Chiang Rai is located way north in Thailand, not more than an hour and a half from the country’s border with Laos and Myanmar (but more on that here). It’s known for stunning scenery, hill tribes, and as a good place to relax and trek. Although we did neither of those things.
Chiang Rai: Getting There
We took the Greenbus from Chiang Mai north to Chiang Rai (the only bus running this route, literally), relieved the “3 hour” ride was only 3.5 – one of our most accurate bus projections yet! Arriving behind the night bazaar, we realized we had no directions to our hostel so we asked two very young backpacking girls to please please borrow their phone for a quick second so we could find our way.
An iconic sight of Chiang Rai, albeit a new one. This temple was built in 2009 by a [very wealthy] local artist. It is, as the name describes, all white with tiny mirrors dotting the sharp white surfaces. It’s really exceptional — even after all the temples we’ve seen (take that, temple fatigue!). Inside are some unique paintings, traditional buddhist imagery mixing with not-so-traditional depictions of pop culture cartoons and superheroes. It is quite interesting, although apparently quite offensive to some.
There is a golden building at the back and a must-see lifesize cardboard cutout of the artist waving. Behind this, an entire gallery full of his personal art from painting to sculpture. Let’s go ahead and say this man definitely has high self esteem.
💲Budget Tip | Take the blue bus that says “White Temple” on it from the bus station downtown. It is only 20 baht per person; a huge savings over a tour or private transit. It’s super easy and the buses leave frequently.
Baandam Museum (Black House)
Some people refer to this as a temple, but some people are wrong. It’s far from a temple and this complex of 40+ buildings is one of the weirder things I’ve seen. Carved out of dark wood and stuffed full of extremely strange items (we’re talking dead animal skins, bones, large shells, rocking horses, small wooden beds covered in sheepskin, intricately-carved panels, pipes and of course phallic symbols galore), it’s a strange artistic playground of sorts. Many buildings are full of furniture and simulate rooms in a very scary house. The artist also has a cutout (or 5) of himself placed among some seashells and dead animal skins. Did I mention it was weird?
💲Budget Tip | Take a shared songthew here (the blue one). From the bus terminal it’s only 20 baht each way and drops you outside the driveway. Again, no need for a tour or private taxi.
Town of Bandu
On our way back from the Baandam House we stopped in a small town we’d passed to eat lunch. The bus attendant seemed very confused as to why we’d want to stop there — but directed us to the center nonetheless (she also swindled us on the fare). A small market was center of the town, but looking a little icky in the early-afternoon heat so we didn’t make any purchases. We walked up and down the street along the highway, stopping in a cute local spot for lunch and pointing at the photo on the wall to indicate which of the 3 items we wanted. I have no idea what we ate but it was good, and the man was even so nice as to go buy us beer when we asked if they had it by showing a photo of the Chang beer on our phones.
Chiang Rai: Around the Town
We’ve started rating things (especially things that are kind of touristy), and we gave this one an exceeds expectations. The temple is blue as the name implies and very beautiful inside and out. Also, it’s free.
💲Budget Tip | Walk to the Blue Temple. It’s less than 40 minutes from downtown, not really that hard except for a sketchy overpass you need to cross. It’s free to get in so then the entire thing is free!
This market has several names and is open early to late. In the morning fruits and veggies dominate, in the daytime the stalls at center (beads, fabric, clothing, toiletries, goods) are always open, and at night the highlight is the food stalls with their little light bulbs lining the street. It’s much less touristy than the night bazaar, although if you’re looking for a proper meal it might not be your best shot.
We start singing how bizarre as we approached, although it’s not bizarre at all. It’s a standard fare in a town frequented by tourists — stalls of overpriced souvenirs for barter, a food court with various local dishes at steeper than local prices, elephant pants, and not a local in sight. The bazaar is smaller and kind of cuter than Chiang Mai’s, but not really as exciting as the internet may (will) tell you it is.
Eating in Chiang Rai
Our best meal was at a spot a few blocks down past the clock tower (forgot to write down the name). The J Market area down that way also has cute hipster stalls with smoothies and snacks, although we didn’t try them. The aforementioned municipal market is a good place for nightly snacks and morning fruit. And the stupid night bazaar also serves cheap smoothies and local meals. Aside from this, we mostly dined in small places outside of town. Be sure to have the Khoi Soi (noodles in curried coconut milk sauce with chicken leg, see left) while you’re in town; it’s native to the north and even better than the version served in Chiang Rai.