5 Must See Temples in Chiang Rai: the Jewels of Northern Thailand

One of the main reasons for heading north of Chiang Mai is to see the famous temples in Chiang Rai. The city certainly over delivers when it comes to spectacular temples so deciding which ones you want to see and sorting out a bit of an itinerary for you visit is the best way to make sure you see as much as you possible in a couple of day.

It’s the famous White Temple and Blue temples that draw most visitors north to Chiang Rai, but along with these impressive temples are there any others that should be on your list?  Well, read on and we will help you add a few more must see sites to your 2 day Chiang Rai itinerary. 

I recently spent 48 hours in Chiang Rai, which, while a little rushed was a good amount of time to enjoy the city’s temples and majorl sites before we moved further north.

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The pièce de résistance of Chiang Rai, Wat Rong Khun, is more than just a temple. This snow-white marvel, designed by Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, is an expression of Buddhist teachings intertwined with pop culture references. 

the most famous of the temples in Chiang Rai, the White temple reflected
An early morning arrival rewards with a crowdless scene

Chalermchai wanted to create a unique and unconventional temple that would stand out from traditional designs. He began work on the temple in 1997. It is considered one of the most beautiful and least conventional temples in Thailand. 

Although a temple stood at this location for centuries, by the end of the 20th century it was in a state of pitiful disrepair. That’s when national artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, who was born in Chiang Rai, decided to entirely rebuild the temple using his own funds. 

While the temple looks finished, construction is still ongoing. The artist envisions the project to be completed by 2070. His masterplan includes nine buildings – including the ubosot, the hall of relics, the hermitage and the art gallery. 

Even on a stormy day the White Temple impresses!

The temple is entirely white, symbolizing purity, and is adorned with intricate carvings and sparkling pieces of mirrored glass.

The final layout will comprise nine buildings, each embodying different elements of the Buddhist teaching. 

Discovering the White Temple’s Unique Features

Upon approaching, you’ll cross a bridge over a pit of reaching hands—representing desire—and enter an ornate building signifying the realm of Buddha. Inside, expect the unexpected: murals depicting Elvis, Harry Potter, and even scenes from Star Wars intermingling with traditional Buddhist imagery. 

  • The Path of Virtue – The Bridge of “the Cycle of Rebirth”: As you approach the temple, the first thing you will notice is a grand bridge. It’s meant to symbolize the path of virtue and crossing it is equivalent of overcoming worldly desires and distractions, as per Buddhist beliefs. 
  • The Sea of Hands – “the Hell”: The bridge crosses over a pit filled with sculptures of desperate, outstretched hands, symbolising human suffering and hell. This dramatic scene might look eerie, but it delivers a powerful sermon about the crucial importance of moral and ethical actions. 
The Sea of Hands aka the Hell at the white temple in Chiang Rai
Plaster hands reaching from hell.
  • Upon crossing the bridges, you enter the Main Temple Hall – “the Heaven”: In stark contrast to the eeriness outside, the interior of the temple is beautifully serene. Exquisite murals of Buddha, ornate carvings and calming hues dominate the interior. Here, you can stand in silent contemplation, soaking in the tranquillity of the surroundings. 
  • The famous mural wall features various pop-culture identities, no, you are not hallucinating, these depict a complex web of good versus evil, heaven versus hell. It emphasises how our actions in this life will impact our afterlife, a core belief of Buddhism. 
The golden loos at the White Temple
The Gold loos!

Before you leave, do visit the Golden Structure: Contrasting the white temple, the golden structure nearby represents our worldly desires and attachments. It is actually the toilet block!

Where: 1 Phahonyothin Rd, Pa O Don Chai, Mueang Chiang Rai District, Chiang Rai

The Blue Temple, officially known as Wat Rong Suea Ten, is another of the remarkable temples in Chiang Rai. It was designed by Putha Kabkaew, a former student of Chalermchai Kositpipat, and its construction was completed in 2016.  

The Blue Temple in Chiang Rai on a rainy day in wet season

The temples name translates as the house of the dancing tiger in a nod to the tigers who used to roam this part of Chiang Rai.

Primarily blue, the colour representing the Dharma, the building features stunning murals and intricate sculptures.

Blue Temple windows
This beautiful temple with its blue and gold exterior is a fabulous contrast to the white temple

The Blue Temple was secret jewel because it is relatively new and not as well-known as other temples in the region but that is changing quickly. Its vibrant blue colour and exquisite artwork have made it an Instagram favourite of people who visit Chiang Rai.

The temple compound does not follow a narrative or represent a philosophical journey like the White Temple. Its beauty lays in its architectural design and the peace it resonates.

Features of the Blue Temple

The interior of the temple is stunning, with a grand white statue of Buddha poised in the Bhumisparsha Mudra pose. This positioning showcases Buddha’s right hand gesturing towards the earth, symbolising the very moment when enlightenment was achieved.

Blue Temple Chiang Rai
It’s hard to tear yourself away from the beauty of the Blue Temple

From afar, the Blue Temple looks like it is glowing in the dark because of its vibrant colour. This effect is more pronounced in the evening when it creates a breathtaking contrast against the twilight sky.

Take some time to walk around to the back of the temple and see if you can find these little Buddhas.

These cute little fellows sit opposite the temple

Where: 2 Maekok Rd, Tambon Rim Kok, Mueang Chiang Rai District, Chiang Rai

Wat Huay Pla Kang is perhaps most renowned for the colossal statue of Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy. Unsure about who Guanyin is? She’s a bodhisattva associated with compassion.

Here she is positioned atop a ceremonial dragon. At 78 metres, this is one of the largest statues of Guanyin in the world! Intricately carved dragon pillars lead the way up to the statue, adding to the architectural marvel of the site. 

The huge white buddha can be seen from across the Chiang Rai landscape

The temple offers scenic views over Chiang Rai, and at dawn and dusk skies paint a vivid backdrop to the majestic relay of the Goddess.

Once you see a photo of the breath-taking Wat Huay Pla Kang, it will make your must see list. And it should.

After you have finished admiring from the outside, pay the small fee to visit the head of the statue 25 floors above.

Thankfully, you reach the 24th floor by elevator with just a few stairs to the top level. Looking out the windows on the top floor, I found myself surrounded by expansive views of the countryside as the light changed in the late afternoon.

Afternoon view from the top of Wat Huay Pla Kang

The top levels are adorned with finely crafted wooden statues of Buddha, monks, and other divine beings.

inside Wat Huay Pla Kang
This is quickly becoming one of the most iconic temples in the north of Thailand

You won’t regret making time to explore the sprawling complex surrounding the Guanyin statue. It features a large golden Buddha, a dragon boat temple, and countless smaller structures and sculptures that are just as impressive.

Where:  3 Tambon Mae Yao, Mueang Chiang Rai District, Chiang Rai 

In the heart of Chiang Rai sits Wat Phra Kaew, a significant temple steeped in a rich history that dates back to the 15th century. It was here that the Emerald Buddha, Thailand’s most cherished religious artifact, was originally discovered.

The Emerald Buddha in Wat Phra Kaew Chiang Rai

While the Emerald Buddha now resides in Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok, a replica has been thoughtfully placed in the original setting, making Wat Phra Kaew in Chiang Rai a truly authentic historical destination for visitors. 

Where: 19 หมู่ที่ 1 Trairat Rd, Wiang, Mueang Chiang Rai 

Often overlooked, but not to be missed, Wat Jed Yod is right in the heart of Chiang Rai. This temple, whose name translates to ‘Seven Peaks’, is named after the seven chedis found on its premises, each chedi representing one of the seven weeks Buddha spent in meditation after achieving enlightenment. 

Wat Jed Yod Chiang Rai
Wat Jed Yod

Unlike the extravagant designs seen at the Blue and White temples, Wat Jed Yod has a quiet charm with its simplistic Lanna architecture. Here, the main draw is not so much visual stimulation but a chance for serene contemplation. 

Inside the main viharn, you’ll find beautiful murals depicting stories from the Jataka, the collection of tales about Buddha’s previous births. You may see monks praying if you arrive in the morning.

Tip:  Visit at lunch time and pop into Pad Thai Jet Yod across the road for one of the best Pad Thai’s of our trip.

Where: Tambon Wiang, Mueang Chiang Rai (closed Saturday)

Want more temples?

There are dozens more temples in Chiang Rai in both the city centre and surrounding countryside including: 

  • Wat Phra That Doi Tung to the north of Chiang Rai offers panoramic views and is worth a detour if you are heading to the golden triangle or the rescue cave. 
  • Wat Tham Phra (Buddha Cave Temple) is a good choice if you have not seen a cave temple. Following the riverside path, you’ll find a large Buddha statue with views over the Kok River – a pleasant visit if your schedule allows.
  • Wat Phra That Doi Chom Thong on a hilltop overlooking the city, this temple offers breathtaking panoramic views of Chiang Rai. The temple is known for its golden chedi, which houses relics of the Buddha. Visitors can climb the stairs to the top of the chedi and enjoy the stunning vistas.

Timing your visit carefully is the best way to enjoy your time at these temples. Many visitors come from Chaing Mai on day trips meaning the crowd crush begins at about 11am. Try to visit in the early morning or later in the afternoon to avoid long lines. 

Be sure to dress appropriately, cover knees and shoulders, while the rules are not as strictly enforced as they are in some places this is still very important.

Resist any showy displays of affection or silly photo poses. Remember these are places of worship.

Temple opening hours

Temple Hours*
Wat Rong Khun (The White Temple) 8am-5pm
Wat Rong Suea Ten (The Blue Temple) 7am-8pm
Wat Huay Pla Kang (Goddess of Mercy) 7am -9pm
Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) 7am-6pm 
Wat Jed Yod 9.30am-6.30pm
*Please note that these hours are subject to change. 

If you are wondering how much time should you allow for visiting the most famous temples in Chiang Rai we found when planning our time in the city it was best to slot these important sites in first and then add extra things to do in the city around them. 

Tip: The gates of these temples generally open at 6:30 am. This can be a great time to photograph them.

Choosing both the best time of day and figuring out how long to allow for each visit is personal however as a rule of thumb, we suggest: 

  • Wat Rong Khun (White Temple)  – Allocate at least 1 hours to appreciate the intricate details of this ethereal temple.  The early morning light sprinkles a silver glow to the already dazzling structure, making it a perfect backdrop for your photographs.  If you can’t make sunrise try to arrive before 10am or after 3pm to avoid the biggest queues.
  • Wat Rong Suea Ten (Blue Temple) – With its stunning hues and vibrant atmosphere, we recommend  approximately 30 minutes for the Blue Temple visit.  This temple looks best in the early morning or the late afternoon and early evening when the colour glows.
  • Wat Huay Pla Kang (Goddess of Mercy) – best seen in the afternoon when the sun casts lovely golden shadows.  Allow at least an hour for your visit. The light was stunning and I found it hard to leave.
  • Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) – Visit when the museum is open between 9am and 5pm so you can view the relics discovered here. Allow 30-60 minutes depending on whether you are interested in the museum.
  • Wat Jed Yod – Opening a little later than the previous temples we visited this one in the middle of the day while exploring the town centre and market. You won’t need more than 20-30 minutes here.

As the sun sets in Chiang Rai, an entirely different, enchanting scene illuminates the city. The beautifully lit temples create a one-of-a-kind spectacle each night. Viewing the temples of Chiang Rai after dark is an absolute must during your visit. 

The majestically lit White and Blue temples glow under the moonlight creates an experience that is much different from their daytime visit but equally captivating. 

Wat Huay Pla Kang aka the Big Buddha Temple, it is even grander when lit up at night, with its nine-tiered pagoda glowing against the dark sky

Indeed, the magic of Chiang Rai isn’t restricted solely to its sacred temples. There are several nearby places you can explore to deepen your understanding of this captivating region.

The Remarkable Black House: Baan Dam

The Black House: Some visitors think the Black house is a temple, but it is in fact an art museum! Known in Thai as Baan Dam, the Black House is a series of intriguing, and slightly eerie constructions scattered across a lush garden, displaying a vast collection of animal relics and eccentric artwork. 

Baan DamBlack House Art Museum

The Black House art museum stands in stark contrast to Chiang Rai’s ornate temples. It’s the brainchild of renowned Thai artist Thawan Duchanee, whose work often delves into darker, more mystical themes.

A visit here offers a refreshing break from the traditional sightseeing trail, offering a window into the unique mind of one of Thailand’s most celebrated artists.

The centrepiece of Baan Dam is a large wooden structure that resembles a temple, but the interior tells a different story, filled as it is with fascinating and sometimes disturbing objects such as snake skins, buffalo horns, and crocodile skins.

Exploring the vast array of structures across the grounds, you’ll discover a collection that spans decades and cultures, including antiques and sculptures from Thailand, Indonesia, Africa, and beyond.

Tip: Visit after the Blue Temple as it is in the same direction and a good site to see in the middle of the day as it is quite well shaded. 

Singha Park

This expansive leisure park offers a mix of agriculture, adventure sports, and picture-perfect sights. It’s home to vast tea plantations and provides opportunities for zip lining, cycling, and even feeding cute, cuddly animals. 

Do you recognise this guy?

Be sure to visit the iconic Singha statue, an imposing figure that dominates the park’s landscape. The symbol of Singha Corporation, this statue is a well-known landmark and provides a perfect backdrop for your memorable photos. 

Apart from enjoying the scenic views, you may also take part in tea tasting sessions where you’ll learn about the finesse involved in appreciating the subtle nuances of tea, its flavours, and brewing methods. 

Chiang Rai The Night Bazaar

The perfect place to soak up the local culture with trinkets, textiles, and tantalising street food. Chiang Rai’s Night Bazaar is special because of its vibrant array of authentic Thai crafts, live music performances, and a globally renowned food court offering exotic local delicacies.

The Golden Triangle

You will need an extra night in Chiang Rai or perhaps a stay a little further north to see the Golden Triangle. A region where the borders of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet, once notorious for its opium production.

The spot where the Ruak River and the Mekong River meet at the border of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar.

Now, it’s a spot of historic intrigue offering remarkable vistas along the Mekong River. Must sees include the Hall of Opium complex and on the way the Thamluang Khunnam Nangnon National Park where the incredible cave rescue took place in 2018.

By adding a few of these experiences, you will save yourself from temple fatigue and learn more about the melting pot of cultures, traditions, and history that Chiang Rai represents. 

With so many captivating temples and many other holy sites and attractions to explore, it’s important to plan your visit carefully to make the most out of your 48-hour trip to Chiang Rai.

For a fruitful temple tour, consider starting with the enchanting Wat Rong Khun as you make your way into town. Next up see the blue-hued Wat Rong Suea Ten.

If you are travelling from Chiang Mai by land, these will take up most of your day. Head to the night market and see the clock tower light up in the evening. 

On your second day, head over to Wat Huay Pla Kang in the morning for the best light, followed by the historic Wat Phra Kaew. In the afternoon, visit Baan Dam to add a twist to your temple tour. 

Remember, the magic of Chiang Rai’s temples isn’t only in their beauty or historical significance, but also in their spiritual significance. As you explore these temples, take a moment to connect with the sacredness these holy sites still represent for many Thais.

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About the author: Paula Morgan first visited Thailand in 1999 and has been returning regularly ever since. This year she has spent 3 months discovering what’s new. She loves exploring its less visited spots, not just the iconic landmarks and historic temples, but the hidden alleys, family run cafes and food stalls and the small communities in the islands of the south and the lush forests and mountains of Thailand’s north.