Chiang Rai is a charming little city located in Northern Thailand.
It’s popular for its laid back atmosphere, the lush, tropical setting, its closeness to Laos and Myanmar, and for hosting two of the most stunning temples of Thailand, the White Temple and the Blue Temple.
Most travellers only choose to visit the temples on a day trip from Chiang Mai, but my suggestion is to sleep in Chiang Rai a night or two in order to experience the city and take things slowly.
For a three-day stay, here are my recommendations on what to see and what to do in Chiang Rai:
Day 1: Get settled in your accommodation (I chose La Luna Resort which is settled in a beautiful lush tropical garden, a 10 minute walk from the Clock Tower, paying 32 euro for a Deluxe room back in October), then head to the famous White Temple (whose real name is Wat Rong Khun).
The temple is a stunning, all white structure with intricate details and sculptures.
The artist behind Wat Rong Khun is Thai artist and architect Chalermchai Kositpipat.
The temple opened to visitors in 1997 but it's still a work in progress, with new buildings still being added in 2023.
Kositpipat financed the project with his own money (from his job as a world known artist) but nowadays the entrance fee that visitors pay to access the temple are enough to support the building of new structures and maintenance.
The main structure, the ubosot, is an all-white building with fragments of mirrored glass embedded in plaster.
Kositpipat built the temple as an offering to Buddha, and he believes the project will give him immortal life. Wat Rong Khun is also dedicated to the late king, Rama IX, who passed away in October 2016.
One of the building hosts an interesting display of photos and paintings depicting the life of Rama IX.
To access the ubosot (the main temple hall) visitors have to cross a bridge over a small lake. All around the bridge are hundreds of outreaching hands that symbolise unrestrained desire and greed, and the bridge is so narrow that visitors must cross it one by one. This escamotage is to signify that the road to happiness is not easy, in order to reach it, we will have to overcome greed and temptations, and we will have to do it alone.
After crossing the bridge, the visitors reach the "gate of heaven", guarded by two demonic creatures representing Death and Rahu, who decides the fate of the dead.
Once inside the White Temple you'll find yourselves astonished by the murals: monstrous faces in swirling orange flames are interspersed with Western idols such as Michael Jackson, Neo from The Matrix, Freddy Krueger and Superman,but also Goku, Hello Kitty, Pirate Jack Sparrow, Yoda and Harry Potter. Other scenes portrait
nuclear disasters, terrorist attacks such as the World Trade Center attack, and oil pumps at work. The message is clear: weak and evil humans have a destructive impact on earth. And yet, all this madness and horror is housed in such a candid, angelic structure that symbolises the purity of the Buddha.
Before you leave the Wat Rong Khun, make sure to go to the toilet. The restrooms are indeed one of the most surprising elements in the complex: the golden building represents the body and human greed and desire, whereas the white temple represents the purity of the mind.
After marvelling at master Kositpipat's work, go visit his disciple's doing: artist and architect Putha Kabkaew, who built Wat Rong Suea, known as the Blue Temple, was indeed a student of Kositpipat.
Wat Rong Suea means “House of the dancing tiger”: apparently it was named after a tiger that used to roam the area. In contrast to the cotton candy white of the White Temple, this other Buddhist temple surprises for the incredible cobalt blue interspersed with orange flames and psychedelic paintings. Unlike the Wat Rong Khun, the Blue Temple is not an active temple, no monks live in the complex.
The main building, the viharn, is guarded by two huge Naga snakes. The style is traditional Lanna (the traditional style of Northern Thailand) with intricate floral motifs. If the outside stunned you, rest assured that the interior is equally outstanding.
Paintings on the walls show scenes from the life of the Buddha, while the ceilings are covered in a kaleidoscope of sapphire blue and violet ornaments with inlays of gold.
If after visiting the Blue Temple you aren't too tired, go on to explore the Baan Dam, the Black House. If instead you are too tired, move this tour to the third day and return to the city centre to grab something to eat at the Night Market: you'll find tasty street food and local products. A Norther Thailand dish you should try is Hunglay, a pork curry with garlic and ginger.
The Black House is a complex of 40 buildings in Lanna and Laotian style, mostly made of dark teak wood, occupying a vast, lush tropical garden.
Inside the buildings, which are per se an attraction worth to be seen, is a collection of paintings, scary sculptures, silver and gold items, animal bones and skins but also some unusual objects like phallic piggybanks and opium pipes.
The main theme of Baan Dam seems to be “The darkness of the heart of man”.
Buddhist themes like death and rebirth and suffering caused by human desire are always present in the art of Thawan Duchanee, the Thai artist who built the Black House in 1975 and lived in the complex until his death, a few years back.
Day 2: The Golden Triangle
North East of Chiang Rai, close to the village of Chiang Saen, lies the infamous Golden Triangle, once the center of opium production and trade in South East Asia. Those days are gone. Now the area is peaceful, known for the picturesque hill villages in the jungle, ancient temples and for the Hill Tribes, the ethnic minorities who captivate visitors with their bright coloured clothes and hand made artefacts.
After reaching the Thai side of the Golden Triangle viewpoint, you can see the two other neighbouring countries, Myanmar and Laos, the muddy Mekong River and the mountainous landscape dotted with villages and temples. You'll also see a large golden Buddha, an ancient temple perched on a hill and the House of Opium Museum.
The latter is a large museum that shows the history of opium growing and trade in the Golden Triangle. You will see objects like opium pipes and artefacts to prepare the drug, old photographs and short documentaries explaining the procedures to transform poppies into opium.
Another section of the museum is devoted to the British Opium Wars.
A third section is dedicated to the hill tribes that used to grow opium poppies.
The highly successful project started by the Royal Projects Foundation of King Bhumibol Adulyadej managed to eradicate poppy cultivation in the area in the last three decades.
The project succeeded in showing farmers an alternative to opium trade, in improving the life of local farmers and protecting the environment: nowadays the region is known for the good quality of its coffee, tea and rice and for the variety of its fruits and vegetables.
Motor-launches cruise the Mekong between Thailand and Laos and it's possible to board one for only half a hour or for a multi-day trip: the most popular destination is Luang Prabang, which can be reached with a two to three nights cruise involving some cultural stops along the way.
Before going back to Chiang Rai, a typical day tour to the Golden Triangle usually includes a visit to some local tea plantations, a quick stop in Mae Sai, the border village with Myanmar, and an interesting stop in Chiang Saen, a small scale Ayutthaya.
Chiang Saen houses several ancient temples (among them the well preserved Wat Phra That Chedi Luang), ruins of old palaces and monuments dating back to the Lanna Kingdom, and the most well preserved city walls in Northern Thailand. From 1300 until 1804, the year of its destruction, Chiang Saen had been a strategic city for the Lanna Kingdom and an important Buddhist center.
For a while it even belonged to Myanmar.
Speaking about Chiang Saen, for my next trip to Chiang Rai province, it's likely that I will choose this city as a starting point for future explorations, because a few hours here and there during a day trip are not enough to fully appreciate it.
By the time you get back to Chiang Rai on your second day you are going to feel tired, however if you happen to be in the city centre around 7, 8 or 9pm, don't miss the kitsch show of music and lights at the Clock Tower. Built by the same architect of the White Temple, the tower is a Clock, a roundabout, and a city attraction.
Day 3: Singha Park, Mae Fah Luang Art and Culture Park and, eventually, the Black House
Unless you plan to leave the city in the morning, use your third day in Chiang Rai to visit either the Singha Park or the Mae Fah Luang Art and Culture Park, or you could go to Baan Dam (the Black House) if you didn't see it on the first day.
Singha Park is a mix between a tropical garden, a farm and a zoo.
The least interesting section, which in my opinion you can skip, is the zoo where some giraffes and zebras are kept captive and fed by tourists. The rest of the park is worth exploring, though: it consists of endless rice fields, tea fields, fruit orchards, lavender fields, beautiful tropical flowers and a lake.
Instead of the Singha Park you can opt to visit Mae Fah Luang Art and Culture Park, 5 km west of Chiang Rai. It is a vast area housing ponds and lakes, traditional Lanna buildings and a collection of religious artefacts and contemporary art.
It's interesting if you are really fond of the history and culture of Chiang Rai, but I'd rather choose the Singha Park, if in doubt between the two.
Mae Fah Luang Art and Culture Park:
As you can see, Chiang Rai has plenty of temples, museums, natural scenery and attractions to discover, and you should consider to stay overnight instead of booking a day trip from Chiang Mai. It is not unlikely that after staying a few nights, you'll want to get back there for more exploration.
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Koh Bida Nok is one of the most popular dive sites in South west Thailand. It’s a small island boasting wall diving and shallow reefs.
Koh Bida Noi and Koh Bida Nai lie to the south of Phi Phi islands, belonging to Phi Phi Archipelago. Together with Hin Bida they are known as The Bida Islands.
On a sunny Sunday morning I joined my friend Gianluca from Sea Gypsy Divers on board a brand new half catamaran half speed boat called the Ocean Manta for a dive adventure around the Phi Phi archipelago.
It had been a long long time since my last dive, about 3 years exactly, and I wasn’t sure what to expect from myself as a diver and from the marine environment of the area we were going to visit.
So I was a little nervous when I woke up at down in Klong Muang, but as soon as I grabbed my bag and hopped on my bike for the short ride to Sea Gypse’s office in central Ao Nang, I forgot all my worries and became excited for the day ahead.
At the office I met some of the other customers, we checked the equipment then we drove together to Port Tacola, the newest harbour just outside Ao Nang, where our boat was waiting.
Port Tacola is not affected by the tides as other piers in the area, and we could board the Ocean Manta through the main dock, loading all the equipment on trolleys for the short walk from the parking lot to the boat.
When we arrived at the pier, it was hard to miss that beautiful boat even among all the other catamarans and speed boat: the Ocean Manta was shining in the sun, all polished and neat, the prow pointing to the outer sea, eager to start her first official mission.
The boat has two very distinct zones, one dedicated to divers, on the back, and one in the front, for cruising, eating and chatting. The outside area, at the front, is spacious and super comfortable, and can easily accomodate 15 people.
Sun lovers rest assured: you can easily bask in the sun in between dives. I surely did that day!
Onboard I was introduced to the rest of the divers and snorkelers, the crew and the Finnish couple who are the owner of the Fast Manta.
The name is appropriate: the boat mounts 2 huge Mercury engines of 300 CC, and thanks to her catamaran shape it’s very stable and elegant on top of being fast.
We sat down at the tables in the lounge area and enjoyed the morning breeze and the splendid Krabi scenery while the boat departed.
It only took 1 hour and 10 minutes before we reached the first dive site, Bida Nok! That was really fast! I barely had the time to eat a slice of chocolate cake and prepare my equipment!
From the surface Bida Nok appears as a stunning limestone peak jutting vertically of the water. Underwater, it’s all about coral gardens, caves divers can swim through and vertical walls covered in soft corals.
Black tip sharks and leopard sharks are often seen parading around Bida Nok and typical reef fish like Clown Fish, red goby, angel fish, honeycomb eels can be spotted among the corals.
As soon as we approached Bida, the first shark appeared. We saw it from the boat, way before we were ready to jump in the water. Call it a welcome!
There was only another boat at the site, with a few snorkelers already in the water, but by the time we dove in, the black tip was still around. And it wasn’t alone. We saw three swimming in circle in very shallow waters, relaxed, not at all disturbed by us humans.
It was exciting to use a Go Pro during the dive for the first time, and I was so focused on getting on film everything that we saw that I was surprised once I realized the 60 minute dive was over. It was time to get on board.
On my first underwater movie I got the shark, a squid, some nudibranch, a baby banded sea snake, a ghost pipe fish, a group of large sea fans, some parrot fish and many more corals and creatures.
Turtles, barracudas and sting rays are often resting on the sandy area in the southern side, but we didn’t see any this time.
Back on board we cleaned our equipment and prepared the tanks for the second dive.
Lunch was served at the tables in the front covered area, consisting of a mix of fragrant white rice and diced tempeh in sesame seeds (or something similar that I can’t name, but very delicious).
We drank filtered water and soft drinks and there was some chocolate brownie as dessert, plus fresh fruits like pineapple and watermelon.
The only thing I really missed, but I hope the Ocean Manta guys will make it available in the future, was some hot coffee. A simple, instant coffee mix with hot water would be enough even for a coffee addict like myself.
I think that in between dives, specially if you get cold easily like I do all the time, some hot beverage would be very welcomed.
After lunch we had some time to relax or bask in the sun while the Ocean Manta headed to Phi Phi Leh.
We stopped for sightseeing and photo snaps at the entrance of Maya Bay, then we continued North along the coast of the island until we moored in a spot called Maya Nui, close to another dive site called Mushroom.
We could choose which one to dive, and we opted for the first one, more favourable given that a mild current was expected to rise by the time we finished the dive, and we could use it to push us back to the boat.
I honestly didn’t expect much from Maya Nui, but I was wrong.
Visibility wasn’t as great as in Bida, however we managed to spot black tip sharks again, and soon after a big, lazy, friendly turtle appeared, and decided to stay with us for part of our dive. She elegantly swam with us, keeping the same level and direction, then rising for breath on the surface before diving back down to us.
I love turtles and I was busy admiring her while, in the corner of an eye, I spotted a big octopus bouncing out at full speed from a cave.
I don’t know what pushed it to jump out, but it happened at the perfect time: the octopus was the biggest I’ve seen so far, and the bravest too.
From my experience, they don’t stick around mixing with divers for long, but this octopus did.
He started to show off, I would say, so much so that at the end of the dive my friend Bruno, who’s been a diver for 50 years, said: “I was about to ask him to leave, what was wrong with him wanting all the attention?”.
Of course he was joking, besotted as I was with the curious and friendly octopus.
Maya Nui is a shallow dive, but it boasts some colourful corals, large dramatic rocks and some interesting macro: It took me a while to see the tiny transparent shrimps that Gianluca was pointing to me.
Then, while we were ascending for the safety stop at the end of a 1 hour dive, a school of fish encircled us and I failed to understand the gesture Gianluca was doing to tell me what they were.
I got it later, but I enjoyed the swirling of the group none the less, they looked like a circus set up to amuse us during the required stop.
They were a large school of baby barracudas!
Back on board, more fruit and another piece of brownie, then we packed the diving gears and got ready to cruise back.
Again, the journey back was extremely smooth and fast: we all gathered on the outside deck to bid farewell to Phi Phi islands and to the adventurous day, and while the sky got dark and cloudy behind us we entered Tacola Pier and partied.
Hugs and googbyes, a few more photos, a pleasant ride back on my bike, riding ahead of the storm, and by 4.30 pm I was at home in Klong Muang, which is quite amusing considering that I had left Tacola pier at 9 AM in the morning and experienced so much in a such a short span of time.
Can’t wait to go diving again, that’s for sure!
For the divers: what is your favorite diving spot in the world?
Share it in the comment, and I'll share mine.
Koh Mook (Morakot Cave, Sivalai Beach resort),
Koh Kradan (The Reef Resort, snorkelling)
Koh Chuak (snorkelling)
Koh Ngai (Thanya Beach Resort)
With excellent weather, palm-fringed beaches and warm ocean, Thailand is an island-hopping destination all year round.
The Trang Islands can be described as the ideal exotic retreat that most people dream of when planning a tropical holiday.
Some of the islands off Trang province are almost unknown to foreign tourists; to name a few: Koh Libong, Koh Phetra, Koh Sukorn, Koh Bulon, Koh Lao Liang.
I guess you never heard of them, even if you are a repeating visitor of Thailand.
Others are a little more in the radar, yet still overshadowed by the like of Koh Lipe, Koh Lanta, Koh Samui, Koh Phi Phi, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao: this second group includes Koh Kradan, Koh Ngai and Koh Muk, boasting the most pristine and romantic beaches in the area and offering a large choice of beach front resorts and accommodation.
The sea encircling these islands is a palette of transparent turquoise and azure.
A day trip from Krabi
For a weekend day trip to the above mentioned islands off Trang coast, my friends and I started from Krabi, driving our car from Ao Nang to Pak Meng pier, at the border between Krabi and Trang provinces. It’s a pleasant 90 minute drive on good roads bordered by palm tree plantations and limestone mountains.
In Pak Meng harbour we boarded a private long tail boat for the day.
After about 30 minutes, we arrived in Ko Muk, the first island on our planned itinerary.
Koh Muk (sometimes spelled Mook) is best known for the Morakot Cave (or Emerald Cave), for its range of both affordable and upscale accommodation (Farang Beach vs Sivalai beach) and for the spectacular sunsets that visitors can admire from the West coast.
Koh Muk is especially convenient as a base for day-trips to the Morakot Cave, where a sea tunnel leads to a secret beach inside what looks like a volcanic crater cave, or to the nearby islands.
Plan to visit the cave at low tide and avoid the weekends, when many local tourists assemble at the entrance and the queue can be a little overwhelming inside the sea tunnel.
It happened to us on our Sunday trip but despite the long line of weak swimmers who had to be pulled inside by local guides through long ropes, creating some noise and traffic jams on one side of the tunnel, the wonderland that awaits at the other side still left us speechless and happy.
After spending some time at Morakot, we cruised along the west side of the island, past Farang Beach and the backpacker’s nest called Charlie Beach Resort, until we reached the Sivalai Resort.
The Koh Mook Sivalai Beach Resort lies on a quiet, white sand peninsula of pristine beaches bordered by shallow waters and fringed by palm trees. All the wooden and concrete bungalows and villas have a partial or full sea view and are shaded by exotic vegetation. We stopped at the Sivalai for a swim and a walk around the cape, then left for our next destination, a 15-minute ride away.
Koh Kradan is probably the most famous of the group thanks to the stark sugary white sand beaches and transparent waters very much alive with fish. You can snorkel right off the main beach (Kradan Beach) and at low tide you can even walk or paddle out to the reef.
We decided to stop at the main beach and have lunch at The Reef Resort, a corner of paradise consisting of simple but very well designed beach front and sea view rooms. And when I say "sea view" I mean it: the distance from each of the 18 rooms to the powdery beach of Kradan is probably 50 steps, and the sea view is the most amazing you will get on the island.
The resort’s owner is Italian but The Reef is very popular with North Europeans; many are repeating guests who have been returning to Koh Kradan for years.
If you visit the resort, spend some time at the lovely beach bar, reading the wooden plates that affectionate customers carved or painted for decoration and that are now part of the roof.
I recommend you to grab a bite at the hotel’s beach restaurant: the Thai and Italian cuisine is delicious, and the scenery one that you won’t forget.
Koh Chuak & Koh Ngai
After lunch and some snorkelling in Koh Kradan, we continued to the last island in our program, Koh Ngai, stopping on the way for more snorkelling in Koh Chuak, a little diamond-shaped limestone islet located between Koh Ngai and Koh Mook.
There are no beaches and accommodation in Koh Chuak, but the islet is not to be skipped if you like snorkelling: its aquamarine waters are bustling with fish and soft corals.
The last island we visited, Koh Ngai, boasts crystal waters, white sand beaches and some coral reefs (although not as beautiful as the reef in Koh Kradan & Chuak).
Among the Trang Islands, Koh Ngai has the most unspoiled jungle and it’s home to monitor lizards, snakes and a great variety of birds (including 2000 hornbills!)
The resorts on Koh Ngai are mostly upper/mid-range.
My favorite is Thanya Beach Resort with its Balinese style teak bungalows facing the beach and a nice, large swimming pool. All the buildings are immersed in a beautiful frangipani-filled tropical garden. The atmosphere is exotic and romantic, no wonders that the Thanya in Koh Ngai is a favorite destination for honeymooners.
In high season (November to April) Tigerline ferries stop just off Koh Ngai on their journeys between the islands of Phuket and Koh Lipe, while local long tail boats can be rent in Pak Meng for island hopping in the area. Join speed boats also run daily at fixed times.
After taking a photo tour in the marvellous garden of the Thanya Resort, admiring the tall frangipani trees and other lesser known but equally stunning trees and plants, we relaxed on the beach and enjoyed a last swim in the warm waters in front of the resort.
A large school of fish, like a storm cloud darkening the sea, kept following us while the islets-filled horizon started to turn from blue to gold. Sunset was coming, and it was time to start the journey back to Pak Meng pier to keep ahead of darkness.
We reached Krabi around 8 pm, happy, relaxed and charmed once again by the sensational scenery of Southern Thailand.
Good to know
When to go
Koh Muk, Koh Kradan and Koh Ngai are subject to the same monsoon as the rest of South-Western Thailand. The rainy season starts in May and keeps going until October; during this time many hotels are closed and transportation to and from the Trang Islands is not guaranteed
The dry season runs from November to April: the weather is generally amazing, you can expect blue sky, lot of sunshine and calm seas.
For this reason, dry season means high season: hotels can be fully booked and more expensive during the Christmas Holidays, New Year’s and Chinese New Year.
How to go to the Trang Islands
If you are staying in Bangkok or up north in the country, you should fly to Trang city, then hop on a shared or private minivan to Pak Meng Pier, a 40-minute drive away.
If you are already in the South, the best way to reach Trang is by driving your own car or taking a bus: a spiderweb of bus routes connect all the main Southern cities.
Join boats to Koh Mook and Koh Kradan departs from Pak Meng every day, however due to the current pandemic the ferry service is not as frequent as before.
Unless you are willing to rent a private long tail boat from the pier, I advice you to check the boat schedule in advance.
Prices for a private long tail boat start from 3000 THB per boat for a full day tour touching Koh Kradan, Koh Muk, Koh Ngai and Koh Chuak.
If you only need a transfer from Pak Meng pier to one of the island, the easiest way is to contact your hotel in advance, they will recommend and/or book a long tail transfer based on your needs.
How to island hop
In high season, island hopping is an easy ride. Hotel staff can book a join or private transfer for you to explore the whole area, including the nearby southern islands of Koh Libong, Koh Lao Liang and Koh Sukorn which we didn’t explore on this trip due to lack of time.