Chiang Rai – a unique city nearly 750 years old.
Travelers who mention they are heading to the north of Thailand will most likely get the response that they are going to Chiang Mai. Quite rightly, the provincial capital is considered the major city of the North. As the countries second city it has a wealth of amenities, attractions and good hotel accommodation.
But about 180 kilometers north east of Chiang Mai, is the less hectic and more manageable, Chiang Rai. Often compared as second to its big brother down the Highway 118, this smaller city will be celebrating its 750 year birthday in 2012. The comparison to Chiang Mai is unfair, as it has its own unique identity, and some would say greater charm and Thai character than the bigger city. So lets concentrate on Chiang Rai with is ‘easy to get around’ ways, facilities and sights.
Getting here and getting around;
This is not a huge place but it is not small either. The main transport for locals is the pick up taxi, the rickshaw and the tuk tuk. There are no metered taxis, but there are taxi services available from the hotels and from the airport.
Fares are generally:
- Pick up: 20 Baht and they finish about 6pm
Tuk Tuk: 60 Baht around the central area, 80 Baht at night
Rickshaw: variable, and negotiable
Taxi: to and from airport 300 Baht - maybe 200 Baht of it’s not to the central area such as the Legend Hotel. The taxi service is next to the Avis counter in the terminal building.
It’s worth mentioning that Thai Airways have no service of any kind from their office in the center to or from the airport. The reasons are unknown! The airport is about 20 minutes out of town with flights just from Bangkok. There is a seasonal service from Chiang Mai, run by SGA which is a sub of NokAir, and it does change throughout the year. There are seven flights a day from Bangkok operated by Thai, Air Asia and One2Go. The latter operates out of the old Don Mueng airport near Lad Phrao, whilst Thai and Air Asia fly from Suvarnabhumi. It’s now easier to get to the new airport on the City-link skytrain, so that’s the cheaper option.
From Chiang Mai, there are the excellent Green bus services, and one of the great things about bus travel in Thailand is that you can choose the level of service. There are daily services using the top range 24 seat VIP buses and plenty of the lower grade X Class buses. Both are air conditioned and have reclining seats. The X bus is fine, and that costs around 170 Baht for the 3 hour journey from the main bus station in CM.
If money is really tight then there is an A class service, and that is around 120 baht. So having arrived there might be a temptation to get off at the new bus station which is the first Chiang Rai stop and about 6 kilometers from the city. The simple advise is – stay on the bus!. The bus route goes on further north to Mai Sai, but the bus has reverted to dropping passengers off at the old bus station in the centre of town en route. The ladies who are the hostesses speak a little English but not much, but it is worth asking if they stop at sa thaa nee neung. That’s bus station 1 and not difficult to learn.
Where to stay in the city centre
Having got to the main centre of town there is time to have a quick look around but maybe the accommodation is the first priority. There is a great choice and it covers all budgets. There are simple rooms in the likes of Chat House, and there is five star luxury in the Meridian. It’s as well to have somewhere booked in advance so looking through one of the hotel comparison sites would be worthwhile.
What to see and do In Chiang Rai
There is no question that Chiang Rai is on the up. It has developed over the past few years from a small and quiet city to one where there is now a profusion of classy coffee shops, good restaurants and fine hotels. It has about the same number of bars and drinking places as ever, and those are concentrated in Jed Yod Street near the Clock Tower. This is one of the city’s more elaborate attractions. built a few years back to celebrate His Majesty the Kings birthday, and it is a sight worth seeing, especially at night. The gilt, gold and generally bright tower has its own light show, which begins around 8 pm, but it’s not an exact starting time. There then ensues a light show with a mix of colored lights which would do well at any 80’s disco. But joking apart, national Thai tourists love it and wait in anticipation for it to ‘strut its stuff’.
That’s one of the night time sights, but during the day a walk around the city will reveal historic Wats, none more so than the significant Wat Phra Kaew in Winichaikul Road. This is the temple where it is said the sacred Emerald Buddha was housed until 1434. The story unfolds that the statue was revealed after a lightning storm and that very same Emerald Buddha now resides in the Grand Palace in Bangkok. The temple has great importance both locally and nationally, so all efforts should be made to see this important Buddhist landmark. Not far away is another temple and that is the one close to the day market at Wat Phra Singh. The temple is worth a look but the comings and goings of the market are just as interesting. The meat, vegetables and fish are sold to all comers, with many of the Akha tribes people running the stalls. Produce varies, but there is always the great choice of fruit. One day it might be dragon fruit, the next pineapples. It’s an ever changing scene which is not there for tourist snappers but is, like all the markets here it is, genuine and open for the local people.
One of the great things about Chiang Rai is that is a city which can be easily walked. There are places to rent bicycles as well, and as the area is almost entirely flat, it’s easy cycling. Motorbikes are also available at plenty of shops on the main Pathon Yothin Road, but make sure the helmets are provided. From the day market it’s an gentle stroll into town and the local shops, but the shopping might be best left to the evening when the night bazaar kicks off. This is just by the bus station where you arrived. There is a main central eating centre with local Thai stalls selling mostly Thai food. There are a few stalls selling fries but mostly its fish, squid, pork and chicken rice dishes plus a whole host of interesting local delicacies. Pigs intestines, is amongst the local treats, and you may find a stall out on the street selling locust, ants and grasshoppers. Saturdays will feature Thai dancers on the well lit stage, so there’s free entertainment as a bonus.
In addition to the daily night bazaar, where a big collection of clothes, local crafts, DVDs and luggage can be found, there is a Walking Street on a Saturday night. It starts around 6 pm and is crowded with local buyers by 7 pm. The Walking Street is closed to traffic, and is towards the King Rai monument in Thanallai Road.
For the more formal Thai evening the bigger hotels have Thai dancing, but just take stroll down Walking Street on a Saturday night and you will see and hear some local children playing their northern Thai ‘Pi Chum’ flute instruments. There’s no cost to stand and listen, but it’s polite to drop some notes into the box as support for the children. They play their music just opposite the Hill Tribe and Education Museum which features the arts and crafts of the local tribes, and this is open from 9 until 6pm weekdays and 10 to 6 pm on weekends. Another local gig on the Saturday night Walking Street is the fire eater, but he’s not been seen for some time now – maybe the swallowing of fuel lighter fluid has eventually got to him!
So Chiang Rai is by no means a backwater, and has a distinct northern identity which has a genuine Thai ambience. The recently opened Central Plaza, on the Superhighway has brought a new clientele to the area, and as an aside, the first McDonalds. That is proving to be very popular with local residents, but there is still a greater chance of buying some agricultural equipment than a fashion accessory in this historic city located to the very north of Thailand.
Neil Ray is a professional travel writer based in Chiang Rai, who writes for international and local publications and web sites