If you’ve travelled to other tourist destinations in Asia, all the markets start to feel the same – fake handbags, fake t-shirts, and other things that locals think that foreigners want at prices 3x what you should be paying. The more commercialized the place, the more it feels like the town is set up just to cater to tourists. The Saturday night walking street and Sunday Night Market (different location) are filled with locals who just want to relax on the weekends. Saturday market is the biggest market, and I think it’s worth trying to time your Chiang Rai visit for Saturday night to catch the market.The markets were PACKED, and it was 90%+ locals rather than tourists. There is a main area of food, live music, and dancing, and locals carried around baskets with them where they filled their baskets with yummies from the stands, and went to the nearby 711 for cold beer and water. A perfect way to spend Saturday night! Food seemed clean, our guide said there is currently pretty strict sanitary standards, and we ended up not getting sick from the food. Plus, the folks were so friendly, tried to help you out and did not try to gouge the tourists. Prices start out low, and locals may ask to knock a few baht off the price (e.g. 39 baht item can be sold for 35 baht), but just a little. All in all a very fun way to spend the evening. BTW, there is a proper restaurant along the Saturday Night walking street called Phulae which was decent, air conditioned, and clean. Great Tom Yum soup there.
The next morning, we hired Charlee (Cha Lee) to be our guide and he took us to the White House, Black House, Golden Triangle. The White House was pretty and worth a stop. No one really talks about the Black House, and I’m not sure why. This place was very different from anywhere else I’ve ever seen. This guy has built 40+ different structures on his property, each with its own theme, and this property is wacky! You can spend a lot of time wandering around looking at everything. My one disappointment is that Charlee did not have much to say about the exhibits, as he said no one really knows the meaning and we are left to guess our own interpretation.
The golden triangle area was nice to see, but it’s really an overlook area, and not anywhere to walk around. We went to the small opium museum, which suited our purpose to learn a bit about the opium trade and use. We decided not to take a boat to the casino in Burma or Laos, which is something that some folks decide to do. We went to see an old temple, and had fun with a monk there who was trying to teach us how to make these brass bells “hum”. Came back to town to eat at the Sunday market, which was almost as lively as the Saturday market with all sorts of food, ranging from pad thai to gyros. The main food area is near the center by the temple. Listen for the music, b/c the food seems to be centered around the live music and dancing at each of these markets. If you have kids, the Sunday market also had a bouncy house section by the music for the kids.
The next day, we were scheduled to take a long tail boat down the river to the Ruammit elephant camp. The boat ride was nothing special, and in hind sight, probably not worth the 700 baht, if you have been on a similar SE Asia longtail boat ride before. We did see some women use these huge fishing nets that I hadn’t seen before, but that was the only neat thing we saw along the river. When we arrived to the elephant camp, we could pay 20 baht for some bananas to feed the elephants. I told Charlee that I wasn’t interested in riding the elephant if you had to ride in a seat, so he asked them if I could ride bareback w/o the seat, and they said yes. I think this is indicative of the type of place that Chiang Rai is- they are so nice, laid back, and not yet jaded and set in the ways of how tourists should be treated. This was the highlight of my trip - thanks Charlee!
From the elephant camp, we went to visit the hill tribes and tea plantations. The hilltribes have set up these camps for the tourists – they really do live there, but they choose to live there b/c that is where the tourists go. I suspect that if you want to see real hilltribes, then you have to trek into the mountains. They currently have at least two of these tourist camp areas set up, one close to the golden triangle, and one close to the tea plantations. We paid the 300 baht admission to go into these camps, and took pictures with the tribe members. They were all very friendly and nice about the picture taking, so I made sure to purchase little trinkets there. The trinkets are very cheap and very reasonably priced, bought a necklace for 100 baht, and two bracelets for 100 baht as well.
From the nice advice from trip advisor regulars, I did buy the coffee from Pangkorn coffee shop and Poo Salong. The Mae Salong store was closed, Charlee said it closes for a few months in the summer b/c it is low season. Husband loved both coffees.
Tours: If you are single, there are tours in town that take you to white house, black house, golden triangle, and Karen Hilltribe for 1000 baht. That sounds reasonable, and cheaper than the private tour guides + transport if you are by yourself.
Food: Based on the TA recommendations, we tried to stop at Aekocha for lunch one day, but it was closed for lunch for a special event that day. Instead, we ate at the Pho type noodle shop next door to Aekocha, and it was very good and cheap! Our hotel staff and Charlee recommended Lu Lam for dinner, and Charlee said in his opinion it was better than Aekocha. Lu Lam was terrible. The market street food was pretty good, but I think the local flavor may be more fishy than the thai food that I’m used to.
Taxis: Taxis are not plentiful, and it seems like you have to call a cab if you want a cab. I only saw the tuk tuks in the market area, charging around 20 baht/person from the Sunday market to the Saturday market area (20 minute walk).
All in all, a great trip! Thanks for all the help in my planning!