Chiang Rai White Temple ©peter-borter

Chiang Rai

More than just a base for excursions into the northern hills or river cruises down the Mekong to Luang Prabang (though it’s that too), Chiang Rai is Thailand’s unofficial capital of offbeat travel.

The city of Chiang Rai was first established in 1262, but don’t come here expecting old-world charm and cute, narrow lanes: this is a busy, modern city with everything that comes with it. While it may not be as pretty as its sister city, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai more than makes up for it – not least with its excellent hotels and fabulous foodie scene.

This is the place to tuck into northern “Lanna” specialities, like jackfruit curry, coconut noodles, and spicy papaya salads loaded with fragrant herbs, and there are plenty of riverside cafés in which to grab a frosty Singha and watch the world go by. One of Chiang Rai’s greatest assets is its location: on a flat alluvial plain ringed by mountains. Ramble through the hills to Karen, Akha, Hmong and Yao communities, take a day trip to the Golden Triangle to see where Thailand meets Myanmar and Laos, or spend a morning at a coffee or tea plantation.

Once you’ve explored the hills, don’t miss the city’s cultural attractions, which range from the usual wats, mosques and museums to the pop-culture-meets-Buddhist-sanctuary known as the White Temple and the macabre, skeleton-festooned Black House. Any way you slice it, Chiang Rai has much more than meets the eye.

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