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What to Do in Chiang Rai

Chiang Rai Attractions

With a far-reaching history before its 34-year stretch as the second capital of the Lanna Kingdom, Chiang Rai is considered one of the oldest settlements in Thailand. It may be less well known than Chiang Mai as a tourist destination on its own, but what makes Chiang Rai fascinating is its strong association with the Tai ethnic culture – the origins of Lanna people – which can still be seen in the temple and museum architecture around the city area.

While retaining a strong Lanna identity, however, Chiang Rai City has also been blessed by a new artistic movement, which attempts to modernise the Lanna’s cultural essence so that it offers a new perspective on what constitutes ‘Lanna-ness’ in the modern world. The famous White Temple is an extreme example of this movement, followed by the blazing red ubosot (main chapel) at Wat Klang Wieng. On the opposite spectrum, head over to Oub Kham Museum for a concentrated dose of ancient Lanna history and cultural heritage. Better yet, visit the recommended sights below to get both the ancient and modern perspectives.

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All Attractions in Chiang Rai

Chiang Rai Clock Tower

If you have already paid a visit to the White Temple, you will not be surprised to see the twisting and swirling spires on the golden clock tower where Phaholyothin Road and Banpaprakan Road meet. Built in 2008 to honour His Majesty King Bhumibhol Adulyadej, the clock tower bears the signature style of Chalermchai Kositpipat, the artist who conceived and built the White Temple. Every evening, at 19:00, 20:00 and 21:00, the clock tower comes to life in a light-and-sound display. While it’s not exactly a must-see, it still draws quite a gathering of visitors and is an interesting addition to the city’s central landmark.

  • Location: At the junction of Phaholyothin, Jet Yod and Banpaprakan Roads
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Hill-Tribes Museum and Education Centre

If you plan to visit the hill-tribe villages, it’s a good idea to first drop by the museum and get familiarised with their culture. Part of a local NGO group, PDA Chiang Rai, which is the brainchild of former senator Meechai Weera-waithaya and Thailand’s most outspoken advocate for safe sex, the museum aims to build awareness for responsible tourism by educating visitors about Thailand’s ethnic hill-tribe communities and local etiquettes that they should observe when visiting the hill-tribe villages.

Housed inside two exhibit rooms, the first showcases the history, customs and traditions of the seven major tribes inhabiting  the northern highlands of Thailand, namely Karen, Hmong (Meo), Yao, Lisu, Lahu, Lawa and Akha. You can watch a series of video presentations (available in five languages) to learn more about the hill-tribes, before continuing on to the second exhibit of colourful tribal costumes and bamboo as an essential natural material for the ethic hill-tribes.

  • Opening Hours: 09:00 – 18:00 (Mon – Fri); 10:00 – 18:00 (weekends and public holidays)
  • Location: 3rd floor PDA Building, on Thanalai Road
  • How to get there: Hire a songtaew or rent a motorcycle
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King Mengrai the Great Monument

The spiritual heart of Chiang Rai, this life-size monument is dedicated to King Mengrai the Great (r. 1262 - 1311), founder of the Lanna Kingdom. He established the first capital in Chiang Saen (1262), before relocating it to the west bank of the Ping River in Chiang Mai (1296).

Backed by three giant golden tungs (Lanna flags), the King’s monument is the first thing you see when approaching the city from the Highway 1 (Paholyothin Road). Locals usually stop here to pay respect to the city’s founding father before continuing on with their journey. Here is a good place to take a rest or buy some souvenirs from the nearby crafts centre.

  • Location: Phaholyothin Road
  • How to get there: Hire a songtaew or rent a motorcycle
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Mae Fah Luang Art & Cultural Park

If you are short on time but would like to get an over-arching introduction to Chiang Rai’s past and immediate history as well as its cultural heritage, then head over to Mae Fah Luang Art & Cultural Park (about 5km west of the city centre). Set in a lovely landscaped lake garden is a cluster of teak structures, constructed in the styles of traditional Lanna and Tai hill-tribes. Learn about the kingdom’s 400-year history, as you browse the museum’s fascinating collection of secular and religious art and artifacts.

Visit the Haw Kham pavilion and learn about animist and Buddhist rituals, which still co-exist in modern-day Lanna culture. Haw Kaew houses a permanent exhibition of teakwood artifacts. The museum’s admission fee, along with sales at the museum’s crafts shop, is used to support the northern ethnic hill-tribes and their crafts.

  • Opening Hours: 08:30 – 17:30 (Tues – Sun)
  • Location: About 5km west of town
  • How to get there: Hire a songtaew or rent a motorcycle
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Oub Kham Museum

If you prefer to delve deeper into Lanna history, art and cultural heritage, the splendid collection at Oub Kham Museum is a must-see. Witness all the different strands that come together, woven into the beautiful tapestry that is the Lanna Kingdom, from royal regalia and costumes to an assortment of rare antiques, pottery, ancient Buddha images, artifacts and tribal costumes. The collections are housed inside five exhibition rooms and a man-made cave. Don’t miss the magnificent centerpiece: the golden throne of Chiang Tung, fashioned from nine pieces of ornately carved teakwood, gilded with gold.

  • Opening Hours: 08:00 – 17:00 daily
  • Location: Na Khai Road, about 3km southwest of city centre
  • How to get there: Hire a songtaew or rent a motorcycle
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The Naval City Pillar

Fusing ancient Khmer and Lanna concepts of the universe and man’s position in relation to them, the Naval City Pillar is a series of carved stone pillars – about 1m high – set atop Jom Thong Hill. The main pillar – set on a marble pedestal and slightly bigger than the rest – is surrounded by 108 satellite pillars which occupy the six-tiered concentric circles that radiate around it, representing the six lower levels of heaven. Together, the entire site has a supernatural air to it. While up here, catch a glimpse of downtown Chiang Rai, the Kok River, or visit Wat Phra That Doi Chom Thong located in the same vicinity.

  • Location: On Doi Thong, Arj-Amnuay Road
  • How to get there: Hire a songtaew or rent a motorcycle
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Wat Klang Wieng

This is a must-see temple, for its striking architecture and ornate relief decorations. Located at the epicentre of Chiang Rai City, Wat Klang Wieng houses the original city pillar shrine as well as a spectacular temple complex built in a contemporary Lanna style. 

Built in 1432, the temple boasts ornate grillwork, roof finials and gilded decorations on its vivid red façades – a peculiar colour for temples. It was not always so peculiar looking, however, as the temple underwent extensive renovation after a storm brought down several main structures in 1903, including the main chapel (ubosot) and assembly hall (wiharn). A stupa (chedi) was then added to the temple compound; it rests on a three-tiered octagonal base, guarded on all sides by elephants in full court regalia. On each level, there are small niches housing golden Buddha images or amulets – a typical characteristic of northern-style chedis.

  • Location: Corner of Rattanaket and Uttarakit Roads, three blocks northeast of the Clock Tower
  • How to get there: Hire a songtaew or rent a motorcycle
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Wat Phra Kaew

Wat Phra Kaew is the original site where the Emerald Buddha (in Bangkok) was enshrined. It was known by the name of Wat Pa Ya (Bamboo Forest Temple), until one stormy night in 1434, a bolt of lightning struck the principal golden stupa, cracking it and revealing the Emerald Buddha inside. The Buddha was then relocated to Lampang, Chiang Mai, Luang Phra Bang, Vientiane and eventually Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) in Bangkok. Today, a replica of the Emerald Buddha – carved by a Chinese sculptor from a block of Canadian jade – dressed in full regal attire is housed inside the crimson, Lanna-style pavilion behind the chedi.

Guarded by a pair of serpent deities, the main chapel (ubosot) houses the principal Buddha image, Phra Jao Lan Thong, cast from brass and copper in the beautiful Chiang Saen style.  Believed to be at least 700 years old, Phra Jao Lan Thong was relocated from the temple of the same name in the old town of Chiang Saen. To the left of the main chapel is an exquisite two-storey pavilion constructed in the ancient Lanna style with gilded roof finials. Inside is a museum with permanent exhibitions on Lanna culture and ancient Buddhist relics.

  • Location: Corner of Trairat and Saeng Kaew Roads, four blocks northwest of the Clock Tower
  • How to get there: Hire a songtaew or rent a motorcycle
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Wat Phra Singh

With the exception of the elaborately sculpted front gate – which will likely catch your attention and draw you inside – the unassuming façade of Wat Phra Singh belies a fascinating world of Lanna art and a history dating back to the 14th Century. The main viharn (chapel) was used to enshrine the sacred Phra Singh Buddha image, until it relocated to Chiang Mai and was replaced by an exact replica.

Upon taking a closer look, you will see that the viharn itself is adorned with intricate hand-carved details, gilded fretworks, mirror decorations and sculptures of mythical animals. Before stepping inside, have a look at the viharn’s front door. Designed by successful Lanna artist Tawan Duchanee, it tells the story of the four elements – wind, fire, water, earth – through four mythical creatures: the Garuda, lion (singh), naga serpent and elephant.

  • Location: Singha Klai Road, near Overbrook Hospital, four blocks north of the Clock Tower
  • How to get there: Hire a songtaew or rent a motorcycle
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Wat Phra That Doi Chom Thong

Set atop a low hill – the highest point in the city centre – Wat Phra That Doi Chom Thong overlooks the entire city area and a scenic panorama of the Kok River. Built in the 10th Century, the temple was founded long before King Mengrai established the new Lanna capital in Chiang Rai. The highlight here is the golden, hexagonal-based chedi (stupa), constructed in the style of ancient Burmese and Lanna. Inside, it houses the Lord Buddha's relics and is an important place of worship for locals. While here, drop by to see the Naval City Pillar, located up a few steps to the left of the temple.

  • Location: On Doi Thong, Arj-Amnuay Road
  • How to get there: Hire a songtaew or rent a motorcycle
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