If you’re stuck between Chiang Mai and Bangkok, it’s not going to be an easy choice. Both cities deserve a visit, and squeezing them into your Thai travels will be worth it. But if you only have time for one, fear not. This guide is here to help you make the decision.
The capital of Thailand is a sprawling urban mecca, with luxurious shopping and sky bars intermingled with ancient heritage and religious significance. Cheaper, rustic, and steeped in history, Chiang Mai perfectly balances northern values with city life. But which is better?
This guide will look at everything that makes these two cities unique. Although alike, Bangkok and Chiang Mai promise vastly different experiences. So will it be the “City of Angels” or the “New City”? Let’s find out.
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 lowly 139,000, Bangkok is far busier, fast-paced, and diverse. Bangkok is suited to visitors seeking a bustling vibe and settlers after on-the-go city life. It welcomes more tourists than any other city globally and is a capital of contrasts.
Thais rarely call Bangkok by its name, but rather 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.
Whereas 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 Lan Na region, the “Kingdom of a Million Rice Fields.”
The city is also a religious epicenter of Thailand. But the Old Town tells a different story to Bangkok’s heaving streets. Chiang Mai is a cultural and creative hub. The small-town vibe has meant backpacker communities have thrived, and more ex-pats have flocked to the city in recent years, living in harmony with the locals.
Chiang Mai is slower than Bangkok but still vibrant and diverse, the best of both city worlds. While Bangkok is ever-exciting and always different, it’s not for everyone. Chiang Mai is decidedly more pleasant, and the laidback vibe wins every time.
Winner: Chiang Mai
Bangkok vs Chiang Mai: Ease of Travel
The first thing to consider before galavanting off anywhere will be how you’re going to get there. No matter how much time you’re planning to have in Thailand, where you choose to stop off could have a significant impact on the rest of your travels, so think wisely. But there’s also the issue of getting around and getting out. But don’t worry, we’ve covered it all.
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 Chiang Mai also boasts its own international airport, flying into Bangkok will be considerably cheaper and easier if you’re coming from abroad.
That said, you can fly to Chiang Mai from anywhere in the country and jump on an overnight train as you would get to Bangkok. Yet, 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 with 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 smells and sights of the city, and unlike Bali, Thailand is easy to walk, with developed pavements offering an escape from standstill traffic. On that note, Bangkok is more often than not clogged with traffic. This makes tuk-tuks and taxis slow and sweaty, and walking in the busiest areas can sometimes be hard to breathe.
With its lesser population, Chiang Mai is less crowded and less populated, making it quicker and more pleasant to get around. But Bangkok has a solution. 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.
Still, where Bangkok has the Skytrain, Chiang Mai has scooters. Scooters are the most popular form of transport all over Southeast Asia. While foreigners can rent them just as easily in Bangkok as in the north, the traffic, dangers, and pollution make them far less popular with visitors to the capital.
The comparisons are endless, and although Bangkok might be easier to get to, Chiang Mai is nicer to get around, so both cities tie when it comes to ease of travel.
Bangkok vs Chiang Mai: Temples
Both as religious meccas of sorts, the temples in Bangkok and Chiang Mai deserve a whole day and their own section. But Bangkok has the Royal Palace, so how can Chiang Mai compete?
The highlight of Bangkok in architecture, majesty, and significance is the Royal Palace. A complex maze 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 in 43BC as legend has it.
Across the river is Wat Arun, the “Temple of Dawn,” where you’ll find the Prang Tower and the seven-pronged Trident of Shiva, while Wat Pho is directly opposite, the home of the iconic gold reclining buddha. You haven’t been to Bangkok if you haven’t toured the temples, and you can access the entirety of the Grand Palace complex for just 400 baht, or $12.
Still, Chiang Mai won’t disappoint when it comes to religious tourism as the city is home to more Buddhist temples than any other city in Thailand. With 117 in the Muang district and 300 “wats” in the surrounding region, checking out the best of the city’s temples should be on the agenda 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, and Wat Chiang Man, the “Elephant Temple,” is the oldest one in the city. Wat Pra Singh, where you’ll find the best examples of Lan Na architecture and the Lion Buddha statues, also shouldn’t go amiss. And Wat Chedi Luang’s towering ruins are the perfect place to chat with Buddhist monks about their lives.
The variety and splendor of Chiang Mai’s plethora of temples is a welcome surprise, but Thailand triumphs for its global reputation and unmissable palace complex.
Bangkok vs Chiang Mai: Attractions
Even if temples aren’t your thing, it’s safe to say you won’t be bored in either Bangkok or Chiang Mai. There’s no shortage of things to do in the vast, bustling capital and Chiang Mai’s rich history and lush surrounding lands promise something to suit every crowd.
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.
The floating markets are more cultural wanders than shopping hotspots, but they are also great places to pick up some nick nacks and an excuse to tour the city by riverboat. And if you’re after modern boutiques and high-end designers, the Siam Center won’t disappoint. Not only a shopping mall but also housing an ice rink, aquarium, and Madame Tussauds exhibition, this flashy modern building complex will keep you busy all day long.
Still, we can’t talk about shopping in Thailand without mentioning the beloved Asian tradition of Night Bazaars. Just as much about strolling and taking in the atmosphere than perusing the stalls, Bangkok’s night markets are iconic for their street food and entertainment as well as cheap counterfeit goods and souvenirs. The Ratchada Train Market is recognizable by its birds-eye view of a 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 go-to spot for visitors.
But when it comes to night shopping, Chiang Mai can’t be left out. Despite its smaller size, the night markets are an unmissable part of the Chiang Mai experience with four famous evening bazaars. Check out the Sunday Night Bazaar on Wualai Walking Street in the Old City, where 1 km of stalls line the vibrant road with rows of handicrafts, accessories, and gadgets at the lowest prices. Chiang Mai promises fewer crowds but the same lively energy and exciting diversity.
Another important pull factor to Chiang Mai, where Bangkok can’t compete, is the large concentration of elephants sanctuaries. Visitors can retain a firm stand against animal tourism, a controversy that can still be found in other areas of Thailand, while still getting to interact with, feed, clean, and witness these gentle giants in their natural habitat.
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 tourism and logging industries in Thailand. And if you have some more time to spare, consider staying on-site to help with reforestation, vaccinations, feeding, and farming. At just $350 for one week with full-board, this once-in-a-lifetime experience is more than worth it.
Many of Chiang Mai’s attractions are located just outside the city and make the most of the vast lush countryside of northern Thailand. 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. From shooting ranges and snake charming shows to quad biking and the exhilarating inflatable water park, the city is not all culture and ancient charm but well-equipped for thrill-seekers who want to escape city life.
That said, Chiang Mai has a growing community of artists, and embracing the creative crowd at Thapae East for an evening of poetry and live music shouldn’t go amiss. You can do anything imaginable in Bangkok, but with less saturation, while Chiang Mai’s attractions, unique to the region, remain firm favorites.
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 at around 31 degrees Celcius, with clear blue skies and little rainfall. At the same time, the wet season 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 less than 700 km apart, but what defines their different climates is Chiang Mai’s high altitude compared to Bangkok’s flat cityscape. On the Mae Png River basin, Chiang Mai sits at an average elevation of 310 m above sea level and is surrounded by high mountain ranges. This means Chiang Mai is less humid and can feel cooler than Bangkok. With average dry season averages of 25 degrees celsius, the city is still pleasantly warm. But this can dip to 22 degrees in winter, which comes as a welcome escape from the sweaty capital.
Bangkok also has more wind circulation due to 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. Chiang Mai’s agreeable seasonal climate steals the win.
Winner: Chiang Mai
Bangkok vs Chiang Mai: The Verdict
Enclaved by moats and remnants of the 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 on 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 your senses. Both deserve a visit and won’t disappoint. We know where we would visit, but now you just have to take your pick.