Ladies and gentleman, you heard it here first, Chiang Rai has the potential to be the next mega digital nomad hub in Southeast Asia. The northern Thai city has it all–darling cafes, fast WiFi, affordable housing, and an abundance of fascinating culture and art to uncover. From larger-than-life Buddhist temples, quirky places created by local artisans, to the most beautiful tea terrace in the world here are 8 fascinating places to see in beautiful Chiang Rai.
Chiang Rai was actually the first major city near the Golden Triangle and was the capital of the Lanna kingdom long before Chiang Mai was created. Chiang was the name of the king who founded the cities and Mai means new. It’s also possible to get a Sak Yant in Chiang Rai, just like the blessings I received in Chiang Mai!
WAT HYUA PLA KANG
One of the most over-the-top temples I’ve ever visited in Southeast Asia has to be the Chinese Wat Hyua Pla Kang (Google Maps). The massive temple grounds have several monuments including a giant white Guan Yin Buddha which can be seen from quite a far distance. For a small entrance fee, you can take an elevator to the head of the Buddha and look out over the surrounding plains of Chiang Rai through her eyes.
Inside the giant Guan Yin Buddha is just as stunning as the vistas. Many white carvings cover the walls featuring Buddhist imagery, dragons, kings, and queens that are quite mesmerizing.
At Wat Hyua Pla Kang there’s also a massive 9-floor tiered chedi built in a traditional Chinese style that’s incredibly ornate.
WAT RONG KHUN
This incredible place is more widely known as the White Temple as Wat Rong Khun is almost entirely made up of white structures adorned with glass embellishments. Wat Rong Khun (Google Maps) is the masterpiece of local contemporary artist Chalermchai Kositpipat. He began to bring his heavenly vision to life in 1998 when he started his journey into restoring a simple Buddhist temple that already existed on these grounds.
Kositpipat purposefully used white throughout the temple in order to honor Buddha’s purity. The glass adornments represent Dhamma, Buddha’s teachings. One of the most notable, and spooky, design elements is the intricate bridge that visitors must cross to reach the ubosot. The guarded bridge crosses over crooked hands reaching up from the depths of hell and symbolizes surpassing the underworld to reach the heavens.
The grounds of Wat Rong Khun are still under construction and there’s much more to see beyond the main temple. Wander around to find ornate sculptures and go to the loo in a golden pagoda-shaped building. I loved trying my luck at the zodiac wishing well where I tried to toss a coin into a section that represented my sign, Libra!
Wat Rong Khun draws in hundreds of day-trippers from nearby Chiang Mai daily and is truly majestic. If you only have time for a day trip book an excursion with one of my most trusted responsible tour operators, Backstreet Academy. But, Chiang Rai has so many fascinating places to see beyond the White Temple so if you have time to stay for a few days you surely won’t regret it! If you go to Wat Rong Khun independently be sure to have 50 baht cash to pay for the entrance ticket.
Kositpipat is native to Chiang Rai and is committed to supporting his community. He’s recently declared that he’ll be funding and building a colossal statue of Saman, the navy seal who died during the Tham Luang rescue mission that saved the life of young boys who were trapped in a cave.
WAT RONG SUEA TEN
Wat Rong Suea Ten, better known as the blue temple, was created by another local artist who studied under Kositpipat, Buddha Kabkaew. Wat Rong Suea Ten (Google Maps) means dancing tigers in Thai as tigers once roamed in the area freely. The blue temple is just as phenomenal and quirky as Wat Rong Khun.
The azure exterior is decorated with gold adornments that make this temple gorgeous and incredibly unique.
My favorite details of the modern temple are the massive serpent-like dragons that frame the stairs to enter the ubosot and the pristine massive white Buddha image.
There are still various structures around the temple grounds being erected such as the massive blue guardians that mark the entrance, so even if you’ve been before it’s worth revisiting to see what’s new at Wat Rong Suea Ten. It’s free to enter Wat Rong Suea Ten so try to come by in the morning and evening to see the pagoda in a different light.
BAAN DAM MUSEUM
Continue visiting the quirky sights in Chiang Rai and pay a visit to the Baan Dam Museum (Google Maps), also known as the black house as that’s the literal translation of baan dam. The fascinating museum is sometimes called the Black Temple, although it’s not really a monument for Buddha. The spooky place was curated by Thai artist Thawan Duchanee.
Within the realm is a multitude of traditional Lanna-style teakwood structures that are painted black and filled with taxidermy or other fantastical items that conjure an ambiance of dark magic. Vegans may not enjoy visiting this place as there are animal carcasses literally everywhere from animal hides, bones, and fur. The opaque setting was intended to create a dark imagery that symbolizes death. Many areas of the museum seem to be set up in preparation for some sort of seance or pagan ritual.
The artwork at Baan Dam Museum is seriously disturbing but certainly unique. I really enjoyed the architecture, but not the interior design elements. The entry fee was 80 baht at the time of publication or you can join a group tour led by a local that goes around to all the Chiang Rai places of interest organized by Take Me Tour.
CHOUI FONG TEA PLANTATION
I’ve been so fortunate to see many gorgeous tea fields in India, Sri Lanka, and Malaysia but Chiang Rai’s Choui Fong Tea Plantation (Google Maps) takes the cake as the most beautiful tea terraces that I’ve ever seen! And it’s absolutely free to visit–but you’ve got to purchase a scoop of freshly made matcha green tea ice cream while you’re here, it’s divine (but not vegan, I wasn’t plant-based yet during my visit). The massive plantation stretches in all directions towards the mountains on the horizon making for absolutely stunning scenery at the Choui Fong Tea Plantation.
WAT NANG LAE
Chiang Rai isn’t just home to artistic places of worship, there is also a slew of traditional Buddhist temples that are fantastic to visit. Wat Nang Lae (Google Maps) is located near the black house and can be visited quite quickly but is worth exploring as the architecture here isn’t quite as glittery as other temples which makes the gold detailing really stand out.
A famous temple that I didn’t have the chance to visit the second oldest temple in Thailand, Wat Phra Kaew (Google Maps), which was also the original home of the Emerald Buddha statue which is now in Bangkok.
CHINESE HAPPY BUDDHA STATUE
In the middle of nowhere in rural Chiang Rai, I came across this Buddhist monastery that features an incredible golden Maitreya statue. Unfortunately, my Google Maps decided to erase all of my starred places and Google Images isn’t helping me identify this massive Chinese happy Buddha that I saw while lost in the farmlands around Chiang Rai so you’re on your own to find it!
WAT HUAI PHLU
Wat Huai Phlu (Google Maps) boasts one of the most intricate temple doors I’ve ever seen with a delightful mixture of iridescent colored glass and images depicting Buddha sitting beneath a bodhi tree. I advise renting a motorbike to get around Chiang Rai and just stop off whenever you see a dazzling temple that catches your attention.
WHERE TO STAY IN CHIANG RAI
I was a guest at the Baan Sin Suk Guesthouse and got the chance to stay in one of their quirky triangular houses. The family-run property is snug in the middle of a quaint local neighborhood surrounded by farmlands and mountains looming in the distance. The local wat is the beautiful Huai Phlu. The guestrooms are entire houses and incredibly cozy with soft beds and a homemade breakfast is included! I even had a lovely terrace where I was able to look out over the garden.
The mini-houses are quite affordable which makes them a popular long-term rental with students who attend the nearby Mae Fah Luang University. Because of this I was able to make some local friends and shared many laughs and eats at the night market that takes place each evening just a stone’s throw away on the main Phahonyothin Road. When I wasn’t out exploring all the above sights I was working from the beautiful Tid Doi Tid Din cafe.
For the best deals on Chiang Rai accommodation browse and reserve on Booking.com.
Thank you Baan Sin Suk Guesthouse for hosting me. This post contains affiliate links. Please read the Miss Filatelista disclosure policy for more information.