Enjoy Thailand’s northern hill country: Chiang Rai with kids
The rolling green hills remind you that Thailand’s bigger cities, like Chiang Mai and Bangkok, are a world away. If hill country such as Oregon’s Coast Range, Virginia’s Blue Ridge, or even Scotland’s Pentland Hills are in your memory, they might come to mind. Of course, none of those hills have a white, 90-meter Buddha statue on the summit. That statue is a good reminder that while you are still in Thailand, Chiang Rai is a family destination all its own, and here are just a few things to do in Chiang Rai with kids… and a few we skipped.
Our family spent a week in Chiang Rai during December 2022. We made our visit a combination of sightseeing, as well as lots of enjoyment and relaxation at our hotel, The Riverie. This list is our top priorities from our own choices on what to see and what to pass on for this trip.
Is Chiang Rai child friendly?
In our experience, Thailand’s family focused culture shows up in many people being welcoming, patient, and joyous with children. We felt that Aster and Connor were always treated with respect and patience. Chiang Rai has a workaday feel to it—this is a working city, full of down-to-earth folks who focus on the most important things in life, such as family.
Is Chiang Rai accessible?
Thailand is working on being more accessible to people who have disabilities, mobility conditions, or other conditions that may affect how well they can get around Thailand. However, even Thailand’s tourism board acknowledges that, “Thailand is not an easy place to visit for people with reduced mobility or other physical challenges.”
Jodie is an above-the-knee amputee who uses a prosthetic left leg. There are circumstances that she finds workable that others might find challenging, and vice versa. If you have a disability or other mobility condition, Thailand can be tricky.
On the plus side, in 2007, Thailand passed the Persons with Disabilities Empowerment Act of 2007. This law is meant to start establishing more rights and social expectations for people with disabilities to access broader society. While new construction is often designed and built with more accessibility in mind, older structures may be challenging to navigate.
If you have breathing conditions, air quality is another consideration. Northern Thailand’s “burning season,” when farmers burn off stubble in rice fields, typically lasts between December and April. Air quality can get pretty bad.
Getting from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai
Chiang Rai is located inside of Chiang Rai province, and it’s the northernmost part of Thailand. When you are in Chiang Rai, you are closer to Myanmar, China, and Laos than you are to Bangkok. However, Chiang Rai is no remote outpost:
Regular flights depart from and arrive at Mae Fah Luang – Chiang Rai International Airport (airport code CEI). When we were leaving Chiang Rai for Cambodia, we flew out of CEI. The airport isn’t huge and is pretty easy to navigate.
One thing to keep in mind (as of December 2022): International flights leave from Gate 6. You’ll pass through immigration and get your exit stamp before coming to this area. However, there are no food or drink facilities here—not even a water fountain. There are toilets and sinks (so if you carry a water filter you could get drinking water in a pinch). Hopefully, this part of the airport will get more food and beverage services—it’s always handy to have easy food and drink access when flying with kids!
No direct trains connect Chiang Rai to other parts of Thailand. About the best you could do would be to take a train to Chiang Mai, and then snag a bus to Chiang Rai from there.
We rode a bus from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai. The journey took about three and a half hours, over a gentle, well-maintained road. The green, lush hills actually reminded us of driving through parts of Oregon. Along the way, there are lots of villages and temples to see as you pass by.
Regular buses connect Chiang Rai to other Thai destinations, such as a Chiang Mai and Bangkok. The bus station is easy to get to, has lots of little shops and food stalls, and is a great place to people watch while you wait for your bus. You can get tickets from in-person ticket counters at the station, or book e-tickets in advance via 12Go.
Things to do with kids in Chiang Rai, Thailand
No matter how you get to Chiang Rai, you will find a workaday city that has intriguing places to experience, plus lots of ways to relax as a family. Here are places we visited with our two children in Chiang Rai.
However, you don’t have to see everything. There are also a few places we skipped. We’ll tell you why we passed them by, but will also note why you might consider them for your own family trip to Chiang Rai.
1. Wat Rong Khun (White Temple)
Just like you probably don’t need or want to visit every church in Europe or the USA, not every temple in Thailand merits hustling your family along. Some temples are everyday places. Unless you live in the area or are really, really into Buddhist architecture, you can give them a miss.
The eclectic, riveting, quirky, grandiose, pop-culture-infused, multi-faceted Wat Rong Khun, commonly known as the White Temple, is the exact opposite.
There is nothing like it anywhere else. This massive, multi-building complex offers multiple buildings, sprawling grounds—and most of all, it isn’t even finished yet. The full plans for Wat Rong Khun predict that all construction won’t be complete until around 2070.
The temple itself is just the beginning
Depictions of Buddhist mythology and characters—including a hell that could be scary to some kids—mark your approach to the temple itself. Inside, floor-to-ceiling wraparound murals use recognizable modern cultural figures to depict a process of transformation from suffering to enlightenment.
While the main White Temple building is the star of the show, other structures form a mighty supporting cast. Peaceful waterfalls tinkle down a wall of rock—and you can ask the kids to look for wee statues along the span. Shaded pergolas and benches give everyone a rest. Just outside the entrance, you can also find what is possibly the world’s the most striking “no smoking” sign. Have the kids keep an eye out for bells that they are welcome to ring.
Convenience stores, various shops, and small eateries surround the White Temple complex. Inside the grounds, a boon for the traveling parent awaits. When someone needs the toilet, simply look for the massive gold building, and you’ll know exactly where the restrooms are.
Keep in mind
You could do the essentials at the White Temple in about an hour, but keep some additional time open, since the complex can be so engrossing.
The White Temple is technically just a little outside Chiang Rai, and there’s an admission fee. Local bus service may be available, but note the schedule. Grab can be reliable to get you out there, but you may need to use a metered taxi from the taxi stand outside the temple to get back.
2. Chiang Rai Night Bazaar
Dancing. Food stalls. Some pretty cool temples. And did we mention the food?
Easily reached from pretty much any accommodation in Chiang Rai, the Night Bazaar puts you in the heart of the town’s culture. Some night markets are more for tourists. While Chiang Rai is happy to welcome out-of-town visitors, you can also tell that this is a destination, a hot spot, for local people.
You’ll see that reflected in the food as well. Sure, you can find your things on sticks, noodle dishes like pad thai, and other recognizable treats. But Northern Thailand has its own distinct culinary culture, and you can try to new and different dishes here.
The Night Bazaar also brings together singing and dancing, and don’t be surprised if a smiling person or two is happy to help you join the circle.
Keep in mind
Depending on age and bedtime, you may want to go earlier in the evening. The Night Bazaar will get more crowded as the time gets on, but is typically going to be a popular place on any given night. Easily reached via a Grab ride. Bring plenty of pocket cash for vendors. The hot sweet potatoes are a delight. If you want an easy treat win, look out for the popcorn stall and pick up a bag of chocolate popcorn.
3. Wat Rong Seur Ten (Blue Temple)
While the White Temple is iconically eclectic, solidly weird, and an amazing expression of pure imagination in architecture, the Blue Temple is serene, visually striking, and a place both for touring and taking a calming time for the whole family. The White Temple embraces its inherent quality as a spectacle. The Blue Temple reminds us that in a bustling world, it’s good to have a space that is made for you to regain some calm serenity—always useful when raising kids.
We visited the White Temple and the Blue Temple in one day, and opted to visit the Blue Temple second so we could already be back in the city. Construction continues in different parts of the temple. However, the core, one-room structure is open to visitors.
Inside, look up on the walls for panels that depict key moments from the life of the Buddha. The deep blue of the temple evokes calm, reflection, wisdom, and a sense that things just might be all right after all. (And no, fellow Doctor Who geeks, the temple’s blue is not TARDIS blue. But it is just adjacent enough to make you smile.)
Keep in mind
Easily reached from throughout Chiang Rai via Grab. Entry is free. Expect to take around half an hour to explore the compact grounds, but spend as much time as you can inside the calming temple space. Besides the relaxing blue and the peaceful space for calm and reflection, we found it slightly cool inside—a wonderful respite from Thailand’s heat.
4. Parent break: SIAM LANNA Massage and Wellness
Thailand’s renown for relaxing, restorative massage is well-earned—and any parent appreciates an opportunity to get a good rub-down. In downtown Chiang Rai, Siam Lanna is staffed by professionals who know their art well. Choose from different types of massage, and add on other services too, such as hot stone.
The relaxing space evokes calm. Even though you are in the city center, you can quickly feel like you’re a world away.
And by the way, while one parent opts for a massage, the other can take the kids across the street, to our next suggestion…
5. Cat ‘n’ A Cup Cat Cafe
The large windows at this black-fronted corner cafe tell you exactly what you’re in for: An adoration of cats. Besides a menu of light meals, coffee and other beverages, and an array of sweet treats, the main attraction lies in the room beyond the front counter.
Leaving your shoes in cubbies by the register, go through the sliding glass door to a wonderland of cats. Stepped boards go from the floor to the ceiling, and you’ll see kitties playing or dozing on just about every step. In the afternoon, sunshine streams in through the window, and a tall shelf in the back corner will probably be covered in napping cats.
The cats will come to you as they do (or don’t—they’re cats, after all). At the least, you can hang out, read, or do some work in the presence of adorable kitties. But don’t be surprised if a few wake up and want to play. We spent a happy couple of hours here, enjoying the cats, checking out each one, and talking about their features. It’s a delightful, light-hearted place that you and your kids will talk about the rest of the day.
Keep in mind
There will be a few ground rules about the cats, such as not grabbing them, or not feeding them human food (cat treats are available for purchase).
Other things you could do that our family skipped (and why)
These few things, of course, are only a few examples of what you can do in Chiang Rai with kids. There are lots of other activities in the city and the surrounding hill country that, personally, we skipped, but you might consider:
Huge Buddha on a hill: Wat Huay Pla Kang
If you have a view of the surrounding countryside, as your gaze sweeps over the hills, you’ll likely notice a giant Buddha on one hilltop. Located a little outside of Chiang Rai, the 90-meter tall statue at Wat Huay Pla Kang is also open to visitors. You can go up the inside structure to a viewing platform at the top.
We considered going, but other than the novelty, we preferred marveling at the statue from our room’s balcony.
Visit hill tribes
Many tribes live in the hills surrounding Chiang Rai. Visiting them can be a fascinating perspective on different ways of life in this part of Thailand.
Tours vary in cost and duration, but driving out into the hill country wasn’t a priority for us, especially given a tendency for a couple of family members to have queasy tummies. We were focusing on activities mostly in Chiang Rai—and at our very cool hotel, which we’ll get to soon.
This was a tough one. We love learning about and getting up close with wildlife. Thailand’s record on animal treatment is mixed, and there are some operations around elephants that we’d been advised to avoid. There are other places that are, apparently, doing a very humane job with elephants. While there are some cool elephant places and programs available, we decided that many of them were outside of our budget and didn’t fit our schedule.
What to do and where to stay in Chiang Rai with kids
For getting around Chiang Rai, we used the Grab app extensively. The only time we used a regular, metered taxi was when we returned to Chiang Rai from the White Temple.
Our Chiang Rai hotel of choice: The Riverie
Chiang Rai was our last stop in Thailand, and we decided to ourselves to a cush stay at The Riverie by Katakana. Besides incredible views of the surrounding countryside (including that big Buddha), The Riverie has a delightful lazy river, water slides, big pool, and children’s splash area—complete with a huge water bucket that dumps about every 5 minutes.
Your stay at The Riverie also includes an extensive breakfast buffet of Western, Thai, and Chinese dishes. On-site restaurants offer a range of dining, from dim sum packages to a rooftop steakhouse. We found The Blossom Restaurant to be an affordable choice for when we wanted to stay in—and the kids loved their ham and pineapple pizza.
Book a stay at The Riverie, Chiang Rai, Thailand
Things to do in Chiang Rai with kids? Aplenty.
Thailand’s northernmost city is more laid-back than Chiang Mai and Bangkok, and it’s definitely more of a workaday city. It’s also the home of iconic architecture, beautiful countryside, and a vibrant city center and night market. We found Chiang Rai to be welcoming to kids and families—and no matter what, we’ll always have the cafe cats.