As Thailand's northernmost city, Chiang Rai is only 118 miles (190 kilometers) from Chiang Mai. Although smaller than Chiang Mai, which happens to be the largest city in Northern Thailand, Chiang Rai is still a bustling city with its fair share of traffic and honking horns. This city is also the last stop for visitors on their way to the Golden Triangle, the point on the map where the Thai border meets Myanmar and Laos. There are no railways or flight routes between these two cities, so to get from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai, you'll need to hit the road either by bus or driving yourself.
|Bus||3 hours, 35 minutes||from $6||Budget travel|
|Car||3 hours||118 miles (190 kilometers)||Independence|
What Is the Cheapest Way to Get From Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai?
A one-way ticket between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai typically costs about $8. You don't really need to book your ticket ahead of time unless you're traveling during one of the busy holiday times in Thailand, in which case you should buy your ticket at the station on the day before your departure. Buses leave every hour from Chiang Mai's Arcade Bus Station, in the northern part of the city, which is easy to reach via tuk-tuk. Depending on city traffic and what time you leave, the bus from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai takes between three hours and four hours, 30 minutes. When you arrive in Chiang Rai, your bus will stop at both of the city's bus stations: Terminal 1 in the north of the city and Terminal 2 in the south. If you want to proceed directly to the famous White Temple, stay on the bus until the second stop at the old station (Terminal 1) in the center of town. If you accidentally get off at the first stop, minibuses and songthaews (pickup truck taxis) make the 15-minute run between the two stations and cost less than $1.
Many bus lines run routes to Chiang Rai, but the most popular is Greenbus. At the station, you can purchase your ticket from an English-speaking attendant at the kiosk. Buses to Chiang Rai from Chiang Mai are air conditioned and fairly comfortable, with narrow overhead storage and room beneath the bus for larger luggage. Seats are assigned at booking, so book together if you're traveling with someone else. The first-class buses have on-board squat toilets, otherwise, you’ll make one quick 10-minute stop for a toilet break along the way.
What Is the Fastest Way to Get From Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai?
If you can rent a car or are brave enough to travel by motorbike, the fastest way to get to Chiang Rai is to drive. The trip takes just a little more than three hours without traffic, but gridlocked roads, particularly during the high season, increase the time required for getting from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai. It's a straightforward route: Simply travel northeast on Highway 118 and then switch to Highway 1, which you can follow all the way to Chiang Rai. Although, these superhighways are often crowded, so it's inadvisable to drive unless you have experience driving in Asia.
When Is the Best Time to Travel to Chiang Rai?
October to February is considered Thailand's "cool" season, meaning temperatures are on the lower end of the spectrum for Thailand. However, for most visitors, this is still pretty hot with average highs that fluctuate month to month between 70 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit (21 and 32 degrees Celsius). It's also best to avoid visiting Northern Thailand between January and March, which is the region's "smoky season." During the dry season, farmers are burning their fields to prepare the land and air quality is extremely poor. Not only does the smoke obscure the views of Northern Thailand's natural landscapes, but it's also not very good for your health, especially if you have asthma or suffer from allergies.
What Is There to Do in Chiang Rai?
There are many attractions that bring travelers to Chiang Rai, such as Wat Phra Kaew, one of Thailand's oldest Buddhist temples. Yet, most people visit to see the striking Wat Rong Khun, or the White Temple, in person. This all-white building is one of the most unique temples in Thailand. Much younger than other temples—it was built in 1997—it is actually a privately-owned art exhibit and the interior is decorated with pop culture references like Superman, Harry Potter, and Kung Fu Panda.
While visiting Chiang Rai, don't miss an opportunity to walk through the Night Bazaar or Weekend Walking Street and keep your eyes peeled for plates of Khao Soi. One of the most iconic dishes of Northern Thailand, this coconut-based curry dish is served over soft egg noodles and topped with crispy ones.