Chiang Rai is a quiet poem in the middle of the book. The oldest city of the ancient Lanna Kingdom, it holds many beautiful secrets for you to discover. Not far from the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, and a sister to Chiang Mai, this beautiful Northern region of Thailand is filled to the brim with diverse culture, delicious food, incredible people, and so much beauty that its poetry leaves a lasting impression on you. Full of local and enriching cultural experiences this guide shares what to do in Chiang Rai for a beautiful, immersive experience in this unique part of Thailand.
How to Get to Chiang Rai from Bangkok
Chiang Rai is the northernmost province of Thailand, and situated on the Kok River basin, 416 metres above sea level. It is about 829 kilometres from Bangkok, and mostly mountainous. It reaches the Mae Khong River to the north and borders both Myanmar and Laos. Search flights to Chiang Rai.
I arrived in Chiang Rai via Thai Smile Airways from Bangkok after a few days of dusting my self off from the flight from San Francisco. You can arrive easily from any direction into Mae Fah Luang International Airport, this is the main airport in Chiang Rai.
Chiang Rai has become a tourism gateway into Mayanmar and Laos, with easy access into both, and it is the home of many hill tribes with customs and fascinating ways of life that have been paused in time for many, many years – making it an incredibly interesting place to visit.
Related: 10 Things You Must Do in Chiang Mai Thailand
The Best Places to Stay in Chiang Rai
When you arrive at Le Meridien Chiang Rai you are greeted by a rotunda filled with painted elephants, and Thai smiles holding cold wet lemongrass-scented towels and fresh flower garlands that I swear you can smell as you turn onto the driveway. This is Thailand and this is Chiang Rai. The open air lobby spans the entire façade of the first floor and overlooks the Kok river, shallow reflection pools and beyond; the sound of sweet khim music can be heard just beyond the front steps and it calls you to its place where an exquisitely beautiful woman gently and artfully pulls the sound out of the instrument with grace. This serenade happens in the lobby every evening at 6:30pm, but it felt like she was playing just for us, and she was. It is an impressive start, and a true first impression for the stay that you will have at this luxury property.
There are 159 rooms and one suite at Le Meridien, each has either a garden, river or pool view. My Deluxe River View Room had a balcony that opened up to the river which you could see from the 53 square metre room. All rooms are modern and spacious with king sized beds, ample seating for lounging, air conditioning to escape the heat and all of the modern amenities of a luxury property.
An abundant buffet of mind-numbing choices is served every morning for breakfast at Favola, the downstairs restaurant with views of the river. The rustic Italian-inspired cuisine is a delicious surprise and an outside table under the stars and beside the glowing reflection pools is dreamy. Be sure to indulge at the sticky rice cart which is set up for every meal.
The rooftop bar and lobby bar are both splendid spots for a nightcap or happy hour drink. Drop in to Latitude 19 just off of the lobby for dessert after dinner and be sure to order the éclair, each month the chef presents a new éclair and they are perfect with a glass of bubbles.
A wander beyond the common area and along the floating walkway above the reflection pools will reward you with an infinity pool oasis that you will want to linger in. Take another path up and across an arched bridge and walk along the river. The property is framed by two 100-year-old rain trees, and within close proximity to a monastery which gives the resort a rich heritage feel that is connected to the land it sits on.
If polishing, buffing and bathing is on your list you are in luck. Prepare to splurge at Parvati Spa, the spa on property and take your pick between the Jasmine Rice Body Polish and the Tropical Herb Bath, this spa has mastered the art of combining plants, herbs and natural local ingredients to its spa menu and the treatments are so delicious you could eat them.
A stay at Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp and Resort is a must when you visit Chiang Rai. This Anantara property is filled with magic, and my stay here will always be one of my favorites. The 160-acre picturesque property is located in the heart of the Golden Triangle with three-country panoramic jungle views, and a natural soundtrack including elephants in the distance; the lush views include a bamboo forest, indigenous gardens and rice paddies.
The lushness doesn’t stop with the views, every bit of the stay here is filled with luxury. The grand open-air common spaces include a two-story lobby with a courtyard entrance and peek-a-boo view into what is waiting for you when you check in, a welcoming lobby bar with velvet seating, an outdoor terrace where you can sip and dine poolside, and wrap-around spaces with extra-large balconies that share the spectacular views.
I love that the property is defined by the words “camp” and “resort,” because it feels like a beautiful blend of both, in high but approachable style, when you are experiencing the 40 rooms and 15 suites property. Six of the suites are family suites and the property prides itself on providing an experience that the entire family can enjoy; including all-inclusive Discovery Packages which include elephants, spa, cooking classes and other discovery experiences including Thai boxing, farming in the rice paddies and exploring the local areas.
My Deluxe Three Country View Room decorated in richly coloured silk fabrics and smooth teak furniture made me feel like royalty. The Thai Lanna style is sturdy and secure, but soft and graceful and the absolute perfect compliment to the jungle backdrop, it is approachable Thai elegance. The ample built-in day bed on my balcony was a great spot for daydreaming, I loved the rain shower and deep terrazzo bathtub, and the daily fruits and elephant-shaped sugar cookies were a welcomed treat.
Each morning I woke up early enough to watch the sunrise and jungle mist rise over the mountains in the Laos distance, every sunrise and sunset was an exquisite masterpiece on Mother Nature’s canvas and the entire sky and surroundings glow in the Golden Triangle like I have never seen before. One morning I wandered to the main pool to watch the colours in the sky dance and play in the water, the sun was a brilliant red orb in the soft misty sky. The infinity pool is spectacular with an elephant-inspired shower, swim up gazebo, and a floating Jacuzzi with forever jungle views of the Mekong Valley. The elephant camp is always in the distance reminding you that you are sharing this land and time with the giants who live there. I had the masterpiece all to myself and I watched it unfold in the quiet.
Dining is eclectic at Anantara, feast on authentic Thai dishes at Sala Mae Nam, order your favourite Italian flavours at Baan Dhalia or sip and nibble at the Elephant Bar and Opium Terrace where you can order a selection from both restaurants in a casual and easy environment. If you are feeling creative, add a Thai Cooking Class to your itinerary while you stay here. I enjoyed a private cooking class at Spice Spoons, the on-property cooking school, where I learned how to make traditional Thai mango sticky rice and vegetarian green curry and Pad Thai. We feasted on our newly learned dishes at a private lunch with the chef after our lesson and it was a highlight of my visit. There is a charming chef’s garden on property near the school with heritage herbs and other goodies for an authentic cooking experience.
The jungle spa on property at Anantara is a relaxing way to settle in, I enjoyed a traditional Thai massage in one of three double teak wood suites.
But the biggest draw to staying at Anantara in Chiang Rai are the giants that share this land with the property in a village all their own, with veterinarians and elephant experts as well as mahouts that have a long history of devotion to these divine creatures. I know that it is a careful subject when covering anything that involves animals in the world, especially in travel situations where the adventure includes interacting with these animals. As a yogi and practitioner of ahimsa I accepted an invitation to “Walk with Giants,” one of the signature activities offered to guests at Anantara and it was one of the most magical experiences of my life. I know that camps, sanctuaries and other elephant rescue projects receive careful and diligent scrutiny, what I learned from the Anantara staff and elephant family is that there are many devoted people who take time out of their lives to live on property and take care of these creatures. The staff is made up of volunteers who love the giants dearly and I saw this with my own eyes. I also met the veterinarian on staff who has the special job of doing her heart work here, and it was beautiful to see how devoted she is. But, it was the mahouts I learned about the most. Mahouts spend their lives connected to their animal, this is not a new development, this is the heritage of Thai culture and of many generations of devotees. It is learned and passed down and sacred. I learned that Anantara provides the village for these mahouts to care for their elephants, and all of the things that both need to survive, thrive and live happily in their natural environment. I saw the mahouts interact with their elephants with directing and familiar kindness, I watched this gentle grace carefully and it seemed divine, and loving and mutual.
It’s hard to put into words how it feels to walk beside an elephant, just walking up to one and putting my hand on it’s leathery skin took my breath away. Then, I looked into her eyes and I saw the entire Universe there.
The Walk with Giants experience includes a private walk with the elephants and their mahouts, and the elephants are in charge. I was joined by one of the volunteers who spends a month or so here every year caring for the elephants, and she lives on property in the special housing provided by Anantara. The on-staff veterinarian also joined us, it was nice to have the voice of science and authority and it made me feel like the animals are well looked after. We walked with the elephants at their pace as they grazed on local greens and meandered through the land that has been given to them – they seemed so happy, well fed and free.
What to Do in Chiang Rai
There are so many things to do in Chiang Rai. However, my itinerary for Chiang Rai was focused on local, authentic experiences. For my third visit to this country that I love I wanted to see and feel the culture as a local, especially in this area where the tribes still live and thrive in ways that they always have.
The Doi Tung Development Project
A visit to Doi Tung Development Project is a must and one of the most popular activities for tourists and locals visiting this area. This visit should include exploring the Mae Fah Luang Garden and Tree Top Walk.The Doi Tung project is the answer to a need for helping with local deforestation, it is the culmination of the Princess Mother’s lifelong dedication to development work. The vast manicured gardens span acres of incredible colours, with pathways and greenhouses as well as sunny and shady places to stop and take it all in. If you are feeling adventurous you can take a treetop walk along the suspended bridge paths perched high above this incredibly beautiful place and peer over onto coffee plants and other indigenous plants growing below. You will be strapped to a safety line, and it is best if you are wearing pants for this activity but if you arrive in a dress they will outfit you with a pair of Thai pants for the duration of the activity. The walkway is a beautiful and unique experience and I had a great time.
The Mae Salong Organic Tea Plantation on Mae Salong Mountain
The magic I saw and felt on Mae Salong Mountain will always be something I will cherish and I highly recommend a visit to Mae Salong Organic Tea Plantation and Villa where you can learn the cycle of tea by following it from growing on the mountain, to picking it and sorting it, to the production and finally to drinking it the proper way with locals guiding you every step of the way. This activity is a guided activity, the day that I explored the mountain I was taken by open-air truck up to the plantation through the Santa Kim Village where I could see the native Yao and Akha hill tribe villagers in their everyday lives. I was met at the top by our guide and local tribe women and children dressed in the traditional tribal costume, and my hands-on experience began with picking oolong tea leaves beside these women, in the middle of the thousands of acres of tea. I learned the proper way to pick the leaves and we shared smiles and the ancient work surrounded by the magic of the place and the fragrance of the leaves. Once the leaves were picked we made our way back to the plantation where I learned how the tea is dried and processed, and then I sat down with a tea master and learned the proper way to drink it. I have a new appreciation for tea in general, but especially for the tea picked here by these women daily. This is a must-see and do, local experience when you visit Chiang Rai.
Visit the Mae Sai District
As you may know, Thailand is known for being the “land of smiles,” and this is true because you will see this everywhere you go. A Thai smile is full of genuine love, and there is nothing like the smile of a Thai child. You will know what I mean if you make time to visit the Mae Sai District and Jinnaluck Miracle of Sea. For over 22 years Jinnaluck Mulberry Saa Paper Community Enterprises has maintained the production of paper made by hand from plant fibres. The devotion to this art and the village and people has resulted in an education tour program that visitors can participate in. When you arrive at Jinnaluck Miracle of Sea you are greeted in the sweetest way by a line of happy, beautiful Thai children dressed in customary costume, they sing a short song to you and greet you and welcome you into this miracle experience.
By hand you are taken into the courtyard where you can try local foods being prepared, you can press rice into milk and watch little pancakes being made and after you have feasted on these treats you are guided into the presentation area where Jinna Luck greets you and tells you more about the initiatives of the project. The children take their seats beside you, smiling the whole time, and it is indeed a heartwarming experience. Once the presentation was finished we were treated to a traditional Thai dance that the young girls danced for us, it was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen – each girl like delicate china in her deliberate movements and so graceful that it looked like they were one, like water.
The program, “One Piece in the World By Yourself,” includes a hands-on lesson in creating your very own piece of mulberry paper. The wet tables are set when you arrive, with framed looms and all kinds of textured goodies ranging from sparkly strings to botanical leaves, petals and seeds as well as paper hearts and other coloured shapes that you can put onto your paper to make it yours. The children help you make your choices and place them onto your frame and then the frames are dried while you enjoy a hot rock foot soak and explore the village. You get to take your piece of paper with you when you leave, it is the perfect reminder of how special and how unique this experience is.
While your paper is drying, take an E-tok (named for the sound the engine makes while you are riding it) ride through the Pang Ha village. I visited the one and only blacksmith’s house in the village and received a lesson in traditional blacksmithing, I also visited the candle factory and helped pour the hot yellow candle wax into molds with strung wicks and then pulled them from the molds for packaging, and finally I visited a local guava field and picked fresh guava by hand and feasted on it. This experience is a full day of living the life like a local and I highly recommend it.
The Ban Hat Ban Bae Thai Lue Textile Weaving Village
A visit to Ban Hat Ban Bae Thai Lue Textile Weaving Village is another hands-on, authentic experience of life as a local. This village has been passing a weaving legacy down for generations and you can visit the textillery and watch the women weave 100% cotton clothing with their distinct design indicative of their village and tribe. You are also welcome to join the women at any phase of the process by trying your hand at the looms, wheels, and other ancient tools and machines that they use daily to do this work by hand. Once you have tried your hand at weaving, you can step into the little shop and try on the traditional clothing, and if you feel inspired to you can take these pieces with you for a modest amount that goes back into the community for supporting this work.
Where to Eat in Chiang Rai
The Doi Tung Restaurant
The Doi Tung Restaurant located on the Doi Tung property is one of the best restaurants in Chiang Rai for Thai food and the perfect place for a lunch after you visit the gardens and have a treetop walk.
Chivit Thamma Da Coffee House, Bistro & Bar
Chivit Thamma Da Coffee House, Bistro & Bar is a beautiful river front destination for any meal. I had a delicious dinner here on the balcony of the main building and feasted on traditional Thai food and yummy rose. The terraces along the river are filled with a fairytale-like ambiance aided by large chandeliers and natural lights strung high in the trees, and white iron furniture in cozy groupings. It was a charming place to be and I loved the meal from start to finish.
Hern Auy Kham
The restaurant for lunch while you are visiting Pang Ha village is local Hern Auy Kham, where you can have a first-hand taste of the influence the Golden Triangle has on food. Part Balinese, part Thai and a mix of Myanmar and Laos, the food is beyond delicious! The flavours are bold and unique; this restaurant is about as local as it gets, and I had one of the most delicious lunches of my life here.
Rai Saeng Arun
After the textillery visit I stopped at Rai Saeng Arun on the Khong River for lunch and I highly recommend it. The farm-to-table approach is fresh and delicious with a Thai twist, the chefs were literally harvesting the salads and fresh vegetables in the garden that you have to walk through to get to the river front tables as we were walking to ours. The menu is full of fresh flavours and the view of the river and beyond is so pretty.
Temples in Chiang Rai
There are many temples in Chiang Rai and I will do a temple tour of the area on my next visit, but I did make time to see the temples below and I suggest carving out time to research and explore the temples that call to you. Thai temples are unique, each one, and filled with divinity and devotion; visiting them is one of my very favourite things to do when I am in Thailand.
Wat Rong Suea Ten
Wat Rong Suea Ten (The Blue Temple) is located just outside of Chiang Rai and represents the newest temple in the area. This impressive temple is aglow with blues in all hues, including the grand Buddha inside and it is magnificent how the blues contrast with the gilded gold throughout. When you visit, wander to the back of the temple and exit the back door to find another façade more ornate than the one in the front.
Wat Rong Khun
Wat Rong Khun (The Chiang Rai White Temple) is located about 12 kilometres from the city and it is a marvel that you must see for yourself. Fully white with silver, mirrored inlaid glass this temple looks and feels like a jewellery box, and inside this jewellery box lives the great story of Buddha told in various renditions by Achan Chaloemchai Khositphiphat who also restored and built the temple after it was partially destroyed. The grand entrance, symbolic of the journey your soul takes is an ornate foot bridge leading into the main temple, and the main temple is surrounded by other smaller temples for gathering, praying and hanging well wishes. I watched a group of monks explore the outside areas and the sight of them against the white was so beautiful, and I hung a tin wishing heart on the metal tree near the temple along with hundreds of others. This is a spectacular temple to see.
As I continue to explore Thailand, my heart falls more and more in-love with the land, the people and the culture. Chiang Rai is the perfect place to experience all of these things on a deeper level, with local guides and from a local’s perspective; hands-on and unique activities will fill your itinerary here and you will be left with beautiful memories and a deeper appreciation for a world far away and a people still living the way they always have.
The Fit Traveller was a guest of Tourism Thailand for this visit to Chiang Rai. As always, the opinions, words and images are authentically our own.
Pat Russo is a Mystic, Muse, and Spiritual Teacher guiding women into their hearts with a journey of softening. She is a published poet, a lover of hearts, and a forever student.
Feeling the impossibility of choosing between her two favorite cities, she considers San Francisco and Paris home.