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Chiang Mai vs Chiang Rai ?
Are you thinking about whether to travel to Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai? What is the difference between them? Firstly, we should distinguish whether we are talking about the provinces or cities. The provincial capital of Chiang Mai is Chiang Mai city, similarly the capital of Chiang Rai province is Chiang Rai city. Let’s talk about the cities first…..
Chiang Mai city vs Chiang Rai city
Chiang Mai is the economic and cultural hub of northern Thailand. The name ‘Chiang Mai’ means ‘new city’ as it was founded in 1296 by King Mengrai as the capital of the Lanna Kingdom (northern Thailand). Today Chiang Mai is a sprawling low-rise metropolis, ringed by mountains, surrounded by lush sub-tropical countryside.
The different areas of the city such as the old city, and nimmanhemin area are centralized and walkable. The streets are lined with guesthouses, restaurants and shops. Most of its buildings and architectural style are circa 1980’s. The old city has a rustic charm, littered with beautiful ancient Buddhist temples and winding narrow alley ways. Hallmarked by the red-brick ruins of an ancient wall and moat, historically this protected the city from frequent invasions from Myanmar.
Chiang Mai has a bustling nightlife, with bars, markets and plenty of entertainment. It is well established for tourism, with all the facilities and amenities a tourist needs.
Chiang Rai city on the other hand is driven by industry rather than tourism. It receives only a handful of tourists in comparison to Chiang Mai city. Aesthetically its uninspiring , it looks like any other urban city in Thailand. The major sights in the city are the clock tower and the night market . Apart from this there’s not much else to distinguish itself. The city is very spread out, unlike Chiang Mai city its not really walkable.
The real charm of Chiang Rai however, lies outside the city, and in countryside. This is what we’ll discuss next…..
Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai provinces
Comparing the rural provinces of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, is a bit like comparing apples and pears. Chiang Rai is Thailand’s northern most province, sharing borders with Myanmar and Laos. Its rugged and mountainous topography certainly feels more remote than Chiang Mai.
One of the key differences is that Chiang Rai has an impressive diversity of ethnic minorities (hill tribes). Here you can find most of Thailand’s hill tribe groups such as the; Karen, Palong, Akha, Yao/Mien, Lahu, Lisu, Hmong. Hill tribe villages are scattered throughout the province, some nestled away in its forested mountains, and some on the fertile lowland valleys. Whereas most of the hill tribes living in Chiang Mai today, are in fact migrants from areas such as Chiang Rai, who have moved in search of economic and opportunities.
Whilst the nature and ecology of Chiang Mai is stunning, it’s becoming increasingly hard to find rural parts of Chiang Mai that feel untouched by the modern world or tourism. Whereas in Chiang Rai many opportunities still exist. You only need to venture a few kilometers out of Chiang Rai city, to get a glimpse of authentic northern Thai life.
Is Chiang Rai worth it ?
It’s interesting to see that many articles or forum posts on the internet say that Chiang Rai is not worth a visit. Or that there’s not much to see and do in Chiang Rai, and Chiang Mai is much more ‘happening’. These were mainly written by tourists who visited Chiang Rai independently, and seemed to think that there was only the Golden Triangle and White Temple to see. When really, there is is so much more to Chiang Rai than this ! If you travel with a local who can take you beyond the Golden Triangle tourist circuit, you’ll discover the real charms of Chiang Rai. For ideas on what you can see and do in Chiang Rai check out our Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai tour, which starts from Chiang Mai and gets off the tourist-trail to discover authentic parts of Chiang Rai
Do I have enough time to visit Chiang Rai ?
From our experience if you have 3 or more days in Chiang Mai, then you could fit in a trip to Chiang Rai as well. A one-day tour to Chiang Rai which includes the Golden Triangle and White Temple is one of the most common tours from Chiang Mai. Ironically it’s probably the least recommended ! Booking a spot on such a trip, you’re grouped with other travellers, and travel in a tightly packed minivan. It’s around 3 hours drive to Chiang Rai and 3 hrs back to Chiang Mai, so most of the day is spent travelling. Minivan tour drivers are under pressure to get groups back and forth in a day, and driving safely is often compromised. To first-time visitors to the area, a one-day tour to Chiang Rai might seem like a good option, but most veteran travellers here would agree that one day for Chiang Rai is not enough. You might as well just spend that day seeing more of Chiang Mai.
What is the best way to travel to Chiang Rai ?
The best and most efficient way to see Chiang Rai, is to start off from Chiang Mai and make a loop through Chiang Rai province. This is an optimal way to discover Chiang Rai, travelling through areas such as Thaton and Mae Salong which are home to a variety of hill tribes and rich in natural beauty. Most travellers make the mistake of basing themselves in Chiang Rai city, which limits them to day trips to explore Chiang Rai, when really the province is so huge, that the best of it lies beyond day trips from Chiang Rai city. There are regular and daily buses that run from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai, but you’ll be limited to arriving at Chiang Rai city. By far the best way is to travel by car, which will let you get off the main tourist trail, and explore the real cultural gems that lie en-route to Chiang Rai. Even better if you hire a local guide who can open up untold local discoveries such as exploring villages, plantations and natural landmarks together.
So, whats the verdict when it comes to Chiang Mai vs Chiang Rai ? Both destinations provide a different taste of northern Thailand, each with their own merits and charms. Chiang Mai provides reliable amenities and predictable activities for the tourist, making it a good starting point for your travels of northern Thailand. Whereas Chiang Rai is like travelling a bit more into the unknown, providing more opportunities for getting off the tourist trail. The answer really depends on how long you have in northern Thailand. If you only have a few days, then its best to stick to Chiang Mai. If you have 3 days or more then you could fit in a visit to Chiang Rai. If you’re still not sure, contact us and we can customise a Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai itinerary for you
Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai Tour >> See the best of Chiang Rai with our local hill tribe guides
How to visit Hill tribe villages Ethically >> A Quick Guide on how to ensure your visit to the hill tribes is respectful and responsible
Got any questions about travelling to Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai ? Drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org