As different as New York is from Seattle, or Paris from Marseilles, Bangkok and Chiang Mai have their distinct allures to suit travelers’ various desires.
If you’re thinking of visiting Thailand, don’t be tempted just to drop in on that playground of the Far East, the capital of Thailand – Bangkok, without visiting its more provincial, chilled and traditional counterpart city Chiang Mai, some 400 miles to the north.
Like any country in the world, you don’t taste the entire flavor of Thailand just by visiting one place.
On many people’s ‘bucket lists’, Bangkok can seem like one giant vibrant cosmopolitan shopping mall by day, connected by taxis, a metro and travelators. It’s also a city that turns into a steamy sensual clubfest by night. Bangkok barely hides its darker temptations of a very relaxed attitude to hedonistic tourism and everything that entails; ‘private members’ bars with dark corners where just about anything goes for the dollar equivalent of getting your Chevy tires rotated back home in the USA.
By comparison, Chiang Mai is stayed, provincial and nowhere near as ‘metrosexual’ – but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. Night markets and quiet, romantic restaurants make for a pleasant evening out, and there are still late bars to dance the night away with cheap drinks and friendly company.
In short, if you’re going to visit Thailand, you really ought to visit both those cities to get the full picture of what this eastern jewel of a country has to offer; paradise beaches, shopping, nightlife, mountains, typical villages and street food. So the first question to answer is: how to get from Bangkok to Chiang Mai?
Naturally, there are a variety of routes and methods of getting between the two destinations, from hiring a car to taking an airplane; catching a bus or boarding a train. It all depends on whether you want to watch the world go by out of a carriage window for over 12 hours or maximize your tourist time by flying in about 90 minutes.
Once you’ve arrived, let’s look at some of the differences between Chiang Mai & Bangkok in more detail:
For Culture vultures
Bangkok is a melting pot of various cultures with its many temples, including the famous Wat Arun and Wat Pho, each places of cultural, religious and architectural fascination. Modernity melds with mythology, with the availability of vast designer shopping malls alongside the Chatuchak Weekend Market – some 15,000 stalls where you can buy anything from a taxidermied monkey to a traditional Thai neck ring.
Chiang Mai, conversely, is steeped in Lanna culture. The Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chedi Luang temples are ornate prominent examples of Thailand’s approach to Buddhism. Monks walk around the city dressed in their typical orange robes, which are as common in Chiang Mai as T-Shirts in Brooklyn.
For shoppers, Chiang Mai’s Sunday Walking Street Market is packed with traditional handicrafts, live music, and local street food. Chiang Mai’s annual Yi Peng Lantern Festival is also an awesome spectacle where thousands of lanterns are released into the night sky, an almost religious experience for anyone of any spirituality.
Provincial vs metropolitan
No, that’s not a local soccer match! Bangkok bustles with skyscrapers and concrete effigies to Babylon; where stockbrokers rub shoulders with street vendors and cops tend to be blind in one eye to most misdemeanors. Bangkok’s fast-paced lifestyle is like visiting New York City, neither city ever sleeps; the taxis are a different color and Bangkok seldom experiences freezing weather, but the dollar or baht is king in both conurbations.
By contrast, Chiang Mai lays down on a virtual massage table with incense and prayer gongs as their environmental accompaniments. Nestled in the northern Thai mountains, the city exudes a laid-back vibe of tradition and culture. Chiang Mai’s Old Town is bordered by ancient walls and a moat, preserving a sense of medieval history and tranquility that is almost completely absent in Bangkok. Even the local workers take a relaxed attitude to their trade, you won’t see builders in hi-Viz jackets, helmets and safety boots – more likely sandals and a sun hat!
Nightlife, eating out and indulgence
Bangkok is famous the world over for its vibrant nightlife, rotating bars atop huge skyscrapers where clubbers can dance until dawn. Restaurants can be amongst the most expensive in the country, let alone in the first world, where the two Michelin star Mezzaluna restaurant allows you to indulge in dishes such as ‘Tarabagani Quenelle’ of King Crab, Foie Gras, Celeriac, and Black Truffle. Order a tasting menu and a bottle of something fizzy in there and your credit card could well melt down at over 10,000 baht ( $280) per cover.
By comparison, traditional Thai food in Chiang Mai is delicious and very affordable – there are many restaurants like the Baan Mae Restaurant & Café, where sumptuous local delicacies and drinks come in at under 1200 Baht per head ($35) – yet it’s still fine dining in most people’s eyes.
Infrastructure and area
Bangkok, being the capital of Thailand, is a major financial and transportation hub of Asia, with modern motorways, skytrains and underground subway networks. However Chiang Mai has a smaller airport, and no subway, so travelers rely mainly on buses, red songthaews (shared taxis) and Tuk-Tuks to get around.
For nature lovers and hikers
Chiang Mai certainly isn’t a beach holiday destination like, for example, The Maldives. Rather, Chiang Mai is the gateway to outdoor adventure activities. From the city you can take fascinating guided excursions to ‘typical’ villages, where the ‘Long Neck’ indigenous tribespeople make a living from weaving and crafting for the tourist trade. You can also visit the famous ‘Golden Triangle’; a mountainous region of approximately 77,000 square miles sprawling across north-eastern Myanmar, north-west Thailand and northern Laos.
Such hiking trails, national parks and waterfalls provide breathtaking views for nature lovers. But while Bangkok has a few green spaces, they’re limited to manicured parks and recreational areas such as Lumpini Park, an oasis of green amongst the concrete sprawl that’s ever expanding.
Horses for courses
In summary, Bangkok and Chiang Mai both represent distinctive, complementary yet opposing faces of Thai culture. But once arrived in that exciting and eye-opening country, it would be foolhardy for a visitor not to enjoy the delights of both equally appealing destinations.