Each year, over 38 million international visitors grace the shores of Thailand, hungry for peanut-topped pad Thai noodles, sightings of incredible Buddhist temples, and stints on some of the most iconic beaches this side of the Maldives. Many will have either Chiang Mai or Phuket close to the top of their itineraries, since these are two of the Land of Smiles’ most enthralling spots. Here’s a look at why and some help with which one we think you should go for…
Phuket is the largest island in Thailand. It’s fringed by glorious beaches and has hills topped with jungles, but also comes dotted with some of the most hedonistic and hotel-filled towns in the nation. Chiang Mai is the second-city of Thailand. It’s wedged into the rising mountains of the north, surrounded by national parks, elephant sanctuaries, and rustic hill town retreats.
So, as you can see these are two pretty different spots. That’s why many travelers decide to split their time across the two places, so they can experience a variety of what Thailand has to offer. However, if you don’t have the luxury of time to make the most of both, read on. This guide offers info on the accessibility of both places, the sorts of accommodation you can get in each, and what there is to do in both. It’s the perfect companion when you come to pick.
Chiang Mai or Phuket: Getting there
Accessing your destination is the first thing you’ll need to consider. Thankfully, both Chiang Mai and Phuket have international airports that 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, usually landing at big BKK and then getting an onward domestic flight. We will say that there are more flights overall heading Phuket’s way. In fact, the airport on the sun-kissed island is almost double the size as the one up north, serving 18 million passengers per year to Chiang Ma’s 10 million.
Another way to do that while also seeing loads of Thailand is to hop on the overnight sleeper trains. They go direct from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, but require a change onto a bus in Surat Thani if you want to get to Phuket. We’d always recommend booking trains in Thailand well in advance of travel, since beds and seats can sell out fast, particularly during the peak travel season (November to March)
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 region. However, that doesn’t make it cheaper – the infamous taxi mafia on the island ensure that rates for getting from A to B are high. There’s no such problem in Chiang Mai, where the Old Town area is walkable anyhow so tuk-tuks aren’t needed all that often.
Winner: Phuket wins here for having the easier airport but Chiang Mai is easier to get around.
Chiang Mai or Phuket: Nature
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 further apart and you’ll need to consider what it is you’re after the most…
Chiang Mai’s mountains are breathtaking. If you’re into hiking through mist-gathering jungles where elephants roam, then this northern destination is the place for you! There are oodles of areas with trails by the bucket load and too many individual treks to mention here. However, we’d say the romp up the Wat Pha Lat monk’s trail to the Buddhist Temple and the route to the gushing Montha Than waterfall are among the best from the city itself. Beyond that, there are the even-wilder reserves of Doi Inthanon and the Chiang Dao Wildlife Sanctuary to explore, one of which even hosts the highest mountain in the Land of Smiles.
Phuket has beaches and they really are special. If you’re 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. The main ones are all down the west coast of the island, starting with the remote and lovely run of Airport Beach, where you can watch the planes fly in. From there, you can head south to see the built-up party hub of Patong and the luxury stretch of Kata Beach. Occasionally, there is a small wave on Kata Beach which is perfect for surfing a longboard.
Winner: Draw – this is a choice between beaches and mountains. It’s personal preference.
Chiang Mai or Phuket: The price
Thailand is famous for its low prices. But these two spots aren’t the same. When looking at the cost of a vacation, you need to consider accommodation, food, activities, and transportation. Taking all of this into account, the average traveler in Phuket would spend close to $100 a day, whereas Chiang Mai is typically less than $50 per day.
One of the biggest differences is made by the cost of accommodation. In Phuket, largely thanks to the abundance of five-star hotels and chic villas along the shore, it’s easy to pay over $200 a night, though you can get that down to $30-40 a night. We’d put the average closer to $50-70. In Chiang Mai that can dip to under $10 for a hostel, with an average of $20-40 a night.
Food is also WAY less in Chiang Mai – you’re looking at paying something like $9 a day when you hit the street markets and bazaars here. Phuket has fancier establishments that can charge a whole load extra per meal – around $18-20 should see you through a day’s dining on the island. The only thing that we think you’re likely to find cheaper in Phuket is booze, which can be less thanks to the higher number of nightlife places and the availability of happy hours.
Winner: Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai or Phuket: Nightlife
It’s buy-one-get-one-free and happy hours galore in the Land of Smiles! Yep – Thailand really knows how to party. From the raving Full Moon Parties on Koh Phangan to the world-class beach clubs of Koh Samui, there’s oodles on offer here after dark. But what about Phuket and Chiang Mai?
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 four gates. Loy Kroh Road has several bars and the famous Night Bazaar by the river also pumps. Outside the Old City are upscale restaurants and fancy bars, offering a different kind of experience. Trendy Nimmanhaemin is now the main place there, offering hipster bars and clubs that go on late.
Chiang Mai or Phuket: Things to do
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
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!
- Pad Thai – Thai style fried rice noodle with peanuts
- Tom Yum Goong – spicy seafood soup
- Gaeng Keow Wan Gai – green chicken curry
- Tom Kha Gai / Khao Soi – chicken in coconut milk soup
- Kao Pad – Thai style fried rice
Winner: Phuket (hard decision, but more choice)
Which Destination Should You Visit In Thailand, Chiang Mai or Phuket?
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.