Leave Chiang Mai at 8 a.m., get onto highway #1, drive three hours drive north and you’ll be in Chiang Rai. (The trip takes four hours on a 3,000 baht VIP bus).
With fewer than 100,000 people, Chiang Rai has an easygoing intimacy you can’t find in large cities – yet there are internationally accredited hospitals and large shopping complexes just outside the city center.
Roughly three hours north of Chiang Mai by car and bus or just a (super) short flight away, Chiang Rai is best known for sites such as the Golden Triangle, the White Temple and Doi Ang Khang.
The Golden Triangle is a viewpoint that overlooks the border tripoint of Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand and is the coming together of the Ruak and Meykong Rivers. Not far away is the Mae Sai border crossing into Myanmar, which has a sprawling border market that visitors can explore.
Two must-visit places in Chiang Rai are the White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) and the Black House (Baan Dam). These modern structures starkly contrast one another; one represents heaven and purity while the other represents hell and suffering.
Doi Ang Khang is a mountain home to several hill tribes including the famous long-neck Karen village. This mountain is a favorite destination for Thai tourists, especially those who enjoy trekking and bird watching.
Chiang Rai is not a very large town and some people say that it resembles what Chiang Mai was 20 years ago. Family owned and operated restaurants are plentiful and the Thai cuisine is influence by Burmese and Cantonese food culture.
Chiang Rai is a small town and small town ambiance prevails. A few minutes outside the city you’ll find deep, cool forests populated by exotic snakes, majestic waterfalls, elephant camps, hot springs, and some of the most diverse hill-tribe villages in the world. Most expats move to Chiang Rai after living in Chiang Mai. They tout the cleaner air, lighter traffic, friendlier people and lower cost of living and, they say, Chiang Rai is not overrun by tourists and expats. Chiang Rai has largely escaped the breakneck pace of “development at any cost” prevalent in much of Southeast Asia. Rental prices are extremely low, and you get a lot of house for your money. My friend Richard rents a new, 3-bedroom, two story house there for 3,000 baht/month!. There’s a great expat community there and you can contact them here.
There’s been talk of a new Chiang Mai-Chiang Rai motorway for some time. Now Thailand’s national Highways Department says it plans to build a 185 km motorway linking Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. The project is among several new motorways in the pipeline. The department said the proposed motorway is undergoing study and they expects the results and recommendations in November.
As I said, it takes almost three hours to drive the Chiang Mai–Chiang Rai motorway on the current road which, though well maintained, winds through mountains and runs through towns and villages – not to mention anxiety-producing U-turn areas. If the two cities were 90 minutes away their relationship would change dramatically, as would tourism.
The motorway would put Chiang Mai comfortably close to the Laos border, too. Laos desperately needs tourists and this would make the country more accessible from northern Thailand. It seems certain that the proposed new motorway will be built: it’s an important link in the Asia Expressway that will link Singapore to Kunming, China. We’re already seeing platoons of shiny Chinese SUVs coming to Chiang Mai on the existing road. Once it’s all freeway, northern Thailand and Laos will be transformed.