Chiang Rai is a sleepy place, both the province and its capital, in Thailand’s far north. There are an abundance of outdoor pursuits to be had here, ranging from elephant riding to hill tribe trekking, some superb mountain top sunrise points and scenic locations, Thailand’s premier luxury stay, as well as several of the kingdom’s more interesting temples. Here’s a brief synopsis of some of the best options if you’ve got a long weekend.
Start your day off in town, paying a visit to Wat Rong Khun, the breathtaking “white” temple, made of glass and plaster that shines brilliantly in the sun. A local artist spent his own fortune to design and upkeep this amazing place, probably Thailand’s most interesting temple. It’s also worth a stop on the way north to see Wat Rong Khun’s complete opposite, Baan Dam, or the Black House, the former residence of Thailand’s most famed artist, Thawan Duchanee, which is a series of macabre dark houses and strange architectural creations.
After your morning visit, head north, climbing up into the mountains to Doi Mae Salong, Thailand’s highest town, at 1367 meters above sea level. The town, which straddles a ridge top, used to be infamous as the home of a notorious drug kingpin, with opium poppies being the main source of revenue, but these days, tourists flock here to check out the lovely tea plantations which stretch along the hillsides, as well as trekking and visiting with the many ethnic minority hilltribe groups that inhabit the area. It’s a great spot to spend a night or more.
Get an early start and head over to the Golden Triangle, another spot that used to be notorious for its illicit drug history, but also these days home to lots of eco-tourism. The triangle here refers to the meeting of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar all at one point separated only by the mighty Mekong River. There are plenty of great river vistas here, but the best one is undoubtedly from the splurge-worthy Four Seasons Tented Camp, Thailand’s most luxurious lodging, accessible only by boat, with 15 private luxury tents right out of an African safari setting, with all inclusive elephant trekking and jungle spa treatments as part of the deal. It’s a great base for exploring the region.
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Make a predawn start and head over to Phu Chee Fah, a national forest park set up at 1600 meters at Thailand’s northern tip. Phu Chee Fah means “mountain pointing to the sky” in Thai, an appropriate moniker, as the peak points up like a finger to the heavens.
The big attraction here is watching the sunrise over Laos and the Mekong valleys below, made all the more spectacular during the cool season by the entire valley floors being filled by seas of mist, caused by cold air draining down the mountain. You can also see cherry blossoms here during the winter season.
Back in the Golden Triangle, check out the Hall of Opium Museum here, which delves into the area’s checkered past, and then head back to the Four Seasons for wine tasting and more gourmet pampering.