Chiang Rai, located in the northernmost part of Thailand, is a province steeped in the arts, agrotourism, and the rich cultural heritage of the Akha people. From visiting organic farms and tasting the delicious fresh produce to discovering local tribes and admiring contemporary art galleries, Chiang Rai offers a unique blend of experiences.
You can explore the vibrant town centre with its bustling night markets, temples, and art galleries, or venture out into the countryside to discover the province’s rich nature, tribal culture, and agrotourism attractions.
From the City
Start by exploring Chiang Rai city, which boasts a relaxed atmosphere where you can find good-value accommodation, night markets, and fine local food. Not to be missed are northern Thailand specialties like Khao Soi (a noodle dish in creamy curry sauce) and Sai Oua (spicy minced pork sausage). For an authentic experience, you can dine in the northern Thai traditional style, seated on the floor around a khantoke, a wooden pedestal tray.
The city is also the ideal base for excursions to the more remote corners of the province.
Explore the Arts
Chiang Rai is home to many art galleries showcasing the works of local artists, making it a great place to explore contemporary Thai art. While Chiang Rai has a centuries’ long tradition as a centre of Thai art, its relative historic isolation limited foreign influence on its pre-modern arts scene. Today it boasts several iconic arts landmarks, including the White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) and the Black House (Baan Dam Museum).
The Black House (Baan Dam Museum) began life as the home and studio of renowned Thai artist, Thawan Duchanee (1939-2014). Beyond just artwork, many of the museum’s dozens of buildings are also works of art, including the Triangle House and the main “Cathedral” which, with its massive wooden pillars, took 7 years to build. The museum displays hundreds of pieces of Duchanee’s work, as well as historic art dating back centuries to the Ayutthaya period.
Check out Tai Yuan Art Gallery, which exhibits works from Chalong Pinitsuwan and other artists who uniquely use only ballpoint pens – a technique inspired by Duchanee – to create artworks of people, religion, and still lifes.
Mae Fah Luang Art and Culture Park is one of the best spots to appreciate centuries of art in a single place. It houses one of the country’s best collections of indigenous folk art, much of it dating back to the Lanna Kingdom (13th-18th century). Apart from its important role as a repository of Lanna art, the park also functions as a folk art foundation.
Just south of Chiang Rai is the White Temple, a huge contemporary art space designed in the style of an ornate, Thai temple. It’s created by, and filled with, the works of another famous Chiang Rai resident artist: Chalermchai Kositpipat. The site’s impressive ubosot (main hall) showcases a unique mix of Buddhist motifs, dotted with Western pop culture figures, from Michael Jackson and Harry Potter to Hello Kitty, The Terminator, and The Matrix.
Coffee & Tea: Mountain Brews
Chiang Rai is renowned throughout Thailand for its high-quality coffee and tea production, so it’s no surprise that the city boasts plenty of cafes where you can try the local brew, including the quaint Chivit Thamma Da Coffee House.
One of Chiang Rai’s most successful coffee brands is the Doi Chaang Coffee Company, which is a co-op where local farmers of the Akha tribe work together with overseas stakeholders to market their organic fair-trade coffee. This enterprise has even led to the creation of a local coffee academy that’s now helping other local tribal communities learn how to grow and market their own organic produce. The local Akha community not only grows coffee, but also plum, pear, and macadamia nut trees to give the delicate Arabica coffee plants the shade they need to thrive.
Tea lovers are also catered for here, since tea has been cultivated in Chiang Rai for centuries. While we normally think of Thai-style milk tea, Chiang Rai has been known for its fine blends of Oolong, Green, and Black teas, available at many trendy teahouses around the city. Along many country roads, you’ll also find cafes where you can enjoy great views along with a cuppa.
You can also visit the many tea plantations dotted throughout the region, where you can learn about the production process and sample local blends. In addition to quality tea, some plantations boast gorgeous Instagrammable views, like the Choui Fong Tea Plantation. The tea leaves of famous tea brands such as Oishi, Ichitan, Lipton, Unif, and Malee in Thailand all come from here. At 101 Tea Plantation in Doi Mae Salong, the company is involved in the local initiative to help the hill tribes – who previously grew opium – to work at their tea plantation. At many of the farming co-ops dotted around Chiang Rai, you’re helping local populations with every cup you drink.
Akha Tribal Culture
Chiang Rai province is home to several ethnic hill tribe groups, including the Karen, Lahu, and Akha. The Akha people migrated south from Yunnan over the centuries, and today there are well-established Akha communities dotted across Laos, Myanmar, and northern Thailand – their stronghold is in the mountains around Chiang Rai. The Akha are known for their elaborate headdresses, intricate embroidery, and silver jewellery.
There are many tours in the region where you can see how the Akha live and work, preserving their culture, customs, and way of life. You can also learn about local activities like community farming of cocoa and avocado on the hills and even try your hand at fishing in mountain streams.
This was a formerly impoverished region which was better known for poppy cultivation before becoming a major coffee production area by the 1980s. Today, tribes like the Akha successfully grow coffee beans and other produce on terraced fields and produce a wide range of handicrafts. Social enterprise programmes have enabled small farmers to grow organic products, and empowered groups like local women, disabled members of the community, and the elderly with jobs and opportunities.
If you’re in Chiang Rai in late August, the 4-day Akha Swing Festival is not to be missed, especially in the village of Doi Mae Salong. It’s perhaps the most important annual festival for the Akha. The highlight of this four-day festival is when the Akha women ride large wooden swings at impressive heights while singing and praying for a good harvest.
Head to the Hills
Ban Suan Pa Community, situated at the foot of Doi Tung, is a rich forest garden where the local community has not only lived off its abundance, but have also created a tour route for visitors to study the local flora, making it a great base for trekking and appreciating nature. While nearby the Mae Fah Luang Garden is worth visiting for its beautiful flower gardens. Within the garden is the popular Doi Tung Tree Top Walk, which is a 295m-long canopy walkway suspended 30m above the ground where you can get a birds-eye view over the forest, coffee plantations, and wild orchids.
Situated at an altitude of 1,200-1,600m, Chiang Rai province is perfect for trekking in the cool, green forests – there are also plenty of waterfalls in the area you can explore. One of the most popular is Khun Korn Waterfall in Lam Nam Kok National Park. At 70m high, it’s surrounded by lush forest with several hiking trails, ranging from easy to challenging, that lead to the falls. And after a long day’s hike, you can treat yourself to a well-deserved Thai massage at one of the many resorts in the region.
The best way to soak in the charm of Chiang Rai is to spend a night at a local B&B. Ahsa Farmstay is located within picturesque rice fields and vegetable gardens where you can enjoy farm-to-table dining, hiking to nearby Akha villages, and experiencing their unique ‘chicken coop’ sauna (you sit in a purpose-built rattan coop for a traditional herbal sauna). You’ll also get to sleep in a traditional wooden house that has been renovated in a dramatic blend of old and new, but still retains its rustic ambience.
Travelling with a difference
As with many places around Chiang Rai, tourism directly helps the local community build a sustainable future. The Doi Tung Development Project, for instance, has created over 1,700 jobs in the local Doi Tung community alone, under various sustainable agro-business, tourism, and social initiatives. This has increased average local household incomes by 2,000% since 1988, with literacy rates now an impressive 99%. Doi Tung’s story has been presented as a model at the UN in 2019 for how industries like tourism and agro-business can be done sustainably to benefit the local community.
Getting to Chiang Rai
There are no direct flights from Singapore to Chiang Rai, but there are two options to get there. The fastest way is to fly via Bangkok to Chiang Rai’s Mae Fah Luang International Airport (8km from downtown); the flight from Bangkok to Chiang Rai takes about 1.5 hours.
You can also fly from Singapore to Chiang Mai (3 hours) and then take a bus – or a private car hire – to Chiang Rai. The 182km distance takes about 3-4 hours to cover, passing through stunning mountain views.