May 11-16, 2016
Exploring Chiang Rai, Thailand
GPS waypoint: 19°54'25.8"N 99°49'51.4"E
Location: Amphoe Mueang Chiang Rai (district), Chiang Rai Province, Thailand
Chiang Rai City
Chiang Rai is the biggest working city in Northern Thailand that offers urban amenities plus a lot of nature. At 390m above sea level, it's nestled on a mountainous terrain with the outdoors and numerous trekking possibilities. It serves as the hub for neighboring small cities like Mae Sai, Chiang Saen and Chiang Khong on the Golden Triangle. I've heard many great things about this place that prompted me to come back to Thailand. With roughly 6 days, I set about to explore this destination.
enjoying Pad Thai by the Clock Tower
The International Bus from Huay Xai to Chiang Rai
From Huay Xai, Laos, there is an international bus that took me all the way to Chiang Rai, Thailand (B225). Crossing borders on the same bus is a lot of convenience, cheaper, and it saved me a lot of transfers. If not for that, I would have taken a tuk-tuk from Huay Xai to the Friendship Bridge (B100), take the shuttle bus to cross into Thailand (B25), take another tuk-tuk (or songthaew) to Chiang Khong (B60) for the bus to Chiang Rai (B200+). From the Chiang Rai Bus Terminal 2, it was a blue songthaew ride to the city center (B15). A tuk-tuk driver was charging me B170!
My first lodging was at Big Butter Hostel. It's more like a homestay with the owners living in the house. It was clean, they were friendly but too far away from the city center. Besides, during the low season, dorm beds can be had for B100 and they were still charging B180. I stayed only one day and moved to Suknirand Hotel, which is centrally located - the moment I walk out of the hotel, the city is right before me. The Clock Tower is literally just steps away. It's an old hotel but kept clean at all times.
Food and Coffee
Like most of Thailand, food here is everywhere and cheap. Even locals eat out instead of bothering to do marketing and cooking. You can get fine-dining places but street food or spartan restos are perhaps the best for value. Coffee houses are also aplenty from Doi Chang, Yoddoi Coffee, Cat in a Cup to Pankhon Coffee - they are clustered around the Clock Tower area.
I wrote to a few yoga studios offering to teach free classes. One agreed, but it was 40 kms away. I met-up with Nalinee, a local I met in Huay Xai just a few days ago. We had coffee and the talk somehow came to yoga where I invited her to join me on my morning yoga in a nearby park. As her first time, I'm glad it was a one-on-one teaching. Beginners need more attention. More importantly, I can set her thinking on the important basics that are usually not addressed anymore in yoga studios - the breath, the mental focus, the non-reaction, the safety edge and of course, the alignment. She was a fast study and promising. She would join me daily until my last day in Chiang Rai.
It's low season so the wide open space for eating were hardly full. There were 2 stages, presumably one for the locals with vaudeville skits in Thai. The other stage plays a cultural show and a folk singer playing popular English tunes. The eating and dining happens in a wide open alfresco space. The general ambience is wholesome and festive. The market wares aren't that different from the other Thai markets - traditional clothing, hill tribe clothing, touristy souvenirs, etc. They close at 11pm.
White Temple (Wat Rong Khun)
Under the heat of the scorching sun, I rode a rented bicycle 13.1 kms south of the Clock Tower to the Wat Rong Khun, better known as the White Temple. It is Chiang Rai's crowd drawer. Unlike most gilded temples in Thailand, this one is immaculately white, some sections plastered with a mosaic of small broken mirrors to provide that reflective presence that makes it glow even in broad daylight. The place is pretty intense with more ornate and elaborately designed buildings under construction. It's a massive undertaking that is scheduled to be finished in 2070. It's a must-see for its uniqueness. (read blog)
I think the magic of Chiang Rai is how it provides urban amenities in a cityscape while nestled within a countryside setting. You get the best of both worlds. It's a big city in the north but not too far away are the mountains with all the trekking possibilities and home to numerous hill tribe communities. The people are friendly like most of Thailand and price of food and lodging is very reasonable. It's not everyday you find a special place like this.
- the tourist area where most of the hotels, restaurants, ticket offices, tour operators are, is located around the Clock Tower area
- it's not beneath the elites to eat street food (but I suspect that's all over Thailand, not just Chiang Rai)
Chiang Rai being a big city, nearly all cities and towns connect to it by bus or plane (no trains though).
- if you are dropped-off at the Bus Terminal 2 Station (the new one), you need to take a blue songthaew to the old Bus Station (B15) which is in the heart of the city. If you checked-in near the Clock Tower, chances are, you can just walk it from the old bus station to your hotel. Otherwise, you may have to ride another blue songthaew from the old bus station to your hotel. If you take the tuk-tuk from the new Bus Station, you may be charged something like B170 to be taken to a hotel not walking distance from the old bus station
backpacker places (US$1 = Thai Baht 34.89 = Php 46.95 as of May 3, 2016)
- Wat Rong Khun - The White Temple - designed by Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, the construction commenced in 1997 with 2070 estimated completion date. This is probably Chiang Rai's most visited tourist attraction (read blog)
- Baan Dam - Black House Museum - a macabre repertoire of Thawan Duchanee, a Chiang Rai artist who expresses his art around the dark side of humanity. 9am - 5pm w/ 12-1pm siesta, free
- Night Bazaar - a night market on foot for clothes, food and tourist merchandise. 2 sound stages for cultural shows and live music. One stage is in Thai while the other stage seems for tourists - cultural dance, English music, etc. Big open spaces for eating and drinking, open until about 11pm
- Saturday Night Walking Street - similar to Night Bazaar with its food stalls and merchandising, but the stalls are lined up on the streets
- Clock Tower - this is an iconic landmark in the heart of Chiang Rai where most of the tourist hotels, restos and recreation areas are clustered. Minor audio and light display at 7,8 and 9pm
- Wat Phra Kaeo (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) - this is the original spot where the Emerald Buddha was first discovered in 1434 when lightning hit a chedi and revealed the Buddha within. The original Buddha has been moved to several locations through its history and finally rests in Bangkok. What resides in Chiang Rai is a jade replica
- Singha Park - almost 13km2 in size and 450m elevation, the park houses an assortment of entertaining and recreational facilities - rock climbing, zip lining, view point scenery, tour of tea plantation, bike tours, animal park, etc.
- Mae Fah Luang Art and Culture Park - B200 fee, opens 8:30am. Great garden, natural setting, abundant Teak wood carvings on display, quiet, gallery, museum pieces, etc.
- small bottle of Leo beer at The Night Bazaar (recommended)
- street Roti with banana, egg and chocolate
- papaya salad (Som Tam)
- street hot coffee
- pad thai at The Night Bazaar
- one hour massage
- bicycle rental, 24 hours at Chiang Rai Hotel. Other places charge between B70-B100/day
- laundry service
- dorm bed in a fan room, shared toilet at Big Butter Hostel (too far away though)
- 1.5 liter drinking water at 7-11
- Standard Room for 2 pax, a/c, ensuite bathroom, tv at Suknirand Hotel during low season (B600 for high season)
- dorm bed, a/c in May (low season) at Ti Amo Guest House
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May 11-16, 2016
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