Chiang Rai might not be on a traveler’s radar, but it should be on any art lover’s bucket list of things to see in Thailand.
This small town is a rather new center for Thailand’s most valued artists, and it’s here that you’ll find a lovely mix of modern art and architecture.
White Temple, Blue Temple, Black House and Long Neck Village are the best reasons to put Chiang Rai on your Thailand travel itinerary.
After two weeks of traveling through Thailand from South to North and back to South, I’m back home and ready to share with you all the beautiful things this country has to offer.
I’ll start with Chiang Rai because it’s one of my favorite places in Thailand, and also the northernmost town on my map.
The city’s main attraction is the amazing White Temple, but in the last couple of years some other gorgeous places have been added to Chiang Rai’s must-see list.
Top Things To See & Experience in Chiang Rai, Thailand
White Temple Chiang Rai (Wat Rong Khun)
An artist’s endeavor is always the same – to reach immortality. Chalermchai Kositpipat, the artist who designed and built this amazing temple-like art piece, is pretty close.
Wat Rong Khun, known as White Temple, is his life’s work, and it’s actually a contemporary art exhibit built in the style of a Buddhist temple.
On top of being an amazing architectural gem, all white and sparkling, this place has some unconventional elements to it that stirred up a controversy in Thailand’s art & religious circles.
For instance, there’s a tree holding hanging heads of villains and superheroes just outside the main temple and a colorful robot sitting on the bench in front of it.
There are many symbols the artist conveys through this art piece, but perhaps the clearest one is the bridge and its outreaching hands that tell us that we can only attain happiness by letting go of desires, temptation and greed.
White Temple, like most temples in Thailand, doesn’t mean just one building. Next to the famous art piece sits a golden temple, and if you wander around the compound, you’ll also find another white beauty.
White Temple is a recent construction that has been open to the public since 1997. In the last couple of years, the temple was closed for restoration purposes as it suffered structural damages after the 2014’s earthquake.
I expected to find it still closed, so imagine my surprise when I arrived in front of it only to see a great number of people visiting its interior.
The interior has been recently painted in orange with some motifs that picture Western idols in flames, but it doesn’t match the beauty of its outside design (no photos can be taken inside).
I was mesmerized by the gorgeous shapes of this structure, and how this whole place looks as a snow and ice castle because of the glass mosaics embedded in the milky white walls and statues.
Chalermchai Kositpipat is an interesting character – he restored the White Temple with his own money, and while he accepts donations, he limits the amount so he would still be the sole owner of the White Temple while letting everybody to contribute to this magnificent place.
Of course, when it comes to art, each creator wants to bring his vision to life in the exact form he had conceived it, so being the only owner does help the matter.
Loved visiting the White Temple, even if it’s one of the most crowded places I’ve seen in Thailand.
*Entrance fee seems to be 50 baht, but ours was included in the tour, and we spent an hour here (two might have been better). We took a day tour from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai in order to optimize the cost of our visit and because you need a car to reach all these beautiful places.
Blue Temple in Chiang Rai (Wat Rong Seua)
Wat Rong Seua, known as the Blue Temple, was recently open to the public – the main hall was finished last year (2016), and it’s a delight to visit!
I loved the blue interior with its decorative ceiling and the big white Buddha statue placed at its core.
The exterior is nice, with colorful naga (dragons) at the entrance, two huge guardians at the gate, a great fountain in front, and a few quirky warrior angels on each side of the main temple. There’s also an indigo blue stupa behind the temple.
*Stupa – hemispherical structure containing relics, usually used as a place of meditation | Wat means temple.
Rong Suea Ten means “the house of the dancing tigers”, a name given after the tigers who used to live nearby and who would leap over the Mae Kok River.
Blue Temple, as it’s the case with the White Temple, is not yet finished. But here you can see it before walking through its imposing gate; one of the guardians of the temple is unfinished.
Blue temple is a bit under the radar, so it gets far less tourists compared to the White Temple.
There’s no entrance fee, and it’s rather small, so a 25-30 minutes stop will offer you the chance to admire one of the most beautiful interiors in Thailand.
Baan Dam Museum – Black House Chiang Rai
Black House in Chiang Rai is a fascinating place to visit. It’s not a temple but an art studio, home & museum that will pique the interest of contemporary art lovers.
Baan Dam Museum, also known as the Black House, is actually a park of 40 black wooden houses with great encravings built in the same style but different in sizes, some harboring the artist’s paintings, sculptures and magnificent furniture pieces.
There are some black houses closed for the public, but you can still take a peek through the windows. One was especially interesting because it seemed to be the bedroom of the artist, and it was filled with rare animal skins and an imposing bed.
Thawan Duchanee, the eccentric artist who lived here until 3 years ago, created the most fascinating setups with skins, bones and taxidermy that contribute to the magical atmosphere inside the Black House while stirring visceral emotions from the viewer.
His art is mesmerizing, but if you’re both an art and animal lover, there’s a conflicting state you’ll find yourself in while visiting Baan Dam Museum.
Entrance fee is 80 baht, and you can expect to spend 1 hour in the beautiful park of Baan Dam Museum.
Long Neck Village – Karen, near Chiang Rai
Long Neck Village of Karen is one if the main reasons I’ve put Chiang Rai on my bucket list for Thailand.
A few years back, you could only see these beautiful women who wear heavy collars on their necks in the jungle, near the Thai border with Myanmar. In the meantime, Chiang Rai’s governor has built the small village of Karen for a few families, 15 minutes outside the city.
Searching for more insights on these people from Myanmar, I’ve found that Karen is not a random name for this village.
“Kayan are a sub-group of Red Karen (Karenni people), Tibeto-Burman ethnic minority of Myanmar (Burma). […] Kayan Lahwi is the group in which women wear the brass neck coils. The Kayan residents in Mae Hong Son Province in Northern Thailand refer to themselves as Kayan and object to being called Padaung.” (*via Wikipedia)
The reason these women are wearing brass neck coils, which are extremely heavy, is a relic of the past, back when wild animals were a danger to humans. That’s when men from these tribes found the solution of putting coils on their necks, arms and legs to protect women from being killed by tigers.
The coils would give the women a chance of survival, in case they would be dragged out of their tribe by the tigers because all the soft spots (the jugular especially) were protected.
Visiting Karen means you also have to contribute to the village by buying little wood statues or scarfs made by Kayan Lahwi women. Since I already have too many scarfs, I got a very nice wooden statue of a Kayan Lahwi woman handmade by one.
Boil an egg in a Hot Spring
This might be the funniest thing I’ve seen in Thailand – boiling an egg in a hot spring.
There are a few hot springs in Roong Aroon, on the road from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai, that have become a popular stop for travelers. Some Thai people thought of this funky idea of selling the experience of boiling an egg in a hot spring to tourists, and it caught on. I was too amused by the situation to try it, but you can.
Travel tips for visiting Chiang Rai, Thailand
Visiting the White Temple, the Blue Temple, the Black House and the Long Neck Village will take a day from Chiang Mai, if organized properly.
Since taking this day trip to Chiang Rai implies a car or a bike rental, we chose to book a tour with a company recommended by our hotel in Chiang Mai.
The price for this tour was 1000 baht ($30 / 26€) per person and it included transport from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai and back, entrance fees for White Temple and Baan Dam Museum, and a guide.
You can find this tour at your hotel or at the many travel boutiques you’ll see in Chiang Mai, but you’ll need to negotiate, just like with everything else in Thailand.
Hope you enjoyed this day tour of Chiang Rai, and you’ll share it with your friends on Facebook. Thank you.