If you had to choose between Bangkok and Chiang Mai, which one would it be? It is not an easy decision to make as both cities have lots to offer. However, unless you are staying for months in Thailand, you might not have enough time for both and find yourself hesitating between Thailand’s capital city and the Northern royal city. Here is what you need to know to make your choice.

Away from the seaside and the white sand beaches of Southern Thailand, both Bangkok and Chiang Mai are busy urban centres full of activities. Bangkok is the capital of the country but Chiang Mai is the economic and cultural centre of the Northern region. If you have time, I suggest spending a few days in both as they have completely different atmospheres.

Intense Bangkok VS laid-back Chiang Mai

If you strive in the intense activity of a globalised metropolis, Bangkok is the place for you. I spent so many wonderful hours discovering the multiple faces of Bangkok, from the elevated pedestrian bridges linking city train stations and gigantic malls to the hidden alleyways and khlongs (waterways) on the Western side of the Chao Phraya River. Bangkok is a joyful, yet surprisingly relaxed, cluster of houses, shopping centres, dusty building sites, temples and skyscrapers. The city keeps growing into an ever-changing mix of modernity, brutalist architecture, historical sites and quirky curiosities. I am not even sure there is such a thing as a “city centre” in Bangkok as monuments and interesting places are so spread out.

Busy elevated platform in the centre of Bangkok
Busy elevated platform in the centre of Bangkok © Marion Dautry

If you are looking for a calmer environment, Chiang Mai will charm you in a second. Despite being the second metropolis of the country with almost a million inhabitants, Chiang Mai is nothing compared to the 8 million people living in Bangkok. The contrast between the two is clear as soon as you exit the airport.

After a week spent in Bangkok, Chiang Mai looked like a small, quiet city to me. The airport is much smaller and located right by the city, a mere 20 minutes bus ride away. The centre of the city, which is where you will find 80% of the activities, is well delimited by the old city walls and much smaller than Bangkok.

More museums and cultural activities in Bangkok

Neither Bangkok nor Chiang Mai is a boring place. However, in my honest opinion, Bangkok has a more thriving cultural scene. There are museums in Chiang Mai, such as the National Museum and the Hill Tribes Museum, which is a must-do to understand the history and the diversity of the population of Northern Thailand, as well as a zoo and some other interesting institutions. The night market is impossible to miss and always a delight, full of shops in which you can still bargain the prices, restaurants with any kind of food you can think of and live music.

However, this hardly compares to the cultural scene in Bangkok. The Grand Palace, the National Museum and the Museum of Siam are major institutions absolutely worth your time. There are many other public and private museums and galleries scattered all over the city. The Erawan museum with its gigantic three-headed elephant on its roof, the immense museum of contemporary art and the impressive collection of the House of Jim Thompson are other places you don’t want to miss (unless you hate or have no interest in museums, fair enough).

The BTS train track and the three-headed elephant of the Erawan museum
A view of the massive Erawan museum’s rooftop statue © Marion Dautry

As the capital of the country and by far the most populated city of Thailand, Bangkok also hosts a wider range of activities with cinemas, gallery openings of all sorts, plays and happenings organized by artists and civil society organisations. Just visiting all the interesting day/night/land/floating/train markets will fill your schedule and take you in all directions. I just feel like it is easier to randomly find something to do in the evening in Bangkok than in Chiang Mai.

More interesting temples in Chiang Mai

Buddhism is the main religion and people are still building temples everywhere around Thailand, and you will want to visit a few of them at least. Bangkok has hundreds of them (thousands?) but so does Chiang Mai. And to be perfectly honest I found them quickly redundant, not to say boring, in Bangkok. Most of them have the same rich, golden style and I would limit my recommendations there to the Grand Palace, Wat Arun and the Golden Mountain.

Donald Duck in Chiang Mai © Marion Dautry

On the other hand, in Chiang Mai, you will find yourself admiring more diverse monuments. Wat Chedi Luang is simply astonishing. I was very surprised by the peaceful atmosphere I found everywhere, and particularly in Wat Chet Lin with the bamboo bridge over the pound and the paper lanterns. There are way fewer people in Chiang Mai, which makes the visits easier and more enjoyable. It gives you the time to look around, sit on a bench, breath in the atmosphere and notice quirky details, like the Donald Duck statue in the courtyard of Wat Bupparam! On top of that, there are several places in Chiang Mai where you can sit and chat with the monks and it is a great experience!

Train VS bicycles

Being so big, Bangkok requires a lot of time spent on transports. The public transportation system works like a charm but it still takes time to get places. However, there is something special in sitting on a bus looking at the city’s life going on through the window.

If you love taking trains, you will enjoy the BTS (also called “Sky Train”) and the metro. Taking the motorbikes is also fun (don’t drive one yourself!) and finding a cab is super easy thanks to Grab, one of the free mobile apps I recommend you to download for your trip to Thailand. Walking, on the other hand, and riding a bicycle, is simply not a great option.

photo from the bus window in Bangkok
Bus transports in Bangkok © Marion Dautry

On the contrary, in Chiang Mai, I immediately noticed that there were many more bicycles and that it would be much easier to borrow one to get around. I didn’t do it in the end, but I walked a lot which was also much easier and less stressful than in Bangkok. That being said, Chiang Mai is not small and you will still have lots of walking to do to get to places. It’s not a village!

Even using a motorbike, the bus or a songthaew (the shared taxis) feels a bit better in Chiang Mai as there are fewer people and therefore fewer cars around you. I would never ride a bicycle just for pleasure in Bangkok unless we’re talking about Bang Kachao, the “Green Lung”.

Busy day trips VS hiking

You will be able to go to many more different places for one day if you turn Bangkok into your base. Ayutthaya, the former royal city, is just a few hours away. Same goes for the famous floating markets of Amphawa and Damnoen Saduak. If you need a lazy escape from the city, three hours is all you need to get to the seaside city of Pattaya. For an active day away from the polluted air, Bang Kachao, the green lung, is the perfect area to explore for a day.

On the monks’ trail near Chiang Mai © Marion Dautry

Chiang Mai offers some possibilities in terms of day-trips, like Pai and Chiang Rai or, further away, the Golden Triangle. But to me, the main interest of the area around Chiang Mai are the mountains and the many trails starting right outside the city. You will find hiking groups and also various hiking tours to take you all the way to the temple of Doi Suthep using the monks’ trails. It is the perfect workout and the most amazing place to be at for sunrise and sunset. The difficulties of the trails range from easy to very demanding so there is something for everyone. There are many more outdoor activities available that I didn’t have the time to even consider, like an immense zip line!

Is food better in Chiang Mai?

Now let’s be clear: I am not trying to start a culinary war. Food is incredible in Thailand, period. Bangkok is no exception. That being said, and I am only giving you my personal experience, I found it easier to sit somewhere and enjoy lunch and dinner in Chiang Mai than in Bangkok.

Somehow, street food feels easier to grab in Bangkok while I was a bit overwhelmed by the choices and usually ended up in a food court. Food courts are great to see everything that’s available and try different things. But when you want a nice, neat, quiet atmosphere or let’s say, a romantic dinner, I wouldn’t know where to go in Bangkok without paying a much higher price. That being said, grabbing a bit of everything at the night market in Ratchada was definitely one of my top 5 experiences in Thailand.

On the other hand, Chiang Mai’s restaurants looked more attractive to me. They looked more inviting, more spacious and also much cheaper! It was easier to walk down the streets just looking around for a bit until finding the right spot. Or you can look up online for some recommendations and not have to spend one hour to get there like in Bangkok.

I had been told to eat a lot there and try all the Northern Thailand food specialities. I did some research and used the recommendations of “Tieland to Thailand”, Angela’s and Chris’ travel website. They live in Chiang Mai so they know what they’re talking about. Their “5 must-try dishes in Chiang Mai” post was very useful and I have to confirm that everything that I tried was absolutely delicious! If you decide to try Chiang Mai’s cuisine, do not miss the khao soi at café de Thaan Aoan or the delightful terrace with a view and the northern Thai sausage at Huen Phen.

The ultimate deciding factor: Pollution

If you have checked my post about the 7 free mobile apps you need to survive Thailand, you know that pollution is a problem you need to take into consideration when planning your trip. One look at your Air Quality Index free app might just seal the deal for you.

Indeed, depending on when you are visiting the country, pollution levels can go through the roof in Bangkok or in Chiang Mai. March and April are for instance months during which people burn the fields around Chiang Mai, which deteriorates dramatically the quality of the air.

Whether you are travelling solo, in a group or with kids, pollution is an important factor as it can affect your health, especially if you already have problems, or simply affect the enjoyability of your stay in the city. I recommend you have a look at the situation before making your final decision between Bangkok and Chiang Mai.

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