Mueang Chiang Rai (Thai: เมืองเชียงรายLanna:Mueang Chiang Hai; Lao: Mueang Xieng Hai) is a city in Mueang Chiang Rai District, Chiang Rai Province. Chiang Rai is the northernmost large city in Thailand. It was established as a capital city in the reign of King Mangrai, in 1262.

The city was founded by King Mangrai in 1262 and became the capital of the Mangrai Dynasty. Subsequently, Chiang Rai was conquered by Burma and remained under Burmese rule for several hundred years. It was not until 1786 that Chiang Rai became a Chiang Mai vassal. Siam (Thailand) annexed Chiang Mai in 1899, and Chiang Rai was proclaimed a province of Thailand in 1933.

In 1432, during the reign of King Sam Fang Kaen of the Mangrai Dynasty (1402–1441), the Phra Kaeo, or Emerald Buddha, the most revered Buddha statue, was discovered in Chiang Rai when an earthquake split the chedi at Wat Phra Kaeo of Chiang Rai city. The beautiful jade figure was then seen concealed within. Another telling of the story has the “Emerald Buddha” hastily covered in mud just before marauders entered to pillage. Many years later, the clunky-looking mud Buddha was found to actually house a magnificent jade statue, perhaps by way of the earthquake mentioned above—which caused a piece of the clay to break off—revealing the jade beneath.

In 1992, the city pillar was moved from Wat Klang Wiang to Wat Phra That Doi Chom Thong, where it is known as Sadue Mueang (Thai: สะดือเมือง), the “navel” or omphalos of the city.

Chiang Rai Province has such a diversity of attractions that its capital is often overlooked. This small, delightful city is worth getting to know, however, with its relaxed atmosphere, good-value accommodation and great local food. It’s also the logical base from which to plan excursions to the more remote corners of the province or abroad.

The major landmark in the city centre is a golden clock tower that serves as a traffic roundabout. Designed by the same man who created the city’s famous White temple, the tower is the site of a light and sound show at 7, 8 and 9pm.

Wat Rong Khun / White Temple

Most visitors are lured to Chiang Rai by the spectacular Wat Rong Khun, commonly known to foreigners as the White Temple, a famous Buddhist temple designed by artist Chaloemchai Kositpipat. Carved with painstaking detail, the pure white, ornate facade and path leading to the entrance are deeply symbolic of desire, greed, suffering and the heavenly. It’s a religious complex unique even in Thailand.

Hours: 9:00am-5:00pm (closed for lunch 12:00pm-1:00pm).
Cost: Entrance was once free but non-Thai visitors must now pay 50 THB (as of December 2016)
Photography: Not permitted inside the temple.

Baan Dam Museum / Black House / Black Temple

Just 30 minutes from the White Temple is its darker, twisted sibling Baan Dam Museum, commonly known as Black House or the Black Temple — except it’s not a religious attraction at all.

Once the home and studio of the late and renowned artist Thawan Duchanee, a native of Chiang Rai, Black House is now a museum for his legacy. His controversial and outlandish work drew sharp criticism from conservative Thais, but was then honoured by the Thai government after creative elites rushed to his defence.

What was all the fuss about? Scattered across the gardens are 40 buildings, mostly designed in traditional yet gothic Thai architecture. Nothing odd about that. In contrast to their elegant exterior, the structures (including the restrooms) contain not just impressive, intricately carved woodwork, but bizarre and eerie exhibits of animal remains: meticulously displayed skulls and bones, black thrones made of antlers, an entire elephant skeleton and skins.

Black House isn’t nearly as popular as the White Temple, but that’s part of the appeal. The vibe here is dark and, for animal lovers, seemingly sadistic but surprisingly peaceful. There’s a serenity to the museum that you won’t find at its often crowded counterpart. Some visitors to Chiang Rai even prefer Black House over the White Temple. 

Hours: 9:00am-5:00pm (closed for lunch 12:00pm-1:00pm)
Cost: Entrance was once free but now visitors must pay 80 THB (as of December 2016)
Photography: Permitted both outdoors and indoors (a few exhibits, however, are closed to the public).
How to get there: A round-trip tuk tuk from my guest house in the city centre cost me 300 THB. The driver waited 1 hour for me before driving me back. Another option is to take a taxi, which you can also hire for a half -day and combine trips to both the Black Temple and White Temple. Lastly, you can hop on a public bus from the Chiang Rai bus terminal (old bus station near the Night Bazaar) for only 20 THB, but this involves a bit of walking and may not suit everyone. The journey takes about 30 min.

Night Bazaar and Food Court

Smack in the city centre near the bus terminal and a 5-minute walk from the clock tower is the outdoor Night Bazaar. Think of the Chiang Mai Night Market but on a much smaller scale. Every evening from dusk to about midnight, you’ll find stalls filled with Thai souvenirs and clothing at bargain prices: beaded jewellery, hill tribe handicrafts, t-shirts, dresses and silk scarves. Don’t forget to negotiate.

Don’t care to shop? Then visit the Night Bazaar at least for the eats in the food court. One area offers wooden seating and a mix of Western and Thai food; the other is where you’ll find a wide selection of street stalls with traditional Thai delicacies at more affordable prices (some say the famous fried insects, however, are overpriced). Both areas provide live entertainment and a laid-back atmosphere.

If you don’t get enough of this night market, you may also want to check out the Morning Market for local produce, seafood and products.

Wat Rong Khun (Thaiวัดร่องขุ่น), perhaps better known to foreigners as the White Temple, is a contemporary, unconventional, privately-owned art exhibit in the style of a Buddhist temple in Chiang Rai ProvinceThailand. It is owned by Chalermchai Kositpipat, who designed, constructed, and opened it to visitors in 1997.

By the end of the 20th century, the original Wat Rong Khun was in a bad state of repair. Funds were not available for renovation. Chalermchai Kositpipat, a local artist from Chiang Rai, decided to completely rebuild the temple and fund the project with his own money. To date, Chalermchai has spent THB40 million of his own money on the project. The artist intends for the area adjacent to the temple to be a center of learning and meditation and for people to gain benefit from the Buddhist teachings. Kositpipat considers the temple to be an offering to Lord Buddha and believes the project will give him immortal life. Today the works are ongoing, but are not expected to be completed until 2070. Admission to the wat compound is free for Thais and THB 50 for foreigners. Donations are accepted, but are not to exceed THB10,000, as Chalermchai refuses to be influenced by big donors.

The white temple compound will have nine buildings, including the existing ubosot, a hall of relics, a meditation hall, an art gallery, and living quarters for monks.

The bridge of “the cycle of rebirth”: the main building at the white temple, the ubosot, is reached by crossing a bridge over a small lake. In front of the bridge are hundreds of outreaching hands that symbolize unrestrained desire. The bridge proclaims that the way to happiness is by foregoing temptation, greed, and desire. Next to the lake stand two very elegant Kinnaree, half-human, half-bird creatures from Buddhist mythology.

Gate of Heaven: After crossing the bridge, the visitor arrives at the “gate of heaven”, guarded by two creatures representing Death and Rahu, who decides the fate of the dead. In front of the ubosot are several meditative Buddha images.

Ubosot: The principal building, the ubosot is an all-white building with fragments of mirrored glass embedded in the building’s exterior. The ubosot embodies design elements from classic Thai architecture such as the three-tiered roof and abundant use of Naga serpents. “Inside the temple, the decor swiftly moves from pristine white to fiery and bewildering. Murals depict swirling orange flames and demon faces, interspersed with Western idols such as Michael JacksonNeo from The MatrixFreddy Krueger, and a T-800 series Terminator. Images of nuclear warfare, terrorist attacks, and oil pumps hammer home the destructive impact that humans have had on earth. The presence of Harry PotterSuperman, and Hello Kitty confuses the message somewhat, but the overall moral is clear: people are wicked.”

The golden building: “A structure that stands out because of its color is the rest rooms building. Another very ornately decorated structure, this golden building represents the body, whereas the white ubosot represents the mind. The gold symbolizes how people focus on worldly desires and money. The white building represents the idea to make merit and to focus on the mind, instead of material things and possession.

By Air: Mae Fah Luang-Chiang Rai International Airport (CEI) is located on Phaholyotin Rd 8 km from the centre of Chiang Rai. Car rental is available on arrival from several companies as well as in town.

At a desk in the airport you can hire a pre-paid taxi. It costs 200 baht to the city centre and more to other places (the prices are on display). It will take you to your hotel, or the driver will find you one if you give him the price range you want to pay. The meter-taxis refuse to use the meter, covering it up with tape, so the pre-paid taxis are the best option.

The meter taxi drivers (at the far end of the parking lot) may try to negotiate a fixed rate but you can keep repeating “meter” and they’ll probably agree to 30 Baht airport fee plus 10 Baht per kilometer. Since the airport is 10 KM north of the city you’ll likely pay less than 200 Baht total to your hotel.

The airport is served by AirAsia, Nok Air , Bangkok Airways, Lion Air and Thai Airways to Bangkok. China Eastern Airlines offers three direct flights per week to/from Kunming China.

By Bus: There are two bus stations in Chiang Rai: the old bus station and new bus station.

Old Bus Station (Bus Terminal 1) is located in the centre of town. Buses coming from towns in Chiang Rai province such as Chiang Khong and Mae Sai stop here. From here you take the bus south to Phayao and Lampang. Greenbus services to and from Chiang Mai also arrive and depart from here, after stopping to drop off or pick up passengers in the New Bus station. There is enough English written on the signs and buses at the terminal to tell where the bus is going. They have a big booth with lots of windows at the bus station. Take a number and then by your ticket when called.

New Bus Station (Bus Terminal 2) is 7km south of the city, just off the Super Highway. Buses from elsewhere in Thailand stop here. Greenbus services to and from Chiang Mai stop by here on the way to the Old Bus Station, or on the way to Chiang Mai after departing from the Old Bus Station. During the busy season, it is best to buy your bus ticket in advance through the Greenbus website. There are several bus types ranging from A class (no on board services) to V class (on board service with toilet).

There is a songthaew (officially a “minibus”) connecting the two bus terminals. It costs 15 baht per person and takes 15 minutes. Some drivers ask you to pay more if there are fewer than 10 passengers, despite what the official price list posted inside the songthaew says. You can just wait for the next one and pay 15 baht.

However, said service only operates till 5pm and thereafter, tuktuks, motorcycle taxi (50 Baht) and taxicabs exist for the trip back into town.

Both bus stations have plenty of tuk-tuks and songthaews outside, as well as a few metered taxis at Bus Terminal 2.

The nearest train station is at Chiang Mai.

By Car: Chiang Rai is about 820 km north of Bangkok and is easily accessible from Bangkok via Hwy 1 and Hwy 32 and from Chiang Mai via Hwy 118. Many transportation and tour companies offer private van services from major cities to Chiang Rai. You’ll find the Toyota Commuter vans most common and each van sits up to 9 passengers. Businesses will usually quote a flat vehicle price while gas is paid separate. If you plan overnight trips, remember to consult with said company regarding the accommodation of your chauffeur. Most of the time, 300 to 500 THB is tipped for the driver to find a place to sleep or buy some essentials to overnight in the van. Many companies offer private van services although it’s recommended to always go with one that is licensed by the Tourism Authority of Thailand and has clear responsible business principles.