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A Visitor's Guide to the Best Temples in Chiang Rai, Thailand

Step into a breathtaking wonderland of Buddhist temples full of artistic imagination! Pairs of intimidating dvarapalas (gate guardians) with weapons, majestic twisting dragons, and vibrant nagas (serpents) await your arrival. Marvel at beautiful hand-painted ceilings, captivating altars with religious statues, and jaw-dropping craftsmanship.

Some of the best shrines in Thailand are found in the northern region of Chiang Rai. The three most popular temples include Wat Rong Kuhn, Wat Rong Suea Ten, and Wat Huay Pla Kang. Experience these fairytale worlds by planning a DIY day trip, organizing a mini getaway, or booking a group/private tour from nearby Chiang Mai.

Brad and I spent two nights in the city of Chiang Rai to visit the aforementioned temples at a leisurely pace before embarking on our Mekong River cruise in Laos. Below I cover logistics, helpful tips, and cultural context to make your visit to Chiang Rai unforgettable!


A group/private tour to Chiang Rai is probably the best choice if you're short on time. There are plenty of operators throughout Chiang Mai offering tours via shuttles, coach buses, or private cars. If online booking is more your style, check out GetYourGuide for reasonable options. Brad and I enjoyed our adventure tours in Bangkok and Chiang Mai with the company.

Thailand's public transportation system is a breeze to navigate. Easy-to-follow bus schedules with affordable tickets take the stress out of planning your trip. We purchased bus tickets with Greenbus Thailand online via 12Go from the Chiang Mai Bus Terminal 3 to the Chiang Rai Bus Terminal 1. The commute took approximately 3.5 hours. Make reservations in advance to guarantee a seat, especially on weekends and around public holidays.

Once you arrive in Chiang Rai, you'll be able to take a Grab (similar to Uber/Lyft), taxi, or tuk tuk to get around the city. Carry plenty of local currency (Thai baht) to pay taxi and tuk tuk drivers. Most taxis use meters to determine fares while tuk tuks vary in price. A bit of friendly negotiating is common between passengers and tuk tuk drivers. Always agree on a final cost before starting your ride.

Where to Stay

Base yourself in downtown Chiang Rai to be near restaurants, cafés, and the nightly street market (6:00-11:00 PM). Fuel up with some tasty khao soi (a coconut curry soup with pickled mustard greens, shallots, chicken, lime, and fried noodles) and a creamy Thai iced tea. Chiang Rai's bazaar isn't as impressive as Chiang Mai's bazaars, but you'll still be able to find a quality souvenir!

Brad and I stayed at the quiet Tongsiam Hostel. I highly recommend the place for its friendly staff, comfortable bed, clean bathroom, and laundry facilities. There is also an onsite café serving coffee, tea, juice, and smoothies.

Visitor Etiquette

Buddhist temples require visitors to dress conservatively. Opt for items that cover your shoulders, knees, and chest. Loose and breathable fabrics are crucial to keep you comfortable in the humidity. Remove your hat and shoes before entering the main shrines.

Step over raised thresholds to avoid bad luck. Share the spiritual space with fellow worshippers in silent contemplation. Show respect by never pointing your toes towards any statues of Buddha. Please be considerate while taking pictures and don't use a flash. Refrain from public displays of affection such as kissing, hugging, and handholding.

Wat Rong Khun (White Temple)

Chiang Rai's crown jewel is undoubtably Wat Rong Khun! Widely known as the White Temple, this masterpiece was created and funded by local Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat. The ongoing project will eventually have nine buildings including a meditation hall, art gallery, ubosot (main prayer hall with Buddhist relics), and monastery.

Thousands of tiny silver mirrors set within pristine white plaster sparkle in the sunlight. The mesmerizing effect was enhanced during our visit by the pink and purple hues of the early morning sky. Brad and I arrived 30 minutes before opening hours (every day, 8:00 AM-5:00 PM) to soak up the picturesque scenery and capture unobstructed photos. Tickets cost 100 THB ($2.75 USD) per person.

Wat Rong Khun has a combination of modern and Lanna architectural styles. The three-tiered roofs, ornate finials with protective animals, and metallic spires are familiar temple accents in Thailand. However, the juxtaposition of the tranquil koi pond and elaborate bridge against the harrowing pit of reaching arms and skulls adds a contemporary twist.

The pleading hands symbolize unrestrained desire for earthly pleasures. To access the ubosot, visitors must cross the heavenly gateway flanked at the front by the fearsome sculptures of Death and Rahu. Surrounding the main prayer hall are several images of Buddha meditating and feminine figures holding lotus flowers.

The color white represents the purity of Buddha and a healthy mind. Notice pairs of mythical creatures, including snarling nagas and trumpeting elephants, bordering the staircases. Elaborate towers with stacked roofs and walkways with balustrades are covered in whimsical details, such as faces with protruding fangs.

Enter the ubosot to see golden murals with pop culture references. Devastating flames, chaotic demons, and movie characters allude to the devastation mankind has imposed on the planet. The drastic shift between the heavenly exterior and hellish interior forces visitors to reflect on their karma. Photography is prohibited inside.

Don't miss the Cave of Art with its winding path full of concrete creatures, symbolism, and spiritual references. Neon mood lighting and ethereal music help set the tone of this enchanting exhibit. Tickets are 50 THB ($1.40 USD) per person. The golden Monument of Ganesha is a striking beacon honoring the elephant-headed Hindu god of wisdom, success, and new beginnings. The main level houses some of Chalermchai Kositpipat's artwork.

TIP: I suggest visiting Wat Rong Khun as early as possible, especially if you want to beat the crowds. Tour groups begin to overwhelm the complex around 9:00 AM. There are multiple bathrooms, seating areas, and dining options.

Wat Rong Suea Ten (Blue Temple)

You won't feel blue after visiting Wat Rong Suea Ten! Commonly known as the Blue Temple, this complex was designed by local artist Phuttha Kabkaew. The architecture and psychedelic imagery pay homage to his teacher Chalermchai Kositpipat. Opening hours are every day, 7:00 AM-8:00 PM, and entry is free.

Two bizarre towers with protruding megalithic tusks and coiled half-human half-serpent nagas holding lotus flowers guard the main entrance. There are various sculptures depicting skulls, pious monks, and anthropomorphic creatures surrounding the main prayer hall. The color blue in Buddhism represents wisdom and ascension. You'll notice shades of indigo, cobalt, turquoise, and lapis lazuli.

Perhaps the most traditional aspect of Wat Rong Suea Ten is the ubosot. Elements of the Lanna architectural style, such as the three-tiered roof and golden finials with vigilant nagas, are present amidst the vivid modernity. At the rear of the temple, a standing white statue of Buddha in a mudra (ritual gesture) position welcomes devotees.

The main prayer hall's exterior is covered in floral motifs, geometric patterns, and yakshis (female nature spirits). Glowing candles and lanterns symbolize the pursuit of enlightenment and illumination of wisdom. Admire the dazzling architecture with a refreshing treat! Nearby vendors offer scoops of blue coconut ice cream with purple flowers, peanuts, and samples of butterfly pea iced tea.

Journey to an eccentric blue cosmos with intricate hand-painted swirls and colorful figures inside of the ubosot. A shimmering white porcelain statue of Buddha awaits your gaze. The kaleidoscopic ceiling and walls have hypnotic fractal patterns which evoke the Buddhist heavenly realms. The mural above the main doorway features an enormous beast ready to swallow souls with bad karma into the levels of Buddhist hell.

TIP: I recommend visiting Wat Rong Suea Ten during golden hour. You'll be able to see all of the exquisite details with adequate light, but also witness the temple's fantastic transformation at night before swarms of mosquitos arrive!

Wat Huay Pla Kang (Goddess of Mercy Temple)

Standing before the 90 m (295 ft) high white statue of Guanyin, the Buddhist goddess of compassion, is a remarkable feeling! She elegantly sits upon a lotus flower pedestal with her right hand in the mudra of patience. Guanyin holds a water vase, representing the nectar of life and good fortune, in her left hand. Worshippers find comfort in her friendly eyes and smiling red lips.

Intertwining Chinese dragons with watchful red, blue, and green eyes flank the grand staircase leading to the main shrine of Wat Huay Pla Kang, also known as the Goddess of Mercy Temple. The curvaceous bodies, clawed feet, and wispy beards of these mythical creatures add a touch of realism. Maybe dragons exist after all!

The temple grounds are free to roam every day between 7:00 AM-9:00 PM. I highly recommend purchasing a ticket for 40 THB ($1 USD) per person to ride the elevator up into Guanyin's head. You can look out through her eyes to see panoramic views of the Chiang Rai countryside! Two levels have decorations of white stucco featuring animals and Buddhist figures in a forest environment.

Wat Huay Pla Kang was designed by Phra Ajarn Pho Chok, a Buddhist monk. He used a combination of Thai and Chinese architectural styles with ancient and contemporary elements. The white ubosot has a three-tiered roof, open hall with depictions of Buddhist themes, and finials with slithering nagas characteristic of the Lanna architectural style. The nine-tiered pyramidal pagoda has colorful Chinese dragons and numerous sandalwood statues.

TIP: Wat Huay Pla Kang isn't as busy as the other two temples, so you can have a pleasant experience anytime. There is a snack stand with restrooms at the base of the Guanyin statue.

Final Thoughts

Brad and I spent about three hours at each temple to take in all of the diverse splendor. If photography isn't a priority, budget for two hours or less. The best part of organizing your own itinerary versus booking a group tour is the amount of time you can choose to enjoy at the sights. Plus, a tuk tuk is a fun way to travel around Chiang Rai!

I suggest visiting Wat Rong Kuhn (White Temple) in the morning, Wat Huay Pla Kang (Goddess of Mercy Temple) in the afternoon, and Wat Rong Suea Ten (Blue Temple) in the evening if you want to squeeze everything into a single day. Whatever pace you decide, these one-of-a-kind creations are guaranteed to spark a love for Thai architecture and culture!