True story – a few months ago, an elderly friend of Smiling Albino was flying from Canada to meet with his brother, who lives in Chiang Rai, Thailand. At the last minute, he showed his ticket to a friend, who promptly said “Hang on – this ticket is for Chiang Mai.” Some quick phone calls got it sorted out, but it was a close one. As much as we love him, this friend of SA has trouble navigating his own town, let alone a strange airport in a strange city.

Point is, he’s not the first, nor the last, to mix them up and finally sit back and ask: “Well what’s the difference?” Turns out, their differences are only slightly more numerous than their similarities.

First let’s go over what they have in common. Both are cities in northern Thailand, and both are capitals of their respective provinces, which also share the same name. Both are known for expansive markets, quality handmade items, dense jungle, dramatic mountains, important temples, and delicious food. Both were founded in the 13th century (though 35 years apart), and both by the same guy, King Mengrai, a local chieftain who united (ahem, conquered) a number of smaller states in the area.

And of course, there’s the fact there’s only one letter difference in the names.

That being said, you’ll find that each has its own unique vibe, traditions, and attitude, and there are proud folks from both cities who argue that theirs is clearly the best.

Chiang Mai is the bigger of the two – indeed, with a population of over 150,000, it’s about twice as big as Chiang Rai. It’s often sold as Thailand’s Northern Capital, and gets the lion’s share of tourists (and their money). This is helped by the fact that the northern rail line terminates here, as well as the presence of Thailand’s fourth-largest airport.

Chiang Mai is also known for its amazing festivals and rightly so. Thailand’s raucous Songkran water festival is crazy no matter where you are, but no place is crazier than Chiang Mai, where it often extends for several days before and after the official celebration dates with a passion that’s rarely seen in other places. Loy Krathong is also a major draw; you’ve likely seen the picture of a black sky dotted with thousands of floating lanterns. That’s Loy Kratong in Chiang Mai.

There are plenty of worthwhile attractions too – the old city wall, Wat Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai University, and countless religious sites.

What Chiang Rai lacks in size it makes up for with old-town charm. With only about 80,000 spread out over its slightly rolling landscape, it’s easy to get a good grip on the geography of the town. Only in the past decade or so has it really received any amount of attention from tourists, and changes are coming. This may or may not have something to do with the fact that it’s only about 60km from the Burmese border, which has waxed and waned in openness over the past years. Thankfully there is still a real sense of old-town charm around every corner.

As in Chiang Mai, there is plenty to see and do. Wat Phra Kaew – the same name as the giant Grand Palace in Bangkok, but far less ornate – is the original resting place of the Jade Buddha, which now sits in its Bangkok sister temple. What Rong Khun (The White Temple) has to be seen to be believed, as does the Black Temple. Of course there is an expansive night market, and plenty of nature to get out and explore. And that sky…my word, the sky is big in Chiang Rai.

At the end of the day, it wouldn’t be too unfair to say that Bangkok is to Chiang Mai what Chiang Mai is to Chiang Rai…roughly. Despite the long list of similarities, there are still plenty of differences to make exploring each one as different as it is memorable.

But please…make sure you check your plane ticket twice before confirming the booking. Or better yet, you can let us plan a unique adventure specially tailored to your requirements. Check out some of the sample itineraries we have put together for northern Thailand.