Sprawled untidily over the south bank of the Kok River, CHIANG RAI continues to live in the shadow of the local capital, Chiang Mai, but in the last few years has acquired several genuine sights of interest, notably Rai Mae Fah Luang, a beautiful storehouse of Lanna art. There’s now also a good choice of guesthouses and upmarket riverside hotels to lay your head down in, and from here you can set up a wide range of trekking, day-trips and other outdoor activities in the surrounding countryside. The town quietly gets on with its own business during the day, when most of its package tourists are out on manoeuvres, but at night the neon lights flash on and souvenir stalls and ersatz Western restaurants are thronged. Meanwhile, Chiang Rai keeps up its reputation as a dirty-weekend destination for Thais, a game given away by just a few motels with carports – where you drive into the garage and pay for a discreet screen to be pulled across behind you.
Chiang Rai is most famous for the things it had and lost. It was founded in 1263 by King Mengrai of Ngon Yang who, having recaptured a prize elephant he’d been chasing around the foot of Doi Tong, took this as an auspicious omen for a new city. Tradition has it that Chiang Rai then prevailed as the capital of the north for thirty years, but historians now believe Mengrai moved his court directly from Ngon Yang to the Chiang Mai area in the 1290s. Thailand’s two holiest images, the Emerald Buddha (now in Bangkok) and the Phra Singh Buddha (now either in Bangkok’s National Museum, Chiang Mai or Nakhon Si Thammarat, depending on which story you believe), also once resided here before moving on – at least replicas of these can be seen at Wat Phra Kaeo and Wat Phra Singh.