Last weekend I woke up at 4:00 a.m. Saturday morning with the hankering to go out of town. While most middle-of-the-night plans turn out to be completely insane once 8:00 a.m. rolls around, this one seemed like a pretty good idea. We only have one full week left in Thailand, and making one last big trip would be a great way to make the most of our time. I quickly researched Pai and Chiang Rai while laying in bed, and decided that Chiang Rai would be the best place for us to go.
When my husband and son woke up a few hours later I rushed them through a breakfast I’d just bought at the 24 hour 7-Eleven and told them about our plans: I had booked a hotel and chosen the best things to do in Chiang Rai.
Deciding to go to Chiang Rai had been an easy choice. We’ve been hearing about it since we arrived in Chiang Mai 6 weeks ago, and I knew I would always wonder if it was really worth the hype if we didn’t make the trip. I picked out a 4-star hotel with only slightly more mental effort, and was only left to find a few things to do to guide us through our adventure. That’s where things got tough.
As it turns out, there are only around 5 things people like to do in Chiang Rai. At least that’s how it seemed from the many travel articles and blog posts I read while laying awake in the middle of the night. Each article gave a sample itinerary of visiting the White Temple, the Blue Temple, the Black Temple, the night market, and the downtown clock tower. Every one. Does it sound like I’m exaggerating? Well, I am. But only ever so slightly.
There’s nothing wrong with Buddhist temples. I love them, actually. Wats are so beautiful and artistic, and, as a highly religious person, I really enjoy seeing the glimpse into such a special religion. The thing is that wats are everywhere in Thailand. We’ve visited about a hundred, and I just can’t expect my 6-year-old to get as excited as I do each time.
The other thing is that we like to go off the beaten path and find more interesting, local experiences. Chiang Rai is a popular location for tourists, and I just didn’t want to go to the same 5 places every other forgeigner in Chiang Rai would be visiting. I understand tourist attractions become popular for a good reason, but I have to believe there is more available that just hasn’t been written about yet.
And so I researched.
I eventually found nuggets here and there about the region and different things to do in Chiang Rai province, and I was led down a travel research rabbit hole. I chose the following activities very carefully, and a few jumped out at us at the last second. That’s what I love about having a loose schedule- you have a few things to guide your travels which you can look forward to and plan on, but leave enough time in between to find and take advantage of something really cool.
Here is our perfect Itinerary for things to do in Chiang Rai in 48 hours!
Spend Day 1 in and around Chaing Rai to fully experience the province:
The best activities can be found around the Kok River in Chiang Rai province. Day 1 of our Chiang Rai Itinerary takes us to town for lunch then west of Chiang Rai, to a series of amazing adventures found in the local villages along the Kok River.
8:00 am: Leave Chiang Mai
We have use of a rental car, so we were able to leave town whenever we wanted. It takes around 3 hours to drive to Chiang Rai, so leaving at 8:30 meant arriving in Chiang Rai around 11:30 am. We found some unexpected road construction during our drive which slowed us down, but at least I was able to catch up on sleep by bringing a pillow on the trip!
11:30 am: Lunch at Barrab
Barrab is the highest rated Thai restaurant in Chiang Rai according to TripAdvisor (as of December 2018). Barrab was easy to find by Google Maps. The guest house/ restaurant is hidden from the main road by a gate, and is full of fresh flowers and lovely atmosphere.
We ordered Khao Soi, the regional specialty noodle soup, cashew chicken, and it’s namesake dish: Barrab. Barrab is a plate of minced spicy pork and fried onions with a mound of fresh greens and veggies. Our server showed us how to add the pork salad and veggies to a lettuce leaf and it it whole, which was really fantastic! This was our favorite dish, and one I’m already craving again.
1:30 pm: Lam Nam Kok National Park
45 minutes west of Barrab is Lam Nam Kok National Park. We came here to see the famous hot springs lake. Chiang Rai province sits atop an underground geothermal water basin, and many hot springs bubble up from underground in the area. Lam Nam Kok is famous for having a small pond which heats to such a high temperature (55 C) that visitors can only expect to dip a toe in.
The main reason for visiting hot springs is to bathe, of course, but this park is worth visiting even if you can’t wade in. The area is well manicured, beautiful, has great views of the mountain foothills, and is practically deserted. The hot springs pond, itself, is quite the sight! Just try to step in the water, and then spend the rest of your time mesmerized by steam escaping the turquoise water into the wind.
About Lam Nam Kok National Park Hot Springs:
- Located 45 minutes west of Chiang Rai city alongside the Kok River
- Lam Nam Kok National Park Address: Tambon Doi Hang, Amphoe Muang Chiang Rai, Chiang Rai, 57000
- The park is free to enter with signs pointing the direction to the hot springs and other point of interest written in Thai and English
- The park has clean bathroom facilities, a visitor’s center, and plenty of space on the banks of the Kok River to sit down and enjoy the quiet
2:00 pm: Cook Eggs at the Pha Soet Hot Springs (Ban Phaset Hot Springs)
After spending a few minutes at the mesmerizing natural hot springs lake it’s time to visit a hot springs compound you can actually get in.
Just down the street from Lam Nam Kok National Park is Pha Soet hot springs (also called Ban Phaset Hot Springs). Because it’s outside of Chiang Rai city most tourists don’t venture to this hot springs location. You’ll get the local experience you wanted while still enjoying a wonderful activity!
The main activity at the Pha Soet hot springs (other than bathing) is cooking raw eggs in the near-boiling water. Outside the entrance to the Pha Soet hot springs you’ll find tons of stalls vending raw eggs. For 20Baht ($.75) you can buy 3 chicken eggs or 12 quail eggs in a vertical straw basket attached to the end of a bamboo rod (We recommend getting a basket of quail eggs. Because they are so small they cook much faster. After 15 minutes our chicken eggs still weren’t done!) You’ll find a small concrete bath tub at the far end of the hot springs compound with other egg baskets floating inside, propped by bricks. Add your basket and enjoy the facilities while you wait for your eggs to cook.
About Pha Soet Hot Springs:
- Check Google Maps for Ban Phaset Hot Springs for directions
- Free to enter and free to sit at a long, low bench to rest your feet in a shallow foot bath
- 30Baht/ adult and 10Baht/ children to enter a designated swimming pool
- Clean Showers and bathroom available for free
- The compound also features rooms to rent and a massage hut
- Please return the egg basket when you finish cooking your eggs
3:00 pm: ATV or Dirt Bike Rental
An hour is the perfect amount of time to hang out at the Chiang Rai hot springs, and then it’s off to find more adventure! Follow the main road down the Kok River and cross a beautiful bridge to make it across to the other side. Down this side of the Kok River you’ll find our next adventures: riding ATVs or dirt bikes!
For 100Baht ($3) choose one of their many ATVs or dirt bikes to ride around a large track. For an extra 100Baht you can ride around 3 times! We chose to ride both an ATV and dirt bike three times each, and felt it was 400Baht very well spent! The track has lots of turns and jump mounds, plus a mud pit!
Don’t worry, it was very safe. We filled out some paperwork beforehand and were properly suited up in safety gear before being shown how to start the vehicles. There is no training session, but the employees are stationed around the track to help as soon as they’re needed.
We found them very fun and laid back, and thoroughly enjoyed such a random, fun experience!
The downside is that the track can be pretty hard to find. The ATV track is very new and not yet found on Google Maps, so search for “elephant Camp” near the Kok River to get there. The ATV track is across the street from the elephant camp, with a giant sign visible from the street and lots of parking. You can’t miss it!
About renting ATVs in Chiang Rai:
- Search for “Elephant Camp” on Google Maps to find the location
- 100Baht for a single loop, 200Baht for 3 loops
- Can choose either ATVs or dirt bikes
- ATVs allow passengers
- Nearby stall offers Thai massage and showers for after your ride
4:00 pm: Elephant Camp
Leave your car at the ATV parking lot and walk across the street to the elephant camp. This elephant camp is owned by the nearby village, and used as a source of income for the villagers. They offer 30 minute elephant rides, feeding the elephants bananas and sugar cane, and bathing in the Kok River with the elephants.
We don’t recommend riding the elephants, as continued weight has been shown to harm elephant’s spine. If you want to interract with them, however, you can buy treats to feed them from a tall tower. The mature elephants eagerly lift their trunks to grab bananas out of your hand, then stuff them into their mouths.
If you aren’t interested in supporting the elephant camp financially, this is a great opportunity to learn about how local villages use elephants to earn an income. Simply observe their treatment of elephants to learn more about the cultural practice and treatment of elephants in the Chiang Rai region.
About the Chiang Rai Elephant Camp:
- Search Google Maps for “Elephant Camp” to find this one along the Kok River
- 400Baht for a 30-minute ride through the village and Kok River
- Feed the elephants bananas and sugar cane bought from the camp stall
4:30 pm: Visit a Pineapple Plantation
Oh, the things you can find by making a local friend and asking for cool stuff to do!
Chiang Rai is the only province in the world which grows Phulae Pineapples, a special hybrid pineapple species. Phulae pineapples are small and round (about the size of your fist or a small apple) and are much sweeter and less fibrous than traditional pineapples. I usually can’t eat much pineapple because the acidity burns my mouth, but this pineapple breed is so sweet that I can down two whole ones before I start to feel the effects! My husband doesn’t have the same problem with acidity, and he eats 4 or 5 of the small pineapples before calling it quits.
You pass lots of pineapple fields in the Chiang Rai countryside on your way to the Lam Nam Kok National Park and back, which made us want to just pull over and give one a try. The fields are poorly patrolled, but it’s hard for civilians like us to know when the fruit is ripe (not to mention unethical to harvest alone.) Instead we asked our new ATV friends for a pineapple field recommendation and they were happy to give one!
Follow the same road towards town and look for a pineapple field on the left after a few kilometers. There are lots of small pineapple fields, but this one is characterized by a large white stone fence on one side with a red and white pineapple logo. It belongs to a pineapple distributor, and has a covered patio partially visible from the street full of locals preparing the fruit.
We drove in and spent around 30 minutes hanging out with the harvesting crew. They didn’t speak much English, but were very good-natured about having us around. We watched them peel the pineapples and carve out the black seeds in a spiral pattern with a V-shaped tool. They then wash the freshly cut pineapples in a separate building on the premises and weigh and pack them for transport. After going from table to table watching and photographing the operation we bought a kilo bag of Phulae pineapples (8 or so) for 40Baht!
About the Chiang Rai Phulae Pineapple Plantation:
- About 4 km down from the Elphant Camp/ AVT track. On the left behind a white, concrete fence with a large red and gold pineapple sign
- Be respectful and nice as you enter. They don’t get a lot of tourists!
- You may be offered a pineapple to eat while walking around, but be sure to buy some to support the workers
- Ask permission before taking pictures. These are real workers, not an organized tourist attraction
5:00 pm: Visit the Kok River White Buddha
Another couple of kilometers down the unnamed road from the pineapple farm is a strip of street side food stalls on the banks of the Kok River. Behind them there’s a giant white Buddha built onto a platform in the middle of the river. You can’t miss it! You’ll see this statue on the road as you approach the National Park earlier in the day, and this is the perfect time to actually stop and see it up close.
Around 5 pm the sun will start setting, leaving a gorgeous sky and no harsh shadows. You can pull off on the side of the road before or after the strip of food vendors and walk across the strip of land toward the Buddha.
He’s incredible! Almost brand new, the Buddha is still gleaming from white concrete atop a set of stairs. Since this Buddha was erected far from a local village it’s almost never visited, giving you the entire platform virtually to yourself. Enjoy!
About the Kok River Buddha:
- Made out of concrete and painted white
- Seldom visited
- On the Unnamed Road in Tambon Mae Yao, down a few kilometers from the Elephant Camp towards Chiang Rai city
5:30 pm: Chiang Rai Night Bazaar
Yes, this is one of the things everyone talked about doing, but it really was worth it!
Downtown Chiang Rai is closed to street traffic and packed with stalls offering foods, drinks, and souvenirs. You can find just about everything! The night bazaar officially opens at 6:00 pm with the Thai national anthem blared on speakers, but many stalls are already open for business as they set up. It’s nice to get there early so you can see the full breadth of the stalls while it’s still daylight.
Here you can spend 10Baht+ on all sorts of Thai treats and meals! Lines will be formed around stalls offering popular meals like papaya salad and pad thai, while others are quick to offer your coin and grab your food. It does get crowded, but the crowds and lines were very orderly!
About the Chiang Rai Night Bazaar:
- Address: Wiang, Mueang Chiang Rai District, Chiang Rai 57000
- Open nightly at 6:00 pm
- Can haggle for lower prices on goods, but standard prices for food
7:00 pm: Chiang Rai Clocktower Night Show
This is another item that was on every other traveler’s itinerary, and for good reason.
The reason: It’s hysterically Thai. Like, the best intentions of a world-class work of art and engineering marvel but with the outrageous flair of Southeast Asia.
The clocktower is ridiculously overstated, which makes it so iconic. Designed by the same local artist responsible for the equally famous White Temple, the clocktower performs a light and music show every night at 7, 8, and 9 o’clock. The clocktower first strikes the correct hour and then lights illuminate the tower in different colors as music plays. During one song an opening in the center of the clocktower opens to reveal a blooming lotus flower, which is them replaced by a giant crystal.
The entire show takes around 7 minutes and can be best viewed from the center medians on either side.
About the Chiang Rai Clocktower:
- Only plays a light and music show on the hour starting at 7 o’clock pm
- Night show lasts around 7 minutes and includes changing colors and music
- Can get crowded, so walk across traffic to the wide center median to get a great viewing spot
- Within walking distance to the night bazaar
Spend Day 2 in the Golden Triangle to learn more about Northern Thai culture:
7:30 pm: Head to the White Temple
Yes, you’re starting your day with another popular tourist attraction. You really can’t justify skipping the White Temple, though, because it’s literally the main reason most people stay in Chiang Rai. Since you’re there for two whole days, anyway, visiting the White Temple really is one of the best things to do in Chiang Rai in your 48 hour itinerary.
Chiang Rai’s White Temple is not a full practicing Buddhist temple, but is a temple-in-progress privately owned by the eccentric local artist currently renovating it. The main building is finished and features a white temple surrounded by demonic images, symbolizing to visitors the need to put carnal desires aside to aspire to a higher nature.
The white temple really is beautiful, and attracts quite the crowd. It doesn’t officially open until 8:00 am, so we suggest being in line by 8 o’clock to see it before it’s covered by a throng of tourists.
Entry is 50Baht for non-Thais and includes the main building as well as others around the temple complex.
About Chiang Rai’s White Temple:
- Privately owned by the artist and not fully completed
- 50 baht for foreign adult entrance
- Opens at 8:00 am – 5:00 pm daily
9:00 am: Eat breakfast in town or at hotel
During this hour we went back to our hotel for a complimentary breakfast and then leisurely packed our bags. It was hard to wake up early to head to the White Temple after such a busy Day 1, so we wanted to take our time when leaving the hotel.
11:00 am: Long Neck Karen Village Tour
There are quite a few hill tribe villages in Northern Thailand, and one of the most popular to visit is the Long Neck Karen tribe. Characterized by women wearing brass coils around their necks, this tribe arrived from Myanmar during the Burmese civil war in the 1980’s.
The tribe is supported by the Thai government but not awarded citizenship or official recognition. Since they are not eligible for traditional employment, the village relies on tourism to earn a living and preserve their historic culture.
This village charges an entrance fee to be able to walk around the dirt roads of the village. The main attraction is a long road of stalls manned by Long Neck women selling their handicrafts. You’ll see the women using their looms to create gorgeous scarves or painting hand carved figurines while waiting for customers.
Some refer to this village as a “human zoo.” It does feel strange to pay entrance to gawk at a person’s unusual adornments, but it was explained to us that the villagers are not able to support themselves in other ways, and catering to tourists solidifies their reserve to maintain their cultural practices and skills, at least.
We struggled with the decision, but ultimately felt good about supporting this group of Thai outcasts. The women were incredibly friendly with us and with each other, and they seemed (and reported to be) genuinely happy to interact with tourist and show off their skills. Besides, we only saw a couple of other tourists while visiting over a busy weekend so I doubt they are taking advantage of the market and making money hand over fist or anything.
About visiting the Chiang Rai Long Neck Karen tribe:
- Find the village off of Highway 1 by searching for “Long Neck Karen.” The village we suggest is on the left of Highway 1. There is another Long Neck Karen village on the right of Highway 1, but that one seems much more touristy.
- Remember that the women are people, not a tourist attraction. Always ask permission to take a photo of them by pointing to your camera.
- Support the women by buying their handicrafts. The loosely knotted scarves are handmade, the cloth-like pashminas are not. The prices are set and quite fair, so don’t offend by haggling unless you do so very nicely.
12:30 pm: Golden Triangle Park
Set Golden Triangle Park as your afternoon’s destination.
The Gold Triangle is the corner of Northern Thailand where Laos and Myanmar are visible across the Mekong and Ruak Rivers. This area is popular for semi-permanent foreign residents in Thailand needing a quick border crossing to apply for a new tourist via. Here you can easily catch a boat to cross the Mekong River to Laos if you are in such a need!
Even if you’re not in need of a new visa, it’s pretty incredible to see three different countries from one spot. You can easily spend a few hours here doing any of the following:
What to do in Chiang Rai’s Golden Triangle:
- Wat Pra That Pukhao: This Buddhist temple is built on a hilltop on the land side of the Golden Triangle Park. Climb a short set of stairs to the mid-level of the temple and then an additional level of stairs along the back to reach the summit. The summit features a large Buddha and platforms to easily see Laos and Myanmar. This is by far the best viewing spot for the Golden Triangle, and almost tourist-free!
- Shop at the stalls. You’ll find plenty of stalls along the street opposite the river of the Golden Triangle Park selling hill tribe dresses, elephant pants, bags, magnets, jewelry, etc.
- Walk around the riverfront park. The main attraction of Golden Triangle Park is the park, of course! This is a plot of land facing the river with elephant and Buddha statues, food stalls, binoculars pointing towards Laos, and more. It’s a pretty interesting place to see and observe!
3:00 pm: Singha Park Chiang Rai
A nice way to break up your 4+ hour drive from the Golden Triangle back to Chiang Mai is to stop at Singha Park Chiang Rai. This is a well-manicured park with lots to do!
The first thing you’ll see when you arrive is a golden lion in the middle of a grassy field. This lion is quite popular, and will likely be full of tourists when you arrive. It’s neat to see as you drive into the park, but don’t feel like you have to walk up to it unless you really want to.
You can rent bikes to ride around the park, visit a tea plantation, a petting zoo, a lake with swan boats, and a few other things around the massive park. If nothing else you can get out of the car and walk around, at least!
When we stopped we found they were hosting a food/ hot air balloon/ music festival at the park. It was a nice surprise to see such amazing things on our way back to Chiang Mai!
Our weekned in Chiang Rai was quite busy, but we absolutely loved it! Think about it: in 48 hours we cooked eggs in a hot springs, saw elephants, rode ATVs, ate fresh pineapple from a plantation, visited a Buddha in the middle of a river, went to the night market, saw a giant gilded clock light up and sing, met Long Neck Karen villagers, saw Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar in one view, and watch hot air balloons.
It was preeeeeeeeetty awesome. And very Thai.
Thailand is huge and diverse, and Chiang Rai is truly unique! Our two months in Thailand have become so much more memorable since we were able to make this trip, and we are so happy to have these memories of a new location in this amazing country.