I became familiar with three “Chiangs” in Northern Thailand. The cities of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, and Chang Beer. I’ll focus more on the first two Chiangs, although I felt Chang beer had too much of a Champagne feel for my taste.
As mentioned in “The Will to Survive”, the Chiang Mai area is home to a fantastic Elephant Sanctuary. However, it’s also packed with history and architecture of ancient feuding kingdoms, bustling night markets, international cuisine, language schools, and excellent barber shops. Further north is Chiang Rai, a smaller city closer to the Golden Triangle, the notorious region where Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand’s borders meet, and until somewhat recently, supplied the vast majority of the world’s opium.
I’ve always preferred the slightly less frequented, less known destinations. In this case, that’s Chiang Rai. Not only because it isn’t cramped with tourists (like myself… I know) but because the people, food and culture are all just as vibrant without quite as many negatives.
Compared to Chiang Mai, which intrigues travelers by its ancient city and moat, built to keep the Burmese invaders out, Chiang Rai is home to a modern twist on ancient art and history. Chiang Rai is home to the White Temple, a buddhist temple that lives up to its name on the outside, but every inch on the inside is covered with murals of modernity. The murals tell one story, but incorporate characters, among many others, from The Matrix, TMNT, Star Wars, Despicable Me, Batman, and Superman. Unfortunately, photography is prohibited within the temple, so you’ll have to believe me.
We also took a nice long ride on the motorbike to a local waterfall in Chiang Rai and really got the feel for the local hiking scene… Jungle hiking is not easy, and this 7 kilometer hike almost killed me, but the waterfall was a nice destination on a hot and humid day.
The food options in Chiang Mai are much more diverse due to it’s larger population, a laser focus on food stalls, and a more consistent demand from tourists. However, the food in Chiang Rai is more traditional northern cuisine, which tends to be a little spicier, and includes more sausage and noodles. I loved it all, that’s probably why I gained a pound or two on this leg through Thailand.
Cost. That’s an important factor if you’re on an extended journey. Chiang Rai is noticeable cheaper and consistently meets and often beats the quality of accommodation, food, and attractions in Chiang Mai. The most noticeable and largest factor for me was the accommodation. When I left and paid my bill, I felt like I should’ve paid more, and that says something.
It took visiting both to get a feel for the diversity that has existed in this region over thousands of years… If I were to go back, I would just spend a few more days in Chiang Rai.