Muang Chiang Rai refers to the city and it is here where most tourists to the province will base themselves. Here you will find plenty of hotels, restaurants, bars, bookshops, and all the other things that tourists like. Most people who visit the city remark that it feels a lot more laid back than Chiang Mai; it has the perfect mix of tourist friendliness and local charm. This city has experienced a lot of growth in recent years and there has been a lot of investment made; it is now considered the fastest growing city in Thailand. It has also become the home for a significant number of ex-pats. Shopping in the Chiang Rai is good and you will find a few large department stores.
If you have ever wanted to visit China but don’t want to actually make the effort to travel to that country you should visit Mae Salong (แม่สลอง). This has been described as one of the most Chinese villages outside of China and if you visit you will understand why. The area was settled by ex-soldiers who fought against Mao during the civil war in China. They were given refugee status in the sixties and have since managed to recreate China within Thailand. The local scenery is wonderful here and it is well worth a visit. It is possible to pick up an ordinary bus from Chiang Rai and it will take about an hour to make the journey. Alternatively you might want to rent private transport and arrive at Mae Salong in a bit more comfort. A lot of people just come for the day but there are a few accommodation options in Mae Salong.
Mae Sai is a border town in the north of Chiang Rai province. In the past it was a very popular destination for people looking to extend their time in Thailand. These ‘border runs’ have become a bit less popular in recent years as it is now only possible to get a new visa for fifteen days by visiting the border. In the past you could get a visa for thirty days and some people managed to extend their stay in Thailand for years by making monthly visits to Mae Sai; crossing the border and coming right back again with a brand new tourist visa.
Mae Sai is a typical border town and has been described as having a bit of Wild West feel to it. The town is also the most northern point in the whole of Thailand and you can have your photo taken beside a nice sign that confirms this. This border town would probably not be described as the most attractive place in Thailand but it is worth a visit. There are a few restaurants and bars in Mae Sai and some of these cater specifically for westerners.
The other side of the border from Mae Sai is Tachileik. If you have the time it is well worth crossing over and seeing what life is like in Myanmar (Burma). It is possible to get a visa on arrival and most people will just cross for a few hours and then come back again. Although the Thai town and Burmese town are only separated by a river they really are like two completely different worlds. The poverty in Tachileik will often startle visitors and many are shocked by the number of beggars – something you don’t really see much of in Thailand.
There are frequent buses going from Chiang Rai city to Mae Sai; the trip takes about an hour and a half. If you get a bus without air-conditioning it can feel like a lot longer.
Doi Tung (ดอยธง) means Flag Mountain in Thai; this name comes from the fact that a Lanna king once ordered that a flag be placed up on the peak. It is now sometimes referred to as ‘Switzerland’ by the local people. If they had even been to Switzerland they would probably change their mind, but it is a beautiful mountain area all the same. Doi Tung is covered in a monsoon forest and at its peak reaches 5,900 feet (1,800 meters). If the weather is clear you will be able to see right into Burma from on top of this mountain. Doi Tung is located not far from Mai Sai.
Mae Fah Luang Gardens
Mae Fah Luang Botanical Gardens can be found at Doi Tung; close to the Burmese border. The area where the garden is now situated was once used to grow opium. Her Royal Highness the Princess Mother of Thailand asked that this location be turned into a botanical beauty spot and that is what is there today. It is made up of flowers from all the different parts of the world; the fact that it is almost a thousand meters above sea level means that there are many things that can grow here that wouldn’t survive elsewhere in Thailand.
Chiang Saen (เชียงแสน) is another district in northern Chiang Rai province. Chiang Saen town is right on the banks of the Mekong River and this is one of the main attractions for visitors to the area. The riverfront here always seems to be abuzz with activity and there are many longboats available to take visitors on water tours. There are also a lot of nice buildings to see in the town and the city walls are also the subject of a lot of interest to visitors. Chiang Saen is small enough for visitors to explore the whole area on foot or by bicycle.