Are you planning a Northern Thailand Itinerary with limited time? Are you struggling with the ultimate question: Chiang Mai Vs Chiang Rai? Well, look no further. This blog post is going to explain which city is right for you and maybe even persuade you to visit both!
Chiang Mai is more of a popular destination, especially within the digital nomad community. With loads of cafes boasting good Wi-Fi and coffee, there is a flock of expats that go and live there.
Chiang Rai is more of a hidden gem. This “sleepy” city is very underrated and has so much to offer, from temples to waterfalls.
Each city has something for everyone, and each has its own unique reason to visit.
Chiang Mai Vs Chiang Rai – Everything you need to know.
To help you decide, I will compare each city. We will go into detail about the activities you can do, how to get to each destination, who has the best markets, nightlife and which has the best value for money.
Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links, if you decide to press on them and make a valid purchase, I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you and for that, thank you!
How to get to Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai
Depending on your beginning, destination will depend on the best form of transport.
As Chiang Mai is a central hub to get to its sister city, you will more than likely be going through or to Chiang Mai.
Both Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai have international airports, so flying to each destination is possible.
12goasia is one of the best websites to use when figuring out transport between Thai provinces.
Buses are the most affordable and practical way to get around Thailand. The bus ride between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai is 3 hours 55 minutes and regularly goes from 7am to 5.30pm. The price ranges from £5-£9 (200-400 THB).
If you want an experience, book the sleeper train! From Bangkok to Chiang Mai the train is 13 hours and consists of 3 carriages. In 2nd Class, there are bunk beds with AC. There are around 40 beds in this carriage, but it is surprisingly quiet considering the circumstances.
So which city is easier to get to, Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai?
The Answer: Chiang Mai
Day trip from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai
If you are short on time, you can always take a day trip from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai.
These organised tours are all very similar. They cover the popular tourist attractions, that are:
White temple, Blue temple and the unusual black house or the Golden triangle.
However, these trips are 13 hour days and they don’t allow free time to explore all that Chiang Rai has to offer.
Check the day trips here.
Chaing Mai Vs Chiang Rai – Top things to do
Both Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai have a variety of activities they offer. Chiang Mai is more built up and more centrally located, which gives you more options. Whereas Chiang Rai is less well known and therefore has more local trips that can lead to hidden gems.
Best activities to do in Chiang Mai
Visit an Elephant Sanctuary
One of the most popular things to do in Chiang Mai is visit an Elephant Sanctuary. Make sure to research the sanctuaries before parting with any money. You want to make sure the site is ethical, the elephants are well looked after and there is no riding involved.
If you need help finding an Ethical Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai, click here.
If you want to find out about my experience with Into the Wild Elephant Camp, click here.
Explore the City
For a chilled day, explore the heart of Chiang Mai, its Old City. This area of Chiang Mai is in the shape of a square and bordered by a moat. Spend your time hopping around the free temples and monuments within the square.
Some popular spots are:
- Wat Chedi Luang – This temple used to be the home of the Emerald Buddha (Phra Kaew) that now resides in the Grand Palace in Bangkok.
- Wat Chiang Man – Also known as the Elephant temple, this is the oldest temple in Chiang Mai.
- Wat Phan Tao – The hall of assembly used to be a throne room for King Mahotara Prateth
If you want to visit one of Northern Thailand’s most sacred temples, then head to Dio Suthep. Located on the outskirts of Chiang Mai, this Temple is not for the faint hearted.
In order to see the White Elephant statue, which represents the one that carried the Buddha relic to his resting place, you need to climb 306 stairs.
Doi Inthanon National Park
If you want to get out of the city and into the nature around Chiang Mai, then head to Doi Inthanon national park. Located 1 hour and 30 minutes outside of the city, you can visit multiple waterfalls, do short hikes and see summit views of the national park.
Best Activities in Chiang Rai
WAT RONG KHUN (WHITE TEMPLE)
This is one of the “must see” temples in Thailand, located 20 minutes outside of Chiang Rai town. This eccentric temple is a privately owned art exhibition that mixes traditional Buddhist beliefs with modern art.
Be sure to keep a look out for Angry Birds, Pokémon and Marvel references.
WAT RONG SUEA TEN (BLUE TEMPLE)
While this isn’t the typical traditional temple because of its vibrant colour, creator Putha Kabkaew has captured contemporary Buddhist art in a modern way.
WAT HUAY PLA KUNG (BIG BUDDHA)
Wat Huay Pla Kung, often called the Big Buddha. However, the statue isn’t actually a Buddha. The figure is Guanyin, a representation of the goddess of mercy. This temple is unique because you can climb to the top of the goddess and have a birdseye view of the surrounding areas.
KHUN KORN WATERFALL
Khun Korn waterfall is free to visit and a half an hour’s walk from the drop off point. The trails provide beautiful tropical scenery and lead you to a 70m waterfall.
Make sure to wear your swimmers as you will want to get in after the walk!
So, which city has the best activities, Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai?
The answer: It is a tie as both cities have so much to offer.
Chiang Mai Vs Chiang Rai – Markets
Both cities have incredible markets with everything you could want, from elephant pants to dog toys.
Chiang Mai Markets
The two main Chiang Mai markets take place on the weekend.
The Saturday market is on Wua Lai Walking Street and consists predominantly of food stalls. Pre Covid this market was lively and although smaller than the Sunday one, it had just as much to offer.
The Sunday market is on Tha Phae Walking Street. This market was the biggest and the best that I visited on my Thailand trip. The stalls start setting up, ready for their opening time of 5pm – 10pm.
However, depending on the business of the market, some stalls will stay open until later.
The market itself is huge, you can very easily spend 2/3 hours there. They have a separate area within the market for food which helps to keep the hangar at bay.
The markets offer a variety of different cuisines, lots of elephant pants, handmade jewelry, Stone Elephants, spices, clothes, bags, they literally have everything.
Chiang Rai Markets
There are a variety of different markets to discover in Chiang Rai, but the biggest one takes place every Saturday.
The Walking Street is filled with local vendors selling everything from traditional cuisine to sunglasses.
Have a plan of what you want to eat or you will be spoilt for choice! This market also provides entertainment with a dance group and a live band. The dancing is all inclusive and passersby are encouraged to join in.
This experience was so wholesome. There were only a handful of tourists at this market, making us feel like we had a true Thai experience.
If you are visiting in the week, the Night Bazaar market is open everyday from 6pm – 11pm, giving you the same variety but on a smaller scale.
Who holds the best markets?
Answer: Both markets are incredible and worth a visit. But based on the sheer size and variety factor, it would be Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai Vs Chiang Rai – Temples
Thailand is covered in beautiful, royal looking temples all with their own story. Most have intricate detailing with gold and precious gems. Some you can spend hours meditating and exploring.
Chiang Rai’s temples were some of the most weird and wonderful houses of worship I have ever seen.
The white temple, for example, is crazy and extravagant. The place is constantly under construction, with the overall project consisting of 9 areas (4 are currently open to the public). Each piece of mirror mosaic is glued on individually by local workers and the detail of these buildings are incredible.
Be sure to keep a look out for Angry Birds, Pokémon and Marvel references.
Who has the best temples, Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai?
Answer: Chiang Rai.
If this is your first time visiting a Thai Temple, here are a few basics to help you stay respectful in the houses of worship:
- Please cover your shoulders and knees.
- Please be quiet inside the temples, as people will be there to worship.
- Please take your shoes off before entering the inside of the temple.
- Please have no public displays of affection.
Chiang Mai Vs Chiang Rai – Nightlife
Both Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai have good bars, restaurants and cafes. But the nightlife is heavier in Chiang Mai than in Chiang Rai.
Chiang Mai houses a range of nightclubs, rooftop bars and pubs. One random bar I really enjoyed was Win Rock Style (type in Google maps Ba Ba Bo Bo bar and its next door). This place is owned by ‘Mr Jones’ and has a pool table. Mr Jones is super friendly and very welcoming.
Chiang Rai is more tame, but there was a lively bar we found called The Cat Bar. This bar offers live music every night from 8pm, with the unique experience of joining the band with a variety of different instruments. With a free pool table and friendly staff, this place is definitely worth a visit.
The prices are slightly higher than usual, but do not let that put you off, as they make up for it in character.
So, which has a better nightlife?
Answer: Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai Vs Chiang Rai – Restaurants and street food
Both Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai have exceptional markets, which means there is lots of good street food to choose from.
I personally choose street food over restaurants, because it is cheaper and I like the variety.
Street food prices range from 20 THB – 100 THB. (50p – £2.50)
Whereas a restaurant meal is 100 THB upwards. (£2.50)
Which has better food?
Answer: Both win this round.
Chiang Mai Vs Chiang Rai – Accommodation
Hostel Lullaby in Chiang Mai was voted the 2nd best hostel in the world for solo travellers.
And I found out why. This cute and cosy hostel is a, leave your shoes at the door social house vibe. Breakfast and snacks are free and there is a social area next to reception padded out with cushions and magazines.
The rooms come with curtains, lockers, power sockets and lights. The only downside about this hostel is the room is very warm. The fan/aircon was not working very well when I visited.
One thing I loved about this hostel (aside from the social element) was that you could check in straight away. So, if you fancy a nap after coming off the sleeper train, and your bed is ready, you are allowed in it.
Hobnob Hostel in Chiang Mai had a lovely grab a book, digital nomad vibe. The hostel was right next to the Sunday markets and was a great location. The rooms were spacious with a balcony, lamp, curtain and plug socket.
The only downside was the unisex bathrooms. This hostel was not social but it was a really nice place to be.
I found a lovely hostel in the heart of Chiang Rai city. Baan Mai Kradan Hostel is located a couple of minutes from the walking street and 10 minutes from the bus station.
This modern loft style house comes with a few different private and dorm options, the biggest being an 8 bed. Some rooms have balconies which allow you to dry towels and wet gear. Each bed comes with a table, light and power socket.
The beds are super comfortable and breakfast is included.
Who has the better accommodation?
Answer: Chiang Mai
How long to stay in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai
Because there is so much to do in Chiang Mai, you can quite easily spend 5 days there.
However, with Chiang Rai, a 2 day Itinerary is plenty of time.
When is the best time to visit Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai?
According to Google, the best time to visit Chiang Mai is between October to April.
This is because the weather is cool. And as it is peak season there are a lot of festivals and events going on.
Chiang Rai is from October to February as it is cooler with less humid temperatures.
However, I personally recommend going just out of peak season to avoid the crowds and still get the tail end of the cooler weather.
Chiang Mai Vs Chiang Rai – Value for money
Chiang Mai is a bit of a money pit. As there are so many activities and it is a major tourist city.
A trip to an Ethical Elephant Sanctuary will cost around £50 whereas a trip to the main temples in Chiang Rai will cost £2.50.
Depending on your budget will depend on how many activities you will do.
If you do all the above activities I mentioned. You would pay the following:
Chiang Mai – £65.50
Chiang Rai – £2.50
Plus accommodation, transport and food.
In both Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai the food and accommodation prices are very similar.
Where is better value for money?
Answer: Chiang Rai
Are Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai safe for solo travellers?
My simple answer is yes. I felt very safe in both cities. I walked back in the dark and, aside from a gang of 3 stray dogs, I did not feel threatened at any point.
It is still important to keep aware of your surroundings and not put yourself in vulnerable situations.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do you get from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai?
There is a 4 hour bus between the sister cities that regularly goes from 7am to 5.30pm. The price ranges from £5-£9 (200-400 THB). I recommend booking through 12goasia.
Is Chiang Mai Thailand’s best kept secret?
No, I think Chiang Rai is more of a hidden gem than Chiang Mai.
Can you take a day trip from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai?
Yes, you can do a day trip from Chiang Mai. Chiang Rai tours can be booked at most hostels or online via Viator or Get your guide. The tours usually include; transport, the White Temple, The Blue Temple and the Black House.
What is the best time to visit Chiang Mai?
According to Google, the best time to visit Chiang Mai is between October to April. This is because the weather is cool. And as it is peak season there are a lot of festivals and events going on.
In summary, both places are definitely worth a visit. With Chiang Mai scoring a 5 and Chiang Rai scoring a 4, it is worth adding both to your Northern Thailand Itinerary.
As Always, Happy Exploring!