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.