The road to Chiang Rai is well traveled now. Years ago, getting there from Chiang Mai, its sister town, took the better part of a day to drive the narrow, twisting road through the mountains. Along the way, you could pull over for fresh smoked coconuts, steamed peanuts, a warm bowl of noodles, or crunchy pineapples. You could stand along the old road and chat with the various vendors and barely a vehicle would pass by.
Today, it takes about 3 hours to drive from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai and most of the way is a modern highway. Traffic is often heavy and fast.
But I have very good news! Chiang Rai today is still a slow-paced country town where old northern traditions are alive and well. And while Chiang Rai is over 700 years old, its inclusion into modern Thailand is recent by historical standards.
Chiang Rai is Old Lanna
Many people seem confused when I tell them my wife is Siamese. In fact once, after announcing this fact to an ahistorical American, he looked at me suspiciously and asked if that was “legal”. I had no idea what he was thinking.
Most people are unaware that Thailand until 1949 was called Siam. The old Kingdom of Siam stretched from Bangkok and northward throughout the central plains, but stopped just south of Chiang Mai. From Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai and even further northward to Chiang Tung, spread the Lanna Kingdom which existed for centuries separate from the Kingdom of Siam.
Chiang Rai was founded in 1262 and was an important city/state of Lanna. The Lanna Kingdom spread as far south as Chiang Mai and Lamphun, and as far north as Chiang Tung (Today its called Kengtung.), which is about 150 kilometers north of the current Burmese/Thai border. Chiang Mai was the Lanna capitol for most of its existence and Chiang Rai was a smaller vassal city/state.
If you don’t understand that Chiang Rai was a Lanna city, you will never understand the soul of Chiang Rai or its people.
Actually, my wife was born and raised in Lamphun, the southern edge of the old Lanna Kingdom, and so she’s really not Siamese. She’s really Lanna-ese (if there is such a word). Her dialect, food, clothing and house are far more related to Lanna culture than Siamese culture.
Lanna Lives Today
Many Lanna Kingdom traditions of long ago are now contemporary traditions of modern Thailand today. In other words, Chiang Rai along with big sister Chiang Mai have had an oversized cultural impact on contemporary Thailand. Here’s some examples:
⦁ The Yi Peng (ยี่เป็ง) festival of hundreds of sky lanterns being lit and slowly floating upward is a Lanna Kingdom tradition. Sky lanterns and Yi Peng festivals are now ubiquitous throughout Thailand.
⦁ The Emerald Buddha, Thailand’s most revered statue of the Buddha, was made in and during the time of the Lanna Kingdom. It was discovered in Chiang Rai and was first displayed there. It’s a Lanna Buddhist icon.
⦁ Songkran. While the origins of the Buddhist New Year celebrations are unclear, there is no doubt that within the old geographic boundaries of Lanna, Songkram is celebrated more fervently than any other part of Thailand. In fact, Songkram celebrations didn’t really exist in Bangkok or the south until only a few decades ago. If you want to enjoy an old fashioned Songkran (not the drunken bacchanal that poses as Songkran in Bangkok or Pattaya) go to the Lanna towns of Chiang Rai, Nan, Pasang or Lamphun.
Chiang Rai didn’t officially become part of Siam until 1899. (Remember, the country name of Thailand didn’t exist until 1949.) So lets do a little quick math: Chiang Rai has existed for about 750 years, but has only been officially part of the Kingdom of Siam/Thailand for 118 years.
I go to Chiang Rai to find the old traditional Thailand that’s either fast disappearing or has already vanished. Monks chanting their evening prayers; Fisherman casting their nets into the Kok river; Northern Thai food you’ve never tasted before; Far off golden chedis reflecting the sunset; A water buffalo pulling a plow shear; A traditional Songkram festival; Peace and quiet; cool nights; ancient temples. That’s why I go.
If you like to party, love madding, wild crowds and Pattaya-style debauchery, then you won’t like the town of Chiang Rai. Thank god.
The Saturday Night Market
The best reason to visit Chiang Rai is its food scene at the Saturday night market. You will witness one of the best spreads of traditional Northern Thai food anywhere. This is Lanna cuisine.
Northern Thais generally don’t eat Bangkok style Thai food. They eat northern Thai food like pounded jackfruit (it’s a main course), app mu (a pork concoction wrapped in banana leaf), nam (A northern sausage), gang hung lay (pork stew), sticky brown rice served in small wicker baskets, mashed eggplant with hard boiled eggs; and of course the ubiquitous nam prik noon (mashed spicy green chiles that you pretty much put on everything.)
Chiang Rai’s night market is a food lover’s paradise for the adventurous. (And no, I’m not talking about eating bugs!) You will see dish after dish of popular Northern Thai foods you’ve never seen before with spices, textures and smells you’ve never tasted before.
The night market really gets its game going after 7 p.m. It can be packed, mostly with local Thais and a smattering of curious farangs. There’s row after row of food vendors so I’d recommend grazing casually throughout the market instead of stuffing yourself at the first vendor that has something you like.
Smile. Stare at the food. Stare at all the people. Point at the food you find interesting and ask what it is. The vendors often speak a little English and all will let you sample a spoonful if you’d like.
Get your food and grab a beer or two or three. There are tables you can sit at in the middle of the market. The night market is located in the center of town so it’s easy to find.
Many Thais and tourists come to Chiang Rai to visit the Buddhist wats that dot the countryside throughout the province. These Chiang Rai wats are some of the most important and unique in Thailand. (If you’re hesitant about entering a Buddhist wat, I wrote Thai Temple Manners just for you.) Here’s just three of my favorite “must sees” wats:
The White Wat
Wat Rong Khun is commonly reffered to as the White Wat for obvious reasons. Only the Temple of the Emerald Buddha at the Grand Palace in Bangkok will draw more visitors.
This modern, fantasy wat was designed and built by Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat in the late 1990s. The original Wat Rong Khun was so dilapidated, that Chalermchai spent over $40 million (bt) of his own money to create the White Wat.
The wat’s open from 9 a.m.-6 p.m. daily and charges a small admission fee for tourists. It can be mobbed with people. The best time to go is in the morning.
The Blue Wat
Wat Rong Suea Ten is a very new wat, completed only a few years ago. It gets its nickname the “Blue Wat” simply because blue is the dominate color of the wat.
Several years ago, I was lucky enough to learn that this psychedelic wat was being built on the outskirts of Chiang Rai. My wife informed me that an old classmate was involved in raising funds to complete construction. We then visited this wat when it was only half finished and I knew immediately that it would become a tourist destination. I was right.
The Blue Wat is about a 10 minute drive from Chiang Rai’s city center. It’s best to ask directions when you’re in Chiang Rai. Everyone will know how to get there.
Wat Phra Kaew
This wat is one of the most historic wats in all Buddha-land. It is the original home of the Emerald Buddha. (It’s really made of jade and jasper, not emerald.)
The legend: In 1434 a divine bolt of lightening struck an ancient chedi in Chiang Rai, cracking it wide open and revealing a small religious icon covered in mud. A monk took the statute home and noticed some of the mud had flaked off, revealing an unusual green polished stone. He washed all the mud off, and lo, the legendary Emerald Buddha was staring at him.
Via a very circuitous route, the Emerald Buddha was eventually taken to Bangkok and given a home in the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Duh….) on the grounds of the Grand Palace where you can see it today.
Wat Phra Kaew is actually a small temple complex. There’s a small museum next to the wat which I highly recommend. (Admission is free.) This wat is located in central Chiang Rai and you can walk to it if you’re staying in town.
Chiang Rai People: Thai, Tai-Yai & Hill Tribe
Chiang Rai, like much of Northern Thailand, does not have a homogeneous Thai population. Yes, the majority is of ethnic Thai stock. But Chiang Rai also has significant populations of both Shan (Tai Yai) and Hill Tribe ethnicities.
In Thailand, the Shan are called Tai-Yai. Shan State lies across the Northern border with Burma just 40 kilometers away. About 5 million Shan live in Shan State with another couple hundred thousand living in Northern Thailand, especially Chiang Rai Province.
It’s very possible while in Chiang Rai you’ll interact with Shan people and never know it. They speak Thai fluently. They might be the hotel’s housekeeping staff, or the cook that prepares your lunch. If you visit a random small village in the mountains just outside of Chiang Rai, chances are good that its a Shan village.
Hill Tribe Ethics
Hill Tribe refers to a bevy of indigenous ethnicities that live in the hills and mountains of Northern Thailand and Shan State to the north. Akha, Lahu, Karen, Hmong/Miao, Mien/Yao, Lisu, Palaung are some of the different ethnicities.
Some demographers estimate that as much as 12% of the Chiang Rai Province population is Hill Tribe. That seems high to me, but verifiable census data for these ethnicities is very hard to come by.
You will see Hill Tribe people, mostly women and children, in town. You will also see many “trekking outfitters” advertising adventures to Hill Tribe villages. Don’t go!!! Repeat. Don’t go!!!
These Hill Tribe treks are nothing more than fake cultural tourist traps. You’ll be taken to a village that has more in common with a Hollywood movie set than an actual indigenous hamlet. A few Hill Tribe woman will be waiting for you dressed in traditional attire and will try to sell you cheap trinkets that were probably made in China. There’s nothing traditional or cool about it.
Hill Tribe people are just that-people! They’re not cartoon characters, nor their villages a human zoo made for your entertainment. Just say NO! to Hill Tribe trekking.
Day Tripping from Chiang Rai
Chiang Rai makes for a great base for exploring Northern Thailand. I always recommend hiring a local driver so you can spend your time looking out the window and getting to your destination safely without getting lost. This list is no way complete and I’ve only selected three of my favorites;
⦁ The Golden Triangle. Chiang Rai represents the southern edge of the Golden Triangle, a region which includes Burma, Laos and Thailand. Decades ago, this area was a leading producer of opium on the world market. Have lunch in Chiang Saen on the Mekong River and nose around town. There’s an Opium Museum (Moo 1 Ban Sop Ruak | Wiang, Chiang Saen 57150, Thailand) that’s interesting. Make sure you go to the Golden Triangle overlook and see the mighty Mekong and the Golden Triangle itself.
⦁ Doi Tung. (translation = Flag Top) You’ll go far up into the mountains with staggering views of the countryside below. The Royal Family has a large estate up in the mountains that’s open to the public. Go to the very top and visit the Temple of Doi Tung. You might also be interested in reading my blog post The Lost Temple of Doi Tung to wet your appetite. Getting to Doi Tung takes about an hour drive.
⦁ Mae Sai. This is the Thai border town with Burma, about 35 kilometers north of Chiang Rai. Good shopping on the Thai side. Cross over to Burma for a couple hours of shopping in Tachileik. Or you can travel all the way to Kentung (Thais call it Chiang Tung.) which is another sister town to Chiang Rai and about 6 hours north of the border (But you’ll need a valid Myanmar visa to do so.) See my blog entry “Onward to Kengtung” for details.
While the road is well traveled to Chiang Rai, strangely enough the town feels like its slightly off the beaten path. And compared to Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai will seem like a very small town.