When visiting the North of Thailand, you cannot skip the two major cities. And don’t match them against on another, Chiang Mai vs Chiang Rai. They are worth a visit in their own right.
Plus, you can easily combine them in your itinerary as they are located reasonably close together, local buses go regularly, and their main attractions aren’t too far scattered.
Especially if you have only a limited travel window, it might be tempting to pick one over another. But you would regret it. So here is my tried and tested three day itinerary for Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai.
Getting from Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai
If you want to rent a car and drive the road from Chiang Rai to Chiang Rai, take route 1 and swap to 118. It is a pretty straightforward drive. Traffic is usually busy, which is also true for local buses.
In case you want to take public transport, book in advance on 12Go.Asia. Bus tickets are roughly around 300 baht, depending on when and what time you book it. Keep an eye out for the length of the ride, whether there are stops, etc. It makes quite the difference.
Should you feel adventurous, you can join a TourRadar bike tour from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai and cycle all the way between the two cities.
Day 1: What to See in Chiang Rai
Chiang Rai city isn’t very big, so you can easily explore the city centre in a day. However, the main gems are Wat Rong Khun, Wat Rong Seua Ten, Baan Dam Museum and the Hill Tribes.
Start your day super early and arrive at 8am at the White Temple. Walking around it, shouldn’t take you more than an hour (entrance fee is 50 baht) and you can then go all the way up North to visit the Hill Tribes if that is something you are interested in.
I wrote a little more about Chiang Rai’s attractions and why I have mixed feelings about visiting the Hill Tribes in another post. The entrance fee to the Hill Tribe village is 500 baht, but the one I visited, near village Mae Khaotom Tha Sut, didn’t charge anything.
From there, you can go down to Baan Dam Museum (entry 80 baht), which is a big outdoor area with 40 houses and very unique interior design. Everything is black and dead animal parts.
It is intentionally creepy but also quite sublime and a must see as it was the life-time work of famous Thai artist Thawan Duchanee.
From there, it isn’t far to the Blue Temple, which is still relatively new and pretty unknown among foreign tourists. Entry is free here and you are allowed to take photos inside, unlike with the White Temple.
Getting around between Chiang Rai Points of Interest
You can hire your private songthaew or taxi for the day or hire a car to easily connect between the different attractions in Chiang Rai. Public transport is also a good and cheap option.
You can get local buses for as little as 20 baht from the main bus terminal and once you are done sightseeing each stop, you simply wait by the main road and hail them once they pass, which is roughly every 15 minutes.
Drives between attractions can be between 30 and 90 minutes. I always use my free maps.me app to get around as it works offline as well and works pretty decently in Asia.
Which Chiang Rai Hotel to Look Into
If you want to stay a little outside of the city centre but close to the Blue Temple, try the quaint hideaway that is the Imperial River House Resort*. A little bit on the cheaper end but even cuter is the Nak Nakara Hotel* with its big outside pool and colourful interior design.
For action right in the city centre, close to the Night Bazar, stay at the stylish Le Patta Hotel Chiang Rai*. You can even work out in the gym after your dip in the pool! A hostel I personally used and can recommend is the artsy and relaxed Sook Cafe and Youth Hostel*. It also has a rooftop terrace.
Of course, there are also hostels in Chiang Rai you can stay at if you’re travelling on a budget.
Day 2: Places to Visit in Chiang Mai – Temples Galore
Depending on how you got to Chiang Mai, you might be a tad exhausted from your trip. So take it slow on your very first day by exploring Chiang Mai Old City. In case you are staying right in the city centre, such as at or , you are within easy walking distance of the main Chiang Mai temples.
The most popular Chiang Mai temple is Wat Chedi Luang with its Reclined Buddha statue, called Tan Pra Maha Kajjana. It is here, that you can also attend the Monk Talk sessions, in which young monks practice their English and you can learn more about their traditions and lifestyle.
Also, at its entrance you can find a giant gum tree. The old city pillar it houses marks the epicenter of Old Town. A giant gum tree next to it is supposed to bring about doom over Chiang Mai should it ever fall.
Just a little down the street, you can step into Wat Chet Lin. It instantly will feel like a little oasis with the old temple ruins, quaint pond and colourful lampions flying in the wind next to the old bridges.
When I visited, there were barely any tourists and it provided a great escape from the heat and bustle of other Chiang Mai temples and streets.
Another important one among the Chiang Mai attractions is Wat Phan Tao. It is right next to Wat Chedi Luang and made of dark wood. You cannot miss it.
However, don’t just go inside but walk around the temple grounds as they are seriously pretty with their pond, colourful ribbons and a white and golden spikes construction.
More close by points of interests in Chiang Mai when it comes to temples include Wat Phra Singh Woramahawihan, Wat Chiang Man and Wat Muen Ngoen Kong.
When you feel like you are done for the day – because, let’s face it, how many Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai do you want to see all in one go? – refuel your energies.
A great area for quirky and laid back eateries and cafes in Chiang Mai is Nimman. You can spend your afternoon here, reading a book, working on your laptop, shopping at Maya Lifestyle Center and then dine out at night.
If you visit on the weekend, roam the famous Night Markets in Chiang Mai’s Old Town and stroll towards the famous East Gate. It is here, that the lampions are set into the sky for the Loy Krathong Festival, Festival of light in November or the New Year’s Eve celebration.
Day 3: What to See in Chiang Mai – Temples and Mountains
If you manage to get up early, why not try out the famous Pilgrim’s trail up Doi Suthep? The trail starts at Huay Kaew waterfall and you follow it up the slope for even more Doi Suthep waterfalls.
You cannot miss the bright orange trail markings. The hike can easily take four hours and is quite steep, so pack appropriate hiking boots*, wear plenty of insect repellent* and sunscreen* and have trail snacks* with you.
If you are feeling a little more lazy, take a songthaew from the base of the slope (near Chiang Mai Zoo) for 40 baht up the slope. You can get a round trip rate and even include Bhuping Palace and quaint Hmong Village for 180 baht total.
Just calculate in a few hours for that. The famous, golden Wat Phra That Doi Suthep should definitely be on your list of things to see in Chiang Mai and the view from there is spectacular.
For a similar grand view a little outside of town and more known among locals, hail a songthaew to go down to the university stop, from where you will get another Songthaew or Grab taxi (download the app and have wifi on) to Wat Phra That Doi Kham.
If you are feeling a little adventurous, walk down to the Royal Park Rajapruek for a beautiful flower garden display and stunning commemorative chapel in the midst of excellent landscaping.
Best Place to Stay in Chiang Mai
If you’d rather go a little more higher end, try the Somwang Boutique Hotel. It will make you feel in a fancy but secluded little resort and is located next to the famous East City Gate in Chiang Mai Old City.
In case your preference is staying outside of the touristy Old City and closer to Doi Suthep, try residing in Nimman. It is a great base for your different day trip locations in Chiang Mai.
Right opposite one of my favourite restaurants in town (Rustic & Blue) is Room No.7*, a quirky (entrance) yet minimalist (indoors) place to rest your head. An alternative that seamlessly blends sleek Asian interior design with hipster elements is Sanae Hotel Chiangmai*.
Should You Pick Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai?
I say definitely not! Both cities deserve your time, if you have an extra day to spend, I say do it. And you can stay a bit longer to explore more of the region, for example visit the village Pai.
Furthermore, you could visit the royal pagodas and tons of waterfalls or explore the Sticky Waterfall, a yoga retreat or ethical elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai (do your research to see which ones are legit).
Chiang Rai also has plenty of hiking opportunities if you are craving nature walks. The North of Thailand is full of wonderful gems. Don’t miss out!
Tell me, would you spend three days in Chaing Mai Chiang Rai or would you rather schedule in an entire week?
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