Chiang Rai was the capital of the Lanna Thai kingdom for just 30 years before Chiang Mai took over. As it turns out, losing its leading role may have been a blessing in disguise. The city has managed to retain a strong Lanna identity without sacrificing its relaxed, laid-back atmosphere, making it perfect for visitors hoping to steer clear of the camera-toting masses of the south.
Much of Chiang Rai is walk able. Should your feet get sore, Songthaews (converted pick-up trucks that function as buses), cycle rickshaws, Tuk-tuks and an increasing number of metered taxis will carry your around for a fee. Many guesthouses offer bicycle and motorbike rentals too.
Thailand can boast of thousands of temples, but none are quite like Wat Rong Khun (also known as the White Temple), located about 13km south of Chiang Rai. While most other temples honour sacred and mythological figures of the past, this one takes a much more contemporary approach, displaying imagery depicting everything from Michael Jackson to Harry Potter.
Back in town, the most revered Buddhist temple is Wat Phra Kaew, where the deceptively named Emerald Buddha (it’s actually made of jade) was originally uncovered. The gleaming green Buddha now resides in Bangkok’s Wat Phra Kaew, but there is a fantastic near-replica in Chiang Rai.
Other city highlights include Mae Fah Luang Art and Culture Park, which houses a trove of precious folk art, teak artefacts and contemporary northern Thai works as well as a meticulously kept garden.
The wider Chiang Rai region is a big draw for adventurous travellers who have grown tired of trampling the same old path as everyone else. Enjoy trekking, river rafting and boat rides, or visit some of the nomadic hill tribe communities of the Golden Triangle, a notorious opium-producing region. For an educational primer on the hill tribe communities and cultures, stop by the Hilltribe Museum and Education Center in the city before embarking on a trek.
Wat Rong Khun is an undeniable show-stopper, but few guests in town take the time to properly appreciate another Chiang Rai monument with which it bears a striking resemblance: the Chiang Rai Clock Tower. The twisted, contorted spires of this golden clock tower are the product of well-known Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, the very same man behind the famous White Temple. Light and sound displays take place here every night.
Just a few blocks north of the clock tower is Wat Phra Singh, another temple that doesn't get its dues. Though relatively plain on the outside, this 14th-century complex conceals a fascinating assortment of Lanna art and decoration.
Northern Thai cuisine is a genre of its own, blending flavours borrowed from neighbouring nations, such as Burma, Laos and even China. Lanna dining traditions, such as khantoke dinners (which involves eating a selection of different dishes served on a low round table while diners sit on the floor), prevails. Specialty recipes of the region include Burmese pork curry, nam prik ong (a pork and tomato chilli dip), kluay tod (fried banana) and sai ooa (grilled pork sausage). In this part of the country, almost every meal comes with a side helping of khao neow (sticky rice).