Let’s get one thing clear: Unless you have unlimited time and money, every place you visit is taking the place of somewhere else that could be on your itinerary. It’s not as glamorous or magical to talk about destinations as “worth it,” but we’re practical people, and I genuinely feel that some of the places that are “must-visit” destinations, simply aren’t.
All of Northern Thailand is typically lumped together as “Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, and their surrounds.” It seems, based on the guidebooks, that if you’re going to the North, these two cities are: 1. On the same level as far as interesting things to see and do and 2. Obligatory. However, their names aren’t all these towns have in common. Many refer to Chiang Rai as a sort of “mini Chiang Mai,” complete with temples, a night market, and trekking excursions. These similarities beg the obvious question: Is it worth visiting both?
Chiang Mai vs. Chiang Rai
All around, we liked Chiang Mai much better than Chiang Rai. Of course, this is totally subjective, but here’s what we felt Chiang Mai had going for it that Chiang Rai lacked:
- Centralized and very walkable
- Well-lit and populated at night (felt safer)
- Much more to do and much more tourism infrastructure.
- More easily accessible by train or bus from other Thailand destinations (to get to Chiang Rai you pretty much have to fly from the South or travel to and from Chiang Mai or Laos)
So if you’re choosing between these two, hands down, Chiang Mai wins for us.
What Chiang Rai has to offer
The one thing Chiang Rai has that nowhere else in the world has is the White Temple (Wat Rong Khun). This is an amazing site, certainly. It was super-interesting and bizarre and fun to wander through. If you’re going to Chiang Rai, it’s definitely worth a visit. But unless it’s something you’ve been dying to see for ages, I don’t think you need to go all the way to Chiang Rai just for this.
Additionally, Chaing Rai offers a night market (which is OK but nothing remarkable, and certainly smaller than Chiang Mai) and a wealth of temples. We were temple-fatigued by the time we left Thailand and we didn’t even see any of the older temples in Chiang Rai, so that doesn’t strike me as a strong argument for a Chiang Rai detour either.
Finally, Chiang Rai is the closest major city to the Golden Triangle, where Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand meet. If you plan to go overland to Laos anyway, Chiang Rai is a worthwhile pitstop as well as the best place to arrange your travel to Laos, according to what I’ve read. Some people also book a tour to head up to the Golden Triangle just to see it and return to Chiang Rai. Like the White Temple, I’m sure this is a really cool experience, but unless it’s something you’ve long fantasized about, it doesn’t strike me as worth the journey by itself.
If you’re in Thailand for a month or less (we were there about 3½ weeks), I don’t recommend spending the money or time to get to Chiang Rai. That said, there are those who spend months in Thailand, and for these travelers, Chiang Rai may be a worthwhile stop. If you’re traveling slower, the hours on the bus aren’t nearly as much of a loss, and there are lots of other smaller towns in the North that you can spend time in as well.