If you’re stuck and can’t choose between Chiang Mai and Bangkok, then you’ve got some serious thinking to do. Both of these enthralling cities deserve a visit, and squeezing them into your Thai travels is sure to bring rewards. But if you only have time for one, fear not, because this guide is here to help you make the decision.
On the one hand, there’s Bangkok. The capital of Thailand is a sprawling, urban jungle, complete with luxurious shopping malls and sky bars all intermingled with ancient heritage and Buddhist religious sites. Cheaper, rustic, and steeped in history, Chiang Mai in the north of the country perfectly balances the old heritage of the erstwhile Lanna kingdom with modern city life. But which is better for you this year?
This guide will look at everything that makes these two cities unique. We’ll delve into the general vibe and the atmosphere of each place, get a taste of the bumping nightlife scenes, the temples that beckon, the ease of traveling around, and even the weather, all to help you stop mulling it over and get a-booking…
Bangkok vs Chiang Mai: General vibe
The main difference between Bangkok and Chiang Mai is Bangkok’s considerably larger size. With over nine million people presently residing in the capital, compared to Chiang Mai’s mere 139,000, Bangkok is a far busier, more fast-paced, and diverse metropolis. Bangkok is suited to visitors seeking a bustling vibe and those after on-the-go city life. It welcomes more tourists than any other city globally and is a capital of sheer color and energy.
Thais rarely call Bangkok by its name, preferring one of the many nicknames: The City of Angels, the Great City, the Impregnable City, and the home of the Emerald Buddha. It is broadly culturally significant to the country, with the spectacular Royal Palace commanding worldwide respect. But while Bangkok is known as the Venice of the East for some, it’s also the Sin City of Asia for others, all thanks to gritty districts like Banglamphu where backpackers gather to drink, party, and feel the pulse of the east.
Chiang Mai, meaning the New City, isn’t so true to its name. Not to be mistaken with the Thai word for elephant and the national namesake beer, Chiang Mai was founded in 1296 as the capital of the Lanna region, the Kingdom of a Million Rice Fields. The city is also a religious epicenter of Thailand and the enchanting Old Town tells a different story to Bangkok’s heaving streets. It’s all narrow lanes filled with boho cafes, where temples loom up on the street corners.
Chiang Mai is a cultural and creative hub. The small-town vibe has meant backpacker communities have thrived, and more expats and digital nomads have flocked to the city in recent years. Overall, Chiang Mai is slower than Bangkok but still vibrant and diverse, the best of both city worlds.
Winner: For us it’s Chiang Mai but this all depends on what you want.
Bangkok vs Chiang Mai: Ease of travel
One of the first things to consider before choosing either of these cities will be how you’re going to get there. The good news is that both are pretty easy to get to these days – they are the two largest towns in the whole of the Land of Smiles, after all. Here’s a closer look at the ins and outs of traveling in to each…
Wherever you’re coming from and wherever you’re going, chances are, you’ll start your Thai adventure in Bangkok. The capital city is the busiest port of entry in the country and is home to two international airports. Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport welcomes thousands of flights from all over the world every day, while Don Mueang International Airport mainly serves regional and domestic low-cost carriers. Either way, the point here is that flying to Bangkok is super easy.
You can also fly to Chiang Mai from virtually anywhere in the country that has an airport. It’s also possible to jump on an overnight train from Bangkok – that takes something like nine hours in all. If you’re coming from the south or any famous islands, consider that Chiang Mai could take over 12 hours longer to reach than Bangkok, up in its northern mountainous location. If you’re landing in Bangkok and planning to transfer the Chiang Mai, the domestic flight is just under two hours and should be relatively hassle-free.
In both cities, you have the liberating option of jumping in a traditional tuk-tuk or taking to the streets on foot to get around. Both forms of transport are exciting and cheap ways to take in all the smells and sights of the cities. That said, Bangkok is more often than not clogged with traffic. This makes tuk-tuks and taxis slow and sweaty, while walking around can sometimes be a much more stifling business than it is in Chiang Mai.
But there’s one trump card in BKK: Inaugurated in 1999, the BTS Sky Train is the fastest and most convenient way to get around the city, and most trips cost less than a dollar. There are two lines and 52 stations. While Chiang Mai has a central train station connecting the city to the rest of Thailand, it has no internal railway system of the same kind.
Winner: Bangkok – one of the most accessible cities in Asia.
Bangkok vs Chiang Mai: Temples
We think that the temples of Bangkok and Chiang Mai deserve a whole day and their own section.
The highlight of Bangkok’s religious architecture is unquestionably the Grand Palace. A maze of a complex that consists of over 100 buildings, King Rama’s ancient palace is packed with precious gems and spectacular murals. It is home to the Wat Pho temple, which houses the Emerald Buddha, a solid Jade statue carved in India way back in 43 BC! (Entry to this amazing site costs just 400 THB, or $12.)
Across the river is Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn, where you’ll find the Prang Tower and the seven-pronged Trident of Shiva. Wat Pho is directly opposite, the home of the iconic gold reclining Buddha. Then there’s Wat Saket, The Golden Mount, which has a gleaming stupa that rises high above the whole city.
All those aside, Chiang Mai won’t disappoint when it comes to religious buildings. The city is home to more Buddhist temples than any other in Thailand! You’ve got 117 in the Muang district alone, plus 300 in the surrounding region. So, a spot of temple hopping is basically a must if you’re visiting Chiang Mai.
Perhaps the most famous is Wat Phra That, which sits on the Doi Suthep mountain at an elevation of 1,073 meters. You’ll need to catch a tuk-tuk or a minibus up and then walk the steep dragon steps to get in. Also a highlight is Wat Chiang Man, the Elephant Temple. That’s the oldest one in the city. In addition, there’s Wat Pra Singh, where you’ll find the best examples of Lanna architecture and the Lion Buddha statues, along with Wat Chedi Luang, a towering set of ruins that look amazing lit up at night.
Winner: Bangkok probably just pips this one because of the Grand Palace, but Chiang Mai certainly has no shortage of temples!
Bangkok vs Chiang Mai: Attractions
Bangkok isn’t actually a city of big-name monuments a la London or Paris. The real joy here is in feeling the pulse of the largest city in the Land of Smiles. However, there are some things you simply HAVE to see. They include the aforementioned Buddhist and regal complex of the Grand Palace, home to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, and the incredible reclining Buddha of Wat Pho. We actually think one of the best ways to take both of those in a single day is on the riverboats that roll up and down the Chao Phraya River, which is a bit of a sightseeing activity in itself.
Once you’re finished with the cultural stuff, it’s time to get stuck into the grittier side of the town. There’s frantic Chatuchak Market on the weekend (more on that below) for shopping until you can shop no more. Then there’s the hipster enclaves of Ekkamai, an area with cool coffee shops and soaring condo blocks. Then there’s Banglamphu, the raucous backpacker hub of Bangkok that’s cut through by the party haven of Khaosan Road.
Another important pull factor to Chiang Mai, where Bangkok can’t really compete, is in its high concentration of elephant sanctuaries. You’ll need to be absolutely certain to make sure it’s an ethical one (lots still are pretty dubious affairs). Arguably the most famous of the bunch is The Elephant Nature Park. Some 40 miles from the city limits, is home to 35 free-roaming elephants that have been rescued and rehabilitated from the tourism and logging industries in Thailand. They even take paying volunteers who want to help out with the elephants – at just $350 for one week with full-board, this once-in-a-lifetime experience is more than worth it.
The whole Chiang Mai Old Town is the next thing to know about. It’s an attraction in itself, sporting centuries-old Lanna architecture in a maze of winding alleys and streets. There are various sections to it, but we love the energy of Samlan Soi and the markets near the gates the most. Talking of markets, the night bazaars here are probably draw number one, while plenty of temples, waterfalls, and lookout points await in the surrounding mountains – you can find tuk-tuk drivers who will take you around as many of the sites as you wish for as little as $10 for a full day of transport
Winner: Draw – both cities have plenty of attractions.
Bangkok vs Chiang Mai: Shopping
Bangkok is a haven for shopping. The Chatuchak Weekend Market is the biggest in Asia and is loved by locals and visitors alike. With clothes, art, gadgets, and the best street food across its 27 different sections, it’s a must-see in the city for retail buffs. Then you have the famous floating markets that take place all over the city. They’re more of cultural interest than proper shopping hubs, but it’s certainly amazing to watch sellers of spice and chilis and veg haggling for good from their small canal boats. Those after modern boutiques and high-end designers should head to the Siam Center. For more local vibes, check out the Wang Lang market on the riverside. And that’s really just scratching the surface.
Then you have the night markets. These are something of a specialty of Thailand. Head to the The Ratchada Train Market, recognizable for its sea of colorful tents. The bazaar is a true foody paradise, and its bars and DJs entertain revelers late into the night. Likewise, the newer riverside Asiatique mixes modern Bangkok with the night market tradition. Great seafood, two theatres, and picturesque views make it an up-and-coming spot for cultural visitors.
When it comes to night shopping, Chiang Mai won’t be left out. Despite its smaller size, the evening markets are an unmissable part of the Chiang Mai experience. There are no fewer than four famous evening bazaars. Check out the Sunday Night Bazaar on Wualai Walking Street in the Old City, where a whole kilometer stretch of stalls line the vibrant road with rows of handicrafts, accessories, and gadgets at the lowest prices. Other night markets on different days include the Kalare Night Bazaar and the Chiang Mai Gate Market. There are also gatherings of sellers around the entrance to Wat Phra That Doi Kham on the hill.
Back in the Chiang Mai Old Town (the most immersive heart of the city), you’ll also discover an edgy range of artists workshops and shops. They sell everything from handcrafted jewelry to homewares and are lovely to peruse on an evening stroll – something you don’t really get in the heat and headiness of Bangkok.
Winner: Bangkok – one of the world’s shopping meccas
Bangkok vs Chiang Mai: Weather
Thailand has two distinct seasons that determine the best time to visit the country. The dry season, which lasts from November through to May, sees average temperatures of around 31 degrees Celcius, with clear blue skies and little rainfall. The wet season then runs from June until October, when the weather is still hot but more humid, and daily rain can be expected.
Bangkok and Chiang Mai are around 700km apart north to south. But what really defines their different climates is Chiang Mai’s high altitude compared to Bangkok’s flat cityscape. On the Mae Pong River basin, Chiang Mai sits at an average elevation of 310 meters above sea level and is surrounded by dominating mountain ranges. This means Chiang Mai is less humid and can feel cooler than Bangkok. With average dry season averages of 25 C (77 F), the city is still pleasantly warm. But this can dip to 22 C (71.6 F) in winter, which comes as a welcome escape from the sweaty capital.
Bangkok can feel a bit stuffy on account of the towering buildings, densely populated suburbs, and low-lying land. This means humidity is high, and the temperature can feel five degrees hotter than it is up north in Chiang Mai. The only time of the year when it really beats Chiang Mai on the climate front is during the so-called smoky season. It’s time when farmers burn their crops all around Chiang Mai and it can be insufferable in the city, making Bangkok the better pick from January to March.
Winner: Chiang Mai.
Bangkok vs Chiang Mai: Day trips and excursions
There are stacks of day- and multi-day trips to do from Chiang Mai. The ancient city of stoop Lanna houses and buzzy bazaars is actually considered the gateway to northern Thailand. Our absolute favorite place to go has to be the lonely village of Pai. It’s a bit of a hippy enclave up in the hills close to the Burmese border. A windy road will get you there in a couple of hours, for days of lazing by the Pai River, bathing in hot springs, and hiking strange canyons.
Here’s a look at some of the other top options when it comes to excursions out of Chiang Mai…
- Doi Inthanon National Park – This national park hosts the highest mountain in Thailand and offers oodles of trekking paths through a patchwork of woods and waterfall-carved rivers.
- Chiang Dao Cave – An off-the-beaten-path cave and temple complex with some amazing nesting bats to see.
- Doi Khun Tan National Park – Another escape to nature awaits in this enthralling national park to the southeast of the town.
Here’s the problem with Bangkok and day trips: The city is so darn large that it can take hours to simply leave. However, there are some great nearby destinations that you can reach after a quick train or bus ride. They include:
- Kanchanaburi – A relaxed river town that’s steeped in WWII history. Come to see the bridge over the River Kwai.
- Lopburi – An energetic city that’s famed for having been totally taken over by a colony of crab-eating macaques.
- Pattaya – Thailand’s gaudy beach resort extraordinaire. This is the place for wild beach parties and sunning yourself in seaside hotels.
Bangkok vs Chiang Mai – our verdict
Enfolded by moats and the remnants of ancient city walls, Chiang Mai is a quaint alternative to the traffic-choked capital but with just as much flair and modern charm. You can wander the picturesque downtown tasting the local food, the air is breathable, the climate is forgiving, and the dense rainforest and waterfall country that surrounds the city promises endless adventure. Loud, crowded, and with action at every turn, Bangkok is just as much about the smells as it is the sights, and the city will stimulate all the senses. Both deserve a visit and won’t disappoint.
Overall, we’d say that Bangkok is the best pick for first-time visitors to Thailand. It’s home to the must-see Grand Palace and is one of the most bucket-list cities in Asia. Those looking for something a little different, a little quieter, will surely prefer Chiang Mai, especially since it’s got access to more day trips and nature.