Best Things to do in Chiang Rai

Chiang Rai is a city in the far north of Thailand. Whilst it is not yet as popular as Chiang Mai which lies 3 hours south, Chiang Rai is a quieter alternative for those seeking a more authentic Thai experience. 

Chiang Rai is now firmly on the Thailand backpacker trail and it is understandable why. The city is a perfect base for exploring magical waterfalls and seeing the infamous White Temple. You can visit one of Thailand’s most ethical Elephant Sanctuaries, sample epic street food and watch a spectacular light show. Read the list to see 8 things to do and see in Chiang Rai in the north of Thailand.

1. Check out the Light show at the Chiang Rai Clock Tower

The Chiang Rai clocktower is a relatively new addition to the Chiang Rai cityscape. Located where Thanon Jet Yot street meets Thanon Baanpa Pragarn road, the golden tower has stood proudly since 2008 and functions as a traffic roundabout. The unique architectural style was provided by Thai artist Chalermchai Khositpipat who also designed the famous White Temple, Wat Rong Khun. The ornate landmark was created in honour of the King.  

Whilst the clock tower glistens gold in the daytime, indeed even the street lights which surround it are golden, at night time the clock takes on a different persona!

Head to the clock tower for 7pm, 8pm or 9pm. You will see that the clock tower is illuminated by various different colours. The show will be accompanied by music encouraging the lights to change colour and dance around the structure.

Whilst this display is on the various traffic whizz around the roundabout. The trucks, motorbikes and tuk tuks fly around the golden masterpiece. What a fantastic place to put such a show.

2. Khun Korn Waterfall

Just 30km outside of the city lies the beautiful Khun Korn waterfall. A short hike through bamboo groves and lush jungle is required to reach the falls. It is not a particularly difficult hike and the view of the Khun Korn Waterfall is well worth your efforts.

You can hear the Khun Korn falls long before you can see them. The thunderous torrent grows louder as you reached the end of the 1.4km hike through the jungle. When you reach the first viewing platform of the falls you are left in sheer amazement.

Stop and stare at the majestic white-water spectacle. The water rushes over the rocky precipice and dives 70m into the shallow pool far below.  

Read more about our visit to the Khun Korn Waterfalls.

Bring your Go Pro and your swimming costume. It can be dangerous during monsoon season to venture into the pool, but you can still enjoy standing in the spray. In the dry season it is possible to stand right under the 70m waterfall and let the white-water torrents thunder down on you.

Visit as early as you can or on a week day if possible as this place is popular amongst tourists and locals alike. The best way to get there is by scooter which you can rent in the city centre. You can also combine your trip with a visit to the White Temple.

3. Buy colourful souvenirs the Night bazaar

Chiang Rai’s night bazaar is very conveniently located right in the centre of the town, close to the bus station.There is a wide array of souvenirs from colourful coconut balls to hill tribe wares. This night market is one of the best in the whole of Thailand as there are no scooters or tuk-tuks to avoid! The array of souvenirs is similar to Chiang Mai but there is a heavier focus on the minority ethnic groups who live in the Himalayan foothills around the city. There are around 70 ethnic groupsin Thailand. Use your visit to the Chiang Rai night bazaar to see more colourful wares made by Karen long neck tribes, Hmong peoples, the Yao, the Akha etc… There are many beautiful clothes, hats and jewellery which are produced by these local ethnic groups to look at. Of course, there are plenty of other souvenirs and if you needed anymore baggy pants you can stock up here. 

If you are heading to Chiang Mai after Chiang Rai and want to party, check out these Party Hostels in Chiang Mai.

4. Enjoy a free traditional Thai dance performance!

The night bazaar is not only home to pretty souvenirs. There is also a huge food court with many vendors on either side, a stage at the top and plenty of tables with chairs in the middle.

Walk around the sides to see which dishes you fancy then grab a chair. Sit down with your piping hot meal and look towards the stage. Various performances take place throughout the evenings.Singers and dancers alike entertain the diners. Sweet Thai words are sung by a duet. Her lovely voice drifts over the tables adding to the wonderful atmosphere of the Chiang Rai market. The dancers then arrive, dressed in vibrant colours. As the music starts the artists smile and dance to the rhythm.Their trinkets clink with every move as they glide across the stage.

A true assault on all the senses as you taste and smell delicious Thai food. You hear incredible music whilst feeling the dull vibrations from the speakers. Finally, you see the fantastic traditional costumes worn by the entertainers. Best of all, these performances are completely free! You must simply purchase an ice-cold beer or a hot bowl of noodles. Sit back and enjoy! 

5. Elephant Valley Sanctuary

No visit to Thailand is complete without meeting a beautifully grey and gentle giant, an elephant. Sadly, Thai elephants are an endangered species and there are only around 1000 wild Thai elephants now. Yet over 3000 of them, classed as ‘domesticated’ elephants work in logging or tourism. Many of these are abused and treated very poorly even in so-called sanctuaries.

The word ‘sanctuary’ is very loosely used, and many so-called sanctuaries are more like zoos or circuses. However, Elephant Valley is not that kind of place and is in fact one of Thailand’s most ethical elephant centres.

The centre picks you up from your accommodation and takes you just outside of the city to the Elephant Valley Sanctuary. When you meet Jack, the owner, who tells you about the work they are doing and that their ultimate goal is to create an elephant safari you know you have chosen the right place. There is no riding, playing or washing the elephants here. You are allowed to watch the elephants just being elephants. There is a limit as to how close you can be with the gorgeous creatures. Most of the time we watch them from afar. At snack time though you are allowed to feed them bananas for 5 minutes, allowing a little time up close with the elephants. Elephant Valley has six elephants at present. Some of the animals used to be used in circuses and the others were in the logging industry.

Click on the link to read more about our visit to the Elephant Valley Project Thailand.

Whilst the sanctuary is by no means perfect it is certainly going in the right direction. It is a thoroughly wonderful experience seeing these majestic giants. You must visit Elephant Valley when you go to Chiang Rai and support this fantastic venture.

Check out this post for more useful tips on how to prepare for your trip to Thailand.

6. Switch off in a coffee shop

In this world of connectivity, it can be hard to switch off. Free wifi can be super useful but it also means we may be more interested in posting on social media than actually enjoying the environment we are currently in.

One perfect place to switch off from the internet is the Vegan Vegetarian café called Kunda just around the corner from the Chiang Rai clocktower. As soon as you walk into the wooden clad café you feel as if you are entering Tibet.  Buddhist chants fill the restaurant. You almost feel yourself start to meditate slightly as you ease yourself down onto the comfy and colourful cushions on the floor. The walls are covered with Tibetan flags and decorations.

Choose the delicious chocolate cake from the menu and enter a trans-like state in this little slice of Tibet away from the temptations of the internet.

There are quite a few good places to have great vegan food in Chiang Rai and Kunda is just one of them!

Check out our post about our visit to Kunda and other vegan places in Chiang Rai.

7. The White Temple

Wat Rong Khun, also known as the White Temple, is one of the most well-known and well recognised temples in the whole of Thailand. The temple is covered in symbols, hidden meanings and a few surprising elements too!

Firstly, the temple is white to symbolise the purity of Buddha. The bridge to the main temple building can only be reached by crossing the bridge of the cycle of rebirth. Gruesome hands try to tempt you. They symbolise greed, temptation and desire and the only way to reach true happiness is by foregoing these sins. There is also Gollum’s head hanging in a tree…

The Temple is not yet finished. Chalermchai Kositpipat, the artist, envisions a total of nine buildings including the monks living quarters, a meditation hall and an art gallery.

Visit as early as you can and try and avoid 9-10am which seems to be when all the tours arrive! Make sure your camera is fully charged and be patient with the crowds. It is very ‘instagrammable’ understandably. Many people visit Chiang Rai just to see Wat Rong Khun and therefore you must visit when you are in this northern city!

If you would like to visit the White Temple as a part of a guided group tour consider using G Adventures or Intrepid Tours.

8. Watch the sunset from the Clock Tower

Annoyingly there are no hills or high buildings to climb to watch the sunset in the centre of Chiang Rai. Yet one spectacular place to watch the sunset is by the clock tower. The tower glistens gold in the rays of the evening sun. To try and see the sun set just behind the tower you may have to stand in the road… well don’t stand in the road but you may have to wait for a gap in the traffic to capture the sun in the right place! Otherwise you can stand on the safer pavement to see the lovely structure light up.

Would you like to go to Chiang Rai?

Hope you enjoyed this list of things to do and see in Chiang Rai. Let me know in the comments below what you would like to do and see in Chiang Rai! Also tell us if we have missed anything!

8 Best Things to do in Chiang Rai! Check out one of Thailand’s most ethical Elephant Sanctuaries, sample epic street food, visit the White Temple and watch a spectacular light show. Click on the link to see the full list! #chiangrai #thailand #elephant #whitetemple

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