Located in the northeastern part of Thailand, Chiang Mai and Chaing Rai are known as the religious and cultural centers of Thailand.
While Chiang Mai was the capital of the Lanna kingdom and later became the religious and cultural capital of Thailand, Chiang Rai has slowly gained popularity over the years due to its unique temples and beautiful lush green landscapes that surround its perimeters.
While they are only separated by a few hours, these two destinations are quite unique in their own way.
So, if you thinking about visiting northeast Thailand, you definitely couldn’t miss out on these two wonderful destinations.
Here’s a brief comparison of the two on how why and where they are different and why you should prefer one over the other based on our own experience traveling for 15 days in both these destinations.
Chiang Mai vs Chiang Rai
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Chiang Mai vs Chaing Rai: The overall vibe 😎
Chiang Mai is located in northern Thailand and is the religious and cultural capital of northern Thailand and was also the former capital of the Lanna kingdom.
Chiang Mai is much bigger, more developed, and more lively than the two and also more popular among tourists compared to Chiang Rai.
Thanks to the city’s developed infrastructure, cheap accommodation options, a wide variety of food, nightlife, shopping centers, and above all extremely friendly people, Chaing Mai has become a major hub for digital nomads in Southeast Asia.
Apart from its hundreds of temples, Chiang Mai is also known for its famous (and ethical) Elephant sanctuaries and nature trails, the Doi Inthanon trail being the highest point in Chaing Mai, known for offering spectacular views of the entire city.
To sum it all up, Chaing Mai is a perfect blend of a little bit of Bangkok and the religious, cultural, and traditional Thai experience.
This laid-back vibe of the city with magnificent temples, ancient Buddhist traditions, and traditional values surrounded by lofty lush-green mountains also reflects in the way the people in Chiang Mai carry themselves, always warm and welcoming.
Unlike, Bangkok, where many locals might just smile at you just for the sake of being friendly with tourists, we found that the people in Chaing Mai are much more relaxed and are genuinely interested in interacting with tourists.
Also, what you don’t get to see in Chaing Mai that you encounter at every corner in Bangkok are street vendors and taxi drivers trying to be pushy. Not that aren’t any scamsters nearby but compared to Bangkok, your chances of getting scammed in Chaing Mai are quite less.
Overall, we felt much safer in Chaing Mai than in Bangkok.
Chiang Rai, located just 3 hour’s drive away to the north from Chiang Mai is known for its iconic white and blue temples and beautiful lush-green landscapes with picturesque hiking and nature trails and is a bordering village to Laos.
Compared to Chaing Mai, the vibe in Chiang Rai is one of peace and serenity.
This is the place to be when you want to get away from the hustle and bustle of Chaing Mai or experience for yourself the more religious and traditional side of Thailand, where farming and livestock breeding is the epicenter of lives of the locals rather than the tourism industry.
Winner – Tie. Both these destinations offer a variety of unique experiences in their own way and you cannot really say one is particularly better than the other unless you only enjoy a certain vibe.
That said, if you are looking for a perfect blend of religion, culture, and modern city life with plenty of nightlife, shopping, and entertainment options then certainly Chaing Mai is a better option, but if you truly looking forward to getting a taste of true countryside Thailand lifestyle and explore unique temples, then Chaing Rai has certainly that calming and serene vibe.
Accommodation options 🏡
If you are looking for the best and a wide variety of accommodation options to choose from, then hands down Chiang Mai being the much bigger and more developed between the two is the best place to stay while you explore the wonders of northern Thailand.
Being a city, Chiang Mai doesn’t just have a wide variety of lodging options for every budget from backpackers to honeymooners, but also easy access to other amenities like restaurants, cafes, nightclubs, bars, motorbike rental shops, massage parlors, and night markets within stone’s throw away.
And if you are one of those who loves to work remotely, then Chaing Mai is a backpackers paradise and a digital nomad hub with amazing high-speed internet connectivity, dirt-cheap lodging & a wide variety of food options.
Also note, that Chaing Mai also has an international airport, so if you are planning to visit neighboring countries like Laos, Vietnam, or Cambodia or explore southern Thailand like Phuket or Pattaya or any other part of Thailand you can easily catch a flight or make a Thailand Visa run to extend your stay.
Unlike Chaing Mai, Chiang Rai is still untouched by mainstream tourism. Only in recent years, some of the backpackers on long-term trips to Southeast Asia started to explore Chiang Rai to explore a more authentic and traditional side of Thailand and to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life.
So, accommodation options in Chiang Rai are quite limited and also might be expensive, especially for budget travelers.
Note– If you are planning to stay for longer and explore most of Northern Thailand I highly suggest making Chiang Mai your home for the lion’s share of trips as you can easily access all the modern amenities and enjoy a lively nightlife, that said, if you are looking for a tranquil and more rural atmosphere, then I would definitely recommend staying in Chiang Rai for at least 2 days to explore the serene beauty of Northern Thailand.
Winner – Chaing Mai
The Culinary Experience 🍜
The culinary experience in terms of taste and quality when it comes to Thai food in Chaing Mai and Chiang Rai isn’t that different. What’s different is, by now you must have figured out the variety of cuisines that you get to enjoy at both of these places.
The difference in the vibe of both these destinations is also reflected in their food scene.
Chaing Mai’s food scene is more reflective of its lively and vibrant vibe and offers a wide range of food options, including cheap but delicious street food, bustling markets, and numerous restaurants and cafes catering to different tastes.
Hands down the best Pad Thai and Tom Yum Kung I had on my trip to Thailand were in Chiang Mai, much better than what I tried in Bangkok.
I would especially recommend trying some of the Northern Thai cuisines like Khao Soi (Curry noodle soup), Sai oua (Northern Thai sausage) and Gaeng hang lay (Northern Thai curry).
One of the best things about being in Chiang Mai is that if you crave some home food, you can also find authentic international cuisines from Indian, Italian, French, Chinese, American to European food, thanks to the hundreds of ex-pats who have called Chaing Mai their home.
Believe me, as much as we enjoyed savoring Thai food, being Indian we couldn’t resist the spicy Indian curries and vegetables we love to eat.
Chances are you are going to feel the same after a few days, but Chiang Mai has got you covered.
On the other hand, Chiang Rai’s food scene is more low-key and is more reflective of its laid-back and relaxed mountain life leaning more towards traditional Thai cuisines.
That’s not to say that Chaing Rai has nothing notable to offer. I would highly recommend trying local culinary delights like Khao Jao (a type of crispy rice dish) and Nam prik num (a spicy green chili dip), two of the tastiest dishes we tried while on our way to the White Temple.
Winner – Chaing Mai. Considering its diverse culinary scene and wide range of food options ranging from cheap but delicious Thai street food to fine dining options with international cuisines, Chiang Mai is definitely the winner here when it comes to offering an unforgettable culinary experience.
By now it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Chiang Mai is a better option to enjoy nightlife than Chaing Rai.
Although, the nightlife in Chiang Mai is nowhere near as lively and loud as we got to experience in Bangkok or Pattaya, Chiang Mai’s nightlife tilts more towards a casual and sophisticated vibe.
One of the best nightclubs/ bars we enjoyed our time at was ‘Zoe in Yellow‘, if you are a party animal then you’re surely going to love your time here. The party really starts to get wild at around 11 pm and lasts till around 2 am in the morning.
The club is also the best place in Chiang Mai to enjoy a wide variety of cocktails and craft beer. If you just want to relax and have a drink you can do so outside the club enjoying the open air.
Apart from Zoe in Yellow, I would also like to mention other nightclubs like Warm Up Cafe and the Monkey Club. Although we enjoyed the most at Zoe in Yellow these two bars are also great places if you are just looking to have some drinks and enjoy the music.
Tip- One word of advice, if you want to enjoy a hassle-free night in the club, I would recommend keeping your orders simple, as the waiter there hardly understood any English and the loud music made it worse, which resulted in total misunderstanding and wrong order.
And not to forget the lively night markets of Chiang Mai in the old town. If you love shopping, Chiang Mai is the best place to do so. You can easily find cheap clothes and accessories here, and the best thing is you can get them for even cheaper if you know how to bargain.
There are also several food courts inside these night markets with a wide range of food options ranging from traditional Thai food to American dishes with live music in an open setting.
You can also grab Thai beer (found everywhere in Thailand) and sit back and relax under the sky enjoying live music and people-watching.
On the other hand, being a small farming town in the mountain side Chiang Rai’s nightlife is more about relaxing and stargazing under the night sky with your drinks.
Most of the nightlife in Chiang Rai is centered around the Chiang Rai Night Market where you can enjoy delicious Thai street food, buy souvenirs, or do some casual shopping.
There are a few rooftop bars and cafes sprinkled around town but they don’t have the lively and energetic vibe of the ones in Chaing Mai as most of the things here close down by 11 pm at night.
Winner – Chiang Mai
Best attractions and things to do in Chiang Mai
- Wat Phra Singh Woramahawihan
- Wat Phra Doi Kham (Considered a lucky Buddha in Chaing Mai)
- Wat Chedi Luang
- Wat Phra Dat Doi Suthep
- Wat Chet Yot
- Wat Phantao
- Wat Chedi Liam
- The Phae Walking Street
- Chiang Mai Night Bazaar
- Wua Lai Walking Street
- Chiang Mai University Night Market
Nightclubs and bars
- Zoe in Yellow
- Warm up Cafe
- Monkey Club
- Ram Bar Chiang Mai
- The North Gate Jazz Co-op
Best Day-trips from Chiang Mai
- Mae Kampong village
- Chiang Rai
- Elephant Jungle Sanctuary
- Doi Inthanon National Park (The highest mountain in Thailand at 2565m height (8425 ft))
- Chiang Dao Cave
Best Attractions and Things to Do in Chiang Rai
- Wat Rong Khun (The White Temple)
- Wat Rong Suea Ten (Blue Temple)
- Wat Phra Kaew
- Wat Phra That Doi Thong
- Wat Huay Pla Kang: Goddess of Mercy Chiang Rai
- Chiang Rai Night Bazaar
- Walking Street Chiang Rai
- Saturday night market
Best Cafes and Bars
- Rooftop Chiang Rai
- Peace House bar
- Chivit Thamma Da Coffee House
- Reggae Home and Bar
- Baan Dam Museum
- Singha Park (Massice Park with a farmlike setting featuring tea plantations, orchards, trails, and a petting zoo)
- Doi Mae Salong
Can I do a day trip from Chiang Mai to Chaing Rai?
Yes, you can, in fact most tourists prefer doing a day trip from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai as it is only a 3 hours drive away or a one-hour flight from Chaing Mai rather than staying in Chang Rai for a day or two.
Most of the major attractions in Chaing Rai including the White Temple, the Blue Temple, the Golden Triangle, the Baan Dam Museum, and a few more temples and attractions can easily be squeezed into your day trip to Chiang Rai, provided you leave Chiang Mai quite early in the morning.
There are two ways by which you can do a day trip-
- Rent a motorbike
- Book a tour online/ offline
Rent a motorbike
This is the best and the cheapest way to enjoy a day trip to Chiang Rai at your own pace and style, and in fact, this is what we eventually did.
You can easily rent a motorbike or a scooter from any of the rental shops sprinkled around the city.
Rental bikes usually start from 250 Baht for a 120CC scooter, 300 Baht for a 150CC scooter, 400 Baht for a 200-250CC motorbike to upto 600 Baht/ day for an offroad bike.
Note – You can also rent a bike directly from your hotel or hostel wherever you are staying. Just ask at the reception counter whether they provide bike rental services.
If yes, then the receptionist will provide you with the details of all the bikes on an advertisement poster with images and the price of each type of bike with engine capacity. The bike is delivered to your hotel usually within 1-2 hours depending on the availability of the bike you’ve chosen.
You would have to leave your passport as a deposit to them or if you are not comfortable with leaving your passport with the rental shop you also have the option to keep 5000 baht as a deposit, which will be returned to you later.
Before you hop on and drive away the bike from the rental shop make sure everything’s working as expected and check if anything’s broken.
If something’s wrong or damaged make sure you bring it to the attention of the owner there and then. I would highly suggest taking photos and videos, just to be on the safer side.
Note – Although you can rent a bike and drive around Chaing Mai without an international license, if you get caught by the Chaing Mai traffic police you will be fined 500 Baht for driving without a license.
One of the good things about the traffic challan is that it is valid for three days from the day you have been fined. So, even if you don’t have a license you can still drive around Chiang Mai without having to worry about being fined by the police again.
Book a tour
If you don’t want to drive and explore only the main attractions in Chiang Rai comfortably with the help of a guided tour, then booking a day trip to Chiang Rai is the best way to do so.
I suggest pre-booking your tour with Get Your Guide which will cost you around 1800-2200 Baht ($40-$50 or £45) per person depending on the number of attractions you want to explore.
You can also book a day trip from your hotel or hostel as every hotel/hostel provides day trips from Chaing Mai to Chaing Rai.
Just ask the receptionist about the tours they provide and how many attractions they cover and also a detailed itinerary of the tour.
Note – If you are booking your tour as a couple or with your group of friends, you can easily get a good deal if you negotiate for a bargain from the hotel. Remember if you don’t agree with the price you can always book an online tour or from other tourism shops in the city.
Both Chaing Mai and Chaing Rai have something unique to offer. If you are looking for a perfect blend of the modern, cultural, and religious side of Thailand with lively markets and vibrant nightlife, then Chiang Mai is a better option.
If you want to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life and explore the most unique and magnificent temples of northern Thailand and spend a few days relaxing in the serenity of lush-green mountainside village life then Chiang Rai is a better option.