Chiang Mai vs Chiang Rai, the debate as to which Thai city is better always gets travelers in an uproar. So we’ve asked a collection of awesome travel bloggers to weigh in and tell us what they love about Chiang Rai or Chiang Mai.
The truth is both cities have a lot to offer and both are worthy of multi-day visits. However, they are very different.
Chiang Mai has hundreds of temples, most are very traditional in nature. They also have an abundance of nature and outdoors activities, like river rafting and hiking. There are also temples embedded in nature, and on top of mountains, in case you feel like combining your nature hike with your quest for enlightenment.
Chiang Rai’s attractions have a more modern edge. The White Temple is still being worked on by the artist. The Blue Temple was only completed in 2016. And Black House is a massive collection of art and architecture created by contemporary Thai artists.
Of course, both Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai have their night markets – as most Thailand cities do.
If you’re wondering what to do in Chiang Mai, or what there is to see in Chiang Rai, this is the perfect list for you.
Psst, to avoid spoilers, Tim and I will tell you our favorite city at the end.
Quick Facts About Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai
With more than 300 traditional Buddhist temples, including at least one on a mountain top and one set in the jungle, waterfalls, river rafting, hiking and a vibrant night market, there’s no shortage of things to do in Chiang Mai. This city is a wonderful mixture of Thailand’s cultural traditions and the natural world. Chiang Mai is definitely a city you don’t want to miss.
Chiang Rai mixes Thai tradition with modern and contemporary art. Their most famous Blue Temple and White Temple are recent creations that speak to traditional temple structures while adding modern stories and interpretations. Black house is another tribute to contemporary Thai artists. Chiang Rai also has a penchant for community events, parks, night markets and walking streets that give it a fun atmosphere.
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Top Things to Do in Chiang Rai
Wat Rong Seua Ten – The Blue Temple
Contributed by Katie Dundas at The Accidental Australian
Chiang Rai’s Wat Rong Seua Ten, known in English as the Blue Temple, is one of the most vibrant and elaborate temples in the area. Although we often think of temples as being ancient and historic, the Blue Temple was only completed in 2016.
This Buddhist temple is designed in a shimmering, bright blue hue, which catches your eye as soon as you see it. The imposing dragons on the exterior are spectacular, and both the inside and outside are full of intricate details, paintings, and detailed carvings.
To me, it’s one of the most beautiful temples in Chiang Rai, and certainly worth a visit. The mix of modern design with a traditional style of the temple is really magnificent, and you really find yourself drawn toward the incredible blue color.
The temple’s name actually doesn’t translate to Blue Temple at all- rather, it means ‘dancing tiger’, named after the tigers who used to live in the region.
The temple is a few kilometers outside of town, in Rong Suea Ten, but is easily reached by motorbike or tuk-tuk. Admission is free and there are always lots of vendors nearby offering ice cream and cold drinks.
Wat Huay Pla Kang – the Goddess of Mercy
Contributed by Rose at Where Goes Rose?
Most travelers to Chiang Rai know about the White Temple and the Blue Temple yet few know about this incredible statue out in the countryside.
While it might look like a giant Buddha, this religious monument is actually the Goddess of Mercy. With stunning countryside views and insightful religious significance, it’s an essential stop if you’re spending two or more days in Chiang Rai.
Leading up to the statue is a giant staircase flanked by pearly white dragon statues. These dramatic images from Buddhist mythology are a reminder of Thailand’s culture and history.
Once you’ve climbed the impressive staircase and reached Wat Huay Pla Kang statue, you’ll be able to look out over views for miles around. Better yet, you can actually climb up inside the statue and view the countryside through the eyes of the Goddess of Mercy herself.
To reach the statue, you can either hire a scooter or catch a Grab taxi. If getting a taxi, you want to ask them to wait as it can be tricky to hail one back.
Chiang Rai Clock Tower
Contributed by Team Hazard Rides Again
The Chiang Rai clock tower is in the center of town, in the center of a traffic circle, at the intersection of Thanon Jet Yot and Thanon Baanpa Pragarn.
The clock tower is this big, gold, gaudy thing that is glorious is its brashness. People drive around it day and night, obviously having grown accustomed to its presence. Even then, it’s a hard thing to ignore.
But the best thing happens in the evenings.
At 7, 8 and 9pm, the clock tower puts on a light and music show.
Colored lights cast their glow on the clock tower, masking its shiny gold façade, bathing it in an ever-changing rainbow of colors. Then there’s the music, definitely local Thai. We thought the one at 9pm was Thailand’s national anthem, but we’re not entirely certain.
It’s easy to show up a little before the hour to watch the show. However, if you want to make an evening of it, there’s a restaurant that appears on the corner, tables, chairs and all – but only in the evenings. It’s completely outside and they make some great local food. Hopefully it’s still there when you arrive, because having dinner and enjoying the clock tower show in balmy Chiang Rai makes for a nice night.
Our hotel, Kanlaya Place, which we can highly recommend, was a very short walk from the clock tower, so we did this regularly.
If you’re in Chiang Rai, make time for the clock tower and its wonderful light show.
Baan Dam – Black House
Contributed by Caroline Keyzor at CK Travels
I prefer to visit Chiang Rai over Chiang Mai, as the former has so many unique attractions to explore which are off the beaten track.
Baan Dam, otherwise known as the ‘Black House’ is one of my favorite spots to visit. This iconic site is only a 25 minute drive from Chiang Rai town.
Black House feels like an artful portrayal of hell. It houses a collection of dark wood buildings featuring works by Thawan Duchanee and other contemporary Thai artists. It also houses a large collection of skins, teeth, bones and taxidermy.
The contrast between Chiang Rai’s White Temple and the Black House is quite apparent, and the different emotions conjured by the two have been dubbed the ‘heaven and hell of architecture’. Despite the temple like appearance, the Black House does not have religious significance.
Set amongst lush green northern Thailand surroundings, Duchanee spent more than 50 years building the site to provide a place of learning for young artists. There are around 40 different houses to explore onsite and sometimes there are live cultural performances, choreographed by Chiang Rai’s leading artists.
Entry to the Black House costs 80 baht.
Flower Festival Park in Chiang Rai
Contributed by Team Hazard Rides Again
The Flower Festival Park in Chiang Rai has a wonderfully playful garden setting. Cartoonish characters sit around every corner waiting to playfully greet you. There’s an elephant jazz band at the entrance and a giant teacup perfect for photo ops just inside the front gate.
This park is a delightful place to spend an afternoon.
It’s also right across the street from the 75th Anniversary Flag and Lamp Park. I mention this because there always seemed to be events going on there. A lot of them were full stage performances with dancers and singers, and they were all sorts of fun.
The Chiang Rai Walking Street that starts near the clock tower, ends at these two parks. It’s a moderate walk from the beginning to the end and there just may be a fun event going on when you get there. Though we do recommend visiting Flower Festival Park in the daytime, as it’s not properly lit for evening viewing.
If you’re going to spend even a few days in Chiang Rai, and we highly recommend that you do, don’t miss these parks, and the Walking Street, and the clock tower. They are the essence of Chiang Rai.
Wat Rong Khun – The White Temple
Contributed by Alina at The Happy Kid
“I found northern Thailand truly fascinating, so full of culture and history. But in this whole spirituality, the White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) in Chiang Rai stands as a truly unique sight.
Famous for its unconventional architecture and symbolism, you must see it yourself to understand its complexity. It is fascinating in ways that cannot be described or understood from pictures.
It actually reminded me of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.
Privately-owned, the White Temple is actually an art exhibition in the form of a Buddhist Temple. It was designed by a local artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat.
Even though the work started more than 20 years ago, it is not yet considered finished. The owner accepts only small donations for his work. He doesn’t want to be unduly influenced by the money he receives, neither does he expect to finalize the project anytime soon. He explains that “only death can stop my dream, but it cannot stop my project”.
The all-white temple is decorated with shiny mirror glass fragments and strange sculptures.
You first enter through a bridge representing “the cycle of rebirth” and ultimately leave through the “Gate of Heaven”. The ubosot, the main prayer room in the Buddhist temples, shows unexpected elements, combining Buddhist and Hindu symbols.
Some of the images are really eccentric for such a location and it is difficult to understand their meaning. Among demons and flames, you can observe characters like Neo from Matrix, Harry Potter or Hello Kitty, together with nuclear explosions, oil pumps and terrorist attacks. There are various interpretations of the meaning. Most of them are centered around the theme of good vs evil in the modern world.
The White Temple can be visited on a daily basis. Thai people are admitted for free and there is a fee of 50 Bhat for foreigners.
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Top Things to Do in Chiang Mai
Bo Sang – Craft Village
Contributed by Ruth from Tanama Tales
Bo Sang (sometimes spelled Bor-Sang) is a unique craft village located 11 km (7 miles) from Chiang Mai.
What is this village’s claim to fame?
Paper made from Mulberry bark, to be exact. They use it to craft umbrellas in a huge range of sizes and colors. To make things even more interesting, these umbrellas are painted by hand by skilled artisans.
Once you arrive in town, you are going to see a wide array of stores selling the famous umbrellas. However, start your visit by heading to the Umbrella Making Center where they’ll be happy to give you a tour. You’ll see the entire assembly process. Each station will give you insight into the natural materials used and the fine skills required to obtain the final product.
After the tour, you can peruse the goods at the center, or other specialized shops. Keep in mind you can design your own umbrella. Choose a color, trim style, and design. An artisan will paint almost everything that is in your mind – while you watch.
With time, the artisans have diversified and now offer other hand-painted goods. There are bags, cell phone covers, signs, fans, and lanterns displaying traditional designs.
I recommend visiting independently so you can spend as much time as you want in the different stores. Songthaews depart for the village at regular intervals from Chiang Mai’s Waworot Market.
If you have time, make sure to explore the village’s markets, food center, coffee/noodle shops, and the nearby MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum.
Pro Tip: If you happen to be in town in January, make sure to visit for the Umbrella Festival.
Visiting this umbrella-making village is definitely one of the most unique things to do in Thailand!
Mae Kampong – Local Village
Contributed by Lindsay Lalonde at Chiang Mai Family Guide
Just 45 minutes outside of Chiang Mai, is an absolute gem of a local village called Mae Kampong. The village itself is small, but there is plenty to see, eat, and do!
Pro Tip: Hire a driver or a tour guide to get here. There is very little parking and you’ll waste time trying to find a spot. Although if you rent a motorbike, you’ll be fine!
The town is situated in the mountains and feels like no other village in northern Thailand. You’ll enjoy walking freely down the streets talking photos of all the authentic architecture along the way.
Just before you reach the village, be sure to stop at the Teen Tok Royal Project Development Center. Here, you will experience a wonderful (and free) walk through natural lush nature.
Within Mae Kampong visit Teddu Coffee and take a walk on their suspension bridge. After this, you’ll definitely have an appetite!
Choose any restaurant on the right side of the street to enjoy your meal on flowered decks hanging over the stream below.
Finally, after enjoying a local meal, head to the Mae Kampong waterfall to cool off! Mae Kampong is sure to impress even a seasoned tourist.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Ask the locals. If you haven’t seen Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, then you haven’t finished your visit to Chiang Mai. This beautiful mountain temple is only 15km from the city and boasts beautiful architecture, artwork, a 79 ft gold plate spire, and a killer overlook view of Chiang Mai.
The name Wat (Temple) Phra (Buddha) That (Relic) Doi Suthep (the Mountain) is explained by the legend of the White Elephant: a monk had a dream that lead him to a relic: a bone from the Buddha.
The bone is in two pieces. Once reaching northern Thailand, one piece was left at Wat Suan Dok. The other piece was placed on the back of a white elephant that roamed Northern Thailand until it climbed this mountain and reached the current location of the temple. It then sounded its trumpet and died. The king believed this to be an omen and so the temple was built.
Open from 0630 to 1830 and only 30 baht to enter, this temple is worth the 300 stair climb (or 50 baht lift). Conservative dress is required (shoulders and knees must be covered). If you are going midday, grab a pair of socks since the tiling can be hot and shoes are not allowed. We highly recommend coming for sunrise or sunset; either way you can’t go wrong.
Getting there: The cheapest option is hopping on a Sᴐᴐng Teeo at Chang Pauk Gate. These are the red trucks with the two (sᴐᴐng) covered benches in the back. A roundtrip ride is only 120 baht per person. When you’re ready to return just look for the red truck and show your return ticket.
Want a private ride? Then hop on your rented scooter or negotiate a roundtrip with a taxi.
If you have the time and are feeling really adventurous, you can hike up Monk’s Trail, estimated to take about 3-6 hours.
Wat Pha Lat – Temple in the Jungle
Contributed by Team Hazard Rides Again
Halfway up the mountain, on your way to Doi Suthep, don’t miss this almost-hidden jungle temple.
Wat Pha Lat, while well-kept, feels like it would be swallowed by the jungle in a matter of weeks if the monks decided to leave.
There’s a rocky stream down its center and bodhisattvas sit right at the edge of the jungle while live peacocks wander about. Sitting back from the main road, it’s quite peaceful. You forget about the city, and the crowds. It’s the perfect place to contemplate your place in the universe and Buddha’s teachings, or explore to discover all the wonderful sculptures and carvings.
Another thing we liked about Wat Pha Lat is that it felt different. There are more than 300 temples in Chiang Mai, but this one feels extra special. The statues and iconography are unique, as is the setting.
Even if you’re getting ‘templed out’, as we were about this time, we think you’ll find Wat Pha Lat to be a refreshing place. It’s definitely well worth your time.
Directions are the same as for Doi Suthep, grabbing a red songthaew is easy, but let them know where you want to be let off. You can also access this temple from the Monk’s Trail, which is supposed to be a great hike – if you’re up for it.
Doi Inthanon National Park
Hiking Doi Inthanon National Park is a wonderful day trip from Chiang Mai.
Thailand is a well-known destination for its hectic capital Bangkok and its beautiful Islands. The highlights of this country fall on the beautiful beaches, diverse paradise and Full Moon parties for party animals.
However, northern Thailand offers another side of the country to explore.
Chiang Mai, the largest city in northern Thailand and the capital of Chiang Mai Province, offers an easy-going city vibe as well as an amazing tropical environment. The city has the famous Doi Suthep Mountain which offers an amazing view of the city and the interesting Wat Phra That Doi Suthep temple at the top.
My favorite activity in Chiang Mai is to visit one of the most famous national parks of Thailand: the Doi Inthanon National Park. In this park, you will find Thailand’s highest peak. It rises to a height of 2565 meters above sea level. The Doi Inthanon National Park is 54 km far from Chiang Mai Old Town. By car, it will take you 1:30h.
Here you can hike this mountain, see the twin pagodas on the top, see the entire Chiang Mai province (on a clear day), and walk through rice fields of the villages along the way.
Although it may look challenging to do a hike here, it is an easy hike. The course is well signed, with stone steps and a wooden catwalk to help visitors on their way.
When hiking in Doi Ithanon you can appreciate nature at its best. From waterfalls to centenary trees and indigenous plants exclusive to Thailand..
When you hike here, your first stop is one of the largest and the most beautiful waterfalls in the Thailand, the Wachirathan Waterfall. This waterfall is over 80 meters high, and the power of the fall creates a refreshing mist that feeds the surrounding vegetation.
After this waterfall, you will continue your way to the top where you have the viewpoint of Chiang Mai province. From here, you’ll stop at the famous twin pagodas: the Napamatanee Don and Napaphon Bhumisiri. The twin stupas were built to celebrate the birthday of the beloved King Bhumibol (1927-2016) and Queen Sirikit.
To hike in Doi Inthanon National Park you have to pay a small fee (an entrance ticket). Be aware that the price for foreigners is different from the price for locals. Last time I visited, the cost was 200 baht (approximately 5 euros).
If you are in Chiang Mai, I highly recommend you to take a trip to this park and enjoy a day out of the city. If you want to extend your stay here, you can easily find camping sites to rent a tent for an overnight visit.
Chiang Mai Sunday Night Market
Contributed by Pam at Travel Hacking Mom
The Chiang Mai Sunday Night Market is one of the events that make Chiang Mai so special. It opens every Sunday from 4:00-midnight. Located near the Old Town walls by Ratchadamnoen Road, it is easy to reach by a tuk-tuk. We were lucky, we could actually walk to it from our hotel.
One of the first things we noticed was the nightly entertainment. We sat in plastic chairs and enjoyed song and dance by local performers. It was really fun to watch and we had a hard time leaving.
Wandering through the varied souvenir stalls was next and we picked up some great trinkets to go home. One of my favorite things I bought in Thailand was the pajama pants you find everywhere. I wish I had bought several more pairs. Everyone I bought them for loves them too. Be sure to haggle as they always ask for more than the souvenirs are worth!
Food stalls are plentiful and our favorites were the fresh juice and smoothie stalls. There are plenty of cheap eats at the Sunday Market. You are sure to find something that appeals to you and it will be one of your cheapest meals.
Our favorite thing at the Market was the foot massages we found down one street for only $3. They massaged our feet for about 30 minutes while we enjoyed people watching and relaxing. Cheap massages in Thailand are phenomenal and their cheap price is an excuse to have many of them.
The night market on Sunday is very popular, so expect crowds. Enjoy the smells, the lights and the sounds that are the Sunday Night Market. It is a very colorful, noisy and fun experience that is one of the best parts of Chiang Mai!
Chiang Mai’s Grand Canyon
Contributed by Steffi at Beach Bum Adventure
One of my favourite activities to experience in Chiang Mai, Thailand is to visit their “Grand Canyon”.
I first heard about it while I was studying in Chiang Mai for 2 months and heard people talking about the Grand Canyon and realized they weren’t referring to the USA!
The Grand Canyon in Chiang Mai is actually an unused quarry filled with water, and it’s much more beautiful than you would first expect. The water is a beautiful turquoise (much to my surprise) and there are floating rafts and inflatable tubes to float around on when you are tired of swimming.
The view from the top of the canyon is lovely, with a little restaurant looking out across the quarry.
Getting There: You can take a tuk-tuk, bike or taxi from the centre of Chiang Mai. It takes around 20 minutes to get there.
I definitely recommend spending an afternoon chilling out here after all of the adventurous activities that you can do around Chiang Mai.
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So, Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai?
Personally, Tim and I fell in love with Chiang Rai. There was a strong sense of community and a laid back feel that we really appreciated. This city always has something going on.
Also, if you’re heading to Laos via the Friendship Bridge and the Mekong River Cruise, you definitely want to leave a few days for Chiang Rai. It’ll make for a smoother transition and you won’t regret it.
But don’t miss Chiang Mai. There’s a lot of great stuff there, too.
Hopefully this list has given you a good idea of what to do in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. The best thing is to try to fit them both in your trip so you don’t miss out on all the great stuff that Thailand has to offer.
A special thanks to all the travel bloggers who contributed to this post. Go check out their blogs and enjoy their stories, too.
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