Planning a Chiang Rai trip? No matter if you are making your way from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai or fly here directly, a Chiang Rai day trip will promise plenty of colourful sights. If you want to power through it and are committed to getting up at 7am, you can easily see the main Chiang Rai attractions in one day!
Getting from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai
Essentially, there are three options for getting from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai. The most expensive and definitely not hassle free option is flying. It might be the shortest option, but if you factor waiting time at the airport into the equation, you really don’t save much time with this short flight.
Cheaper and for more independent and adventurous souls is a car drive up from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai. Traffic is always busy and, as everywhere in Thailand, it is on the left side of the road. If you are not too comfortable with that (like me), then consider affordable option three.
Alternatively, you can take the public bus. The ride can take anywhere between 3.5h and 5h, depending on what time of day you want to leave and what services run. It is recommended to book in advance because this stretch is rather popular and can sell out quickly. The lower price end for getting from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai is around 300 baht. You can check times, driving length and prices on 12Go.Asia.
Chiang Rai Day Trip: The White Temple – Wat Rong Khun
One of the most popular sites and a definitely instagrammable hotspot is the White Temple, south of Chiang Rai. Its actual name is Wat Rong Khun (วัดร่องขุ่น) and it merges art and religion in the most breathtaking way. Like the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, it isn’t completely finished yet. (Scheduled completion is by 2070 and will include nine buildings.) The art project was started in the 90s and is funded by private artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, who seeks immortality from it.
In the place of the white temple, once stood the original temple Rong Khun. But it was in such a state that it had to be demolished as there was no money to renovate. So the artist made the decision to completely rebuild it from the ground up, marrying traditional Buddhist and Hindu symbols with an artist’s interpretation.
Bonus tip: I caught the local bus at 6:30am, but didn’t realize the temple opened at 8am. The positive side of this, however, was that I could walk around the temple site while there were zero people walking around. The fog added an extra special eerie effect to it all.
Symbolism of the White Temple
When you visit, don’t just marvel at the magnificence of the structures and pose for one-of-a-kind selfies. Consciously search out the symbols. Start with the pathway towards the temple. There is only one way towards the temple building (ubosot) Wat Rong Khun and it is over the bridge of “the cycle of rebirth”. You will pass hundreds of creepy outstretched hands, which symbolise greed.
To make it to heaven, you can never go back and you should elevate yourself above all the negative feelings that cloud the pure mind. After leaving temptation, greed and desire behind, you will transfer from “death” to “rebirth” and pass the Gate of Heaven. It is guarded left and right by the two demons Death and Rahu, which will decide upon fate of the newly dead.
The entire temple buildings – except for the golden house – are painted white and decorated with tiny mirror shards. On sunny days, which results in wonderful reflections and makes the buildings almost glow ethereally. (Bring your sunglasses!) The white symbolizes the purity of Buddha and the mirrors stand for wisdom and the mind.
As opposed to the white, the golden building presents a stark contrast and is meant as such. It depicts the body and how humanity is focused on worldly desires instead on enlightenment. This is picked up again inside the main temple building with giant murals showcasing traditional elements of fire and demons mixed with modern figures, such as Michael Jackson, Terminator, Freddy Krueger, Harry Potter and hello Kitty. (Taking photos is not allowed.)
On your walk, don’t keep your eyes peeled just to the buildings but look on the lawns, pathways and trees as well. Hanging heads, thousands of keys and Hindu creatures can be seen stationed all over.
How to get to the White Temple
If you want to drive, head own south on Route 1 toward Route 1232 and continue straight until Route 1208, where you turn left. You will see the temple on your left.
For public transport, get one of the hourly buses from the Chiang Rai bus station. One single bus ride costs only 20 baht! Walking from the temple back to the main road, you can already see the bus stop underneath a tree, next to street vendors and shops. Hail a green minibus for 20 baht to get back to the city centre.
Chiang Rai Day Trip: The Blue Temple – Wat Rong Seua Ten
Another stunning temple that will blow your mind, not with the absence but with the sheer vibrancy of colour, is the Blue Temple. The Blue Temple also is not your average Buddhist temple. Unlike the White Temple, it is completely covered in magnificent colours inside and out. Entrance is free and you can even take photos inside.
History of the Blue Temple
The Thai name Wat Rong Seua Ten (วัดร่องเสือเต้น) means “tiger leaping across a water ditch”, because back in the old days, a lot of tigers were jumping across the water trenches and the locals named their village after this. The original temple lay in ruins until the villagers started on the construction of a new Buddhist temple.
The entrance is guarded by two spectacular dragon statues. The design of these dragons has been inspired by the work of national artist Tawan Duchanee (1939-2014). He is the creator of the famous Black House, another interesting attraction in the Chiang Rai area. The Blue Temple Wat Rong Seua Ten has already become another attraction of Chiang Rai. What will the next colour be?
At the place of the current temple there was a ruin of an abandoned temple, which was at least 80 years old. In 1996 the villagers decided to construct a Buddhist place of worship on this particular location. Construction started in October, 2015. On January 22, 2016, the temple was finished.
The ordination hall was only completed two years ago
How to get to the Blue Temple
As the Blue Temple lies in the district of Rimkok, which is a little outside of the Chiang Rai city centre, the best way to reach it is via tuktuk or local taxi. When I tried walking there, I ran into the problem of crossing a bridge with no sidewalk and no way to safely walk across it. The tuktuks I hailed tried charging me 40 baht or more for the short ride but I was able to haggle them down to thirty. Alternatively, you can also hail a Grab car or uber via an app.
GPS : 19.923327,99.841884
Chiang Rai Day Trip: The Black House – Baan Dam Museum
Let me preface this by saying there is no such thing as a black temple in Chiang Rai. The Black House isn’t religious at all. It actually isn’t even one black house in the first place. The entire area hosts around 40 black houses (“baan dam”) and they are basically part of an outdoor exhibition. If you had to label it, you could say it is a gallery and museum. Entry is 80 bath.
Renowned Thai artist Thawan Duchanee has created it over the course of five decades. He amassed an elephant skeleton, animal skins, bones and more in a somewhat creepy decorative style for the houses. It is a wild mix of traditional Thai artistry and modern design.
Meaning of the Black House – Baan Dam Museum
Thawan Duchanee’s art has always been quite controversial, albeit internationally recognised. This is no different for his life’s work at Baan Dam Museum. From the outside, the houses look very traditional and some have clear Buddhist influences. The dark ebony paint, however, already gives away the mood and atmosphere they are to evoke. Not enlightened and spiritual, but dark and moody, almost tribal.
Dead animal remains are used as morbid decorative pieces. Buffalo horns are tied onto solid wooden chairs. Flickering rows of candles illuminate snake skin table runners, bear skins are used as duvets. The (non usable) toilets are quite a site as well. One is covered in seashells, on the walls, on the toilet lid, around the mirror.
The other one boasts golden bugs on the walls and a turtle on the floor.
The various houses and huts are all unique and one upside down looking funnel-shaped in particular is of interest. Inside, black rows of chairs made out of more horns are surrounding giant shells as well as a crocodile skin. The overall objective is to bring humanity’s darkness to light (pun intended). There are no information boards onsite, the impressions are mostly left up to yourself as are interpretations.
How to get to Baan Dam Museum
The Black House isn’t very far North and can easily be included in your Chiang Rai day trip. Again, you can take a bus headed northward towards the hill tribes, for instance, for 20 baht. Then get off at Ban Pa Ha, by the motorway bus station, and walk through the village for ten minutes. I did that with the help of my maps.me app. On the way back, you cross the motorway and wave down a local green bus. They come by roughly every quarter of an hour.
Alternatively, you can hire a songthae to take you right to the gates. Again, in case you want to drive, head upwards on Route 1 and turn left into Ban Pa Ha, where you can follow the signs. It gets touristy pretty fast.
Chiang Rai Day Trip: Karen Hill Tribe
Ever since I wrote a very long academic paper on perceptions of beauty across the world, have I wanted to see the Karen tribe in person. I had learnt so much about their traditions of putting up to 7kg of golden rings around their necks, which makes their necks elongated. But really, their shoulders are just pushed down from the weight. It is by far not a healthy procedure.
But that wasn’t the issue I had with visiting or even writing about it here. There are plenty of mixed accounts out there and I feel like I don’t have all the information to give an utterly objective and well-rounded judgment. The thing is, the hill tribes originate in Myanmar, from where they fled.
They were given land to live on but, as far as I know and until today, under the provision of showing their culture to visitors. Some people call it “human zoo”. It certainly felt very much like an outdoor sales show and chatting to the women felt somehow intrusive. If you do visit, be considerate and ask for photo permission. Don’t post with everyone and buy something to support the women.
How to get to the Karen Hill Tribe
There are multiple hill tribe villages you can visit on a Chiang Rai day trip. The best way is to hire a guide or join a tour so you can get more information about their traditions, such as their special garments, their weaving, their way of life and history. However, the tours can also feel quite intrusive. I snuck around one to catch a few pieces of background information and they just walked up to one hut and let the tourist crowd peek around it. It must have been prearranged but it did seem off. The thing is, this isn’t a living museum. The hill tribe people actually live there.
Anyway, you can get a local bus (the same as to Baan Dam) for 20 baht from the main bus terminal and be asked to get off at Karen Hill tribe. There apparently are at least two different stops, one for Akha Village and then the other further up North, along the route. The one I choose didn’t seem to have the usual entry fee of 500 baht (which means, you really should buy something to show support). From the bus stop at Ban Mae Kahotom Tha Sut, a scenic walk lead me past rice fields to the Hill Tribe village for thirty minutes.
Alternatively, you can hire a songthae to take you right there or drive yourself to the Hill Tribe. There is a parking lot at the front. Head upwards on Route 1 for about an hou. Right after you pass the small village Ban Mae Kahotom Tha Sut, turn left and follow the road until you see the entrance sign.
Should You Do an Organized Chiang Rai Day Trip?
As usual, this is entirely up to your preference. Getting around with public transport is insanely cheap and if you get up early, you can get most of the sightseeing done in the morning. The temples aren’t giant, with the black museum, you don’t have to investigate all the details and at the hill tribes you probably won’t stay extremely long either. Therefore, you can have an easy day DIYing your Chiang Rai day trip yourself.
If you want a guided tour with lots of background information, easy transport and really are out for photo opps, an organized tour is a good idea. There are tons from Chiang Mai as well, though they can be quite packed as the drive is a couple of hours each way. A good tour provider I personally like is Tourradar.
Where to Stay During Your Chiang Rai Travels?
Depending on how fast and sight-packed you want this trip to be, you can either stay in Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai. I highly recommend at least an overnight stay in Chiang Rai for your travels. This way, you can experience the Northern Thai city itself, the nightlife and its cuisine as well. As I was travelling on a budget and really just needed a place to rest my head, I stayed at Sook Café and Youth Hostel. This turned out to be a great choice as it was literally a two minute walk from the bus terminal and Night Bazar. On top of that, the staff was nice, it was clean and there was a rooftop bar.
For a more high end stay to treat yourself, why not look into a fabulous stay at Nak Nakara Hotel with the big pool or the fancy The Mantrini Chiang Rai with free parking facilities? Both are under 2 km away from the city centre. To be closer to the mountains and hill tribe villages, you could stay in Le Meridien Chiang Rai Resort.
What Should You Include in Your Chiang Rai Day Trip?
Chiang Rai is a great place to explore for an entire day. So if you can manage it, don’t squeeze in a ride from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai in the same day. Start your day early with the White Temple at 8am, then move northward to Baan Dam and down to the Blue Temple. In the afternoon, you can wander around the city centre and enjoy the night markets in the evening. Catch live performances and music in the Night Bazar Food Court.
Where would you wanna go for a Chiang Rai Day trip?
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