- Countryside Mythical mountains
- Country life Adventure in the jungle
Chiang Rai is as real as it gets in Thailand. This sleepy city might not have the boho-chic of sibling Chiang Mai, but it is an authentic slice of life and the launch pad for a magical adventure.
Founded as the capital of the ancient Lanna kingdom, Chiang Rai exudes the timeworn air of having seen it all before – and after a few hours there, you might too. The city is easy to take in by foot; pop to see its ornate, tiered-roofed temples, dip into the tightly woven wet market with its piles of chilli-hued fresh produce and chew on a northern sausage as you barter at the compact but lively night market. By far the most compelling thing about the city is its proximity to the verdant mountains of the North and infamous Golden Triangle. Drive for just over an hour and you will feel a world away from life as you know it; the misty hills, densely packed jungle and glittering waterways around Chiang Saen are where you will truly experience the region’s wilderness and diverse indigenous culture. Visit local hill communities, trek through the undergrowth and sip coffee fresh from the plantation; fall in love with an elephant and travel by long-tail boat to neighbouring Myanmar and Laos. A few days in this enchanting region will bestow memories for life.
Do go/Don’t go
By far the best time to visit is the cool season between November and late February when you can expect aqua blue skies, warm sunny days and cool evenings – temperatures have been known to drop as low as 2°C at night. Late March and April are extremely hot and dry, so it’s challenging to do anything active. Rainy season runs from May to October, but the earlier months are fine for travelling – there’ll be rain, but it’s unlikely to be prohibitive. September and October tend to be the wettest and there is often flooding in the region.
- Planes Thai Airways (www.thaiairways.com) and Air Asia (www.airasia.com) have regular | direct flights from Bangkok to Chiang Rai. SGA Airlines (www.sga.co.th) operates small | propeller planes between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai twice a day. It takes 40 minutes to fly | with the bonus of breathtaking views of Thailand’s northern landscape.
- Boats If you’re feeling intrepid you can charter a boat from Tha Thon in Chiang Mai province. It’s a scenic if slow journey (four to six hours, depending on the weather) that stops at local villages along the way.
- Trains Thailand’s train system (www.railway.co.th) is slow and creaky, but remarkably comfortable. If you have the time it’s a novel way to see more of the country. Although there’s no direct route from Bangkok to Chiang Rai, you can always take the overnight sleeper train to Chiang Mai – it arrives as the sun rises – and hop on the 8.20 am SGA flight or make the road trip to Chiang Rai.
- Automobiles We wouldn’t recommend the 12-hour (minimum) car journey from Bangkok | but the four-hour drive from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai (five to the Golden Triangle) is one of the most spectacular road trips to be found in Thailand. The winding journey sweeps through majestic tree-adorned mountains | fertile terraced fields and verdant river plains. You might find you attract a few friendly stares when stopping at local gas stations and food stalls.
- Taxis There are plenty of taxis at Chiang Rai airport. Negotiate a fixed fee at the registered office – easy to spot in the arrival/departure hall – although you can expect to pay about THB250 for a trip into the city. Once in Chiang Rai, it’s fun to hop on a pedicab (about THB40 to ride around the city), tuk-tuk (THB80–100 per journey) or one of the communal songtaews for a budget THB15 per trip.