Chances are good that if you talk about Thailand to others, names like Phuket, Bangkok, and Chiang Mai will come up. But my personal favourite place in Thailand is right up North, snuggled amidst lush mountains and filled with magic: Chiang Rai. This four day Chiang Rai itinerary will cover all the spots you have to see, the restaurants you need to eat at, and the beautiful, ethical travel choices Chiang Rai has to offer a sustainably-minded traveller.
Chiang Rai is both the name of a city, and a province. It is the Northernmost province of Thailand, and borders Laos and Myanmar as part of the beautiful Golden Triangle. Chiang Rai is growing as a potential digital nomad hub, but it is still far less known and packed full of charm and beauty. It also houses some of the most beautiful artistic and cultural expression in Thailand.
The aim for our Chiang Rai itinerary was to pack in as much as possible while still keeping ourselves open to what the locals suggested as ‘must-sees’. We did some research beforehand, but our Chiang Rai itinerary was mostly planned with the help of our AirBnB family, and the tour guides we met. It was a great way to experience Thailand, and I am so glad we were open to finding such beautiful off the beaten track gems.
Chiang Rai Itinerary Day 1:Where Sidewalks End Ink Experience
Sak Yant Experience
The only reason we had even heard about Chiang Rai was through Where Sidewalks End. We had been looking at getting our first tattoos together for ages, and when we stumbled upon WSE we knew we had found something special. Chiang Rai is the home of the wonderful, humble Ajarn Ton, who has a particularly light and intricate style of Sak Yant Tattoos. When we saw his work, we booked our ticket to Chiang Rai.
Sak Yant tattoos are traditional Thai tattoos that were originally given to warriors to bestow special powers and protections on them before battle. These days, Sak Yants are a popular choice for travellers, most notably Angelina Jolie. I wrote a comprehensive guide to getting a Sak Yant, but I do want to say that, months later, it is still one of the most meaningful memories I have made while travelling.
WSE took care of everything for us, from hotel pick up, our amazing English-speaking guide Khun Meai, all the required offerings, an amazing local lunch, and so much more. We felt so comfortable and cared for, and it was an absolutely stunning experience from start to finish. If you are looking to get your own Sak Yant, definitely consider booking through WSE. You can go it alone, but the internet is full of horror stories of terrible hygiene, or dodgy unqualified practitioners. WSE also has the TRiP Foundation, and donates 2% of your experience fee to a local community or environmental project. Please note that these are affiliate links, and if you book through WSE we will get a small commission that does not affect your price.
Getting a Sak Yant through WSE is $250 for a medium sized tattoo, all inclusive. Book ahead so that you are guaranteed a spot.
Akha Mino Coffee
After lunch, we grabbed a coffee at Akha Mino Coffee. This is the most gorgeous spot to grab a coffee or tea, overlooking vibrant green rice paddies. The beans are roasted on site, and the family that owns the business are friendly and committed to their community. Order your cup and then take a relaxing seat up on the second story, to brew away all your stress.
Akha Mino is just outside of Chiang Rai City, and you can check them out on Google maps here.
Singha Park is a lovely little stop in Chiang Rai, which is definitely worth a look if you have the time. With green rolling hills, the park is a sustainable tourism project owned by Boon Rawd Brewery, who produce Singha Beer. Altough you won’t get to try any beer, you will get to take selfies with the distinctive Singha Lion, and spend a great day chilling out in nature. Why not check out if there are any festivals on around the time of your visit? It isn’t a must for your Chiang Rai itinerary, but if you have the time, it is a overly little inclusion.
Entrance to the park is free, and it can be found just outside of Chiang Rai city.
Chiang Rai Itinerary Day 2: Elephant Valley
Other than the Sak Yant experience, the only other activity that we booked in advance was our day with Elephant Valley Thailand, an ethical elephant sanctuary that focuses on rehabilitation and care. it was important for us to only visit a sanctuary that actually put the needs of the elephants first, rather than focusing on tourists needs. Elephant Valley is a beautiful sanctuary that discourages any direct contact with the elephants, outside of the 2 daily feeding times.
This is only phase one of the fairly new project, and as the elephants learn to be wild elephants again, they will be moved further and further away from any contact with humans. You can read all about our magical experience at Elephant Valley, it was a long but rewarding day and I am so grateful for the work of the staff and volunteers at the centre.
Elephant Valley has many different programs for you to choose from, but definitely book ahead, as they limit the number of visitors each day. The experiences range from 1600 THB ($48) per person for a half day, to 2000 THB ($60) per person for a full day. You can also stay overnight if you have the time, for around 1000 THB ($30) per night. Each experience includes lunch, hotel pick up and drop off, and an English speaking volunteer to be with you throughout. Take a look at their website to book your visit.
Chiang Rai Itinerary Day 3: Temple and Museum Tour
Day three of our 4 day Chiang Rai Itinerary was put together with the help of our amazing AirBnB host, Mark. He helped us to book a taxi for the day and suggested what was doable for a full day tour. There really is no comparison to having insider knowledge, and Mark and Kallaya were the perfect people to share their knowledge, having lived in Chiang Rai together for years. Hiring a taxi driver is a great way to get around Chiang Rai and is very affordable, around 800 – 1000 THB a day depending on where you would like to go. Here is our recommendation for a one day temple and museum tour.
BaanDam: The Black House Museum
BaanDam was on the absolute top of our to do list in Chiang Rai, and we were not disappointed. Created by the reknowned artist Thawan Duchanee, BaanDam is a collection of about 40 structures dotted around a gorgeous garden. It is quite dark and esoteric, consisting of collections of bones, skins, sculptures, paintings, horns, paintings and unique artifacts from around the world.
The Black House is odd and unsettling, and the most unique thing you’ll see in Thailand. If you can let go of the idea of what art is or should be, and immerse yourself in some dark humour, you will enjoy Duchanee’s work immensely. This is a must see!
BaanDam is located at 333 Moo 13 Nang-Lae, Muang, Chiang Rai. Entrance is 80 THB ($3), and they are open from 9:00 to 17:00 Monday to Sunday and public holidays. You can reach them via their website or email.
Wat Hyua Pla Kang
The gorgeous 9 story high Goddess of Mercy statue is another must-see just outside of Chiang Rai city. You can explore the temple complex for free, or pay to take an elevator up to the Goddess’s eyes and take in the breath-taking view. This amazing temple complex is well worth a stop, and is jam packed with photo ops! The complex doesn’t get as much love as the other temples, but we think it is a worthy addition to your Chiang Rai itinerary.
Tickets to the elevator cost 40 THB (just over $1). The address is 553, Amphoe Mueang Chiang Rai, Chang Wat, and you can reach them at +66 53 150 274
Wat Rong Suea Ten : The Blue Temple
The Blue Temple is relatively new, only constructed in 2016. Suea Ten translates to ‘dancing tiger’, and the story goes that wild tigers used to jump over the river here. It was also the site of another temple around a century ago. Designed by Putha Kabkaew, the site is being continuously updated and expanded as it grows in popularity. The colours alone make this site worth a visit, but it really is a gorgeous piece of architecture as well. See it now, as it is only going to get busier!
Wat Rong Suea Ten is located here. Entrance is free, but remember to cover your shoulders and dress respectfully.
Lunch Break: Chivit Thamma Da
Chivit Thamma Da is my favourite place to eat in the whole of Northern Thailand! This cafe and bistro is located on the banks of the Kok river, and it feels like a magical fairy garden. The food is spectacular, fresh, and organic, and the staff are so friendly. I would have spent the whole day here if I could.
Find it at 179 Moo 2, Rim Kok, Chiang Rai and they are open 8am to 9pm daily. Check out there website. I highly recommend the Northern Thai style pork curry with fried brown rice for 200 THB ($6).
Wat Rong Khun: The White Temple
This amazing temple art exhibit was designed by Chalermchai Kositpipat, the teacher of Kabkaew of the Blue Temple. Open since 1997, the White Temple is the story of crossing over from human suffering and being reborn.It symbolises breaking free from greed, desire, and other worldly things in order to find true happiness.
I did not expect the humour in this temple, but inside there are paintings including Michael Jackson, Pikachu, Hello Kitty, and all manner of pop culture in a really strange and wonderful mix. It really is a complex that you have to see to believe, as it is intricate, layered, and subtle. It was without a doubt our favourite temple of the trip!
Entrance is 50 THB, and you can find the temple here. There are other exibits and artist’s studios on the site, so give yourself some time to explore. There is also a market across the road, so take some extra cash if you want to grab a bite to eat or do some shopping for souvenirs.
Chiang Rai Itinerary Day 4: Heading up North
Our second day of private taxi tour contained places that we had never even heard of before arriving in Chiang Rai. This is the beauty of being more flexible in planning a trip, you get to find off the beaten path gems that you may have otherwise missed if you relied purely on what everyone else is talking about online. This is our one day Chiang Rai itinerary for getting out of the city and heading up as far North as you can go.
Doy Din Dang Pottery
Again our AirBnB host gave us a great hidden gem in this little pottery. Chock full of handmade ceramics from pots, bowls and kitchenware, to lamps and even sculptural work, this pottery is just a joy to explore. We ended up buying the cutest cat chopstick holders, a great little souvenir to remember the trip!
Choui Fong Tea Plantation
Choui Fong has been around since 1977, and is a great place to stop for a tea and snack break, as well as to grab some great photos for Instagram. There are rolling hills of tea bushes, as well as a beautiful cafe and a well-stocked gift shop. The tea is gorgeous, and you can grab some tasters from the gift shop so that you know what you’re getting. The view from the cafe is absolutely stunning, and there is a variety of delicious teas and snacks to suit even the most fussy palate.
Lunch Stop: Anantara Resort
Anantara Resort is an insanely beautiful hotel looking out over the Mekong river. We stopped by for lunch, and were lucky enough not to need a reservation at the Sala Mae Nam restaurant on site. With absolutely delicious Northern Thai food and exquisite views, I would highly recommend taking lunch here if you can.
Full disclosure, the resort also has an elephant camp, and we haven’t been or seen what they do. I know from the website that they don’t offer elephant rides, but that is no guarantee that the elephant camp is ethical. Read more about what makes for an ethical encounter with elephants here.
Lunch is served at Sala Mae Nam from 11:30 to 14:30, and you can make a reservation here. Find the resort at 229 Moo 1, Chiang Saen, Chiang Rai, and check out their website. It isn’t the cheapest restaurant, but you can still have a main course for 300-400 THB.
Any Chiang Rai itinerary wouldn’t be complete without a trip up to the Golden Triangle, the part of the Mekong River that forms a natural border between Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. There are some lovely photo spots and souvenir shopping along the river, and if nothing else, it is really cool to see 3 countries at once. This area is also infamous because it has produced much of the world’s opium since the fifties. There is an opium museum in the area, but it was closed on the Monday we were there, so I can’t tell you much about it!
You can also take a boat ride across the border into Laos, although we didn’t have time this trip unfortunately. You can read a blog post about taking the slow boat from Chiang Rai on Taylor’s Tracks here.
Wat Chedi Luang
If you are up at the Golden Triangle you are actually in the old capital of the Lanna Kingdom, Chiang Saen. Chiang Saen dates back to the 7th century, and it is quite special to walk the old city walls, and take in the old monuments that are being restored. Wat Chedi Luang is a temple complex that contains an ancient bell shaped stupa, and at 88 metres high it is the tallest religious structure in Chiang Rai province. Built around 1290 CE by the third Lanna King Saen Phu, the stupa and it’s grounds are a beautiful and relaxing stop in Chiang Saen.
The grounds are open daily from 8:00 to 17:00 and entrance is free. Find out more about the temple and where to find it here.
Wat Phrathat Pha Ngao
Another beautiful temple to take in while you are around Chiang Saen is Wat Phrathat Pha Ngao. Named after a large rock on the grounds the temple also houses a seven spired pagoda, and a beautiful Lanna style teakwood building. Entry is free and you can wander the grounds as you like, just be prepared for quite a few stairs! If you bring some small coins you can also feed the impressive school of koi fish and turtles, which was really fun to watch.
Find out the exact location and some more information on the temple here.
Chiang Rai Itinerary: The Logistics
We stayed in the most gorgeous AirBnB in Chiang Rai, and I would go back in a second. Bambuh Boutique has lush gardens, and luxurious rooms, as well as the option to take breakfast and dinner homemade by Kallaya, who claims that she isn’t a chef but her meals are certainly worthy of any top restaurant.
Mark and Kallaya are incredible hosts, and they helped us with everything from taxis to the airport, to planning and booking private tours. They chatted with us whenever they were around, and just generally made us feel as if we were staying with family. We also loved their commitment to buying local, and supporting the community projects around them. This is a gem of a place and I cannot recommend it enough.
The only thing to be aware of is that you will want to hire a car, or taxi, or even one of the bikes that Bambuh has available, as it is close to BaanDam and not super close to town. However, this actually meant that our stay felt like being tucked away in nature, when in reality we were just a few kilometers from the middle of town.
You can find Bambuh on their website, or you can get them on AirBnB. If you haven’t already signed up for AirBnB, use our link to sign up and you can get up to $40 off your first booking. We get a small discount as well, at no extra cost to you. Bambuh is at 82 Moo 3 T. Nanglae Muang Chiang Rai, and their rooms start from $40 a night.
Getting to Chiang Rai
You can reach Chiang Rai via bus from all over Thailand, but our method was to catch a short flight from Bangkok. We are slightly obsessed with Bangkok’s airport, as it has our favourite ramen restaurant, which featured in our top airport restaurant guide, but really the flight is super convenient. The airport is just a 15 minute drive from Bambuh Boutique, which means you’ll be relaxing in no time. There’s no need to book a taxi in advance, just pay for one through one of the desks at the airport exit and you’ll be fine. A taxi from the airport to Bambuh Boutique is about 200 THB.
When to Visit
November to early April is the cool dry season in Thailand, and some people say it is the best time to visit. We travelled to Chiang Rai in early August, and we had the best luck as we only had one day of rain, where the previous two weeks had been full on rainy season. Unfortunately, with climate change it is getting more difficult to predict the rainy season in Thailand, so just be aware that if you travel around the middle of the year you might be risking some rain.
What to Pack
Make sure you have comfortable walking shoes, as you will be doing tons of exercise if you follow our Chiang Rai itinerary. In particular, if you are planning to visit Elephant Valley, you should bring some good walking shoes, a hat, and some bug spray. For temples, ladies, make sure you have a scarf or shawl to cover your shoulders. The temperature can be hot during the day and chilly at night, so make sure you bring a light jersey, or clothing that can be layered. As always, don’t forget your sunscreen!
How much does this Chiang Rai itinerary cost?
We took 3600THB each for the 4 days, and we paid for accommodation on our card separately. Thailand is not expensive, and there are ATMs that accept Mastercards and Visas if you need to draw more cash. Have cash handy for paying at smaller restaurants and to pay your taxi drivers.
If you are looking for a uniquely cultural and historical experience in Thailand, I highly recommend making a stop in Chiang Rai. In just a few days you can take in all the main sites, and still have time for rest and relaxation. Our 4 day Chiang Rai itinerary was full of activity and fun, while still being flexible enough to change depending on weather are time constraints.
What do you think, did we miss anything out in our Chiang Rai itinerary? Give us your tips!
Like it? Pin it!