So, you’re leaning towards visiting Thailand. It’s a fantastic choice, as most of the tens of millions of tourists that visit the Land of Smiles each year would tell you.
But if you have limited travel time, you understandably want to compare Bangkok vs Chiang Mai to not waste your precious vacation days.
The biggest differences between Bangkok and Chiang Mai are that Bangkok is significantly larger, more modern, and with more activities to fill a multi-day or multi-week stay. In contrast, Chiang Mai has a small-town feel, a charming old town, and more nature-based adventures.
I spent one month in Chiang Mai and 2.5 weeks in Bangkok. I’ll compare these two cities to help you choose the best-fit Thai destination for your interests.
An Overview of Bangkok vs Chiang Mai
Vacation time is short, but our attention spans are shorter. So, if you don’t have time to read through this article, I’ve put together a chart to give you a quick visual of the similarities and differences between Chiang Mai and Bangkok.
|Population||11+ million||1+ million|
|Vibe||Bustling, loud, 24/7 activities||Small-town charm, quiet, less traffic|
|Transportation||Metro, skytrain, taxi, tuk tuk||Walking, taxi, tuk tuk, songthaew|
|Budget||Relatively more expensive||Inexpensive|
|Safety||Very safe||Very safe|
|Weather||Hot & humid year-round||Cooler winters, hot summers|
Got time to keep reading?
Great! There’s a lot more where this came from.
13 Differences: Bangkok vs Chiang Mai
At face value, Bangkok and Chiang Mai have more differences than similarities. Let’s explore them.
There’s no mistaking it—Bangkok is significantly larger than Chiang Mai, with a population of over 11 million people compared to Chiang Mai’s population of approximately 1.2 million.
To put these population numbers into perspective, Thailand’s land mass is only about 74% of the area of Texas, and one out of every seven Thai residents resides in Bangkok.
Needless to say, Bangkok teems with buildings. Many of its buildings are modern, which weave between centuries-old complexes and temples like the Grand Palace, Wat Arun, and Wat Pho.
So, there’s no second-guessing whether you’re looking at Bangkok or Chiang Mai when seeing their skylines; Bangkok has over 150 skyscrapers, whereas most of Chiang Mai’s buildings don’t exceed a few floors.
2. Pace of Life
When comparing Chiang Mai vs Bangkok, Chiang Mai has a slower pace of life. You won’t hear the constant honking of horns or get squeezed in shoulder-to-shoulder pedestrian traffic, with a few exceptions, such as the Sunday night market.
So, Chiang Mai is an excellent fit for travelers wanting to be away from the hustle and bustle of big city life.
Even the water surrounding Chiang Mai is calmer than in Bangkok. Moats encircle all four sides of old town Chiang Mai with still water.
In contrast, the current on the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok can be strong, coupled with lots of boat traffic that kicks up waves.
If you think you’ll have access to the same Thai food in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, your tastebuds might be sorely disappointed.
Northern Thailand is famous for its khao soi dish, a coconut curry filled with fried egg noodles and topped with plenty of shallots, mustard greens, cilantro, and a sweet and spicy chili sauce.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find khao soi in Bangkok. And if you do, it’s usually not as good as what you can buy in Chiang Mai.
That said, you’ll be able to find some Thai dishes regardless of where you travel. Pad Thai is a classic Thai meal, and I recommend restaurant and street stall hopping; not all cooks prepare it the same.
Tom yum goong and curries of all kinds are also plentiful in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Watch out for the green curry if spicy isn’t your thing; it’s the hottest Thai curry.
It would be a near-sin for tourists to visit Bangkok or Chiang Mai without trying mango sticky rice. Don’t let its ingredients fool you; this seemingly healthy dessert is chock full of sugar and fat from a sweet coconut sauce.
Whether you visit Chiang Mai or Bangkok, you can sign up for a cooking class in either city. It’s a wonderful way to bring a piece of Thailand home and share it with your loved ones.
4. Modes of Transportation
Getting around Bangkok and Chiang Mai is easy for different reasons.
Taking a taxi in both cities is a breeze, thanks to the Grab app. Grab is the Uber of Southeast Asia, and single travelers can even ride on the back of a scooter, saving money and time sitting in traffic (I’m looking at you, Bangkok).
Tuk tuks, which are open-air three-wheeled vehicles that serve as taxis, are also popular in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. While tuk tuks are fun to ride in, they can be challenging for tourists; bartering skills are necessary to get a good price.
But when comparing Bangkok vs Chiang Mai, the modes of transportation diverge from here.
Bangkok has a robust transportation system consisting of the following:
- Airport Rail Link
- MRT Subway
- BTS Skytrain
The Skytrain is a favorite among Bangkok visitors, for it offers excellent city views.
The downside to Bangkok’s subway and Skytrain is that it doesn’t serve the downtown tourist district. But if you like to walk, you can get off near the Grand Palace and explore from there.
In contrast, you could, in theory, stay in Chiang Mai without ever needing to use transportation. Chiang Mai’s old city walls contain most tourist attractions, and it only takes around 30 minutes to walk from one end to the other.
Consider taking a songthaew if you’d like to wander further than the city walls. These red trucks drive around Chiang Mai, picking up passengers in a shared taxi-like situation. The drivers make up their routes as they go to cater to their customers’ drop-off points.
Songthaews are rare sightings in Bangkok, given that traffic and Bangkok’s massive size mean you could spend a good chunk of your day trying to get to your destination.
5. English-Speaking Locals
Bangkok has more English speakers than Chiang Mai, and their English is often more advanced.
That’s not to say you’ll need to wander around with your Google Translate app all the time to get by in Chiang Mai; many locals know enough English to take orders at restaurants and answer basic questions.
But overall, you’ll have an easier time finding good English speakers in Bangkok than in Chiang Mai.
It’s common for restaurants in both Bangkok and Chiang Mai to have English menus. Even local hole-in-the-wall restaurants in Chiang Mai often offer English-translated menus.
I started my Thailand trip in Chiang Mai and was tickled pink with the price of food and goods after living in an upscale part of Hanoi, Vietnam, for a month.
So, I was taken aback by the prices upon my arrival in Bangkok; it’s noticeably more expensive than in Chiang Mai.
Don’t get me wrong—Bangkok is way cheaper than Western countries.
But if you’re on a tight budget and trying to decide whether to stay in Chiang Mai or Bangkok, you’ll encounter cheaper rent and food in Chiang Mai.
7. Digital Nomads Hang Out in Chiang Mai
This one might surprise you, for a metropolis like Bangkok seems like it would be a great fit for digital nomads. And while you’ll find your fair share of remote workers there, many choose to base themselves in Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai’s quieter atmosphere, hiking opportunities, cute cafes, and several coworking/coliving spaces make it an excellent place for digital nomads to settle.
Most importantly, like Bangkok, Chiang Mai’s WiFi reliability and speed are excellent.
Thailand offers impressive 5G coverage, which you can view on this map.
When comparing Chiang Mai vs Bangkok in terms of nightlife, the winner is easy: Bangkok is the place to party hearty.
Khao San Road is a notorious party spot in Bangkok, drawing in a backpacker crowd. If you’re looking for something more upscale with cocktail bars and nicer clubs, the Ekamai and Thonglor districts are great choices.
Bangkok also has a grittier party scene, with several red-light districts such as Nana Plaza, Soi Cowboy, and Patpong.
In contrast, Chiang Mai’s nightlife is more laid-back than in Bangkok. You’ll find a handful of bars and nightclubs in the old city, and live music venues where you can kick back with a beer are common.
There are also several upscale restaurants and bars by the Ping River where you can have a low-key night out.
9. Time Commitment
It likely comes as little surprise that you need more time in Bangkok than Chiang Mai to see its attractions well.
If you’re trying to squeeze as much into your itinerary as possible, I recommend spending at least two full days in Bangkok. But ideally, you should have at least double that time.
That way, you’ll also have time for a day trip or two.
However, Bangkok isn’t for everyone, and you might be itching to escape the crowds, traffic, and oppressive heat after spending a day or two there.
In contrast, you can technically see Chiang Mai’s highlights in one full day. Ideally, you should make that day land on a Sunday to experience the weekly night market.
However, although Chiang Mai proper is easy enough to explore in one day, there are many temples and hikes outside the city that you can do as half or full-day activities that make spending three or more full days worth it.
10. Hiking Opportunities
The most hiking required in Bangkok is walking up and down the stairs of the metro and Skytrain.
But Chiang Mai paints a different picture.
Chiang Mai boasts a couple of national parks, including the famous Doi Inthanon National Park. Doi Inthanon offers many attractions for visitors, including hiking trails, a stunning temple, views from the highest mountain in Thailand, waterfalls, and remote villages.
Other popular hikes in and around Chiang Mai include the Mon Jing Loop and Wat Phi Lat hike. It’s very safe to hike in Chiang Mai, though going with at least one other person is best practice.
The bottom line?
If you’re ready to get your adventure on in nature and are trying to decide whether to visit Bangkok or Chiang Mai, you’re better off visiting Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai is nestled in the mountains between Myanmar and Laos, so it has a cooler climate than Bangkok. But Chiang Mai still gets sweltering during the summer and monsoon season months.
The summer in Thailand is from March to June. During this time, Bangkok reaches the low to mid-90s for highs and upper 70s to low 80s for lows. Chiang Mai follows a similar temperature pattern.
In contrast, the winter season in Thailand runs from November to February. During these months, Chiang Mai’s temperatures range from the mid to upper 80s for highs and can drop down into the 60s or even upper 50s for lows.
When comparing Bangkok vs Chiang Mai in terms of the rainy season, it’s essentially the same—May to October are the rainiest months in both destinations.
The rainy (monsoon) season can bring flooding to the area; being cautious around rivers is vital during that time of year.
The best time of year to visit both Chiang Mai and Bangkok is from November to February, as it’s relatively cool and rain is infrequent. You may encounter an extra cost for accommodation during those months, given that it’s the high season for tourism.
12. Elephant Sanctuaries
If you have your heart set on seeing elephants in Thailand, you’ll have more choices in Chiang Mai than in Bangkok. But more important than many choices is that you’ll have the best choice in Chiang Mai—Elephant Nature Park.
Sadly, many companies slap a “sanctuary” label onto their elephant tours. They believe that telling tourists a facility that doesn’t offer elephant rides is enough to classify it as a sanctuary.
Not only is Elephant Nature Park the first sanctuary of its kind in Thailand, but it continues to be one of the only—if not the only—facility that truly puts its animals first.
You can purchase tickets directly through Elephant Nature Park’s online system.
I’m not receiving any kickbacks or perks for sharing this information—it’s important to me that your money supports a facility that treats its elephants and other animal residents humanely.
13. Accessibility to the Coast
When comparing Chiang Mai and Bangkok in terms of ease of arriving at the ocean, the winner is obvious: Bangkok is closer to the coast.
So, if you don’t have the time or interest in crisscrossing Thailand and basking on Thailand’s famous islands is a must for you, it’s better to visit Bangkok than Chiang Mai.
That said, flights are frequent from both Chiang Mai and Bangkok to popular islands like Phuket and Ko Samui; you can easily travel there from either city if you have the time.
11 Similarities: Bangkok vs Chiang Mai
Despite Chiang Mai and Bangkok’s many differences, they have several things in common. Ready to find out what they are?
1. Monk Presence
There was something so peaceful about passing by monks during my early morning runs around Chiang Mai. I knew monks would be in Bangkok, but I didn’t expect to see as many wandering the streets as in Chiang Mai.
How ignorant I was.
Bangkok and Chiang Mai are wonderful cities to witness the Theravada Buddhist monk’s morning ritual: Walking down streets barefoot carrying a bowl to receive food offered to them. The practice is called alms.
The idea behind alms is that monks aren’t supposed to engage in agricultural labor or have a choice about the food they eat. Theravada Buddhists also believe that the act of people giving food to the monks improves their good karma.
It’s a win-win for everyone who believes in the Theravada Buddhist religion.
Regardless of the Thai city that you end up visiting, I encourage you to get up with the sun to witness these Buddhist morning alms.
When comparing Bangkok vs Chiang Mai, it’s easy to assume that Bangkok is more polluted than Chiang Mai.
That’s a true statement most of the year.
But not during the burning season.
The burning season in Chiang Mai is from around February to late April. It’s a time when farmers burn their fields to make way for the next planting season.
Unfortunately, this practice can have serious health consequences for locals.
Chiang Mai fills with so much smoke during the burning season that it’s impossible to see the surrounding mountains, including Doi Suthep. Businesses and homes keep their air filters running 24/7 to reduce harm to one’s health.
For context, I originally wrote this article in mid-April, which is at the end of Chiang Mai’s burning season. IQAir shows that Chiang Mai has a rating of “Unhealthy” air quality, whereas Bangkok’s rating is lower at “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups.”
That said, had I written this article outside of the burning season, it’s a near guarantee that Bangkok’s air quality would have been poorer than Chiang Mai’s.
You’ll see many locals wearing face masks in Bangkok year-round. It wouldn’t hurt to follow suit, especially if you have a history of respiratory issues.
3. Great Markets
Bangkok naturally has more markets than Chiang Mai because of its larger size. But both cities are great places to dig into delicious Thai street food.
Because of how hot Chiang Mai and Bangkok get, night markets are popular, though you’ll also find markets open during the day.
If you’re in Bangkok and only have time to visit one market, make it the Chatuchak Market. It’s best to visit Chatuchak on the weekends when most stalls operate.
There are too many other markets to name in Bangkok. But I’ll let you in on one of my other favorites that few tourists know about—the Bang Nam Phueng Floating Market. Keep your eyes peeled for Bangkok’s multi-foot-long monitor lizards while there!
In Chiang Mai, the Sunday Night Market in the old city is a must-see. The Warorot Market is also a great daytime market, and it’s open seven days per week.
4. Friendly Locals
Thailand got its nickname the “Land of Smiles” for a reason—the Thai are such friendly, welcoming people.
Despite Bangkok’s massive size, you can still expect to encounter friendly locals everywhere you turn. And when comparing Chiang Mai vs Bangkok, the locals are equally friendly in Chiang Mai.
One of the first things you’ll likely notice when traveling to Thailand is that the locals fold their hands as if praying and bow when greeting and thanking someone.
It’s a beautiful practice, and you’ll likely do the same shortly after your arrival.
5. Great Day Trips
Whether you visit Bangkok or Chiang Mai, you’re in for a treat since both offer amazing day trips.
Some of the most popular day trips from Bangkok include:
- Damnoen Saduak Floating Market
- Maeklong Railway Market
- Khao Yai National Park
As for Chiang Mai, you can take day trips to places such as:
- Doi Suthep Temple
- Doi Inthanon National Park
- Elephant Nature Park
- Huey Tung Tao Lake
6. Many Hotel Options
If you’re particular about hotels, you’ll likely be able to find a suitable option whether you want to visit Chiang Mai or Bangkok. Both cities offer accommodation for a range of budgets.
If hostels, 5-star hotels, coliving spaces, or boutique hotels are your thing, unique choices abound in Bangkok and are decent in Chiang Mai.
You’ll have many more options in Bangkok than in Chiang Mai regarding the type of district where you stay.
In contrast, most tourists stay in Chiang Mai’s old town.
It’s not all sunshine and pad Thai when comparing Bangkok vs Chiang Mai. Sadly, scams exist in both cities.
Scams can range from a taxi driver ripping you off to a tour agency lying about the sights you’ll see, among others.
The good news is that you can largely avoid scams by being smart about your choices. For example, if you don’t want to overpay for a taxi ride, book a cab with Grab rather than taking a tuk tuk.
Similarly, booking tours online rather than with a street-side tour vendor improves the chances of the tour running as stated, given that you can read customer reviews.
Bangkok and Chiang Mai are both extremely safe cities, with rare cases of violent crimes.
The most common safety-related scenario that tourists encounter in either city is pickpocketing in crowded areas.
Given that Bangkok is more crowded than Chiang Mai, pickpocketing incidents tend to be higher there.
I had no safety-related incidents during my two months exploring Thailand as a solo female traveler. You can read more about my experience in my articles on safety in Chiang Mai and safety in Bangkok.
Temples abound in both Chiang Mai and Bangkok. Of the two cities, Bangkok has some of the most famous temples in Thailand.
- Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha)
- Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha)
- Wat Arun
Chiang Mai’s most famous temples include:
- Wat Chedi Luang
- Wat Phra Singh
- Wat Doi Suthep
Non-Buddhists are welcome to enter the temples and explore the temple grounds as long as they dress appropriately.
So, be sure to cover your shoulders and wear pants/skirts that cover the knees. Many temples offer garments for rent.
10. International Airports
Bangkok and Chiang Mai both have international airports. But of the two, you’ll have more flight options to Bangkok.
Bangkok has two airports: Suvarnabhumi International Airport (BKK) and Don Mueang International Airport (DMK).
Be sure to verify which airport you’ll be flying out of—an all-too-common and expensive issue tourists face when departing Bangkok.
In contrast, Chiang Mai has one airport—the Chiang Mai International Airport (CNX)—which is only about a ten-minute drive from the old city.
11. Songkran Festival
Songkran is a festival to celebrate the Thai New Year. It takes place on April 13th of each year, though as of 2018, it’s a seven-day national event that starts on April 9th.
Thais celebrate Songkran across the country, so it doesn’t matter if you’re in Bangkok or Chiang Mai.
Locals celebrate by taking to the street and having massive water fights. In Thai style, the water fights are friendly and all in good fun.
Music, parties, and street food also abound during Songkran.
So, if you’re in Chiang Mai or Bangkok during Songkran, arrive with an empty stomach and your hands full of squirt guns and water buckets.
Traveling Between Bangkok and Chiang Mai
There are approximately 430 miles between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. The fastest way to traverse them is by flying.
Flights between Bangkok and Chiang Mai depart regularly throughout the day, with an average flight time of just over an hour.
Assuming you’re not traveling with many bags and book your tickets in advance, flying can be an economical way to travel between the two cities.
It might even run you around the same price as a train ticket.
I traveled from Chiang Mai to Bangkok by train because I had heard about how beautiful the scenery was during the approximately 9-hour ride. And that was the case for the first five hours of my trip…until the train ahead of mine derailed, forcing passengers to finish the journey by bus.
You can also drive or take a bus between Bangkok and Chiang Mai, which will take anywhere from nine to 10+ hours, depending on traffic and the number of times you stop.
FAQs About Chiang Mai vs Bangkok
According to Google, travelers have many questions about Bangkok and Chiang Mai. I’ve answered some of the most commonly asked ones in this section.
Is Bangkok or Chiang Mai cheaper?
Chiang Mai is cheaper than Bangkok. Food, accommodation, and clothing are cheaper across the board.
That doesn’t mean Bangkok has to break the bank; it’s still a cheap country by Western standards. The types of places you choose in Bangkok also make a difference in how much you’ll ultimately spend.
How is Chiang Mai different from Bangkok?
Chiang Mai is different from Bangkok because it feels more like a town than a city. Its streets are quieter, you can arrive at most places on foot, and the majority of buildings are only a few floors high.
What is so special about Chiang Mai?
Chiang Mai is special because of its quaint old city, temples, mountain scenery, and quiet atmosphere. It’s an excellent place for nature enthusiasts, as hiking opportunities abound a short drive outside the city.
What is so special about Bangkok?
Bangkok is special because of its historical landmarks, bustling markets, and incredible street food. It attracts people from around the world, with a well-connected public transportation system that allows travelers to move around the city without needing to deal with a backlog of traffic.
How many days should I spend in Chiang Mai?
You should spend a minimum of three days in Chiang Mai, with one full day and two half days for exploring.
However, spending four or more days in Chiang Mai is ideal, especially if you want to take day trips.
How many days should I spend in Bangkok?
You should spend a minimum of four days in Bangkok, offering two full days for exploration. People who don’t like busy, loud cities might even feel satisfied after spending three days in Bangkok.
But to truly take advantage of all there is to see within and near Bangkok without rushing, you should allow at least one week.
Is Bangkok or Chiang Mai Better?
It’s impossible to say that Bangkok or Chiang Mai is better, given that everyone has different travel styles. But this much is true: Most travelers who visit both cities end up having a preference.
As for me? I love them for different reasons but would probably choose to live in Bangkok over Chiang Mai (minus Bangkok’s horrendous pollution).
I hope this Bangkok vs Chiang Mai comparison has helped you determine which city is the best fit for you. If you have questions, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll get back to you.
I’d also love to hear from you after your trip. Which city did you end up visiting, and what were your impressions of it?
P.S.: Wondering about the differences between Thailand and Vietnam? Check out my guide on Vietnam vs Thailand: 22 Must-Know Comparisons. I’ve also written an article for travelers trying to decide whether to visit Chiang Mai or Phuket.