Having accumulated 16 of Thailand’s immigration stamps over the past two or so years, it’s easy to rule that this is my favourite Asian country to visit. But Phuket, Koh Samui, Krabi and Bangkok do get boring, which is why this time I ventured up North to Chiang Rai, when I was looking for an equally convenient destination for a short trip over Christmas (and the weather turned out to be perfect during this period).
Where is Chiang Rai?
Chiang Rai is further up north from the better-known Chiang Mai, bordering Myanmar and Laos. It is similarly mountainous and host to amazing scenery, cute coffee shops and interesting hill tribe vibes. It’s raw, very natural and relatively underdeveloped in terms of tourism and that’s the charm we enjoyed absorbing during our 5-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 probably a must, but here are some of the unexpected aspects we loved about our trip.
1. Beautiful Laid Back Garden Cafes
Wherever I am in the world, I’m almost always cafe-hopping and brunching my mornings away. But when I booked my tickets to Chiang Rai, I was expecting more of a local adventurous experience with less fancy coffee. Little did we know that Chiang Rai, like the rest of Thailand, is also very creative and hipster, with great taste for coffee and aesthetics.
In fact, my passion for coffee and love for cafes was first ignited by a visit to a coffee shop in Bangkok: Roast.
Chivit Thamma Da Coffee House was popular on all travel forums and understandably so. They served all types of food from brunchy items, Northern Thai cuisine to a seriously good apple crumble pie. Their coffee was also delicious, especially ‘The Chivit’ (iced coffee cubes poured over with milk). But what we loved most was the large semi alfresco garden setting by the river. You’ll feel cozy like you’re at someone else’s house – and you kind of are.
Address: 179 Moo 2, Bannrongseatean Soi 3, Tambon Rimkok, Chiang Rai 57100, Thailand
The Wanderer has an even more beautiful and spacious garden. It won my heart over by being modern and hipster. Opened by the same family behind Doi Chaang (coffee farm), it’s no wonder they serve some pretty good coffee. But their food was an even bigger selling point. I was tempted by a number of their beautifully presented cakes, but the waitress shyly yet persistently recommended their 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.
Address: 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 the single one thing you have to do in Chiang Rai, no question. We did have doubts as to whether we wanted to wake up so early, so I’m here to tell you not to. Simplyfiercely dubbed it to be ‘The Most Beautiful Place You’ve Never Heard Of‘ and we could not agree more.
We set off from the hotel at 3:45am and drove 2 hours on a winding road up the mountain. It was at least 15 degrees colder than the day time. After another 20-30 minutes hike uphill, we found ourselves standing above a thick fluff of cloud! The colours of the sky transformed over the next 45 minutes and it was magical, unparalleled to any other sunrise or sunset I’ve seen before.
Since we were in the mountain areas, we asked our taxi driver to take us to another place about 45 min to 1 hour away: Doi Pha Tang. This was another beautiful sight to wonder around, take pictures and just absorb the feeling of being so high up above the clouds.
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 area was the Saturday Night Walking Street, which was home to stalls which must’ve ran over at least 1km. Unlike most of the night markets from other Thai cities, this one was frequented by a large number of locals hence the items on sale were less touristy and more random.
In the food section, we found every kind of Thai and not-so-Thai food items we could imagine (cockles, pad thai, scorpions, fried chicken), plus items we had never seen before, like the fluffy coconut dessert pictured above. It’s only open on Saturdays so do make sure your trip planning factors this in – the stalls start setting up at around 3pm.
Address: 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 were unexpectedly significantly different.
Local Northern Thai Food: Laab Sanam Keela was touted as one of the best restaurants for local Northern Thai food online. Our taxi driver approved with enthusiastic nods when we told him where we 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. Do check out the more detailed review of this place done by these guys.
Address: Rop Wiang, Mueang Chiang Rai District, Chiang Rai 57000, Thailand
Burmese-influences: Pho Chai / Khao Soi Phor Jai is a restaurant which almost only serves Khao Soi. Khao Soi is 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 places makes the best one we tried – so it’s worth the trek. Just make sure you arrive before 3pm, because they started packing and turning away customers at about 4pm.
Address: Jerrod Road, Chiang Rai
Yunnanese Cuisine: Im Pochana is located in Doi Mae Salong which is about a 2 hours drive away. Here, we found ourselves immersed in a really strange environment. Strange because it was a Yunnanese village yet it neither felt like we were in Thailand nor in China, it was a very intriguing mix of culture. The mountainous landscape we passed through on our way here was also extremely breathtaking. Im Pochana was a highly recommended Yunnanese restaurant we researched about and I was in love with the crazily tender slow cooked pork leg/trotters. A number of other dishes we ordered tasted quite good but were not exactly ‘crowd pleasers’ – I felt the cuisine may have been just a little far off from what our group of friends are used to eating.
Address: 1089 Mae Salong Nok subdistrict, Mae Fa Luang 57110, Thailand
Underrated, Underdeveloped and a lot of Charm
What I loved most about Chiang Rai was the abundance of beautiful sights. We travelled on a taxi/hired car quite often to get to places which usually took anywhere between 40 mins to 2.5 hours. But whenever we looked outside the window, there’d almost always be something to admire.
The underdeveloped tourism means the city has a lot of ‘rawness’ to it. Somehow this place made us feel extremely laid back and easy-going. Returning to Hong Kong after a 5-day trip, I had never felt more rejuvenated yet satisfied, thanks to the perfect balance of beautiful sights and delicious food, at the pleasantly slow pace that Chiang Rai had to offer.