It is a feeling that’s difficult to describe. The first time it hits you it’s exciting, foreign and overwhelming.
The strange humidity that hugs you, the sounds of tuk tuks singing and the different energy buzzing around makes you feel very alive. Stepping out from the airport into Thailand is going to be an adventure every single time—guaranteed.
Thailand is made up of 76 provinces, 17 of which are in Northern Thailand. Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai are the most popular provinces to visit as well as popular places for expats to live.
Many Thai people also choose to holiday in Northern Thailand because it’s cheap and a little cooler in the hot season. Northern Thailand is popular because of its large national parks, wild mountainous jungles and spacious agricultural sprawl. But what’s most unique is the strong Lanna (Northern Thai) culture that spreads its influence through beautiful architecture, food and art. The Non-Tai (hill tribes) are also a wonderful feature to the landscape, cultural artefacts and daily life.
It’s difficult to compare—or choose between—Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai as their cultural offerings are very similar and both are worthy of exploring. At its most simple, Chiang Mai is a much bigger city, which means great choices on hotels to suit any budget. There are fabulous luxury resorts and cute funky hostels. Traffic can be an issue but driving from one end of the city to the other usually only takes around 30 minutes. Many restaurants have menus in Thai and English and it’s easy to access food from all over the world, including Aussie beef!
Chiang Rai is Lanna living on a smaller scale. The roads are wide and there is a bigger sense of space. Nature is also a more prominent feature within the city. There are still hotels that suit any budget however there is less choice and may not be quite as ‘arty’ as the Chiang Mai hotels. There are also many restaurants in the city but they will mostly be offering Thai food. Chiang Rai definitely has a more country town feel, when compared to Chiang Mai. It is only around 70 kilometres from Chiang Rai to the Golden Triangle and further travel, so Chiang Rai is also a great springboard to other northern adventures.
Depending on your needs, both provinces can provide you with many unforgettable experiences, so planning what ‘style’ of holiday is essential. Arty people, foodies and nature lovers will have plenty to see and do in both cities.
When Is The Best Time To Go?
Again, it depends upon what you like. Northern Thailand has three seasons; cool, hot and rainy. The following can help you decide what season will work for your trip.
The Rainy Season – June to November (Average Temperatures: 22 C to 31 C)
- The land looks its most lush and green.
- It often rains in the afternoon, however, sometimes it can rain for days on end. Weather is just as unpredictable in Thailand as any other country.
- Expats and Thai people enjoy the refreshing change from the hot and sometimes dusty heat.
- The rainy season is still hot—some days very humid—but also has some cooler moments.
- There can be a hindrance in terms of travelling up mountains due to mud and it won’t suit people who want to swim and sunbathe.
- November is also the beginning of the high season in terms of tourism, so airfares and accommodation will be more costly at this time.
The Hot Season – March to May (Average Temperatures: 20 C to 36 C)
- For nature lovers, this is a good time to visit as it is still pretty from the wet season.
- It is also optimum time for swimming in hotel pools and getting a tan.
- There is very little rain, so it can get dusty.
- It is also the time when farmers are burning crops so the air quality is poor. It is not recommended for people who suffer with lung or respiratory conditions.
- Views are obscured from the haze.
The Cool Season – November to February (Average Temperatures: 15 C to 30 C)
- High season, so airfare and accommodation will be more expensive.
- Bike touring is at its best in terms of temperature.
- Easier temperature to exercise or walk and explore the city.
- Street food at its safest to eat.
- You may need a light jacket, especially if you are going to the mountains.
Northern Thailand hosts some absolutely spectacular festivals and events that travellers are welcome to participate in. Festival dates change each year, depending on the lunar calendar, so the following is just a general guide.
January : The Bo Sang Umbrella Festival
A short drive out of the city, the Bo Sang Umbrella Festival is a celebration of the craftsmanship of umbrella making. The best treat is watching beautiful Thai ladies parade umbrellas on bicycles.
February: The Flower Festival
This is a spectacular display of local flora around the moat. It includes floats full of flowers, cultural costumes and music and celebrations at the local city park.
April: Songkran Festival
This is the Thai ‘new year’ and is a very lively festival that’s pretty much a water fight where people, armed with everything from buckets to super-soakers, take to the streets to drench each other.
November: Loi Krathong
This is a stunning festival where the Thai people place krathongs (floats with flowers, candles and incense) on the river. Coinciding with this, hundreds of lanterns float into the night sky. This is a festival not to miss.
December: The Arts & Crafts Fair
Set on the arty Nimmanhaemin Road, this fair showcases local artists and craft makers. There are many stalls to stroll through and much to buy.
April: Songkran Festival and Chiang Saen Boat Racing
The water throwing is just a part of Songkran in Chiang Rai. There is also a boat race that takes place on the Mekong River and boats represent Thailand, Laos, China and Myanmar. The local festival also includes cultural performances and a beauty contest.
May: The Lychee Festival
This is an agriculture competition showcasing local food. There are local food competitions, a Miss Lychee competition and lots of local fruit to buy at low prices.
October: Music and Arts Festival
Pop up exhibitions of local artists works coexist with the local hotels having music and food fairs.
November: Loi Krathong
Loi Krathong is just as beautiful in Chiang Mai as it is in Chiang Rai, perhaps even better as there is less traffic.
December: The Flower Festival
This festival showcases beautiful local flowers, hosts a beauty pageant and presents lots of local food to enjoy.
Things To Do…
Both Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai have wonderful things see and there are great adventures to be had. No matter what you are into there are activities that will suit your style of holiday.
Chiang Mai has many opportunities to enjoy the great outdoors…
- Rent a motorbike and ride through the mountains
(local insurance won’t work if you don’t have an international licence for bikes)
- Bicycle tours
- Canyon swimming
- Caring for Elephants
- National park tours
- Quad biking
- Water rafting
- National gardens
As does Chiang Rai…
- Bicycle tours
- Hiking tours
- Bamboo rafting
- Exploring hill tribe villages
- Caring for elephants
Arts & Culture
Northern Thailand is famous for its quality museums and art galleries if you appreciate culture and beautiful art.
- Temples including Wat Prah That Doi Suthep, Wat Phra Singh and the silver temple, Wat Sri Suphan.
- Baan Tawai Village. Local handicrafts and artists 40 minutes out of the city.
- Museums at the Three Kings Monument (there are four separate museums all within walking distance.
- Sop Moei Arts. Stunning ethical textiles by the Pwo Karen people.
- MIAAIM contemporary art gallery.
- The White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) and the Blue Temple (Wat Rong Suea Ten).
- The Black House (Gallery of esteemed local artist Thawan Duchanee).
- Hall of Opium Museum.
- Oub Kham Museum.
- Hill Tribe Museum.
There is an abundance of delicious food waiting for you in Northern Thailand. There are two meals that are a must to try. Khao Soi is a noodle curry that dances on the tongue and Northern Thai sausage (sai ua) is spicy and fragrant with a kick of heat.
Here are some suggestions of some atmospheric restaurants to try.
- The Faces
Features a lush garden and terracotta frescoes and sculptures.
- The Gallery
A traditional teak Thai house on the Ping River.
- Fern Forest
A great garden cafe in the old city with super tasty, fresh food.
- Ploen Ruedee
A Food Truck Market at the Night Bazaar.
- David’s Kitchen
Good spot for sophisticated cuisine.
- Chivit Thamma Da
The perfect spot to relax on the Kok River. Enjoyable food and reasonable prices.
- The Wanderer
A lovely garden restaurant on the Kok River serving great fresh food.
- Accha Fusion India
My pick for quality Indian cuisine.
- Give Green Farm House Restaurant
Dishes up tasty local food (You’ll find it near The Black House).
There really is something for everyone in Northern Thailand. Flights (prices from Bangkok begin at $70 one way) and buses run (prices begin at $20 one way) between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai.