Chiang Rai Overview
- Mythical mountains
- Country life
- Adventure in the jungle
Chiang Rai is as real as it gets in Thailand. This sleepy city might not have the boho-chic of sibling Chiang Mai, but it is an authentic slice of life and the launch pad for a magical adventure.
Founded as the capital of the ancient Lanna kingdom, Chiang Rai exudes the timeworn air of having seen it all before – and after a few hours there, you might too. The city is easy to take in by foot; pop to see its ornate, tiered-roofed temples, dip into the tightly woven wet market with its piles of chilli-hued fresh produce and chew on a northern sausage as you barter at the compact but lively night market. By far the most compelling thing about the city is its proximity to the verdant mountains of the North and infamous Golden Triangle. Drive for just over an hour and you will feel a world away from life as you know it; the misty hills, densely packed jungle and glittering waterways around Chiang Saen are where you will truly experience the region’s wilderness and diverse indigenous culture. Visit local hill communities, trek through the undergrowth and sip coffee fresh from the plantation; fall in love with an elephant and travel by long-tail boat to neighbouring Myanmar and Laos. A few days in this enchanting region will bestow memories for life.
Completely Chiang RaiChiang Rai is Thailand’s most ethnically diverse province that’s home to several indigenous hilltribe communities. Before you head off into the mountains to visit one of the tribes, a trip to the Hilltribe Museum & Education Center (www.pda.or.th/chiangrai) will help you to understand their histories and how these ancient people live in modern times.
- There are plenty of taxis at Chiang Rai airport. Negotiate a fixed fee at the registered office – easy to spot in the arrival/departure hall – although you can expect to pay about THB250 for a trip into the city. Once in Chiang Rai, it’s fun to hop on a pedicab (about THB40 to ride around the city), tuk-tuk (THB80–100 per journey) or one of the communal songtaews for a budget THB15 per trip.
- Tipping culture
- Tips aren’t expected, but since salaries are low and everything is so cheap so you might want to round up taxi fares and food bills. Established restaurants usually add a 10 per cent service charge.
- Siesta and fiesta
- Most shops and restaurants open seven days a week from morning through to evening. Local shops close at 6pm, but department and convenience stores often stay open until 10pm. Banks open weekdays between 8.30am and 3pm, but times vary according to individual branches. Thais tend to eat early – lunchtime is usually at noon and dinner about 6 or 7pm. Bars close at midnight or 1am.
- Packing tips
- Chiang Rai is rustic, rural and all about adventure, so save your labels for Bangkok. Pack a wardrobe that keeps you cool and covered in the blazing sun, warm at night (and in chilly air-con) and dry if you’re visiting during wet season.
- Recommended reads
- For an insight into northern Thai village life and the culture shock experienced by a young Canadian volunteer, read Touch the Dragon: A Thai Journal, by Karen Connelly. Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap is an illuminating, often funny series of short stories about everyday Thai life.
- Northern Thai food is influenced by the cuisines of neighbouring Myanmar and Laos and is dominated by fattier, milder and slightly bitter flavours. You’ll notice there’s a lot of pork: spicy sausages and crispy pork crackling appear on most menus, are for sale everywhere and are typically served with one of the dozens of hot pepper dips called nam prik. Curries have rich, earthy tastes and are often made without coconut milk. Sticky rice is eaten with every meal and as a snack in-between. The traditional way of serving northern Thai food is called khantoke, which is a series of five dishes: pork crackling, a chilli pepper dip, fried vegetables, a meat dish and a curry accompanied by sticky rice and served on a low table called a tok.
- Thai baht (THB)
- Time zone
- GMT +7 hours
- Dialling codes
- The country code for Thailand is +66. The area code for Chiang Rai is 053. Drop the ‘0’ when calling from overseas
- Do go/don't go
- By far the best time to visit is the cool season between November and late February when you can expect aqua blue skies, warm sunny days and cool evenings – temperatures have been known to drop as low as 2°C at night. Late March and April are extremely hot and dry, so it’s challenging to do anything active. Rainy season runs from May to October, but the earlier months are fine for travelling – there’ll be rain, but it’s unlikely to be prohibitive. September and October tend to be the wettest and there is often flooding in the region.
Don't go home without...
A bag of Doi Tung organic coffee. Doi Tung (www.doitung.com) is the much-loved foundation set up by the Thai King’s late mother, who introduced initiatives to replace local opium cultivation with that of coffee, macadamia nuts, fruit and vegetables. The golden teak-lined summer palace is now a museum and surrounding gardens and arboretum contain fragrant botanical plants and trees. The most stunning aspect is the hair-raising drive that takes you there.