Guest food and travel blogger lolleroll has done her fair share of travelling through Thailand – racking up an impressive 16 stamps in her passport in the last two years, alone. While Phuket, Koh Samui, Krabi, and Bangkok are well-trodden tourist trails, the nation’s northern reaches have so much more to offer, while still remaining a convenient connection away from Hong Kong. We learn what makes Chiang Rai so unique, and a travel destination that you’ll want to add to your bucket list.
Where is Chiang Rai?
Chiang Rai is further north than the better-known Chiang Mai, bordering Myanmar and Laos. It is similarly mountainous and home to beautiful scenery, quirky cafés, and unique cultures. The area is raw, very natural, and relatively underdeveloped in terms of tourist infrastructure, and that’s what made it so charming during my five-day stay. Paying a visit to the standard itinerary items like White Temple (Wat Rong Khun), Singha Park, and a tea plantation (Choui Feng) is a must, but here are some of the surprising things I grew to know and love about Chiang Rai.
1. Secret Garden Cafés
Wherever I am in the world, I’m almost always café-hopping and brunching my mornings away. But when I booked my flight to Chiang Rai, I was expecting more by way of authentic local eateries and fewer fancy coffee shops. Little did I know that Chiang Rai, like the rest of Thailand, is also very creative and hipster, with a great taste for coffee and aesthetics.
Chivit Thamma Da Coffee House is popular on all the major travel forums, and understandably so. They serve all types of food – from brunch staples and Northern Thai cuisine to a seriously good apple crumble pie. Their coffee is also delicious, especially ‘The Chivit’ (iced coffee cubes poured over with milk), but what I loved most was the large semi-alfresco garden setting by the river. You would be forgiven for thinking you were in someone’s home – because you are, in a way.
Chivit Thamma Da Coffee House,179 Moo 2, Bannrongseatean Soi 3, Tambon Rimkok, Chiang Rai 57100, Thailand
The Wanderer has an even more beautiful and spacious garden. Opened by the same family behind the Doi Chaang coffee farm, it’s no wonder they serve some pretty decent brews. But their food is an even bigger selling point. I was tempted by a number of their beautifully presented cakes, but the waitress shyly, yet persistently, recommended the coconut pie instead. Thankfully I agreed as it turned out to be definitely the most unique, and possibly the best cake I’ve had, ever. Just try it.
The Wanderer, 537/, 1, Mueang Chiang Rai District, Chiang Rai 57100, Thailand
2. Phu Chi Fah: ‘The Most Beautiful Place You’ve Never Heard Of’
Watching the sunrise at Phu Chi Fah is, unquestionably, the one thing you must do in Chiang Rai. I did have my doubts as to whether I wanted to wake up at the crack of down, but I’m here to tell you not to question it. Travel blogger Simplyfiercely dubbed it ‘The Most Beautiful Place You’ve Never Heard Of,’ and I could not agree more.
I set off from the hotel at 3:45 am and drove two hours on a winding road up the mountain. It was at least 15 degrees colder than the daytime temperatures. After a 20 to 30-minute hike uphill, I found myself standing above a thick fluff of cloud. The colours of the sky transformed over the next 45 minutes and it was magical; incomparable to any other sunrise or sunset I have ever seen before.
Since I was in the mountain area, I asked my taxi driver to take me to Doi Pha Tang, another 45 minutes away. This was another beautiful sight to wander around, take pictures, and just absorb the feeling of being above the clouds. Magic!
3. A Very Local Saturday Night Walking Street
Almost every city in Thailand has its own night market, and Chiang Rai has a night bazaar running every night, with a couple of stalls selling hill tribe handicrafts and a pretty big food court. But the real attraction of Chiang Rai’s city centre is the Saturday Night Walking Street, which is home to stalls that must span a kilometre stretch of road. Unlike the night markets in most other Thai cities, this one is frequented by a large number of locals, so the items on sale are less touristy and more eclectic.
In the food section, I found every kind of Thai and not-so-Thai food items I could imagine (cockles, pad thai, scorpions, fried chicken), plus items I had never seen before. It’s only open on Saturdays, so do make sure your trip planning factors this in – the stalls start setting up at around 3pm.
Saturday Night Walking Street, Suk Sathit, Tambon Wiang, Amphoe Mueang Chiang Rai, Chang Wat Chiang Rai 57000, Thailand
4. A Variety of Northern Cuisines
In Chiang Rai, you do get a lot of the more mainstream Thai dishes like pad thai, green curry, and mango sticky rice, but definitely make sure you check out the local Northern Thai dishes which are significantly different.
Local Northern Thai Food: Laab Sanam Keela is touted as one of the best restaurants for local Northern Thai food online. My taxi driver nodded approvingly when I told him where I wanted to go for lunch. The deep fried tilapia fish was definitely the most memorable dish for me, while the grilled pork meat was also perfectly executed. We all loved the ‘laab’, which is a spicy minced pork served with the raw greens and sticky rice, although it was just way too spicy.
Laab Sanam Keela, Rop Wiang, Mueang Chiang Rai District, Chiang Rai 57000, Thailand
Burmese-influenced Cuisine: Pho Chai / Khao Soi Phor Jai is a restaurant which almost only serves Khao Soi – a Burmese-influenced dish common in Chiang Rai. It’s essentially egg noodles in a coconut milk curry soup base. In fact, I had a really good bowl of something similar in Macau a while back, but the Northern Thai version definitely has its own unique characteristics. Moreover, this place makes the best one I have tried – so it’s definitely worth the trek. Just make sure you arrive before 3pm, because they start packing up and turning customers away at about 4pm.
Pho Chai, Jerrod Road, Chiang Rai
Yunnanese Cuisine: Im Pochanais is located in Doi Mae Salong, which is about a two-hour drive away. Here, I found myself immersed in an unusual environment – a Yunnanese village that feels like neither Thailand nor China. It has a very intriguing mix of culture. The mountainous landscape we passed through on the way there was simply breathtaking. Im Pochana is a highly recommended Yunnanese restaurant I researched about and I was in love with the crazily tender slow-cooked pork leg. A number of other dishes tasted quite good, but were not exactly ‘crowd pleasers’ – the cuisine may have been just a little far removed from what our group of friends are used to eating.
Im Pochanais, 1089 Mae Salong Nok subdistrict, Mae Fa Luang 57110, Thailand
5. Underrated, Underdeveloped, and Charm in Spades
What I love most about Chiang Rai is the abundance of beautiful sights. Quite often, we travelled by taxi and hired car to get to places which took between 40 mins to 2.5 hours, but whenever we looked outside the window, there would almost always be something to admire.
The underdeveloped tourism infrastructure means the city has a lot of ‘rawness’ to it. Somehow this place made me feel extremely relaxed. Returning to Hong Kong after a five-day trip, I had never felt more rejuvenated, yet satisfied, thanks to the perfect balance of beautiful sights and delicious food, and the pleasantly slow-pace of life that Chiang Rai has to offer.