Bangkok vs Chiang Mai is an often-mentioned rivalry when speaking about visiting Thailand. These are the country’s two most important cities and regional tourist hubs with a lot of exciting things to see and do. But which one is better and where should you spend more time? Through 17 comparative points, this post will help you decide which city is for you and determine the “winner” between Bangkok or Chiang Mai.
Bangkok vs Chiang Mai- Where to Start?
The most obvious difference between the two cities is size. Bangkok is a sprawling metropolis populated by 9 million people while Chiang Mai’s population is only 130,000. This obvious difference is the basis for all the other differences as you’ll see in this article. But to ask the question “Bangkok vs Chiang Mai” is like choosing between chocolate or vanilla ice cream. It depends on your preferences and what you want to do. But we’ll cover that too.
For now, let’s start at the beginning.
As you probably expect, almost everything is cheaper in Chiang Mai, as it’s the case every time when a capital is compared to a smaller city. On average, consumer prices in Chiang Mai are 14.% lower, rent prices are around 35-40% lower. This also applies to food, restaurants, groceries (even though the difference is not very big here), etc. If we compare local purchasing power, Chiang Mai leads Bangkok by 11%.
Cost Of Living
To live in Bangkok, you’d need around 25,000 baht per month ($640 USD) to cover all of your bills. In contrast, in Chiang Mai, you would only need somewhere between 18,000 and 20,000. But please note that this is the average. If you’re an expat or a traveler, you’ll probably need a lot more. And the more things you need, the bigger the difference between the cost of living in Bangkok and Chiang Mai becomes.
Winner: Chiang Mai. Practically everything is a lot cheaper in Chiang Mai.
Sure, the food costs (like everything else) will be lower in Chiang Mai but this section isn’t about just prices. Let’s see which one of these two cities has a better food scene. If you’re a fan of street food, both cities have a lot to offer. The main difference is that Bangkok is a lot more chaotic with street food vendors around every corner while Chiang Mai is more organized and most street food vendors are located at one of the many local markets.
As for restaurants, both cities have a rich offering of Thai, Asian, and Continental food. In other words, you’ll love the food regardless of where you choose to go. However, we would have to give a slight edge to Bangkok.
Winner: by a landslide, Bangkok, because it has more options, more delivery alternatives, and more places to eat during late-night hours.
Vegan and Vegetarian Food
Before, we get into this section, please note that the local food in Thailand isn’t the most vegetarian-friendly in the world. However, as a primarily tourist country, Thailand follows the latest trends and with more people turning vegan, the number of vegan and vegetarian options keeps increasing. Having this in mind, both cities have a lot of dining options for vegetarians and vegans but the winner of this section is without a doubt, Chiang Mai.
The reason for this is the fact that Chiang Mai is completely surrounded by nature and most of the fruits and vegetables used for preparing vegetarian meals are more fresh compared to the ones you’d get in Bangkok. Additionally, we’ve come across a lot of ridiculously expensive vegetarian restaurants in Bangkok which was not the case in Chiang Mai.
Winner: Chiang Mai.
Similar to other expenses, transportation costs are lower in Chiang Mai. However, since these won’t be a big part of your budget, the difference isn’t as prominent.
Bangkok’s transportation network is quite good. The city has a lot of buses, a modern Subway, a Skytrain, tuk-tuks, trains, riverboats, motorbike taxis, and a lot of competition among taxi-booking apps that keep the cab prices low.
Chiang Mai, on the other hand, has no trains and subway. The most common form of transportation is Songthaew, a converted pick-up truck with two rows of backbenches. They’re quite cheap but oftentimes, the only option. There are taxi-booking apps like Uber and Grab but because it’s a small town, they don’t have a lot of drivers and the prices are oftentimes even more expensive than Bangkok.
Winner: clearly Bangkok. However, that doesn’t mean that commuting in Bangkok is easier than in Chiang Mai. Because there’s this thing called…
Bangkok has a lot more transportation options than Chiang Mai but it also has arguably the worst traffic in Southeast Asia. That’s what happens when more than 9 million people live in one city. That’s 692 times the population of Chiang Mai.
Winner: Without a doubt, Chiang Mai.
This is almost the same as the traffic case. Fewer people means less traffic and less traffic means more area available for parks, sidewalks, and other walkable surfaces. In addition to this, Chiang Mai is a lot less polluted (for the same reasons) which makes walking here a lot more enjoyable.
Winner: Again, without a doubt, Chiang Mai.
Ease of Getting Around
This is very difficult to compare because of the huge size difference in area. Bangkok covers an area of 1,569 square meters while Chiang Mai covers 40 square kilometers. To put that into perspective, Bangkok is larger than the 10 other biggest cities in Thailand combined!
Even though Chiang Mai looks a lot more peaceful and traffic-free and driving a car or a motorbike in Chiang Mai is a lot easier, getting around Bangkok is very easy, having into consideration the fact that Bangkok covers an area larger of some countries!
Winner: Bangkok because of the fact that’s for such a big city, getting places is relatively easy and convenient.
When comparing Bangkok vs Chiang Mai, one of the main parameters to look at are the activities and things to do. Chiang Mai is a charming city with a lot of amazing things to do, especially for nature lovers but in general, it can’t compare to Bangkok. The capital is an ultimate city of contrast and a cosmopolitan metropolis with something in store for everyone. In the end line, Bangkok’s area is almost 40 times larger than Chiang Mai and with such a big difference, it’s no surprise that Bangkok has a lot more exciting things to offer to visitors.
Winner: Without a doubt, Bangkok.
However, when speaking of activities and things to do, we all want to do different things and have different preferences. That’s why for this part of our Bangkok vs Chiang Mai analysis to be complete, we have to take context into consideration. That’s why we divided a few subcategories of activities and things to do in both cities.
Nature and Wildlife
Chiang Mai is a town surrounded by mountains and thick jungles and everywhere you turn, you’ll be surrounded by beautiful nature. This is the perfect surrounding for wildlife to thrive. On the other hand, the same could not be said about Bangkok. The capital sure has a lot of things to offer but nature and wildlife are one of the rare things it lacks.
Winner: Chiang Mai. If you like to get off the beaten track in Thailand, Chiang Mai is a great starting point for exploring the not-so-popular northern part of the country.
Even though tour operators have come up with some exciting adventure activities in Bangkok, they’re limited by the fact that Bangkok is a sprawling metropolis with very little nature and greenery. Chiang Mai, on the other hand, offers activities such as jungle trekking and similar activities, ethical elephant encounters (more info about ethical elephant tourist activities here), mountain biking, chasing waterfalls opportunities, kayaking, etc.
Winner: Chiang Mai.
As surprising as it may sound, Bangkok was not always the capital of Thailand or Siam. The original medieval capital was actually the historic city of Ayutthaya. Bangkok was a relatively small town until the 1700s (it became the capital in 1782). However, that isn’t a short time span and Bangkok is home to some of the most fascinating historical sites in Thailand. Some of these include Wat Arun, Wat Phao, the reclining Buddha, the Grand Palace, the National Museum, etc.
However, Chiang Mai is an important historic hub too. Chiang Mai was the historic capital of the ancient Lanna Kingdom that dominated the northern part of Thailand between 1250 and 1850. Some of the city’s most important historical sites feature the old town, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Wat Chedi Luang, and over 300 smaller temples.
For a city of its size, Chiang Mai is home to a lot of historical sites but Bangkok wins this one too, mainly because of its sheer size and sights that can be seen on its territory.
This is an easy one. As beautiful and exciting Chiang Mai is, it can’t compare to Bangkok when it comes to entertainment. If there’s such a thing as “the entertainment capital of Asia”, it has to be Bangkok. Here, you can find anything from sky bars, unique shopping opportunities, through beautiful temples and historic sites, cinemas, and adventure parks to exciting bars, casinos, and even ladyboy shows.
Winner: Without a doubt, Bangkok
Now, you might be thinking that this is an obvious choice too but it’s actually a lot closer than that. For such a small town, Chiang Mai has a significant (and thriving) expat community that contributes to the already vibrant nightlife of Chiang Mai. However, in Chiang Mai, everything is more organized and most of the bars and nightclubs are concentrated in one area. It’s still great if you’re visiting for a week or two but if you plan to stay here, it might become repetitive after some time.
Bangkok, on the other hand, has a lot of exciting bars and nightclubs, and new venues keep popping out all the time. Bangkok has arguably the most exciting nightlife scene in the whole of Asia.
Bangkok vs Chiang Mai- Weather
This is something most travelers forget about when traveling but it’s an important factor that can significantly change your experience while traveling. According to historical data, the average winter temperature in Bangkok is 79 Fahrenheit (26 Celsius)! In the summers, the average temperature is around 95 Fahrenheit (35 Celsius) but temperatures above 100 Fahrenheit are not uncommon.
In Chiang Mai, on the other hand, the average winter temperature is 72 Fahrenheit (22 Celsius) while in the summer the average temperature is 80-92 Fahrenheit (26-33 Celsius). The difference isn’t big but those few degrees can be a life-saver especially during the summer.
Winner: It really depends on your preference, but I believe most people would agree that this one goes to Chiang Mai.
Bangkok vs Chiang Mai- Accommodation
Both cities have a lot of accommodation options to choose from. There’s an abundance of hostels, mid-range hotels, and luxury resorts in both cities. And Chiang Mai has almost everything you can find in Bangkok. In addition to this, Chiang Mai has a lot more options for budget travelers and generally, accommodation here is slightly cheaper, making it a perfect choice for people who travel to Thailand on a budget. However, the keyword here is almost. Bangkok takes one solely based on more options to choose from.
Learning About Thai Culture
Even though Thailand is the capital, one can’t help to feel that the city has lost a lot of its original authenticity due to mass tourism. And I’m not saying that Chiang Mai hasn’t, especially in recent years with the influx of expats. However, these processes always take more time in slower towns.
Additionally, Thailand as a country and its culture are heavily influenced by Buddhism and Chiang Mai is the perfect place to learn more about Buddhism; you’ll find close to 300 Buddhist temples which is an unreal number for such a small city. Also, in many of them, you can meet monks who are oftentimes open to chatting with visitors which is a rarity in Bangkok. Finally, it’s a lot easier to relax and meditate in a city completely surrounded by nature (Chiang Mai) than it is to do the same in a concrete jungle like Bangkok.
Winner: Chiang Mai.
Both cities are the regional hubs and are surrounded by a lot of amazing day trip opportunities. From Bangkok, you can head to the historic city of Ayutthaya (here are some exciting tour options), visit one of the most famous floating markets in Thailand (Damnoen Saduak), explore the temples of Kanchanaburi, see the beautiful beaches of Pattaya, go island hopping to the neighboring islands, or even visit Khao Yai National Park.
From Chiang Mai, you can go to Thailand’s most famous park Doi Inthanon National Park, see the beautiful Huay Tung Tao Lake, a golden Buddhist temple atop one of the highest mountains in Thailand (Doi Suthep), try to find the Bua Tong Falls, explore Chiang Dao Cave, or take a trip to the Elephant Nature Park.
As you can see, both cities have a lot of interesting day trip opportunities. If you’re a nature lover, then you’ll definitely say Chiang Mai has more to offer but overall, Bangkok has more options to choose from when it comes to day trips.
Winner: by a landslide, Bangkok.
Quality Of Life
The quality of life is a crucial part of our Bangkok vs Chiang Mai comparison and this part of the comparison shows the biggest difference between the two cities. They both have a lot of things to offer and a relatively high quality of life but their pros and cons are quite different.
Chiang Mai has a much slower pace of life and a more laid-back atmosphere. This will ease your stress and make you feel more relaxed. On top of that, you can also get more things with less money (compared to Bangkok). You don’t have to deal with crowded streets, traffic, pollution, and a generally chaotic atmosphere, and nature will always be at your doorstep.
Bangkok, on the other hand, might be a fast-paced metropolis with stressful surroundings, pollution, and busy streets but there’s not a thing you cannot find here. Bangkok has something in store for everyone and one can never feel bored in Thailand’s capital.
Pros and Cons: Chiang Mai
It’s cheaper than Bangkok.
Nature is at your doorstep.
It’s better for indulging in cultural activities and learning about Thai culture.
The weather is cooler.
Even though it’s a small town, there are a lot of expats you can hang out with and relate to.
It’s relatively isolated, at least compared to Bangkok.
The city seems a lot more organized than Bangkok.
Public transport options are limited.
Because it’s more organized, markets, restaurants, nightclubs, etc. are centralized in certain areas, making it quite easy to get bored after some time.
It’s very far away from the coast and beautiful beaches. And let’s not forget this is the main reason why most tourists come to Thailand.
The entertainment options are limited compared to the capital.
Pros and cons: Bangkok
It’s one of the most electrifying, vibrant cities you’ll ever see.
Because it’s a bigger city, there are more options for everything, including food, accommodation, entertainment, etc.
The nightlife is incomparably better and Bangkok is one of the world’s main sex tourism destinations.
The city has a great public transport infrastructure and it’s relatively easy to get places even though the city is the size of a small country.
Its central location makes it a perfect starting point for exploring Thailand and in fact, the whole region of Southeast Asia. It’s close to the coast and there are some beautiful beaches nearby but the northern region isn’t very far either.
Living costs are higher.
Traffic and pollution (both air and land) are present.
There aren’t a lot of green surfaces and quiet spots where you can go for a walk.
The weather is always very hot, sometimes even in the winter.
We let you decide the winner of this last comparison. In the end, the comparison of Bangkok vs Chiang Mai comes down to this…
Bangkok vs Chiang Mai- Hipster Vibe vs Cosmopolitan City
It’s all about what you’re looking for. In our comparison, Bangkok is the winner with 10 points to 7. However, this is completely subjective. If you’re looking for a peaceful, quaint town where you can relax and always be close to the mountains, jungles, and greenery, you’ll always choose Chiang Mai. On the other hand, if you want to explore a vibrant city where you’ll never run out of things to do, you’ll definitely choose Bangkok.
How did you like this Bangkok vs Chiang Mai comparison? Do you agree with it? Do you think we didn’t mention something important? Let us know in the comments!
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Saturday 24th of October 2020
This is a great post! I studied abroad in Bangkok and I loved both of these cities!
Tuesday 10th of November 2020
Thank you for your comment, Sydney. We agree, both cities are awesome :)