As we rode through the streets of Chiang Rai, crouched over to peer out the sides of the tuk-tuk, I found my body filling with relief and excitement. This city was different than the ones we had visited so far. The streets of Chiang Rai are cleaner, lined with flowers and ornate gold posts topped with flying birds or dragons. All were a welcomed change to the bustling, not very clean, cities we had explored before.
We arrived in Chiang Rai via the green line VIP bus, which was comfortable and clean, even providing an actual toilet, not a hole in the floor. Although we had a few frightening moments on the bus traveling downhill and narrowly missing a large log and a car, we really found the bus travel to be quite nice, and much cheaper than the private taxis we were normally taking.
Our hotel was located in the perfect spot, as we found out that evening when we headed out to Walking Street for our second night market experience. We had no idea what we were in for as we entered the massive market. Unlike the market in Ayutthaya the streets of this market are closed to traffic, and it goes on for miles. The hundreds of food booths are filled with different foods than we had seen before like little omelettes cooked in banana leaf boats, or chicken and hot pepper kabobs, and of course some very interesting ways to cook bugs. Unfortunately for me they all were either meat or sweet. Of course for J this is ideal. As we turned the corner we saw hundreds of booths selling clothing, body products, toys and even eyeglasses (overseen by a doctor who would examine your eyes on the spot!). There was a large area filled with tables and families waiting for a dancing group to entertain them.
While many of the side streets were filled with people giving foot massages, we found one with Chiang Rai food trucks. There were three white mini trucks who were breaking tradition with the normal Thai fare and booth atmosphere. Of course J couldn’t resist the burger truck with onion rings. After eating a small cup of strawberries and getting a bit grumpy (as I do when I am STARVING) I found a small little booth serving tofu and sweet potato with bean patties all in a hot chili sauce. I almost cried, but instead opted to just thank them continuously as I shoveled the food in my mouth.
The next day we headed to the White Temple, which is a blog post all on its own. That night we decided to try another night market since we really loved the Walking Street market. I have to say this one did not disappoint. While we found the food to be very similar and most of the items being sold were the same we just love the vibe of the night markets in Chiang Rai. You are really packed in with other people walking around but the bustle of the city dwellers combined with the action of the people cooking and the sound of the dancers is quite invigorating. This market also offered me a HUGE treat. A vegetarian smoothie made with 4 kinds of beans, milk, and honey. I was in heaven!
On our second day we visited the Black House, which is also its own blog post. We were really blown away by both the White Temple and the Black House. Not only were they both beautiful but they were a break from the typical Wat we saw in the rest of Thailand. They felt incredibly spiritual and symbolic.
We hired a driver to stay with us both days which was a great decision. He showed us around some other Wat’s (temples) and told us a lot about the culture of Chiang Rai. We found that drivers will often not charge much more to wait for you at different locations if they stay with you most of the day, so I highly recommend it, especially if you are going to more remote locations where finding a tuk-tuk can be difficult.
On our third and final day we did something we had not done in other cities. We walked around and explored. Chaing Rai felt like the first city that was walking friendly. They actually have sidewalks in many places and you can find little markets tucked behind stores all along the walk. We even found a great vegetarian restaurant and got a foot massage.
While some of the markets were hard for me because there was so much fish and raw meat it is still an experience to weave through these mazes of shops and food vendors. While most of them are barely large enough to walk into, or are covered with tarps or aluminum to keep out the rain, they can sometimes offer little treasures you weren’t expecting, like my 3.50 skirt!
Chiang Rai has its own modern and artistic vibe that we haven’t seen anywhere else. They have also found a balance between a big city, and spiritual center. Located in the Northern part of Thailand it is worth the trip (only a 4 hour bus ride from Chiang Mai) to see a completely different expression of Buddhism, markets and daily life.
I booked our bus tickets on 12GoAsia.com. Our hotel was Le Patta, and we loved it and the amazing internet speed! When we left Chiang Rai we flew to Bangkok which was a quick 1 1/2 hour flight on my favorite, Bangkok Airways.
While in Chiang Rai we did visit the most popular night market, Chiang Rai Night Bazaar, but found it to be very touristy, the food was really lacking in options and quality and vibe was completely different. When in Chiang Rai and looking for great night markets check out the Saturday Night Walking Street market and the Sunday Night Market on Sankhongnoi Road, or Happy Street.