cultural Centre, Wat Phra Singh, Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Doi Ngam Muang, Wat Phra That Doi Jom Thong, Wat Ming Muang, Chiang Rai Clock Tower and Tung Gardens, before completing the loop at the monument. You can hop on and off at any point along the route. The service is free.
- Opening Hours: 09:00, 09:30, 13:00 and 13:30 daily
- Location: King Mengrai the Great Monument
One of the best ways to appreciate Chiang Rai’s rustic backdrop and idyllic pace of life, cycling can be both fulfilling and fun. The city area is a good start for leisure cyclists, as it is relatively flat and safe. Serious cyclists can opt for one of the adventurous cycling tours that take you to up the mountains into far-flung wilderness, riding down dirt roads, rickety wooden bridges and rugged hilly paths. Overnight cycling tours offer the most challenge and can last from two to five days, or longer if you prefer. These are often combined with sightseeing along the Golden Triangle, elephant camps and at ethic hill-tribe communities.
Chiang Rai’s laid-back pace and a vast, picturesque sprawl of mountains set the stage for an enjoyable golfing outing. Out there, it’s you, the golf ball, the pleasant tunes of nature and nothing else.
Chiang Rai has two championship golf courses: Santiburi Country Club, designed by established golf course architect Robert Trent Jones, and Waterford Valley. Hugged by forested hills, the 18-hole Santiburi course (20 minutes from the city) is the top of its class and offers flat first nine with water obstacles and long, undulating fairways for the last nine. The par-72 Waterford Valley (45 minutes from the city), overlooking a vista of lush green valleys, is considered one of the most scenic golf courses in Thailand.
Home to Thailand’s six largest ethnic hill-tribes, Chiang Rai is an ideal base for launching an overnight trekking expedition to visit various highland villages. One of the best ways to plan your visits is through the PDA Chiang Rai, which organises a handful of tours, from half a day up to three days. Several of these tours combine elephant trekking and long-tail boat rides with overnight stays at a tribal village, where you will have an opportunity to learn about their livelihood and culture.
Mae Kok River Journey
Cutting through Chiang Rai from west to east, the 130-km long Mae Kok offers a pleasant sightseeing experience. It originates in Chiang Mai’s northernmost district of Ban Tha Ton and winds through rolling mountains, endless banana groves, ethic hill-tribe communities and natural hot springs. The entire journey from Tha Ton to Chiang Rai takes four hours on a long-tail boat, which you can complete all in one stretch or combine with overnight jungle trekking to visit various ethnic hill-tribes and hot springs. Short boat trips within Chiang Rai can also be arranged for those short on time or prefer to customise the route.
- Opening Hours: 06:30 – 16:30 daily
- Location: C.R. Pier, under Mae Fah Luang Bridge
- How to get there: Hire a songtaew or rent a motorcycle
Natural Hot Springs
Not quite like a Japanese onsen, but a soak in a pool of natural hot spring can be deeply relaxing. Coupled with Chiang Rai’s picturesque mountainscapes, the experience will leave you wanting to come back for more. The closest hot springs to Chiang Rai City is Pong Phra Baht Hot Spring, just 7km away. The water temperature is 48-50 degrees Celsius, not hot enough to boil an egg (a popular activity at any hot spring). Here, you can rent a private room and enjoy a soak before hiking up to Pong Phra Baht Waterfall. If you prefer a natural setting, head over to Huay Mak Liem and Pha Serd Hot Springs, about 20km from the city, where you can take a dip, boil an egg and also take in the surrounding mountainous atmosphere at the same time.
A whole spectrum of experiences await both serious and leisure spa-goers. It can be a full-on ritual with scented candles, floating frangipani blossoms and post-treatment herbal drinks or just a quick fix at one of the brightly lit shop-houses in the city centre. Most upscale hotels and resorts also have a spa attached to them, and many along the Kok River also boast spectacular views of Chiang Rai’s idyllic riverside.
Trekking and Elephant Trekking
Wilderness jungle, multi-tier waterfalls, endless winding paths and a sense of discovery all combine to make trekking a must-do activity among adventurous types. You can tread the forest-fringed path on foot or embark on an elephant and set off into the mountains dotting Mae Fah Luang, Mae Salong and The Golden Triangle areas. Overnight tours can be arranged at almost every resort and guesthouse in the city. The itinerary usually includes one or more visits to the hill-tribe villages, bamboo rafting and, if you prefer, a dip in a natural hot spring or an ice-cool waterfall pool.
Most waterfalls in Chiang Rai are within national parks. Just 17km southwest of the city centre, Khun Korn Waterfall is the tallest and, arguably, the most spectacular waterfall in Chiang Rai. At 70 metres high, the water plunges straight down in one powerful motion, sending off mists that float through the air tens of metres away. The hike to the waterfall, itself is a major highlight, takes about 45 minutes along the 1.2km, forest-fringed path that cuts through several cascade pools and over bamboo bridges. On the opposite scale, but by no means less beautiful, Huay Mae Sai Waterfall is set amongst Akha and Lahu ethnic hill-tribe communities about 19km northwest of the city centre. This two-tier fall has a still pool where you can go for a dip and is also ideal for elephant trekking.