With so many incredible countries in Southeast Asia, narrowing down your vacation of choice to Thailand is no small feat. But now an equally big conundrum comes into play: Is it better to visit Chiang Mai or Phuket?
Chiang Mai is better for travelers who enjoy culture, art, hiking, and mountain scenery. On the other hand, vacation-goers seeking a relaxing beach getaway or an island-hopping trip are better off visiting Phuket.
While these are the big-picture differences between Chiang Mai and Phuket, there are many other noteworthy divergences as well as a few similarities.
I spent one month in Chiang Mai and two weeks in Phuket. Since I know how hard it can be to choose which destination to visit or how long to stay in each one, I’ll compare these destinations to help with your trip planning.
An Overview: Chiang Mai vs Phuket
Looking for a quick run-down to help you decide whether to visit Phuket or Chiang Mai? The chart below can help.
|Cool winters, rainy summers
|Hot and humid year-round
|Cultural, artsy, historical
|More upscale, resort atmosphere
|Walking distance to many sites
|Must use a vehicle
|English speaking locals
This chart highlights some of the main differences between Phuket and Chiang Mai. But confining information to small boxes can only take us so far.
So, read on to discover more comparisons about these destinations.
Chiang Mai or Phuket? 15 Comparisons
Chiang Mai and Phuket have more differences than similarities. The points below will mostly cover their divergences, but I’ll also point out qualities that these destinations share.
1. Wildly Different Geography
Chiang Mai is tucked between Myanmar and Laos in the mountains of northern Thailand. On the other hand, Phuket is a tropical island that sits over 1,500 kilometers to the south.
You’ll encounter some small hills in Phuket. But Chiang Mai’s mountains are more impressive; it’s even home to Doi Inthanon, which boasts the tallest mountain in Thailand at over 8,400 feet.
Phuket also has a “biggest” claim, though—at over 209 square miles, Phuket is the largest island in Thailand.
Naturally, the difference in geography between Chiang Mai and Phuket means these destinations offer a unique set of tourist activities.
2. Chiang Mai is (Kind of) Cooler
When comparing Chiang Mai vs Phuket, Chiang Mai is the cooler of the two weather-wise. It makes sense, given its more northern, mountainous climate.
The coolest months in Chiang Mai are from November to February. High temperatures during these months are in the mid-80s, and lows dip down into the 50s.
It’s perfect weather for many.
Chiang Mai’s hot weather kicks into gear in March and lasts until May, with highs in the mid-90s and lows in the upper 60s to low 70s. June to October is the rainy (monsoon) season in Chiang Mai. The humidity is oppressive during those months, as are the mosquitos.
So, how does Phuket’s weather compare to Chiang Mai’s?
Phuket has more consistent year-round temperatures than Chiang Mai. The highs hover around the upper 80s and low 90s, and lows rarely rise above or drop below the mid-70s.
As with Chiang Mai, Phuket has a dry season from November to February. These are the best months weather-wise to travel to both destinations.
Given its tropical southern Thailand location, Phuket has a slightly longer rainy season than Chiang Mai, running from May to September or October.
However, it’s possible to encounter short rain showers in Phuket and Chiang Mai during the dry season.
3. Grab Will Be Your Friend in Phuket
Phuket and Chiang Mai share the quality that they’re both cities and provinces. The difference is that when people talk about visiting Phuket, they’re usually referring to the entire island; when people say they’re heading to Chiang Mai, they typically mean the city.
So, although Chiang Mai province is significantly larger than Phuket province, getting around the tourist areas of Phuket is costlier and takes more time than exploring Chiang Mai’s tourist area.
For this reason, you’ll need to rely on transportation to get around Phuket unless you plan to plop at an all-inclusive resort.
Grab is one of the best ways to get around Phuket. It’s a rideshare app that works like Uber, meaning you won’t have to barter with taxi or tuk tuk drivers to get a good price.
Of course, taxis and tuk tuks will be available if you want to use them, particularly in Phuket’s old town.
Buses also operate in Phuket on limited routes. But they usually aren’t a good fit for the average holiday-goer.
Grab, taxis, tuk tuks, and a shared red pick-up taxi called a songthaew are available to tourists wanting to get around Chiang Mai.
But here’s the thing: If you stay in Chiang Mai’s old city and don’t mind walking, it’s unlikely you’ll need to use them.
You can walk from one end to the other of Chiang Mai’s old city in less than 30 minutes.
That said, there are lots of great hiking and nature-based opportunities outside of downtown Chiang Mai.
So, whether you decide to visit Chiang Mai or Phuket, you’ll likely need to use some form of transportation at some point.
4. Chiang Mai Is More Historic
If you’ve seen photos of Chiang Mai and Phuket, it may come as little surprise that Chiang Mai has a more historic feel.
For starters, Chiang Mai’s old city is surrounded by a moat, built around 1296 when it was founded. A stone wall also encompassed the city.
Visitors can still enjoy seeing parts of the city wall preserved by the Thais.
Buddhist temples are also common sightings in and around Chiang Mai’s old town. Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Phra Singh are two of the most famous temples.
As with most Thai temples, non-Buddhist visitors are welcome to enter as long as they wear pants and cover their shoulders. Both Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Phra charge small entrance fees for non-Thais.
However, you’ll encounter many other temples in Chiang Mai that you can enter without paying a fee.
Since approximately 95% of Thais are Theravada Buddhists, you’ll also encounter a fair share of temples in Phuket.
Wat Kalong and Wat Khao Rang are a couple of examples.
If you’re interested in Buddhism and temple hopping, I highly recommend adding a stop in Bangkok to your itinerary. That way, you can cruise down the Chao Phraya River, Visiting Wat Pho, Wat Arun, and the Grand Palace with the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.
5. Everything Is Costlier in Phuket
The title says it all.
Although Thailand is overall a budget-friendly destination, backpackers and other travelers watching how much Thai baht they spend will be better off choosing Chiang Mai over Phuket.
Based on my travels, Chiang Mai was the cheapest city I visited in Thailand. So, I had sticker shock when I arrived in Bangkok, and I nearly keeled over when I saw the prices of food and accommodation in Phuket.
Whereas I could easily eat at delicious local restaurants for under $10 per day in Chiang Mai, eating at equivalent restaurants in Phuket was about double.
That’s still cheap by Western standards.
But double of anything feels like a lot when you’re used to lower prices.
As for accommodations, you’ll encounter everything from hostels to 5-star hotels in Phuket and Chiang Mai. But Chiang Mai allows travelers to snag higher quality accommodations for lower prices than Phuket.
That said, I got a great deal at my resort-like hostel when I stayed at Selina Phuket. But the taxi cost to get there from the airport dug into my originally low-cost find.
The bottom line is if you’re vacillating between whether to visit Phuket or Chiang Mai, I recommend Chiang Mai if you’re trying to stretch your travel money.
6. Different Things to Do
When people think of Phuket, they often dream of basking on white-sand beaches at a resort. And when Chiang Mai comes to mind, travelers-to-be often envision temples and hikes.
Both are true.
However, there’s so much more to Phuket than plopping at a resort. And depending on the resort you pick, you might want to head to Kata Beach or Patong Beach, where the water is calmer for swimming.
But besides beaching it, I encourage you to explore other places on the island. Phuket’s old town should be on your list.
Old town Phuket is a quaint inland area with colorful two-story buildings. There are many Instagrammable spots, including a few shops adorned in fake but seemingly real flowers.
Cute cafes, amazing ice cream, and Phuket’s famous Sunday Street Market all can be found in old Phuket town.
If you’re a fan of markets, I also recommend checking out Chillva Market, which opens every evening around 5:00 pm except on Sundays.
Another iconic site in Phuket is seeing the Phuket Big Buddha. It makes many of Thailand’s Buddha statues look puny, and you can get great coastal views on a clear day.
As for Chiang Mai, Doi Suthep is the city’s prized temple on a mountain. You’ll need to take a taxi or songthaew to the base or top of the mountain, depending on if you want to hike to the top, passing some small waterfalls along the way.
Old city Chiang Mai is a fantastic place to spend a full day or more for exploring. You’ll be able to soak in its slower pace while you temple and cafe-hop. You’ll also encounter some ruins within the city.
Doi Inthanon National Park is an excellent option if you want to take a bigger day trip outside of the city. Phuket also offers its fair share of day trips, most of which are island hopping via boat rides.
When comparing Phuket vs Chiang Mai, both offer elephant tours.
But I encourage you only to visit the elephants at Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai.
Sadly, most elephant “sanctuaries” don’t treat their elephants well. By visiting Elephant Nature Park, you can feel good that your tourist dollars go to a sanctuary that rescues elephants and treats them humanely.
I’m not receiving any money or perks for recommending Elephant Nature Park; it’s important that we as travelers support good causes, and I know how hard it can be to decipher which ones they are.
7. Phuket Doesn’t Have a Burning Season
If you haven’t heard of the burning season, I was right there with you—I learned about it after I arrived in Chiang Mai during my mid-January to mid-February visit.
Chiang Mai’s burning season occurs when farmers set their fields on fire. Doing so helps the soil receive nutrients faster, and it also removes biowastes.
It’s harmful to one’s health, not to mention it’s an illegal practice.
But the farmers in northern Thailand seem unconcerned about law enforcement cracking down on them, for you can see mountainside fields on fire in the evenings during the burning season, and visibility is horrendous during the day.
The burning season in Chiang Mai lasts from January to April or May. I could see the smoke becoming thicker as my stay wore on; by the time I left Chiang Mai in mid-February, it was impossible to see the mountains surrounding the city on most days.
Locals keep their air purifiers on high during the burning season, and nearly everyone wears a mask.
Needless to say, the burning season isn’t an ideal time to visit Chiang Mai, especially once March and April roll around.
So, if you’re trying to decide whether to visit Chiang Mai or Phuket and your travel dates fall during the heart of the burning season, your lungs will thank you if you choose Phuket.
I recommend visiting IQAir to see the latest updates on the air quality in Chiang Mai.
It’s also worth using IQAir to check the air quality in Phuket and any other Thai destinations you visit. Thai cities are sadly notorious for having high amounts of air pollution.
8. Chiang Mai Attracts Digital Nomads
If you’re a digital nomad comparing Chiang Mai vs Phuket, you’ll find a larger and tighter-knit expat community in Chiang Mai.
As with Phuket, the WiFi in Chiang Mai is excellent. But the difference is that Chiang Mai has many coworking and coliving spaces.
Chiang Mai is also cheaper, easier to get around, and has a less touristy vibe than Phuket, all of which are qualities that attract many remote workers.
As a digital nomad, I chose to base myself at a coliving facility in Chiang Mai for one month due to how many people told me it’s an excellent hub for nomadic workers.
And after having been there, I couldn’t agree more.
9. Natural Disasters Differ
I don’t want to get too doom and gloom on you. But it’s worth knowing the types of natural disasters that can happen in Chiang Mai and Phuket.
Let’s start with the good news.
Earthquakes are uncommon in Phuket and Chiang Mai, and strong earthquakes above a magnitude six are downright rare.
That said, Phuket can suffer the effects of earthquakes in neighboring areas via tsunamis, as sadly happened in 2004.
The 2004 tsunami was the deadliest on record, killing over 200,000 people across the coast of Southeast Asia. Most buildings in Phuket constructed post-2004 have security measures to protect against water surges from future tsunamis.
Although you won’t have to worry about a tsunami in Chiang Mai, flooding and mudslides can happen during the rainy season. The nearby Ping River is prone to overflowing. You should be very careful when near rivers and streams of any kind during the rainy season in Chiang Mai.
Flooding and mudslides are also common in Phuket during the monsoon season.
10. You Can’t Get Khao Soi in Phuket
If you’re a big-time foodie trying to decide whether it’s better to visit Phuket or Chiang Mai, you’ll want to check out Chiang Mai.
Northern Thailand has dishes you can’t find elsewhere in the country, khao soi being the most popular in Chiang Mai. Khao soi is a noodle dish with a coconut curry base topped with fried egg noodles.
Other must-try Thai foods in Chiang Mai include sai oua (an herbed sausage) and nam prik ong (a red and green chili dip that you eat with meat and veggies). The khan toke platter is a great way to sample many dishes in northern Thailand in one sitting.
Whereas you’ll find many pork and chicken-based dishes in Chiang Mai, Phuket is the better destination for fish and seafood lovers.
Seafood-packed soups and curries are common in Phuket, along with fried rice and noodles boasting a “sea” full of protein.
You’ll also encounter several overlapping dishes in Chiang Mai and Phuket, with pad Thai being the most famous.
Travel Tip: Tell your waiter if you don’t want spicy dishes. Most Thai food automatically comes with spices cooked into them.
11. Outstanding Safety
When comparing Phuket vs Chiang Mai in terms of safety, there’s little difference—both are very safe destinations.
The U.S. Department of State (DOS) labels Thailand as a Level 1, meaning travelers should exercise normal precautions there. It’s the DOS’ lowest safety ranking.
Pickpocketing is one of the most common safety-ish related scenarios that tourists face in Chiang Mai and Phuket. So, keep an eye on your belongings, especially in crowded areas.
Scams are also prevalent in Thailand. Luckily, they rarely result in physical harm.
Instead, some taxi drivers, tour agencies, and other vendors may overcharge you for items or mislead you with the kinds of services they offer.
12. English Is More Widely Spoken in Phuket
Chiang Mai isn’t as big of a tourist destination as Phuket. So, naturally, more people speak—and have a higher level of—English in Phuket.
Personally, I didn’t find the lower levels of English in Chiang Mai overly challenging. Perhaps it was because I had arrived there after spending two months in Vietnam, where the language barrier was near-constant.
But I found it easy enough to ask basic questions and order food at restaurants. And when I needed to communicate something more complicated, I used Google Translate.
While I encountered people who didn’t speak much or any English in Phuket, it was far more uncommon than in Chiang Mai.
The degree to which Thais speak English likely won’t be a determining factor when deciding whether to visit Chiang Mai or Phuket. But it’s a notable difference nonetheless.
13. Chiang Mai’s Nightlife Is Low-Key
Chiang Mai doesn’t have a huge party scene. Yes, you can find some nightclubs around, particularly in the old city.
But overall, Chiang Mai has a more laid-back bar and live music scene than a party-until-you-drop vibe.
Phuket is different, depending on where you stay on the island.
The Patong district, which is home to a 3-kilometer stretch of beach, is famous for its nightlife. You’ll find countless bars and clubs lining Bangla Road within Patong.
So, if you want to visit Phuket to party, your best bet is to stay in Patong. Phuket old town also has some nightlife in the form of small bars.
Keep in mind that Bangkok is the king of parties, and Koh Phangan Island is home to the famous monthly Full Moon Party. So, neither Chiang Mai nor Phuket is a cream-of-the-crop party destination.
14. Shopping Options Vary
If you love to shop and are comparing Chiang Mai vs Phuket, you might be on the wrong track—Bangkok is where the best shopping malls are.
That said, there are a few upscale shopping malls around Phuket Island if you’re willing to put in the time to drive to them. Chiang Mai also has some modern malls. They’re a short distance from the old city but can take a while to get to, depending on traffic.
In terms of markets, Chiang Mai has better markets than Phuket, in my humble opinion.
I touched on markets earlier, but to add to the Sunday Walking Street option in Chiang Mai, I also recommend visiting the Warorot Market and the Wua Lai Walking Street Market. You’ll encounter food, souvenirs, and household goods at these markets.
Nimmanhaemin Road is also an excellent place in Chiang Mai for hipster shopping and food options.
15. Wheelchair Accessibility Is Similar
Wheelchair users trying to decide whether Phuket or Chiang Mai is more accessible will encounter similar issues in both destinations.
Unfortunately, Chiang Mai and Phuket have a long way to go with creating continuous sidewalks with drop-down curbs, accessible entrances to buildings, and accessible restrooms.
That said, if your goal is to hang out at an all-inclusive resort and you find an accessible option, Phuket can be feasible for wheelchair users.
It’s also possible to get around Chiang Mai with some preparations. I wrote an article on accessibility in Chiang Mai with details.
How Far Is Chiang Mai From Phuket?
By now, you may have decided you don’t want to visit Chiang Mai or Phuket. Instead, you want to visit both.
Chiang Mai and Phuket are far from each other, with a distance of over 1,500 kilometers. Let’s explore your options for traveling between these destinations.
Disclosure: I stopped in Bangkok between my Chiang Mai and Phuket visits, so I didn’t experience traveling directly between them.
Can you fly from Chiang Mai to Phuket?
You can fly from Chiang Mai to Phuket, which is the fastest and preferred method.
Chiang Mai and Phuket both have international airports, the Chiang Mai International Airport (CNX) and Phuket International Airport (HKT).
Several airlines offer daily direct flights between these destinations, including Thai AirAsia and Thai Vietjet Air.
Is there a train from Chiang Mai to Phuket?
There isn’t a train from Chiang Mai to Phuket since Phuket doesn’t have a train station.
Should you wish to travel from Chiang Mai to Phuket by train, you’d need to take a train to Bangkok and then fly, drive, or take a bus to Phuket.
It’s not the best way to go.
How long is the bus from Chiang Mai to Phuket?
The bus from Chiang Mai to Phuket takes nearly 24 hours. If you love a good adventure, that might be a viable option for you.
But here’s the thing: Flying domestically in Thailand is cheap, especially if you’re traveling with little luggage.
So you likely won’t save much—if any—money by taking the bus.
FAQs About Phuket vs Chiang Mai
Below are some common questions people have about traveling to Phuket and/or Chiang Mai.
If you still have questions about these destinations after reading through these FAQs, let me know in the comments and I’ll be happy to help.
Is Chiang Mai or Phuket better?
Chiang Mai is better for people who enjoy history, temples, a bustling market scene, and the ability to walk to main attractions.
In contrast, Phuket is better for those who want a relaxing beach vacation, want to take day trips to different islands, and those who enjoy a beachside nightlife scene.
Should I spend more time in Phuket or Chiang Mai?
The amount of time you should spend in Phuket and Chiang Mai depends on your interests.
Since Phuket is more spread out, it requires more days to see all its main attractions. That said, some people chose to visit Phuket to enjoy a beachside resort.
In contrast, it’s easier to see the main attractions in Chiang Mai faster since it’s more compact. Yet at the same time, there’s more to see and do within walking distance in Chiang Mai, and it’s also a popular long-term destination for digital nomads.
So, some people choose to spend months there.
How many days in Chiang Mai is enough?
You should dedicate a minimum of three days to visiting Chiang Mai. That’ll give you time to explore the old city as well as visit the temple at Doi Suthep.
A longer stay in Chiang Mai offers the option for more day trips, hikes, and experiencing more markets, some of which only operate on the weekends.
How many days in Phuket is enough?
You should spend a minimum of four days in Phuket. Within that timeframe, I’d build in a half-day trip to Phuket old town and a full-day trip to another island or a tour around Phuket Island.
Nevertheless, many tourists choose to spend a week or more in Phuket, enjoying a relaxing beach vacation at one of its many resorts.
Is Phuket more expensive than Chiang Mai?
Phuket is significantly more expensive than Chiang Mai. Food, accommodation, and tours will all dig into your wallet more than visiting northern Thailand.
However, Phuket is cheaper than most beach destinations in Western countries. So, many people will still feel like they’re getting a deal, especially if they visit Phuket before Chiang Mai.
Is there more to do in Chiang Mai or Phuket?
There’s more to do in Chiang Mai than in Phuket. Chiang Mai is a larger city. Yet the beauty of it is that the old city is walkable and feels more like a town.
Phuket is home to a handful of popular sites. However, you can also take many day trips to nearby islands, increasing the number of things there are to do in the area.
Is Phuket bigger than Chiang Mai?
Even though Phuket is the largest island in Thailand, it isn’t bigger than Chiang Mai. Phuket has a smaller area and population than Chiang Mai.
So, What’ll It Be: Chiang Mai or Phuket?
Phuket and Chiang Mai are mostly polar (or should I say tropical?) opposites. Despite that, many people, myself included, enjoy visiting both places since they offer such different Thai experiences.
Do you have questions about visiting Chiang Mai or Phuket? If so, leave a comment and I’ll get back to you.
I’d also love to hear from you after your trip. Did you visit Chiang Mai, Phuket, or both? What are your thoughts about them?