There are two basic reasons people come to Chiang Rai: opium and visa runs. It sounds like an interesting place, but visa runs to Burma are usually just duty-free shopping trips, and the Thai government cracked down on opium decades ago, so all that’s left now is a couple of museums and some touristy hill tribes. As Thailand’s northernmost city, Chiang Rai has a quiet and provincial vibe that doesn’t really buzz, even at the height of tourist season.
But there are a few things to do in Chiang Rai aside from visiting the infamous White Temple and Black House, and eating at the rather depressing night market. We went hunting for some “quirky” activities, and found two, yes, two! whole things to do that are slightly off the beaten track.
1. Ride an ostrich
Although slightly questionable in terms of animal welfare, it’s possible to ride the majestic ostrich at Wana Farm, a small and rather odd Old West-themed farm about 13km south of Chiang Rai. This was Mook’s second time riding an ostrich (the first was in Nha Trang, Vietnam in 2013), but was his first time riding bareback. For 150 baht he got to ride the thing for a good three or four minutes, during which the ostrich seemed to know what it was doing and just walked around the pen in a circle.
Wana Farm has loads of ostriches that they probably breed for meat, and when we visited they even had baby ostriches (!!). There’s also other typical barnyard animals like chickens, sheep, and a couple of horses and donkeys, who sit bored in the sun outside of a barn full of neglected carnival games. Maybe we caught them on an unusually quiet day, but the whole thing felt slightly dilapidated. Aside from a handful of Thai tourists, we had the place to ourselves and happily fed the animals bundles of 20 baht grass while listing to the blasting country music.
2. Old Chiang Rai airport
For some real, authentic dilapidation, the old airport is the place to head in Chiang Rai. Constructed some time during World War II and closed some time in the 1990s, the place is still in pretty good condition and features a 2000-metre runway, control tower, and other facilities.
The runway area has become a park (similar to Tempelhof in Berlin), and is a great place to check out local events that the tourists probably miss. When we visited at the end of January it was being used for the massive Pho Khun Mengrai Maharat Festiva, and the locals were out in force with loads of street food, booze, bad Thai pop music, and thumping car sound systems.
It’s possible to access the control tower through an open door, and the inside of the buildings are remarkably absent of major graffiti or other vandalism. It’s not the most amazing urban explore in the world, but it’s a fun little jaunt that doesn’t take long, and the top of the tower is a nice place to watch the sun set. But watch out for the nosy neighbours who seem to keep one eye on the building!
Bonus urbex tip: Near Chiang Rai beach (another fun place to meet locals) is a gated neighbourhood called Chiang Rai Country Home and Resort, full of big cottages that look like something out of the Deep South. Some of these are very abandoned and ripe to be explored, but we skipped it because I was wearing sandals and we were afraid of snakes!!
The coolest restaurant in Chiang Rai
Fuel up for your quirky adventures at Chiang Rai’s quirkiest restaurant, Pa Nuan. This spacious little Vietnamese restaurant is hidden away in a shack on Sanpannard Alley, and the colourful, breezy interior is decorated with paper flags and antiques, with cool lighting under the wooden tables. They specialise in nam ngiew, a spicy soup with blood jelly, but everything on their menu is irresistible, authentic, and served up fast. They’re only open from 9am to 5pm and absolutely rammed at lunch, but don’t miss it!