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Chiang Mai was at the center of the ancient Lanna Kingdom, which spread across most of northern Thailand. Relics of this kingdom sprinkle the 700-year-old northern capital, which intermingle with its modern décor today. The northern city especially thrived from 1250 to 1860. Chiang Mai continues to entice even visitors who only spend a few days here. Because of its history, many temples can be found throughout the city. 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 center.
Boat, bus, skytrain, subway, motorbike, taxi, songthaew: there are many ways to get around Bangkok. In addition to an overwhelming number of options, Bangkok’s streets are home to some of the worst traffic in the world: just ask the drivers in Bangkok who were stuck in traffic for an average of 64.1 hours in 2016. Chiang Mai, however, makes it easy for visitors to travel from point A to point B. Trucks with two benches, otherwise known as songthaews, circle the city center, making it easy for commuters to jump on and off as they please. The city’s light traffic also makes it certainly less terrifying to rent a motorbike and zoom around the city.
Though the capital continues to make strides in improving its selection of meat-free dining, Chiang Mai makes the grade regarding both vegan and vegetarian food. It seems as though visitors cannot walk far without stumbling across one of these restaurants in Chiang Mai. And while these same restaurants in Bangkok normally get away with charging an obscene amount for a meat-free dish, the vegan restaurants in Chiang Mai are both affordable and delicious. The selection is incredible as well, 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. Hostel accommodation should not cost more than a few hundred baht, and even the more luxurious of hotels are not going to break travelers’ budgets. Meals normally don’t cost more than ฿100 (US$2.90), and the nightlife in Chiang Mai is sure to leave visitors hungover but not broke, as many are in Bangkok.
According to the World Meteorological Society, Thailand’s capital city has some of the hottest year-round temperatures in the world. The average winter in Bangkok comes in at a whopping average of 79° Fahrenheit. Chiang Mai, however, sits at a higher altitude than most cities in the country, making it less humid so it feels significantly cooler. On average, Chiang Mai is about 78° Fahrenheit, with the temperature dropping to as low as 72° Fahrenheit in the winter. It is still hot but not unbearable, as Bangkok’s weather is known to be.
Sometimes, visitors just want to escape the city, even if just for a day. While the capital has its fair share of excursions, no other city in Thailand offers such a wide range of day-trip excursions as Chiang Mai. Because it sits in a valley surrounded by mountains and a river, there are plenty of outdoorsy and adventurous excursions to choose from. White water rafting, hiking, ziplining, trekking, and rock climbing are just a few activities to choose from. Those looking for something a bit more historical might instead 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 modernize. This leaves little room for much greenery. Chiang Mai, on the other hand, is surrounded by mountainous terrain on all sides, which makes a lovely backdrop. The city’s system of canals and Lanna ruins make the city feel unlike a city at all. Those looking to truly escape the urban jungle can venture into the neighboring mountains, as well.
Tourists will be hard-pressed to find much wildlife in the City of Angels. Unless finding a jing jok (gecko) in the bathroom or a monitor lizard at Lumphini Park, the capital leaves little room for anything but people and cars. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Chiang Mai, where the center and outskirts are home to many species.
One of the top attractions in Chiang Mai is the Night Safari. There are also other excursions that promise encounters with wildlife, such as Flight of the Gibbon, a zip-line tour, where the chances of spotting one of these forest-dwelling creatures is high. Visiting an elephant sanctuary is another way to get up close and personal with Thailand’s national animal, but pick a trustworthy company that does not allow riding the elephants. One such company is Elephant Nature Park.
Bangkok can have an uppity vibe, with its luxurious malls, fancy fine dining, and sky bars. While this can be great for travelers who appreciate the finer things in life, it can deter many of self-proclaimed hippies from wanting to visit the capital. In contrast, Chiang Mai is hardly extravagant. A hipster, laidback vibe permeates, from quaint cafes to secondhand stores and more. Chilling out is easy in this laidback city.