Chiang Mai Or Phuket? Choose Between Thailand’s Two Extremes

Young Thai woman welcoming tourists to a temple in Chiang Mai
Photo by twenty20photos from Envato Elements
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Chiang Mai and Phuket are two of the most popular destinations for tourists in South East Asia. Each year, over 38 million international visitors grace the shores of Thailand, soaking up the culture, food, and iconic scenery. So, how do you choose Chiang Mai or Phuket?

Making this decision is actually quite simple, as both places offer two incredibly different experiences of Thailand:

  • Phuket = beach, sun, and party
  • Chiang Mai = mountains, nature, and culture

Phuket is an island in South Thailand and is often used as a gateway to other destinations, like Koh Phangan. The beaches have the iconic tropical island vibe and are extremely popular for backpackers and luxury holidaymakers. Chiang Mai on the other hand is a more mellow inland destination offering traditional culture at a much quieter pace.

Most travelers decide to split their time across the two places, so they can experience the best of Thailand. However, if you don’t have the luxury of time to make the most of these two destinations, then you need to decide between Chiang Mai and Phuket. Take into consideration the accessibility, accommodation, and activities to help you determine which Thai destination is best for you!

Chiang Mai or Phuket: Getting there

Local transport in Chiang Mai
Photo by Adli Wahid on Unsplash

Accessing your destination is the first and foremost aspect that you need to consider. Do you want an easy ride from the airport straight to your hotel, saving precious time you can spend at the pool? Or maybe you’re the kind of person that says “it’s all about the journey…” Either way, how do you get to Chiang Mai and how do you get to Phuket?

Both Chiang Mai and Phuket have international airports and are serviced by low-budget airlines, such as Air Asia and Nok Air. Bangkok is a commonplace for travelers to pass through on their way to either destination. You can also jump on an overnight sleeper train for a real experience.

Getting Around

Once you’re in either Phuket or Chiang Mai, you’ll need to get around the place to discover more of what’s on offer. Generally speaking, there are more transport and taxi options in Phuket due to the simple matter that it’s a busier city. However, that doesn’t make it cheaper.

The average price a tourist spends on transportation each day in Phuket is $8.99 per person. This could be a combination of private drivers and public transport, like buses. Whereas, the average spend per person on transportation in Chiang Mai is only $3.25.

A top tip for traveling through SE Asia: always negotiate the price for a journey before accepting a ride! The local transportation services can see an unsuspecting tourist coming from a mile off and will take advantage where they can. Uber is a recent addition to both Phuket and Chiang Mai.

Winner: Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai or Phuket: Nature and landscape

Chiang Mai and Phuket have very different landscapes. Phuket is a beach destination. Chiang Mai is an inland city surrounded by mountains. They couldn’t be any more different! And deciding which is better really is down to your personal preference.

Mountains

Mountains landscape at Doi Luang Chiang Dao, High mountain in Chiang Mai Province, Thailand, Vintage filtered image.
Photo by Tirachard from Envato Elements

Chiang Mai’s mountains are breathtaking. If you’re into hiking and getting out in the great outdoors, then this Northern Thailand destination is the place for you! Explore the misty mountains and soak up the true authentic Thailand.

This is also your gateway to other places further north, deeper into the jungle. Places like Chiang Rai and Lampang are just an hour away, perfect to explore further afield for a day trip.

Beaches

Desert Paradisiac beach in Phuket Thailand with coconut tree
Photo by Netfalls from Envato Elements

The beaches at Phuket really are special. If you are after white sand and palm trees, then this is the best place for you. The water is crystal clear and generally calm, gently lapping at the shore, perfect for swimming and floating your days away. Just be warned, the high season does bring the crowds and these beaches do get busy.

Some of the top beaches you must check out are:

  • Patong
  • Kata Beach
  • Paradise Beach

Occasionally, there is a small wave on Kata Beach which is perfect for surfing a longboard. October – November is the best time to catch a swell in Thailand. Without a doubt, the beautiful beaches make Phuket worth visiting.

Winner: Phuket (it’s a hard decision!)

Chiang Mai or Phuket: Prices

Elephants at the Phuket lighthouse temple Prom THep
Photo by Netfalls from Envato Elements

Thailand is famous for its low prices. When looking at the cost of a vacation, you need to consider accommodation, food, activities, and transportation. Taking all of this into consideration, the average traveler in Phuket would spend close to $100 a day, whereas Chiang Mai is typically less than $50 per day.

PhuketChiang Mai
Hotel/Hostel Accom. (for 1 person)$51$21
Food (for 1 day)$18$9.15
Transport (for 1 day)$8.99$3.25
Entertainment (for 1 day)$28$11
Alcohol (for 1 day)$5.70$6.60

All in all, both destinations are cheap as chips for Western tourists! You can live like royalty for the week or two that you are there, keeping a relatively low budget.

Winner: Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai or Phuket: Nightlife

Group of Asian teenage girls having party celebrating on beach, friends happy drinking beer on beach at sea when sunset in evening.
Photo by Tirachard from Envato Elements

Buy-one-get-one and happy hours galore! Thailand really knows how to party and that is no secret. From the raving full moon parties on Koh Phangan to the world-class beach clubs in Koh Samui, if you’re looking for a party then you are in the right place with Thailand.

Backpackers and party lovers flock to Phuket for the legendary nightlife. Patong Beach is at the heart of the party with beach bars and nightclubs open all night, so you can dance until the sun comes up. Bangla Road comes alive after dark with the street filling up with pedestrians and entertainment. Rat-U-Thit Road and Beach Road are other alternatives for a change of scene.

Chiang Mai, on the other hand, takes things at a slightly different pace. But that’s not to say you won’t find nightlife here. You’ll need to head to the old city inside the 4 gates; Loy Kroh Road has several bars and the famous Night Bazaar by the river. Outside the Old City are upscale restaurants and fancy bars, offering a different kind of experience.

Winner: Phuket

Chiang Mai or Phuket: Things to do

Asian tourists are using the phone to take photos of the ancient city of Chiang Mai, Thailand
Photo by benzoix from Envato Elements

Thailand is full of incredible experiences with one of the best cultures in the world. Both Phuket and Chiang Mai are packed with great things to do and beautiful tourists sites to keep every type of traveler happy.

Chiang Mai’s main place to visit is the many Buddhist temples dotted throughout, the Night Bazaar, and the Elephant Sanctuary. Many people enjoy a river cruise on the Ping River and you should definitely check out the Doi Inthanon National Park. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is one of the most important and ornate temples in Thailand, built in the 14th century. This breathtaking architectural wonder sits atop a hill overlooking Chiang Mai – great photo opportunities!

Thai food cooking classes are also super popular in Chiang Mai. Learning how to master the delicious flavors with a mountain backdrop behind you is an experience that will stay with you forever.

Phuket has fewer cultural things to do and see, however, that doesn’t mean there aren’t things to experience. Of course, there are beautiful beaches and other islands to visit, like the iconic Koh Phi Phi. You can jump on a boat and spend the day island hopping, soaking up all the natural beauty. Relax in one of the resort spas and explore local markets for trinkets.

Winner: Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai or Phuket: Food

Asian food, dishes of thai cuisine. Tom kha gai soup, pad thai noodles, green salad, sauces and green tea.
Photo by ipolly80 from Envato Elements

Thai food is full of flavor and spice. You’ll leave this country craving Tom Yum Goong and Pad Thai like you wouldn’t believe. So make sure you join one of the cooking classes while you’re here!

Phuket offers everything from traditional dishes to western favorites. There is a strong Chinese influence over the cuisine, adding to the already delicious Thai food. Whether you have special dietary requirements or are up to trying something new, Phuket does a great job catering to everyone and for every budget.

Chiang Mai and northern Thailand food is generally characterized by mild (or hot), salty and sour flavors. Traditional cooking relies heavily on seasonal produce and has a Burmese influence. If you are looking for somewhere fancy to eat, head over to Nimmanhaemin Road just outside the Old City. Here you’ll find plenty of upscale restaurants waiting to wine and dine you.

Top 5 Traditional Thai Dishes You Must Try

While you’re in Thailand, make sure you try these traditional dishes!

  1. Pad Thai – Thai style fried rice noodle with peanuts
  2. Tom Yum Goong – spicy seafood soup
  3. Gaeng Keow Wan Gai – green chicken curry
  4. Tom Kha Gai / Khao Soi – chicken in coconut milk soup
  5. Kao Pad – Thai style fried rice

Winner: Phuket (hard decision, but more choice)

Which Destination Should You Visit In Thailand, Chiang Mai or Phuket?

A golden temple in Chiang Mai with a bright blue sky behind
Photo by cheese yang on Unsplash

So there you have it, the showdown between Chiang Mai and Phuket. If we had to choose a winner based on the categories we’ve compared then it would be a draw, but where’s the use of that? Chiang Mai is the winner in our eyes – there are fewer tourists and it’s more authentic overall.

If you want a beach holiday, then you have to go the Phuket. The white sandy shores fringed by palm trees and the calm Andaman Sea are breathtaking. You are guaranteed a relaxing vacation, sipping cocktails while watching the sun go down. And if you enjoy hitting the dance floor, then you really are in the right place.

On the flip side, Chiang Mai is perfect for anyone who wants to experience authentic Thailand. Culture and history are prominent in the mountains, and you will truly feel like you’re in a faraway land. This is the best place for a switch off from reality and getting off the grid.

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Hi! I'm Abigail, a surfer, traveller, and nature lover. I'm from the UK but have been able to call Bali home for several years. I've backpacked across Australia on a shoestring budget, explored European coastlines, and taken in the sights across the pond and down into South America. My travel wishlist keeps growing the more I explore our perfect planet!