Culture vs Adventure: The Difference Between Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai

The one thing that makes northern Thailand such a great destination for such a wide variety of travelers is that it offers a perfect mix of ancient culture and awesome outdoor adventure. There are lots of amazing destinations in this region to check out, but although two of our favorites – Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai – sound similar, they offer a fantastic contrast of experiences. Which one is best for you?

Rolling and winding green hills of Chiang Rai
Rolling green hills of Chiang Rai

Let’s look at Chiang Rai first, which is the older of the two cities. It was established in 1262 by King Mengrai, who named it the capital of his Lanna Kingdom. Conquered by Burma and eventually folded back into the kingdom of Siam, Chiang Rai today is a fascinating city that has capitalized on its natural setting to become an outstanding destination for those who love to push the envelope a bit. While there are certainly deep cultural experiences to be had (wandering around the serene Wat Phra Kaew, visiting with hill tribes, or acquiring some of the amazing traditional art on offer), the best thing about the city is how easy it is to get out into the wild.

Indeed, before you even leave the town you can abseil, rock climb, explore caves, and even scream down a giant zipline at Boomerang Park. For a more mobile adventure, outdoor enthusiasts have said that the trails that wind up, around and down the hills and mountains surrounding the city provide some of the best mountain biking in the world. To list all the routes would be an exercise in futility, but suffice it to say, they cater to every style and skill level, be you a family looking for a nice day out or an adrenaline junkie looking to push the envelope. If biking isn’t your thing, you can enjoy the same amazing scenery at a slower pace by trekking.

A Mahout cares for his elephant with a bath.
A Mahout cares for his elephant with a bath.

Various routes provide serene and breathtaking vistas across mist-filled valleys and endless tea plantations, and the cool weather (especially during the winter months) mean that it’s always crisp, and sometimes even downright cool. On top of that there is trekking the famed Golden  Triangle, riding elephants through the jungle, fishing…and how about a nice game of golf to ease yourself back into the swing of things?

A few hours’ drive to the southwest sits Chiang Mai. Given the nickname of Thailand’s Northern Capital, it’s no surprise to learn that it’s the biggest transport, commercial, and tourism hub of Thailand’s hilly northern region. And guess who it was founded by? Our old friend King Mengrai, who got tired of Chiang Rai and decided he needed a new capital, settling on the current location in 1296. Familiar wars and battles saw its fortunes wax and wane over the centuries, and it was finally brought under the Thai umbrella in 1775. Today it’s one of Thailand’s most popular tourist destinations and has a much more vivid ‘city’ feel than Chiang Rai does.

Wat Chiang Man, first temple of Chiang Mai
Wat Chiang Man temple in Chiang Mai

For various reasons – political, geographical, colonial, etc – Chiang Mai became the most important city in the region for education, finance, travel, and trade, and it’s remained that way to this day. As a result there is an incredible amount of cultural attractions within the city walls, most notable the 300+ temples the city lays claim to. From Wat Chiang Man, which was built in 1297, to the forest and cave temples near Wat Umong, to the amazing (and crowded) Wat Doi Suthep, history lovers could easily spend several weeks temple-hopping if they so wished.

Lanterns at Loi Kratong fill the night sky!
Lanterns at Loi Kratong Festival

In addition to an abundance of temples, some of Thailand’s most memorable festivals are celebrated with particular gusto in Chiang Mai – standouts being the Songkran water celebration, the Loi Kratong lantern festival, and the beautiful Flower Festival. There are also several great museums to visit, the large, lush grounds of Chiang Mai University, and the much talked about Monk Chat program, where laypeople can spend a relaxed afternoon talking with Thai monks. No question is too silly!

These two great cities are actually two sides of the same coin – both are iconic northern Thai destinations that will charm and impress even the most jaded of visitor, but each has its own unique vibe and specialties. The only thing you need to decide is if you want to do only one – or both!

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