A lot of people visit Chiang Rai as a day-trip from Chiang Mai, on a “White, Black and Blue” tour of three “temples” — and while that’s great, I’d recommend spending one full-day on your own in Chiang Rai, and spending one or two nights.
Why not take a tour? Chiang Rai isn’t close to Chiang Mai (3 hours on average), you’ll spend most of the day on a bus and a couple hours whirling through three sites, without enough time to truly appreciate them or the other less-visited gems of this Northern Thai town.
If I were you, I’d go from Chiang Mai to Chiang Dao for a few days, and then up to Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle before crossing into Laos or returning to Chiang Mai.
There’s more to see and experience than just the White Temple, Black House and Blue Temple, and to be honest, I found two of those three a little underwhelming.. I’ll be posting more on that soon.
Here’s how to visit Chiang Rai the right way:
1.Arrive in the evening
This way, you’ll wake up Chiang Rai the next morning, so you can get an early start, beat the heat and crowds. There are many hostels in Chiang Rai, but I’d recommend staying at Busket Hostel since its right next to the bus station and central market.
2. Rent a motorbike
Always wear a helmet ALWAYS, and if you’ve never ridden a motorbike, now is not the time to learn. You can also, for $8-10, hire a tuk-tuk driver for the day. Any hostel or hotel will offer rentals or know a company, just make sure your bike is delivered before you’re ready to go to save some time, and make sure the gas is full before you leave, because it can difficult to find a gas station when you’re far away from town center near the White Temple or Black House.
3. Visit the White Temple first.
Get there as early as possible, as it gets incredibly packed by 9 am, even in the low season, and it gets hot. The temple is so white, its blinding, so try to get there while the sun is low in the sky.
4. Visit the Black House second.
After the white temple, the Black House is the furthest way from town, and from there work your way backwards. Take the time to walk around all the homes and enjoy the peace and quiet; most tourists will still be at the White Temple for an hour after you arrive.
5. Visit the Blue Temple third.
Most tours go here second, so you’ll be rewarded with peace and quiet if you show up later in the mid-afternoon. Sit with the locals and enjoy the complexity of the calming and psychedelic details.
6. Explore the temple complex of Wat Huai Pla Kang
Wat Huai Pla Kang is a giant representation of boddhisatva Guan Yin, the goddess of Mercy, one of the only female temples I’ve seen in Thailand, which makes it interesting.
If you arrive early enough, you’ll be able to take an elevator to the top and get a view over Chiang Mai. I got too late of a start and linger for a while at the Blue Temple so I didn’t get the chance, so be sure to get as early a start as possible.
There are two other temples next to Way Huai Pla Kang; a small but beautiful white temple with intricate carvings of the life of Buddha, and a nine-tiered Chinese-style Pagoda. At night, these temples are even more beautiful.
Stay for the sunset, and if you have time, til dusk. The holy goose statues hold flickering lanterns in the night, and the long white Chinese-style dragons glow in the moonlight. Chances are, you’ll be one of very few tourists here this time of day, I was lucky enough to have many of the temples to myself most of the time.
7. Shop for handmade goods
Though Chiang Mai and Bangkok have much much biggest markets, Chiang Rai’s humble market boasts high quality goods. Here you can find hand-knitted Thai garments as well as those made by surrounding hill-tribe peoples, at a fraction of the typical Chiang Mai prices.
Handmade and/or traditional clothes in Chiang Rai tend to be cheaper than in Laos, so if you’re heading up there next (which many do since it’s so close-by) I’d recommend stocking up on layers here as it can get chilly in northern Thailand and Laos, even in the hot and rainy seasons.
8. Have dinner and listen to a free live show
After a long day temple-hopping, crack open a cold one at the central market. There are regular acts in the open-air theatre, so you can enjoy the music while eating. Sit down in the communal area, and a waiter from one of the many stalls will come serve you; it’s like one big restaurant, but the menu is different depending on where you sit!
I really enjoy the free show, a few hours of traditional Thai music, Thai pop, and Thai 80s and 90s rock performed by a very flamboyant frontman and his deadpan backing band.
9. Watch the clock tower light show
Chiang Rai is famous for its beautiful clock tower, which is lit up in a procession of different colored lights every night. The light show is every hour on the hour, and though I thought it was sort of silly when a local recommended this to me, I enjoyed it. The clock tower itself is really pretty and a good meeting spot, so if you’re circling around Chiang Rai looking for a gas station, you’ll probably see it!
Chiang Rai is a really charming town, and coming for just a few hours to see the White temple, Black house and Blue temple really isn’t enough to do it justice.
If you have the time, I’d highly recommend staying in Chiang Rai for two nights, one full-day and seeing all the highlights!