Introduction to Chiang Rai
Hello world explorers! Let me introduce you to the hidden gem of Thailand- Chiang Rai.
Often overlooked compared to its cousins, Chiang Mai and Pai, this city offers an authentic and laid-back Thai experience that’s also a budget traveler’s paradise.
What makes Chiang Rai a must-visit?
- Mesmerizing temples that offer an enchanting visual treat
- A lively night bazaar for the shopaholics
- Insights into local culture and off-the-beaten-path experiences
- A flabbergasting natural panorama with lush green jungles, thunderous waterfalls, and beautiful flower fields
Also, who can resist the charm of quaint riverfront restaurants and hidden cafes? Step into Chiang Rai, and you’re stepping into a world of cultural richness, picturesque landscapes, and unexpected surprises at every corner.
If you’re ready to explore the path less traveled, Chiang Rai awaits! Here are 17 Free and Cheap Things to Do in Chiang Rai.
17 Free and Cheap Things to Do in Chiang Rai
1. Visit the White Temple - Wat Rong Khun
Visiting the White Temple, or Wat Rong Khun, in Chiang Rai, Thailand is like stepping into a sparkling fairytale! As exciting and surreal as it gets, this architectural wonder is a must-see on every Thailand itinerary.
A gleaming white masterpiece designed by renowned local artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, the temple features incredibly detailed carvings and unique sculptures, making every corner Instagram-worthy.
And oh, don’t miss the dramatic depiction of life after death at the entrance. Remember to dress respectfully – think no shorts and tank tops.
- The temple shines brighter under the sun due to the lime and mirror shard mix, making mornings the best time to visit.
- Entrance fee: 50 THB ($1.5) per person
- Opening hours: 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM.
- As with every temple, dress respectfully.
2. Explore the Night Bazaar
Get ready for an electrifying nocturnal adventure at Chiang Rai’s Night Bazaar! Nestled in the city center, the Night Bazaar springs into a vibrant hub of entertainment after sunset.
With the burst of colors, aromas, and sounds, you’d find it hard not to lose yourself in the whirlwind experience.
- Expect a feast for the eyes and palate with a multitude of stalls offering unique local produce, delicious cuisine, and handmade arts and crafts.
- Don’t miss the live, invigorating performances put on by local talents in the dining area.
- Shop distinct keepsakes that resonate with the culture of Chiang Rai at souvenir stalls.
Simply take a short 6-minute walk from the Clock Tower to the Night Bazaar that buzzes with life from 6pm-11pm daily, providing a memorable night every day of the week!
3. Visit the Goddess of Mercy - Wat Huay Pla Kang
Visiting the awe-striking Wat Huay Pla Kang, best known for its mammoth statue of the Goddess of Mercy, is a must-do when in Chiang Rai. This unique and visually astounding place has quickly become one of my favorite spots in the city.
Nestled about 4 miles northwest of the town, you can either charm a tuk-tuk driver for a ride, rent a scooter or grab a taxi – it cost me a mere 100 baht!
Once there, I recommend:
- Taking a lift inside the Goddess of Mercy statue. You’d be privy to unparalleled views of the countryside from her eyes.
- Climbing the accompanying 9-tier pagoda. The views of Chiang Rai from here are too good to miss.
- Exploring the other two monuments on the site, which include a magnificent white temple.
- Plant to arrive just before sunset, folder hour is truly magical here.
Trust me, your camera will thank you!
4. Trek in the Mountains
There’s nothing quite like the thrill of trekking in Chiang Rai, Thailand.
Imagine yourself marching through lush forest trails, pulling yourself up alongside awe-inspiring waterfalls, and being welcomed into hilltop villages by the warm smiles of Akha, Hmong, and Karen tribespeople.
The majestic mountains of Chiang Rai, straddling the tempting borders of Burma and Laos, offer amazing diversity and beauty on every trail.
This city in Northern Thailand is a real hidden gem for trekking, boasting stunning sunrises and breathtaking viewpoints, surely making it one of the best free activities to do here.
As a trekker, you can expect to:
- Bask in the early morning sun at scenic spots like Phu Chi Fa
- Savor authentic experiences in ethnic minority villages
- Explore rich coffee plantations and picturesque villages
- Be captivated by the incredible biodiversity of Lum Nam Kok National Park.
Enrich your travel memories with this trek, as it’s all about the journey, not the destination!
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5. Visit the Blue Temple - Wat Rong Suea Ten
Prepare to be amazed by the blinding brilliance of Wat Rong Suea Ten in Chiang Rai. Better known as the Blue Temple, this absolute gem is guaranteed to become a cherished memory!
Its interior and exterior are uniformly colored in eye-popping aquamarine, decorated meticulously with Buddhist patterns and a whopping white Buddha shrine.
Key points to remember for your visit:
- Free entry but respect is a must; the temple is not just a tourist attraction
- Visiting in the morning maximizes photo opportunities with excellent lighting
- Inside photographing and video are permitted
- You will be greeted with massive naga-wrapped deva statues at the entrance
- Open hours: 06:00 am – 8:00 pm
Be aware this visual treat is likely to leave you spellbound!
6. Take a Day Trip to the Golden Triangle
Embark on a fascinating journey to the iconic Golden Triangle in Chiang Rai, where three countries – Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos – intersect!
Previously famed for drug trafficking, this area now draws people in for its vibrant beauty and cultural attractions. To get there, take an hour’s northward drive from Chiang Rai until you reach this amazing border intersection.
Once there, ascend to an elevated viewpoint for stunning views, visit the Golden Buddha at Wat Phra That Pukhao, and explore the intriguing history of the opium trade at local museums.
Here are some things to do in the area:
- Make sure to visit the Golden Triangle Buddha Statue
- Opt for a private tour featuring visits to hill-tribe villages
- Don’t miss the chance to get an overlook from a high hilltop
- A cruise on the Mekong River is a must-do activity
Related Article: The Perfect 2 Weeks Thailand Itinerary.
7. Visit the Longneck Karen Village
Visiting the Longneck Karen Village in Chiang Rai was an unforgettable experience! Nestled in the beautiful hills of northern Thailand, this village is a sanctuary for the Karen tribe, known for their unique brass neck rings.
Entering this village is like stepping into another world! You’ll be mesmerized by their extraordinary weaving skills. Let’s not forget, the entrance fee is just 300 Baht ($9), such a deal!
- To get here, embark on a journey dotted with hill tribe villages around Chiang Rai.
- Expect to meet the Karen tribe, immerse yourself in their culture and witness their incredible traditions firsthand.
- Remember, make sure your visit is ethical and respectful.
Don’t forget to check out marvelous handwoven items. And if you’re yearning for more, visit the Hill Tribe Museum in town to delve deeper into their culture.
Chiang Rai, a cultural treasure trove!
8. Take a Boat Cruise on the Mekong
Embark on a thrilling adventure as you navigate the serpentine bends of the Mekong in Chiang Rai!
Brimming with captivating vistas, a boat cruise along this mighty river is a budget-friendly way to immerse oneself in the region’s rich natural charm.
Expect to witness mist-topped forests, secluded hamlets, sylvan valleys, and intriguing Buddhist relics – a painter’s paradise indeed!
Pro Tip: Opt for the traditional Mekong-style longboats. Also, catching the early morning monk procession is an absolute cultural treat, not to be missed.
This journey into the wild is bound to leave you entranced, making every cent spent worth it.
9. Explore the Gardens at Doi Tung
Perched on Doi Tung Mountain is a piece of paradise – the Mae Fah Luang Garden, which is a riot of colors and scents. An oasis of tranquility, this meticulously landscaped garden left me awestruck!
To explore and make the most of this serene haven, let me share a few tips.
Reach Doi Tung early, as you’ll need to leave your car about half a mile from the garden entrance. But don’t fret! Free song taew shuttle services will zip you to the garden in no time.
If you opt to pay for a full pass at 220 Baht ($6.50), you’ll gain access to other enchanting attractions too within the vicinity, like Doi Tung Royal Villa and the Hall of Inspiration.
Here is what to expect:
- Luxurious landscaped garden, bursting with a riot of colors and aromatic scents
- A charming Swiss chalet-like Royal Villa that once housed a princess
- Awe-inspiring insights into local history at The Hall of Inspiration
- Jolly ziplining for some adrenaline rush at the Tree Top Walk
- Heaps of local food stalls and souvenir shops for a quick bite and shopping.
10. Get a Reinvigorating Thai Massage
A visit to Chiang Rai is incomplete without indulging in a world-renowned Thai massage. It’s not just a massage; it’s an authentic Thai experience tailored to rejuvenate you!
Chiang Rai boasts an array of spas and massage shops, including the locals’ favorite, Arisara Thai Massage, the ultra-luxurious Siamese Spa, and the homely Natural Thai Spa & Cafe.
You can also seize a great deal right at the bustling night market! Remember, comb through online reviews before settling down for an option, as it’s all about your comfort and relaxation.
Benefits of a Thai massage:
- it’s a stress-buster,
- improves blood circulation,
- enhances flexibility,
- and not to mention, it’s a traditional
Thai detoxification. So, who’s ready for some pampering Thai style?
11. Explore the Black House Museum - Baan Dam
Baan Dam, or Black House Museum, is an intriguing showcase of dark and dramatic artworks by renowned Thai artist Thawan Duchanee.
Unlike conventional museums, Baan Dam presents a beautifully morbid fusion of art and architecture that’s sure to give you chills.
Expect to explore over forty eerie black houses adorned with impressive yet haunting artifacts like crocodile skins, furs, and bones.
Only a 15-minute drive from Chiang Rai center, this gem is effortlessly reachable by car, song taew, or tuk-tuk. Visit between 9 AM to 5 PM for an engaging experience that costs only 80 THB ($2.5).
- Spectacularly gothic Thai architecture.
- A unique collection of artwork and artifacts.
- Quintessentially Thai cultural experience that’s easy on the pocket.
Remember, this isn’t your conventional museum visit, so walk in with an open mind and be ready to see the darker side of Thai art!
12. Visit the Monkey Temple - Wat Tham Pla
As an adventurous explorer, visit the mesmerizing Wat Tham Pla, which translates to Fish Cave Temple, but locals call it the monkey temple because of the ever-present family of monkeys that live there. It is an experience brimming with mystique and unfiltered fun.
Nestled around an hour’s drive from Chiang Rai’s city, this enigmatic temple, coupled with the cheeky monkeys is a sheer delight!
Upon arrival, you’ll instantly notice the mischievous monkeys, along with a beautiful large pond filled with fish.
- Climbing the 300 steps to Fish Tail Cave.
- Exploring the often-overlooked Turtle Cave near the entrance.
- Completing the ascent for fantastic panoramic views of the surrounding area.
Remember, entry is free, but be wary of the monkeys; they are known to snaffle unguarded belongings!
13. Take a Picture at the Famous Chiang Rai Clock Tower
Get ready to be dazzled by the golden allure of the Chiang Rai Clock Tower, an iconic landmark that’s bound to impress and excite any avid photographer.
Created by the same mind that orchestrated the stunning White Temple, the Clock Tower serves as a fascinating subject to capture epic memories from your trip.
To get the perfect snap, time your visit for the evening to marvel at the mesmerizing light and music show that electrifies the tower at 7 pm, 8 pm, and 9 pm daily.
Station yourself at a nearby café or restaurant and capture the spectacular sight of the Clock Tower illuminated against the night sky.
Expert tip: be cautious of the ever-present traffic while taking photographs.
The striking contrast of the electric hues illuminating the Clock Tower against the bustling city life provides a remarkable, authentic, and vibrant scene begging to be captured in a photograph.
14. Visit Mae Sai - The Northern Most Point in Thailand
In the lush heart of northern Thailand, set just a breath away from Myanmar, is Mae Sai, a vibrant melting pot of cultures that’s definitely worth your time!
Not just the northernmost point in Thailand, this border town promises a taste of two distinct Asian cultures in one.
Ensure you’re awake early so you can easily snag a bus or private car for the 35-mile journey north from Chiang Rai. Once there, immerse yourself in a medley of experiences that promise a delightful exploration.
Here’s what not to miss:
- A breathtaking panorama awaits your climb to the viewpoint at Wat Phra That Doi Wao, also known as the Scorpion Temple.
- If your visa permits, make a quick dash across the border, with the necessary permissions, to the Myanmar border market, Tachilek, brimming with interesting bric-a-brac and local goods.
- Be sure to try Khao Fuen, a traditional Thai-Yai-style noodle, from the multitude of local vendors.
Expert tip: Prices at the local markets are surprisingly low, so secure some souvenirs.
And remember, the border town beckons early risers more generously.
15. Unwind at the Pong Phrabat Hot Springs
As an enthusiastic traveler, the rejuvenating sensation of Pong Phrabat Hot Springs in Chiang Rai is an unmatched experience that I’m eager to share.
Imagine immersing yourself in natural hot springs, your body relaxing as the warmth seeps into every pore.
The surrounding nature further enhances the soothing ambiance, painting a serene backdrop for this blissful escape.
Once there, you can:
- Luxuriate in the hot springs or the nearby man-made pools
- Hike up to the Pong Phrabat Waterfall for a dash of adventure
- Enjoy a quintessentially Thai massage if the opportunity presents itself
- Relish a delightful picnic lunch
As the closest hot spring to Chiang Rai, it’s an oasis that’s easily accessible yet feels wonderfully secluded.
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16. Take a Dip in the Khun Korn Waterfall
The thrill of immersing yourself in the Khun Korn Waterfall’s crisp pool is an unforgettable bargain adventure in Chiang Rai.
As the tallest waterfall in the area, its towering bedazzlement set amidst the serene Khun Korn Forest Park makes for a truly rejuvenating dip.
To reach this paradise, take a 1-mile hike through the lush forest, which offers its own share of adrenaline rush.
You’ll cross bamboo bridges over tiny streams, and before long, the roar of the waterfall will announce you’ve arrived.
Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Ensure you wear comfortable, sturdy shoes because of the rough terrain.
- Due to the prevalence of snakes, don’t ignore any warning signs.
- Carry dry clothes and towels if you plan on swimming at the waterfall, and remember safety, as rocks can be slippery.
- The waterfall’s open hours are from 8 AM to 4:30 PM,
- The entry is blissfully free.
17. Have an Adventure at the Nava Land Water Park
If you are visiting Chiang Rai, embark on a thrilling adventure at Nava Land Water Park, especially if you are traveling with kids!
Imagine whirling down thrilling waterslides and splashing around in the stimulating wave pool. The slow-flowing river was my personal retreat after the adrenaline rush.
The kiddie pool was a splash hit with the youngsters! Don’t miss the delectable food stalls offering a smorgasbord of local and international dishes.
Pro tip: Bring extra sunscreen and arrive early to nab the best lounge chairs.
Get ready for an exhilarating day of fun and frolic under the sun! Trust me, your trip to Chiang Rai isn’t complete without a day at the Nava Land Water Park.
What is the best time to visit Chiang Rai?
The ideal time to travel to Chiang Rai, in my experience, is between November and February.
This dry season in Thailand offers warm weather, lesser chances of rain, and cooler temperatures due to the nation’s northern climate.
During this high season, Chiang Rai is dressed in lush greenery, making it a stunning spot to explore.
A few things that make this season unique are:
- Enjoyable weather that isn’t too hot or humid, perfect for outdoor activities.
- Spectacular scenes as end of December to mid-January sees beautiful pink blossoms adorning the trees.
- Despite being the high season, Chiang Rai isn’t overcrowded like several other tourist locations.
Bear in mind that the region suffers from air pollution problems from February to April, so make your way south before then to save your lungs.
Ensure you have everything you need on your journey to the north by reading My Complete Thailand Packing List.
What is the Golden Triangle in Chiang Rai?
The Golden Triangle in Chiang Rai is the intriguing crossroads of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar!
In less than a sentence, it is where three nations connect through the intersection of the Mekong and Ruak Rivers, harmoniously creating a scene so breathtaking every click on your camera shouts perfection.
Ever dreamed of being at three places simultaneously? Here’s your chance! Standing majestically at the viewpoint, you can soak in unobstructed views of all three countries.
And if that isn’t striking enough, how about being rooted in the past while still being present? Throwback to its notorious history as the hub of the opium trade, it now houses an Opium Museum where you can delve deeper into its fascinating past!
Each visit is truly an unforgettable journey back in time.
What are the transportation options available in Chiang Rai?
There are several transportation options available in Chiang Rai:
- On Foot: Central spots like the Night Bazaar and Clock Tower are easily reachable. Perfect for the health-conscious traveler.
- Bicycle Rentals: For those desiring a faster pace, bicycles offer a sporty way to journey.
- Grab Taxis: Grab is Asia’s version of Uber, these taxis define convenience because you’ll know the fare upfront.
- Tuk-Tuk or Songthaew: Budget-friendly, easily hailed shared taxis proving both practical and authentic local experience.
- Car or Motorcycle rentals: Ideal for venturing further or mountain trips. Renting allows personalized schedules and exploration.
- Bus Journeys: Excellent for intercity travels, although not suited for remote or far-off attractions.
Adventure is inseparable from Chiang Rai, and these modes of transportation are your gateways!
How can I find accommodation in Chiang Rai?
The best way to find accommodations in Chiang Rai is by using online platforms like Booking.com.
- For budget options, don’t overlook Baan Jaru, conveniently located near the Clock Tower.
- Mid-range favorites include Laluna Resort, with its vast pool.
- For luxury, check out chic boutique options like The Mora Hotel.
Remember, the best stays extend beyond a city’s center. Explore the province, soak up the true Northern Thai culture, and make your visit to Chiang Rai an unforgettable one!
Are there any cultural activities I can do in Chiang Rai?
Absolutely! Your visit to Chiang Rai promises a cultural immersion like no other.
- The first spot on your itinerary should be the iconic White Temple – a stroke of ingenious artistry you should tick off your list.
- If nature trails appeal to you, a hike to Khun Korn Waterfall can provide experiences deeply rooted within the local environment.
- A stop at Singha Park for a snapshot with the golden lion is another unbeatable opportunity.
- You can’t miss out on the Mae Fah Cultural and Artistic Park, the crown jewel of Chiang Rai’s cultural offering; packed with vibrant exhibits that narrate the glorious Lanna period.
- Take some time to observe the sheer brilliance of the Giant Buddha at Wat Huay Pla Kang.
- And lastly, wind down at the bustling Night Bazaar, where you can dine and shop to your heart’s delight while being part of the authentic local scene.
Are there any nightlife activities in Chiang Rai?
Yes, there are many nightlife activities in Chiang Rai. Brace yourself for the vibrant nightlife of Chiang Rai, a city buzzing with excitement as the sun sets.
From lively markets to chill bars, this region truly comes alive at night. It’s a must to visit the Night Bazaar off Phaholyothin Road for a taste of traditional delicacies and a glimpse of Thai dance.
Want to see more? Check out the Saturday Night Walking Street on Thanalai Road, a thrill for the senses with food, live music, and intriguing artwork.
Short on time? No worries, try the Local Bars on Jetyod Road.
So, strap in for a night of flavorful food, a dose of culture, and of course, laughter with new friends! Make your time memorable in the nightlife of Chiang Rai – it’s an absolute blast!
Are there any hiking or trekking opportunities in Chiang Rai?
Chiang Rai dubbed a trekker’s dreamland, offers exploration in areas north and northwest of the city. You can immerse yourself in Karen, Lahu, and Akha tribal settlements.
And the best bit? The Doi Bo region is a hidden gem that’s got every trekker talking! Not to mention the vistas from the eastern border with Laos and the western edge towards Myanmar – it’s literal poetry in motion.
If you love trekking:
- Start from Lum Nam Kok National Park for the winning combination of forests, waterfalls, and riveting rivers.
- Consider overnight homestays for a more authentic experience.
- Avoid packages with animal tourism, instead opt for responsible choices like the highly recommended Lanna Trek.
- Jazz up your itinerary with offbeat suggestions – like the mountains near the Thai boys’ football team cave!
Remember, every step in Chiang Rai brings a new adventure.
How long should I stay in Chiang Rai?
You should stay at least 2-3 nights in Chiang Rai. This lets you experience all the must-see temples, plus get out-of-town to find amazing waterfalls and tea plantations.
With a packed schedule, you might just manage to see the city in a single day. But let me tell you, this city is more than just a day’s adventure.
If you really want to dive deep into Chiang Rai’s charm, I’d suggest 5 days. This gives you the chance to day trip up mountains and meet ethnic hill tribes, and explore the Golden Triangle and Mae Sai.
No matter your time frame, you’re guaranteed an unforgettable trip to Chiang Rai!
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Conclusion: Free and Cheap Things to Do in Chiang Rai
If you would like to explore more of The Land of Smiles, make sure you read The Best Places to Travel in Thailand.
In a nutshell, Chiang Rai is a haven for travelers and you can have lots of fun even on a small budget.
This guide unlocks the city’s bounty without draining your wallet in 2023. So grab your bags and join me in unveiling this treasure trove of endless, affordable thrills.
And if I missed anything in this guide, let me know in the comments below!