Chiang Rai



Chiang Rai

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This ancient town was founded in 1262 by King Mengrai. He decided that the site, in a basin between mountains, would be ideal for the new capital of the Lanna Kingdom. However, the capital was transferred to Chiang Mai only 34 years later, and Chiang Rai declined in importance. Today it is known as the “gateway to the Golden Triangle.” While the modern town may lack the charm and architectural interest of Chiang Mai, it has a number of sights worthy of attention.

Exploring Chiang Rai

Evidence of the town’s historic importance can be seen in monuments such as Wat Phra Kaeo. However, modern development is becoming increasingly prominent. The construction of hotels for tourists, who use Chiang Rai as a trekking base, and of second homes for the wealthy people of Bangkok, has made the town one of the fastest growing in Thailand. Economic activity in the area is expected to grow even further as trade increases with China, just 120 miles (200 km) to the north. Development focuses mainly on the area between the old market off Suk Sathit Road and Phahon Yothin Road, with the newest hotels on the outskirts of town and by the airport. Resorts have been built on many of the islands in the Kok River. A popular night bazaar is held in the center of town. Visitors can buy a range of crafts, enjoy a meal, and watch cultural performances. The nearby fresh fruit market is also open at night.

Wat Phra Kaeo

This is the city’s most revered temple. According to legend, lightning struck and cracked the chedi in 1354, revealing a plaster cast statue encasing the Emerald Buddha (actually made of jadeite). Today Thailand’s most holy Buddha image is housed in Bangkok. A replica, presented in 1991, is now kept here. The wat dates from the 13th century and is also notable for its fine bot, decorated with elaborate woodcarving, and the Phra Chao Lang Thong, one of the largest surviving bronze statues from the early Lanna period.

Wat Chet Yot

This small temple, named for its unusual, seven-spired chedi, is similar in appearance to its namesake in Chiang Mai. The front veranda of the main wihan has a mural depicting astrological scenes.

Wat Mungmuang

A rotund Buddha image with one hand raised in the vitarkha mudra position dominates this wat. The murals in the main wihan, depicting local mountain scenery and scenes of flooding and pollution, reflect the concern of Thais at the rapid growth of their cities, an issue of particular relevance in Chiang Rai.

Wat Phra That Doi Thong

This temple, built in the 1940s, is located on a hill top outside the town. It is on this spot that King Mengrai is said to have decided upon the location of his new capital. In the wihan is Chiang Rai’s original lak muang, or “city pillar,” traditionally erected in Thailand to mark the founding of a new city.

Overbrook Hospital

This working hospital is typical of the colonial architecture created by Westerners in the 19th and 20th centuries, when the city was a base for missionaries and traders. Such buildings are slowly being swamped in Chiang Rai as modern development proceeds apace. This trend is likely to continue as ever more trekkers and package tourists, demanding ever more comprehensive facilities, are attracted to the wild beauty of the mountainous Golden Triangle region.

Hill Tribe Museum

This museum and crafts center was established in 1990 by the non-profit Population and Community Development Association (PDA), also known for raising awareness of Thailand’s AIDS problem. In addition to informing tourists of the plight of hill tribes, volunteers at the center work with the tribespeople, educating them on how to cope with threats to their traditional lifestyle from a rapidly modernizing society. The center displays and sells hill-tribe crafts. These can also be bought at the market and in shops around the center of town.


Chiang Rai is growing as a base for visiting the rest of the Far North. Vehicle rental, guided treks, and excursions can be arranged through tour companies and guesthouses. Boat trips on the Kok River include excursions to the village of Tha Ton. Ruamit, some 12 miles (20 km) west of Chiang Rai was originally inhabited solely by the Karen tribe, though many different hill tribes now live here. Guided treks can be taken from here to other villages.

Eight miles (13 km) south of Chiang Rai is the photogenic Wat Rang Khun. Known as the “White Temple,” this unfinished wat was designed in 1997 by artist-turnedarchitect Chalermchai Kositpipat.

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