Bangkok versus Chiang Mai: the competition is fierce. Each city brings something exciting to the table, so how are visitors to decide which is the best city in Thailand? While the Thai capital will always have a place in our hearts, here’s why you should visit Chiang Mai over Bangkok.
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Chiang Mai was at the centre of the ancient Lanna Kingdom, which spread across most of northern Thailand. Relics of this kingdom sprinkle the 700-year-old northern capital, including many temples. They are smaller than most temples in Bangkok, but are designed in a noteworthy Burmese style. One of the most remarkable is Doi Suthep, a Theravada Buddhist temple atop a mountain just outside the city centre.
Boat, bus, sky train, subway, motorbike, taxi, songthaew: there are many ways to get around Bangkok. But the Bangkok streets are also home to some of the worst traffic in the world. In Chiang Mai, however, it is easy for visitors to travel. Trucks with two benches, otherwise known as songthaews, circle the city centre, making it easy to jump on and off as you please. The light traffic also makes it less terrifying to rent a motorbike and zoom around.
Though Bangkok continues to improve its selection of meat-free dining, you can’t walk far in Chiang Mai with stumbling across a vegetarian or vegan restaurant. And while these same restaurants in Bangkok can charge an obscene amount for a meat-free dish, the vegan restaurants in Chiang Mai are both affordable and delicious. The selection is incredible too, with restaurants serving a wide variety of soy and tofu products and a number of delicious faux-meat meals.
Almost everything is at least a handful baht cheaper in Chiang Mai. A bed in a backpacker hostel should not cost more than a few hundred baht, and even the more luxurious hotels are not going to break the bank. Meals normally don’t cost more than 100 Thai baht (£2.23), and the nightlife in Chiang Mai is sure to leave you hungover but not broke.
The capital city of Thailand has some of the hottest year-round temperatures in the world, according to the World Meteorological Society. The average winter in Bangkok averages 26C (79F). Chiang Mai, however, sits at a higher altitude than most cities in the country, meaning it’s less humid and feels cooler. Chiang Mai is still 25C (78F) on average, but the temperature can drop to 22C (72F) in the winter. Still hot, but not unbearable.
While the capital has plenty of exciting excursions nearby, no other city in Thailand offers such a wide range of day trips as Chiang Mai. Because it sits in a valley surrounded by mountains and a river, there are plenty of outdoorsy and adventurous excursions from which to choose. White-water rafting, hiking, zip lining, trekking and rock climbing are just a few. If you’re looking for something more historical, opt for the three-hour journey to Chiang Rai, the old capital of the Mengrai Dynasty. It is well-known for the White Temple, or Wat Rong Khun. There are also a few elephant sanctuaries in the nearby mountainside that make for great day trips.
Bangkok, though dotted with temples and other historic relics, continues to modernise, allowing little room for greenery. Chiang Mai, on the other hand, is surrounded by mountainous terrain, which makes a lovely backdrop. The canals and Lanna ruins make the city feel unlike a city at all. And if you’re looking to escape the urban jungle, venture into the neighbouring mountains.
Tourists will be hard-pressed to find much wildlife in Bangkok. The capital leaves little room for anything but people and cars, unless you count finding a jing jok (gecko) in the bathroom or a monitor lizard at Lumphini Park. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Chiang Mai, where the centre and outskirts are home to many animal species.
One of the top attractions in Chiang Mai is the Night Safari. There are also other excursions that promise wildlife encounters, such as Flight of the Gibbon, a zip-line tour in which the chances of spotting one of these forest-dwelling creatures is high. Visiting an elephant sanctuary is another way to get up close with the national animal. Pick a trustworthy company that does not allow riding the elephants, such as the Elephant Nature Park.
Bangkok has luxurious shopping, fine dining and sky bars. In contrast, Chiang Mai is more down-to-earth. A hipster, laid-back vibe permeates throughout, from quaint cafes to second-hand shops and more. Chilling out is easy here.