Sah wah dee khrap! After slowly making my way up north from the south of Thailand on my solo backpacking adventures, I arrived to Chiang Rai, which is a lot less famous than its northern “neighbour” Chiang Mai (they’re 4h apart by bus).
In fact, many people only comes to Chiang Rai as a one day tour from there. Do NOT make that mistake! I met people in Chiang Mai that did the 1-day tour and were furious at the painful and dissapointing day they had.
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From the feedback I received this is slowly changing though, as the natural beauty plus old and new temples are starting to bring more tourism to this north-eastern point of the country.
Getting to Chiang Rai
Being a less well-known destination, you actually have a few options. Including an international airport.
Most people will come from Chiang Mai via Bus. I took instead a night bus direct from Bangkok as Chiang Mai was going to be my point of departure in a few days time and I didn’t want to come back and forth.
There are no trains coming to Chiang Rai as opposed to Chiang Mai where you do have long distance trains arriving there.
The night bus took about 11 hours with a stop for dinner (included with the ticket), the bus was actually pretty comfortable (they give you a small snack, water and blanket).
I took the cheapest option that was 540thb (about US$16), there was a VIP option for an extra 100thb.
Is important to note that Chiang Rai has two bus terminals and the Bangkok bus will leave you in the outskirts of town, from here you will have to take a mini bus for 20thb to the city center.
The city center is relatively small, within 15-30 minutes you will be able to walk the “nicer” areas, this is where most hostels are. There’s plenty of accommodation available.
I was recommended by a fellow backpacker to stay at Sook Jai Guesthouse. I walked in (no reservation) and unfortunately they were fully booked, the impression from the outside was that it was a pretty chilled place, I’d have liked to stay there.
Instead I had to start walking again and asked in a couple of places nearby.
I decided to stay at ALS Clock Hospitale Hostel. One of the cons of not booking where to stay is that some places may sell out (this happens less often than you think) but one of the pros is that when you walk-in you can negotiate the prices as the hostel will save the fees associated with all the major sites (hostelworld, agoda, booking, etc) and this is exactly what happened at ALS.
The hostel was actually nice, clean room and bathroom, breakfast included, and Laila – the owner – is a lovely woman, she will treat you like family from the moment you walk in.
If only everyone that works in the hospitality sector could be like her! she’s an all-in-one owner-cook-tour guide-receptionist-booking agent-etc, the food I tried there was the cheapest in Thailand and it was pretty tasty!
Day 1 – walking around town and visiting THE temples
Chiang Rai is most famous for the White, Blue and Black Temples. I only had time to visit the White and Blue, properly named: Wat Rong Khun and Wat Rong Seur Ten respectively.
These are two architecturally striking sites that should be a must for you to visit!
Wat Rong Khun (white) is a bit far away from the city so you need to either: take a bus, tuk-tuk or rent a scooter.
I teamed up with a fellow backpacker at the hostel and we headed off. It takes about 15-20min to get to the temple.
It’s advisable to go really early in the morning, as if you go (as we did!) at noon, the crowds will make your life a bit hard to get that perfect picture, you can still get them if you’re a bit patient 😉
There’s a 50thb entry fee to the temple.
The White Temple is almost the complete opposite of what you expect on a temple.
Although built in 1997, it’s still a work in progress and the mastermind behind it, local artist Chalermchai Kositpipat expects it to be completed around 2070!
Contemporary, unconventional, unsettling, shockingly provocative.
I can think of many adjectives for this site where the longer you stay the more hidden details you will discover.
It’s not allowed to take photos inside the temple. This area, at times, is the most bizarre as it combines religious scenes with pop-culture icons. You will even spot an angry bird heading towards the NY Twin Towers…
After getting tired of taking photos, trust me you will take lots! we headed to Wat Huay Pla Kung, mistakenly referred as Big Buddha, this is instead a statue of the goddess of Mercy.
I got mixed feelings on this site. Whilst I respect all beliefs, this one feels really made up to just bring tourists with even a lift inside the statue for a better view…
If you have time you can still go, otherwise if you skip it you will not lose much (except perhaps a free lunch as they have couple of free “restaurants” there, food was ok though)
Later it was time to visit the Blue Temple.
Wat Rong Suea Ten is less known than the White Temple, and the information around it is not abundant.
This temple was only built in 2008, and is also considered a work in progress. There are many similitudes with the White Temple as its designer is a student of the more famous Chalermchai Kositpipat.
You cannot however, find any information about him around the temple.
There’s no entry fee for the Blue Temple and you could walk to it from the city center (about 30min walk) if you don’t have a scooter.
Less provocative than the white one, The Blue Temple is equally impressive in terms of its detailing, definitely worth a visit!
There’s a third famous temple, the Black one, which I unfortunately didn’t have time to visit but I was told it was not as good as these two.
Come the evening, is time to walk around the city, the night market is a perfect place to find some food and souvenirs.
At 7, 8 and 9 PM there’s a “light show” at the clock tower, this is a little bit underwhelming to be honest, but if you happen to be nearby just check it out, it last about 5-10 minutes.
If you’re still looking forward to do some more on your day, make your way into any of the many massage places around, starting from 200thb for a 1-hour Thai massage, you can never go wrong with one!
Day 2 – Camping at Phu Chi Fa
I had no idea of Phu Chi Fa before arriving to Chiang Rai, and only discovered it when I was in the mini bus from the out-of-town terminal to the city centre as there was a picture of it advertising a tour.
When I saw that photo I knew that I had to pitch my tent there!
Phu Chi Fa is about 90 Km away from Chiang Rai, you can go either with a scooter or take the ONLY one mini van that leaves every day at 13:00 and the return on the following day is at 9:00.
In January ’19 the price for it was of 200thb each way. Make sure to book either one day in advance or around 8:00 in the morning when you expect to travel as they normally sell out (only 12 seats or so)
MY CAMPING ESSENTIALS
As on the following day I had to go to Chiang Mai, I decided to take the minivan as it was going to cost me the same and I couldn’t afford to get lost on the following day.
If you have a few days, I’d strongly recommend to go with a scooter as you will have the chance to visit some waterfalls and other viewpoints in the Thoeng district.
The mini van trip takes around 3h, and will drop you in the main parking lot in Phu Chi Fa. The village has plenty of accommodation, however the info about it is not so easy to find. As soon as you get off the mini van you will find a few people offering rooms.
There are also quite a few camping options, even renting a tent in the village. As I was travelling with my camping equipment I headed towards the entrance of the park as that’s where the best camping ground is. It’s also free of charge!
To reach the campground you need to walk down the road you came with the van for a couple hundred meters and you will see the entrance of the park, after a gentle 10min climb you will reach the site.
Once I set up my tent I still had time to climb up the mountain to see the sunset. You should not miss this as it was quite magical when I went.
The climb between the campsite and the highest viewpoint of Phu Chi Fa takes just about 20-30min. Make sure to bring some warm clothes as I didn’t and got pretty cold as soon as it got dark.
On the way back you can walk to town (where the mini van left you) for dinner in case you didn’t bring food with you.
On the campsite it’s allowed to light a small fire and each tent had one on.
Please always remember to be careful when lighting a fire in nature, keep it small, at a fair distance from your tent and most importantly water it off once you decide to go to sleep!
The campground is fantastic, not too hard, no many rocks or pebbles. With the bonfire, the stars and if you have any neighbour with a guitar (I had 3 on my night there!) you’re set for a wonderful camping night!
I had a relatively early night as I was going to wake up at 5:20 am to make it on time for sunrise on the following morning. When you’re climbing towards the viewpoint, you first go on a paved way, after about 10min you start a dirt path.
At the intersection of the two, there are a few shops for souvenirs and refreshments so you can have breakfast there if you were not prepared in advance. The path is extremely easy to follow, impossible to get lost.
One slightly annoying thing of the early walk up is that you will have quite a few dozen pick-up trucks passing next to you carrying tourists from the village that do not want to do the walk.
With this, you can expect to actually have a few hundred people at the viewpoint.
Another sad thing is that you will also find several little children on the dirt path dancing to loud music looking for some money as a reward.
Not only the peace of the mountain is broken but more sadly is the life perspective of these kids being exploited from such a young age.
For sunset on the previous day I made it to the highest viewpoint, but for sunrise is much better if you stay behind and use the silhouette of Phu Chi Fa in contrast for an even more incredible view. Also, Phu Chi Fa will get quite crowded (a lot more than for sunset)
After the magical display of sun, clouds and a million shades of colours in between. It was time for me to go back to the campsite and pack all my stuff to catch the 9:00 am van.
It was a quick trip for me, and super worth it! so, whether you have the time to ride the region on a scooter or “rush” it a bit as I did do not miss the chance to go to this wonderful place!