You would have known by now that Thailand is more than rice paddies, limestone cliffs and cluttered cities. As a civilisation, the country’s landscape is abundant with culture and art, and at the very heart of this sits Chiang Rai, one of the region’s most underrated provinces.
Being situated at the northernmost tip of Thailand and nestled between mountains and hills means that the province’s popularity has long been dwarfed by the similarly named Chiang Mai, another charming destination that’s home to hundreds of stunning ancient temples. Its lower tourist profile however, means that Chiang Rai still manages to keep its rustic charm and laid back atmosphere even till today, lending to its burgeoning popularity over the recent years.
Of the many architectural wonders that dot the province, Chiang Rai’s crowning glory remains to be the White Temple for its sheer grandeur and audacious take on Buddhist symbolism. It doesn’t stop there for the “Art Capital of Thailand” — as Chiang Rai is commonly referred to. As the birthplace of many renowned Thai artists, the mountain town is also home to notable galleries and landmarks, each a testament to the dedication of these craftsmen.
From tea plantations cultivated by indigenous hill tribes to pop culture references in a Buddhist temple, here are the best things to do and see in Chiang Rai.
Thailand isn’t short of phenomenal artifacts, but the 22-year-old “White Temple” (or locally known as Wat Rong Khun) is one of the country’s most beloved. The pearly, intricately-carved structure sits outside the town of Chiang Rai as one of the region’s most beloved attractions, mostly because it’s truly a vision to behold under the sun thanks to the pieces of glass in the plaster that was used to construct it.
Built by visual artist and painter Chalermchai Kositpipat, who hoped to bring an unconventional approach to temple architecture, the White Temple is rife with Buddhist symbolism, even in the smallest details like its ornate reliefs and mirror decorations. The experience inside, however is a vastly different one, with murals that intersperse swirling orange flames and demon faces with Western idols such as Michael Jackson, Neo from The Matrix, and Freddy Krueger.
On the other end of this colour spectrum is the Black House, which sits on Chiang Rai’s map as yet another unusual and surreal masterpiece. Rendered in sombre hues of black and brown, the Black House (or “Baan Dam”) was created by local artist Thawan Duchanee, whose controversial art has often shocked the conservative Thai society.
Set within a tranquil garden, the collection of 40 buildings in various shapes and sizes are an eclectic mix of traditional temple architecture with contemporary domes and whale-like structures. Its interiors are just as provocative, adorned with an excessive collection of buffalo horns, carvings of nagas, and animal skins.
You might not associate hot springs with a Southeast Asian country, but they’re surprisingly abundant in northern Thailand. Of the many, Huay Mark Liam hot spring remains to be most popular; its location along the Khok River with the lush greenery of the Lam Nam Kok National Park makes this one of the most picturesque springs to view.
Because the Huay Mark Liam hot spring is protected, there are no soaking pools available, but a short 1km drive down will take you to the Pong Phra Soet hot spring. Here, warm spring mineral water pools are available alongside eight private spa rooms, all with the promise of melting away your fatigue in the tropical outback.
Formerly known as Mae Salong, Santikhiri sits in the Thai Highlands with its alpine-like landscape and crisp fresh air — a vastly different concept . It is here that you’ll find everything from hill tribe villages and vast plantations to even cherry blossoms, should the stars align during your visit.
What once used to be the source of a major opium trade has now been replaced by tea plantations, with 80 percent of the production being high mountain oolong. The breathtaking mountain settlement here is rife with thriving communities from the Yunnan region (whose histories date back to the Chinese Civil War), so expect to experience plenty of culture and cuisines native to the southwestern Chinese province.
Besides tea, Chiang Rai’s hill tribe plantations are also synonymous with producing excellent coffee beans, so expect a quality cuppa wherever you go. Some of the best cafes to hit up a piping hot mug of locally-sourced coffee include the English country-styled Chivit Thamma Da Coffee House by the Kok River, or the Doy Din Daeng Café, which serves its beverages in handmade ceramics from the adjoining pottery studio.