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Should I visit Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai

Given limited time for my visit to north Thailand should I include Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai?

The obvious and simple answer to should I visit Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai is…allow time to visit both. They’re a long way from Bangkok – involving either a domestic flight or in the case of Chiang Mai, an overnight train journey – and they are adjacent provinces so even if your time is limited we’d suggest you allow at least a couple of days for each.

Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai are the names of provinces as well as being the names of the respective provincial capitals. (Chiang is of Chinese origin, commonly used in North Thailand, and means fortified settlement or city – see also Xieng in Lao and Myanmar. Rai refers to the king Meng-rai who founded the city in the 13th century and Mai – meaning new in Thai – refers to his second capital.)

Chiang Mai, the old town
One of Chiang Mai’s picturesque ancient temples

Chiang Mai Province is Thailand’s second largest, (slightly smaller than Nakhon Ratchasima), and comprises a huge swathe of forested mountains and cultivated valleys stretching as far as the present-day border with Myanmar. Chiang Mai City is North Thailand’s largest city so is sometimes referred to as the northern capital or more poetically the ‘Rose of the North’.

Chiang Rai Province is mountainous in its western and southern reaches with plains extending eastwards to culminate in the Mekong River which forms the border with Laos. The city was formerly notorious as the unofficial capital of the Golden Triangle region but is today a bustling, mid-size administrative and commercial hub.

Both provinces have Thai populations in the valleys, significant Chinese or Sino-Thai populations in the larger towns and numerous ethnic groups, commonly known as hill tribes, inhabiting upland areas. (These include Karen, Yao and Hmong as well as Sino-Tibetan groups; Akha, Lisu and Lahu.)

Chiang Mai City needs little introduction and with the picturesque narrow lanes and spectacular ancient temples of the Old Town, its bustling street markets, handicrafts, coffee shops, bars and restaurants and numerous nearby elephant sanctuaries has been a firm favourite with visitors to Thailand for many years. The scenic regional town of Chiang Dao – some 80kms north – sees a trickle of visitors as does Doi Inthanon National Park to the east, (home to Thailand’s highest peak), but the majority of the mountainous and still-forested province sees very few foreign visitors.

Thailand, Wat Rong Khun
Chiang Rai’s famous White Temple -Wat Rong Khun

Chiang Rai City boasts the famous White Temple’ – Wat Rong Khun – and receives a steady stream of visitors, albeit far less than Chiang Mai. Mekong-side Chiang Khong is the second most visited town as it’s home to the Friendship Bridge, a popular crossing point into neighbouring Laos. Sob Ruak – the now designated Golden Triangle – where Myanmar, Laos and Thailand meet can also get busy. While an interesting destination, it is today mainly a commercial exercise; go to the small town of Sob Ruak, buy a Golden Triangle t-shirt and visit the Opium Museum. Much lesser-visited, but fascinating, destinations include the spectacular mountains of Pu Chee Fah, overlooking the Mekong and Laos, the historic ancient city of Chiang Saen, (the oldest Thai city in Thailand), and the spectacular mountain-top town of Mae Salong – the former centre for the opium trade and now known for bucolic mountain landscapes, tea plantations and colourful hill-tribes.

The busy provincial capital does lack the charm of its larger but more laid-back southern neighbour but serves as a convenient base for exploring the province’s more scenic locations. Having said that, there’s the White Temple, Blue Temple, Black House and a lively night bazaar, so it’s fine for a night or two.

So, in terms of Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai cities, charming Chiang Mai comes out on top and is definitely the sort of place you could linger a while in.

Thailand, Chiang Saen port
Thailand, Chiang Saen – a fascinating and scenic Mekong rIver port in Chiang Rai Province

In terms of Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai Provinces, the latter probably offers a wider range and variety of visit-worthy regional destinations. We’ll qualify that by pointing out that the province is conveniently compact – anywhere is within a 90-minute drive of the regional capital – while Chiang Mai sprawls across far-flung mountains and certain picturesque destinations involve long journeys. We’re thinking of the fascinating towns of Arunothai or Piang Luang in the far north on the Burmese border while other interesting destinations such as historic Fang or the charming little market centre of Phrao have always slipped under the radar. (Note that we’re excluding the popular little town of Pai which is actually in Mae Hong Song Province.)

If you are heading to North Thailand then find time to visit Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. A new rail link is planned to the latter while Chiang Rai’s Mae Fah Luang Airport has several daily connections with Bangkok. Perhaps not linger longer than necessary in the provincial capital but head out to the regional destinations – particularly delightful, riverside Chiang Saen and fascinating Mae Salong not forgetting your Golden Triangle selfie at Sob Ruak. From here it’s a 3 and 1/2 hour bus ride to Chiang Mai where you can spend your remaining holiday time exploring the Old Town and ancient temples – visit an elephant sanctuary, take a Thai cookery course and of course check out the local markets and myriad cafes and coffee shops.