Once one of the major cities of the Lanna kingdom, it was originally called Wiang Hiran Nakhon Ngoen Yang and served as the capital before King Mengrai established Chiang Rai in 1262. The town was captured by the Burmese in the 16th century and sacked by King Rama I in 1803. Left a ghost town for a hundred years, it was repopulated around 1900, but still hasn't really staggered to its feet. Traces of old double city walls and many other antiquities still remain in and outside the district town.
Chiang Saen is connected by local bus to Chiang Rai (2 - 2.5 hrs, nominally 3-4 per hour but tend to depart when reasonably full, 37 baht). There are a few 3-4 /day long distance buses which can do the trip in 1.5 hrs but times are more convenient for long distance journeys such as going to or from Chiang Mai or Bangkok than for commuting to Chang Rai. Blue songthaews also travel from Mae Sai via the Golden Triangle to Chiang Saen in about 1 hour (50 baht) . The timetable for this service is chalked up at the depot which is next to the bus stop. These seem to depart every half hour or so. The service from the Golden Triange to Chiang Saen seems to be much more irregular. Whilst aspiring to a timetable this service varies with available customers and the flow of life along the Mekong and the Myanmar border. (Prices etc correct September 2014)
The bus station and songthaew depot is located about 50 meters before the main road (Highway 1016) ends in a T-intersection on the banks of the Mekong river (intersection pictured above).
There does not appear to be any regular public transport south to Chiang Khong and the Lao border crossing, apart from the occasional blue-green songthaews that line up south of the intersection in front of Wat Pong Sanuk. One must ask locally for details of this service as departures times do vary.
The district can be reached by taking Highway No. 1 north from Chiang Rai for some 30 kilometres. Then take a right turn onto Highway No. 1016 and proceed on for another 30 kilometres.
Like Chiang Mai, Chiang Saen has a city wall surrounding the historic town, but the fourth "wall" is formed by the Mekong River.
There are also several ancient sites outside the city wall including Wat Phra That Pha Ngao (วัดพระธาตุผาเงา) is a place for dharma practice, Wat Chedi Ched Tod (วัดเจดีย์เจ็ดยอด) is a peaceful place, located 1 km. further from Wat phra That Pha Ngao. Wat Phra That Chom Kitti (วัดพระธาตุจอมกิตติ), about 1.7 kilometres from town, and Wat Sangkha Kaeo Don Han (วัดสังฆาแก้วดอนหัน) where sketches on brick slabs tell stories about the various lives of the Lord Buddha.
Songkran Festival and Boat Races of Muang Chiang Saen (งานประเพณีสงกรานต์และแข่งเรือเมืองเชียงแสน) are held during 13-18 April of each year. In this festival, there is a parade featuring the water bathing ceremony of the Phrachao Lanthong Buddha image. There are also boat races and folk performances.
Saturday night market along the river to the north of town.
Sunday market near the bus and songthaew stop.
In the evening, many local food stalls set up shop along the bank of Mekong north of the T-junction. The tables set are small, and you sit on a mat on the ground as locals do. Menu in English and Thai. Try the Bamboo chicken and/or bamboo fish (cook inside bamboo by charcoal fire).
If you keep on walking North beyond the night market, to where the road moves away from the river there are several eateries sharing a covered terrace above the river. Parking is available.These provide a cafe/basic restaurant setting The food available at all these outlets is excellent value with a similar but not identical set of standard dishes to choose from at each outlet. The quality is more than adequate, more basic good value rather than exquisite, but dishes is well cooked, prepared to order and taste authentic. The service is pleasant and the beer is cold. The cooks take a pride in their work
There is a small restaurant opposite the new (money) banks halfway down the main drag (on your left as you face the river). The food is perfectly adequate and if one does not expect to find a hidden gen for gourmands one will not be disappointed. The value is good and the beer is cold. However this writers lack of command of Thai did not allow him to take advantage of what it could offer. The service was good and the owners were trying hard (Jan 2011).
Accommodations in Chiang Saen itself are limited. Fancier digs are to be found at the Golden Triangle, just north of Chiang Saen.
From the T-intersection along Mekong, walk 5-10 minutes to the North along the road and you will find 3 budget accommodation close to each other. The first you will find is Tankun Hostel (Feb 2011: Dorm Baht 99, free wife, free coffee), then you will see Chiang Saen Guest House (an older place with rooms with fan, free wifi and hot water start at 150 baht-the river and food stalls selling grilled fish are on the opposite side of the road). After passing Wat Phakhaopan, you will see a sign for Sa Nae Charn Guest House (Fan room from Baht 250).
From the T-intersection along Mekong, turn right and walk 10 minutes to Mekong Sunshine Resort, affectionately known as Baan Rot Fai because of the exotic, exclusive World War I modified train cabin accomodation, is priced neatly between budget and mid-range. It borders the mighty Mekong River and offers the unique view of Laos and Myanmar. The tranquil atmosphere and warm-hearted service guarantees complete relaxation from busy cities. All of their rooms are air-conditioned and face the Mekong River. Basic, clean twin and double rooms are available from 800THB (Jan 2012). The modified train cabin can accomodate up to 8 people and only costs 1500THB (Jan 2012). Two Thai-styled villas, with one and two bedrooms (1200/1500THB) respectively, equipped with their own kitchen, is perfect for families.
The Chiang Saen River Hill Hotel is a mid range option. The rooms are well furnished, of reasonable size and the staff are both friendly and helpful. It cost (Jan 2011) 900 Bhat for a room. The hotel flows with the passing of tour groups. Should a large tour group turn up whilst you are there, you could feel neglected as the staff struggle to cope. A very noisy karaoke party might keep you awake if your room is immediately over the restaurant/bar area but the hotel tries to wind these down by 10.00pm. Sadly hotels like these must accommodate the tour groups idea of a good time so some bad reviews might just reflect a 'bad' tour group. Left to its own devices this hotel is an excellent and good value mid range option. Wifi is available in the lobby area,
There are a couple of new hotels just opened by the Mekong just south of the city wall. These are newly built and try to cater for a more well-heeled 'western' style tourism to judge by the menu. The rooms looked good but the walk in rates seem a tad high. I suspect discounts are available if you bargain or book through an agency.