Last year I spent a month in Thailand, which has prompted me to consider which of the two cities, Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai is best. Thailand offers beautiful temples, stunning scenery and excellent value for money. Which of these cities has the best nightlife? Which has the best day trips? Which is the most digital nomad friendly? If you only have time to see one, which should you choose? I hope that you enjoy my article comparing Chiang Mai vs Chiang Rai.
Chiang Mai vs Chiang Rai: Nightlife
Chiang Mai is the clear winner on nightlife. Unfortunately, Chiang Rai is extremely small and has a few rooftop bars that open until around 11pm and the night market. I liked chilling out in Cat Bar and Smiling Moon Cafe.
Within the walled city of Chiang Mai, there are numerous hotels and bars where locals and expats socialise. If you are looking for a good night out in Chiang Mai, head to Nimman Road where Monkey Club is at the centre of backpacker and digital nomad nightlife. Also popular for a good night out in Chiang Mai are Warm Up Cafe and Zoe in Yellow.
Chiang Mai vs Chiang Rai: Food
Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai both have an excellent food and restaurant selection and both have a night market. I have to admit that I ate out at the night market most nights in Chiang Rai. There was often free entertainment in the form of traditional Thai dancing.
Both the Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai night market has an excellent variety of Pad Thai, hot pot and curry options. There are bugs and grubs to be found in both if you look!
However, I say that for restaurant and food variety, go for Chiang Mai. This is particularly more advanced if you follow a strict diet, for example, I found vegan and veggie restaurants in Chiang Mai that I did not find in Chiang Rai.
Chiang Mai vs Chiang Rai: Value for Money
You might think that Chiang Rai would be cheaper being a smaller and more Northern town. However, it actually depends what you are looking for. Food is cheap in both cities. I found the Chiang Rai night market cheaper than Chiang Mai, but maybe I just needed to haggle more!
Long term accommodation can be cheaper in Chiang Rai. However, Western style condos can be as expensive, as in Chiang Mai. For a one bedroomed apartment in or near the city centre, expect to pay around 6000TB (Thai Baht) per month in Chiang Rai and around 10,000TB per month in Chiang Mai. However, as I have mentioned, this depends totally on your standard and the area that you want to live.
For a full cost of living comparison, visit numbeo.com which compares if the cost of living is cheaper in Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai. Overall, I vote that Chiang Rai wins on value for money.
Chiang Mai vs Chiang Rai: Healthcare
Chiang Rai, although a small city, still has reasonably comprehensive medical facilities. If you’re in need of an MRI scanner or similar high end technologies, however, you will need to head to Chiang Mai or Bangkok. There are three main hospitals in Chiang Rai: Kasemrad Sriburin Hospital (relatively new private hospital with some of the best doctors and facilities), Overbrook (semi private missionary hospital) and Chiang Rai Prachanukhro Hospital (public government hospital which can be overcrowded).
Chiang Mai has an abundance of excellent hospitals and top notch healthcare facilities suitable for expats. The top choice of hospitals for foreigners in Chiang Mai are Chiang Mai Ram hospital, Bangkok Hospital Chiang Mai, Sriphat Hospital and Lanna Hospital. I recommend that you read this article on the top 7 Chiang Mai Hospitals. Chiang Mai is the winner on healthcare due to the extensive facilities set up for a large expat community.
Chiang Rai vs Chiang Mai: Accommodation
Both Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai have high quality accommodation for both budget backpackers and mid-high end. However, for choice of accommodation, Chiang Mai is more diverse, with numerous digital nomad setups and expat apartments on offer. Although accommodation may be more expensive in Chiang Mai, it wins on diversity and choice of accommodation.
Chiang Rai vs Chiang Mai: Day Trips
From Chiang Rai, you can visit the Golden Triangle, cruise the Mekong River, and reach the ruins of Chiang Saen. From Chiang Mai, you can visit Wat Doi Suthep and Doi Inthanon quite easily.
It’s a very close call on day trips — so hard to decide if Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai is better. I’m going to go for Chiang Mai as the winner! That’s because of the nearby adventure parks and Elephant Nature park on offer, within day trip travel distance from the city. Also, if you are a hardy traveller, it is actually possible to see the Chiang Rai temples as a day trip from Chiang Mai, if you don’t mind a very long journey in the morning and on the way home.
Chiang Mai vs Chiang Rai: City Sights and Temples
Although Chiang Mai has a wealth of sights and temples, I would say that the most amazing I saw during my time in Thailand were the Chiang Rai Temples — predominantly the Blue Temple and the White temple (Wat Rong Khun).
However, 3–5 days is probably more than enough in Chiang Rai. Despite the fact that Chiang Rai came out top in my vote for quality of temples, Chiang Mai beats it on volume, and sights around the city if you are willing to travel slightly out of the old city (Wat Doi Suthep).
Chiang Mai vs Chiang Rai: Public Transport
Chiang Rai is actually small enough to walk around or cycle. Although the public transport options are slightly limited, I would say that in a small city like Chiang Rai, they are not needed. Tuk-tuks are popular in Chiang Rai, and I found that you are less likely to get ripped off there — just negotiate your price beforehand or get the hotel reception to arrange it for you.
In Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, Songthaews are very popular — essentially a small bus with two benches facing each other in the back. It works basically like a shared taxi. It’s cheap and easy enough to get around both cities, and if you are looking for a taxi, you can download the GRAB app (Asia’s version of Uber!)
There’s not much in it regarding transport when you compare Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai.
Chiang Mai vs Chiang Rai Overall
Nightlife CHIANG MAI
Food CHIANG MAI
Value for Money CHIANG RAI
Accommodation CHIANG MAI
Day Trips CHIANG MAI
City Sights — Temples CHIANG RAI
Healthcare CHIANG MAI
You can see that Chiang Mai comes out top based on the above categories. However, Chiang Rai is still a personal favourite of mine and is perfect for a relaxing break. I found Chiang Rai the perfect peaceful introduction to Northern Thailand. I think that had Bangkok or Chiang Mai been my first Thai cities, I would have found them too overwhelming.
However, if you are looking for a base as a digital nomad, however, and looking to meet an expat community, Chiang Mai is the clear winner.
I hope that this has helped you to decide between the these two fabulous cities, but if you have time, please see both. Which do you prefer when considering Chiang Mai vs Chiang Rai?