Chiang Mai is a top tourist destination in Thailand and with good reason. It offers a quaint historic center packed full of beautiful temples and it’s well situated to visit the northern areas in Thailand. A popular day trip is to travel from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai to visit several world-famous temples in the area. This post shares information about these temples and why you should plan a day trip to visit.
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Travel with Small-Group Tours from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai
I chose to take a small-group tour to go from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai to avoid dealing with transportation. Additionally, I not only wanted to see the tours but also some other things in the area. This tour took us to the three famous temples in Chiang Rai. Additionally, we went to visit the Karen, a native tribe in the area, and the Golden Triangle.
I booked the trip through Tripadvisor and chose Journey Travel. I don’t see them listed any longer, which is too bad, though I see many other option including small group tours, a private tour, and even a two-day tour if you want to see more of Chiang Rai.
This trip is somewhere I recommend taking a small-group tour to visit. If you are staying in old town Chiang Mai, it’s very difficult to find parking so having a car there is an inconvenience. You can certainly rent a car from Chiang Mai if you choose. Though, I personally, love going on day trips like this with a guide as you learn so much from them. And added bonus: no trying to find your way around (which for me and my total lack of any sense of direction, is very challenging).
The Start of My Tour from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai
The van picked me up at my guest home just after 7 a.m. I was impressed that the van made it down my incredibly-narrow road within old town Chiang Mai. My guide was named Nui and he was wonderful.
We stopped on the way to see some hot springs, which was more a tourist ‘trap’ for people to sell their wares. There were two small geyser-like hot springs surrounded by a large, basic complex. I got breakfast (50 baht, or around $1.60 USD) of pork and greens stir fry with rice. It turned out to be spicy and really good.
After a short break, we were on our way to one of the highlights of this trip, the White Temple.
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The drive took a little over 2.5 hours to get to the White Temple, Wat Rong Khun. To say it was incredibly beautiful and impressive is an understatement, but words are tough to find that seem appropriate enough. It was built around 20 years ago and opened to the public. More than 2,000 people a day visit it, and there were at least that many when we went. Though the weather is best during the dry season, the tourists flock to areas in Thailand including Chiang Rai.
If you do have the opportunity to stay in Chiang Rai overnight, it’s worth doing so if for no other reason than to get an early start to visit the While Temple. It was crowded and incredibly-packed with people.
Temple is a bit of a misnomer. The White Temple is actually a privately-owned art exhibit styled like a Buddhist temple. It’s owned by a man named Chalermchai Kositpipat who actually designed and coordinated the construction of it. Then he opened it to visitors in 1997.
It was built on the site of an original temple also called Wat Rong Khun, that had fallen into disrepair. This local artist rebuilt the temple, funding it himself. He is also building a center of meditation and learning for people and the temple is an offering to the Buddha he created in the hope of immortal life. I guess we shall see if it worked.
Visiting Wat Rong Khun
First, take some pictures of this stunning masterpiece with 2,000+ of your new best friends. If you’re patient, you may luck out and get some times when there are fewer people in front of it. Taking it in from a distance is impressive, but when you get up close is when you realize how much detail and intricacy went into this building.
The Bridge of the Cycle of Rebirth
You walk over a bridge to the main building in the White Temple symbolizing a bridge to heaven. We were told you should only go one way over the bridge and that’s to get to heaven. When you look down from the bridge, you see a sea of hands reaching up to the sky. Perhaps they didn’t listen to the guidance and went the wrong way. These hands symbolize unrestrained desire, and the path to happiness over the bridge is by forgoing greed, desire, and temptation.
Gate of Heaven
Once you cross the bridge, you arrive at the large gate of heaven guarded by two creates representing Death and Rahu. It’s Rahu who decides the fate of the dead. Here you can see several Buddha images in meditation.
The main building has fragments of mirrored glass embedded in the exterior walls. Inside, it begins as a pristine white with a very life-like wax replica of the Dalai Lama. It quickly shifts to fiery scenes with both colors. Murals on the walls depict demon faces, orange flames, nuclear warfare, and destruction. The symbolism seems to suggest a rather heavy statement on human morality and the structure represents the mind and the idea of shifting focus to the mind instead of worldly possessions.
The Golden Building
There are a number of different buildings and structures on the property, all of which are rather ornate. One that stands out is a golden building representing the body and the gold symbolizes people’s focus on worldly desires and money. Interestingly, and I’m not sure of the symbolism for this, but it’s actually the bathroom. What do you think that is intended to say?
There are a lot of interesting things to see on the grounds. One of my favorites was a life-sized statue partially reclining on a bench of what looked almost like a spiderman figure. Then there were the uber-creepy trees with heads hanging from the branches.
The White Temple is located at 1 Phahonyothin Rd, Pa O Don Chai, Mueang Chiang Rai District, Chiang Rai 57000, Thailand. It’s open from 8 to 5 Monday through Friday and from 8 to 5:30 on Saturday and Sunday. It costs 50 baht to visit ($1.60 USD).
Another beautiful temple in Chiang Rai is the Blue Temple, or Tiger Dancing Temple, Wat Rong Suea Ten. This temple isn’t as well known as the White Temple, and though it’s smaller in size, it’s no less beautiful. It is much less crowded than the White Temple and as fascinating, detailed, and intricate as the carvings at the White Temple are, I favored the Blue Temple. I liked the distinct and bright colors and it just seemed to give off a much lighter and more positive feel.
The story told about this temple being called the Tiger Dancing Temple is that tigers used to be in the area and this temple was built to represent their playing and dancing. It was stunning as well with its gorgeous cobalt color and intricate designs. Though it is a Buddhist Temple, it is not a working temple and no monks live onsite.
The Blue Temple fell into a state of disrepair at the beginning of this century and it was completely rebuilt, completing in 2016. The project was designed by Putha Kabkaeu, a student of the creator of the White Temple, Chalermchai Kositpipat.
Large Naga snakes guard the entrance of the assembly hall, or viharn. There is a lot of intricate and beautiful detailing of the floral motifs decorating the doorway in the traditional Lanna style. It’s the same striking blue as all of the buildings on the property, adorned with a lot of gold.
When you enter the building, you immediately notice the large white image of the Buddha straight ahead. There are two rows of pillars also decorated with intricate motifs, paintings depicting scenes from the life of Buddha, and ornaments in vibrant colors. The room is striking and as beautiful as the adorned exterior.
Please be respectful of people who worship here and avoid areas reserved for the monks. You should leave your shoes outside before entering the Blue Temple.
Other Structures on the Grounds
Behind the building is a Buddhist stupa, also called a chedi. It’s a blue and gold structure on a square blue base. There is also a bell tower and a number of white images of the Buddha sitting on blue pedestals.
There’s also a small water feature in front of the main building and two large, gorgeous statues when you enter the grounds worth seeing. Take it all in—the separate features are stunning and the overall view together is simply stunning.
The Blue Temple is located at 2 Maekok Rd, Rim Kok, Mueang Chiang Rai District, Chiang Rai 57100, Thailand. It is open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily and entry is free.
Last was the Black House, or Baan Dam Museum, which is a portrayal of hell designed by artist Thawan Duchanee. It’s a collection of 15 black buildings sparsely decorated with various animal remains like snake skins and an elephant skeleton that was supposedly from natural causes. It gives off a strange kind of tribal vibe that evokes conflicting emotions when you view it.
The main building is a large wooden structure with a tiered roof featuring curving metal points that poke out from the sides. Inside are tables with various animal remains and a table with a long snakeskin. The remaining buildings are all much smaller and no less strangely decorated. Some of the buildings are open for touring while others are to be viewed from the outside only.
There is a strangely-shaped building that looks like a submarine. You can peer into the windows to see what appears to be a torture chamber. Where the White Temple was designed to represent heaven, this depiction of hell seems quite fitting.
black, or at least gives off a dark aura, and each one of the 15 houses is embellished and furnished with animal remains. It was the oldest and was built 40 years ago. The artist recently passed.
The Black House is located at 13 Baan Dam Museum, Nang Lae, Mueang Chiang Rai District, Chiang Rai, Thailand. It is open from 9 to 5 daily and costs 80 baht ($2.60 USD).
Transporation to the Chiang Rai Temples
To visit the temples, the easiest way from Chiang Rai is to take a tuk-tuk or a taxi. There are options as well for a bicycle or small motorbike. And last, there are also tours from Chiang Rai. There is a public bus in Chiang Rai that goes to the White Temple, but it does not go to the other two.
To visit from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai, you can also get a taxi driver or take a tour. Each of the temples is around 5 to 10 miles apart from each other (approximately 10 to 15 km). There are a number of tour options from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai to choose from including private and group tours. There are also some options from Chiang Rai if you choose not to deal with transportation while you’re there. Some of these also include visiting the long-neck Karen tribe and a visit to the Golden Triangle as well. So, take a look at what’s available and find the tour that best meets your interests.
Other Things to Do in Chiang Rai
There are some other interesting things to do in the Chiang Rai area, which I was lucky enough to do on the tour I took. They include visiting one of the indigenous people local to the area called the Karen Tribe, or the Long-Neck Karen, and visiting the Golden Triangle.
Long-Neck Karen Tribe
The “long-neck Karen”, or Kayan, are indigenous hill tribes from Burma, modern-day Myanmar. They fled the country in the late 1980s and early 1990s to the northern lands of Thailand. There are three villages currently open to tourists that survive on the income they receive from visitors.
According to tradition, females wear neck rings starting at the age of five, and every 2 to 3 years, another ring is added. They were originally made of gold, though they were substituted with brass due to the threat of injury for the gold. The most women wear is around 34, and they are quite heavy. They make the body shorter by pushing down the collar bone and giving the appearance of extending the neck. Traditionally all women wore them though now they have a choice. (Having said that, girls start to wear them at the age of five so I’m not sure it’s really a matter of the child’s choice.)
According to legend, this began to protect women from tigers. It’s not known if there is any truth to that story and there are others that are told as well. They are also seen as making women look more beautiful and that may factor into the decision to wear them. When asked, many of the women say they wear them for cultural identity.
We were told that it is a lifetime commitment to wear them as women can die if they are removed. However, I did read that some women do remove the rings for various reasons. After many years of wearing them, the muscles become weakened and there is often significant bruising and discoloration. Though wearing the rings is often discouraged in Myanmar, it has provided a source of income and has therefore gained popularity in northern Thailand.
Should You Visit the Kayan Tribe?
I’ll be honest that I was a bit torn about this visit. On one hand, it was quite interesting to see the women and girls and to get to talk with them through a translator. on the other, it was very clearly a set-up to collect tourist dollars, and I wonder how much actually goes to the women and girls who are impacting their bodies so dramatically. I suspect more of the money goes to the villagers or the tour guides than to them.
In retrospect, I probably wouldn’t have gone were this not a stop on the tour I went on. I might have looked for a different tour instead. I do find it quite fascinating but do not like supporting activities that promote the mistreatment of women and girls.
If you choose to visit, the Long-Neck Karen Tribe village is located at 6 Nang Lae, Mueang Chiang Rai District, Chiang Rai 57100, Thailand.
Last, we drove another hour or so to the “Golden Triangle”. Few places have as much notoriety as this area and Chiang Rai, formerly known for the opium trade. It was called named by the CIA as it was one of the largest opium-producing regions in the world.
Until as recently as the early 21st century, most of the world’s heroin was supplied from here. (Now that “honor” belongs to Afghanistan and the “Golden Crescent.”) However, it did start to transition around 30 to 40 years ago and the local farmers grow coffee, which is prevalent in the shops throughout Thailand.
The “Golden Triangle” is the mountainous region where the Ruak and Mekong Rivers meet at the borders of Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos. There are a number of statues and some information to read along the river about the history of the area. There are a number of shops and stores that are, of course, happy to sell you things, and some small restaurants and food carts.
If you’re an animal lover, this area, and northern Thailand in general, will break your heart. A very friendly dog came up to me and started rubbing on my leg. I was doing my very best to not pet the dogs on this trip due to a potential risk of rabies (a series of something like 15 shorts just doesn’t sound very appealing!) However, this one pet me so I thought it would be ok. She also got a bit of my dinner so we were both pleased.
Boat Ride to Laos
We boarded a longboat and went across the river to Laos. (Note: you do need your passport! My tour didn’t share this piece of information though thankfully they did allow me to go with my driver’s license.)
Though it’s interesting to see this famed area, it’s a HUGE tourist trap. the section of Laos that you visit is a number of large buildings packed full of everything you could possibly want (and not want) to buy. Designed knock-offs, souvenirs, clothes, etc.
I noticed a rather foul smell just after getting off the boat and for some strange reason, people were gathering around where it was the strongest. It turned out they were selling some kind of liquor with snakes, spiders, and the like in it, offering samples. I swear I can still smell this disgusting odor when I close my eyes and think of this visit. No, thank you!
When you enter temples anywhere in Thailand, and for that matter, in southeast Asia, respectful attire is expected. This means covering knees and shoulders and not wearing tight or skimpy clothing. It’s a good idea for women to bring a wrap if you’re unsure if what you are wearing is covering enough. If you’re seeking other tips for visiting Thailand, check out this post.
If you’re looking for a fun adventure exploring northern Thailand and getting to see a wide assortment of things, a trip from Chiang Mai to Chaing Rai may be just the thing for you. It’s a long day as a one-day trip, but so much fun!
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