Deciding whether to go to Phuket or Chiang Mai for a one-week Thailand vacation is not necessarily a hard choice: if you’re primarily the beach, sun, and party type, Phuket is for you. On the other hand, if you prefer a mellow vibe in a mountain setting, with rich culture and nature, then Chiang Mai might be your best option. Travelers sometimes choose to split their stay between Phuket and Chiang Mai.
Phuket (population around 400.000) is an island in Southern Thailand that has some of the most popular beaches and upscale seaside resorts in the country. Patong is the island’s main city and has many of the resorts and nightlife. Chiang Mai (population 130.000) is an inland mountain city in the North with countless Buddhist temples, and historical ruins as well as an attractive tourist environment.
Phuket or Chiang Mai: what travelers say
- Phuket is a mass tourism destination, a large international seaside resort revolving mainly around beaches, sunbathing, affordable shopping, and vibrant nightlife, but with limited cultural activities. It’s also the gateway to less touristy islands in South Thailand.
- While Patong is the center of tourism with most of the resorts and party places, other parts of the Phuket island is idyllic with 36 beaches and some great resorts.
- Chiang Mail is also an important tourist destination but with much more of a cultural experience, including numerous stunning temples to visit. It’s smaller than Phuket and has a quieter atmosphere but also abundant sights and activities in the surrounding area. It also has a different type of nightlife.
- Many travelers are fond of Chiang Mai and suggest spending at least 4 or 5 days there before moving to a beach destination like Phuket. Travelers frequently choose to split their stay between the two places.
- Travelers tend to find Chiang Mai more affordable, friendly, interesting, and authentic compared to Phuket. While the latter has great beaches and island nature, it’s often viewed as an overpriced tourist trap
- Many travelers feel there are better beaches and islands in Thailand offering better value than Phuket, such as Krabi, Koh Samui, Koh Lanta, Hua Hin, Khao Lak, Koh Yao Yai, Koh Chang, or Koh Tao.
- Phuket is more expensive and touristy, great for beaches, watersports, and party atmosphere, with many Western visitors, particularly liked by young crowds in search of a fun beach holiday.
- Many travelers are eager to go back to Chiang Mai for longer stays, due namely to the welcoming people, the great food, the mountain and jungle treks, the hill tribes, the night market, the affordable prices (typically half those of Phuket).
- Chiang Mai is much more relaxed and much less in-your-face touristy compared to Phuket (particularly Patong). Many travelers call it their favorite city in Thailand, or even in Asia.
Phuket or Chiang Mai: access & transportation
Chiang Mai and Phuket are only a cheap, direct, 2-hour Air Asia flight away from each other, so it’s easy to move from one to the other if you feel you’ve spent enough time in one of them.
You can also choose to travel by bus or train between the two cities, however be aware that it’s a 1500 km ride which will take 2 days (over 20 hours).
The easiest way to get around Chiang Mai is on a bicycle, there are many bike rental places in the city. You can also move around by tuk-tuk, and likewise in Phuket.
Phuket or Chiang Mai: vibe & people
Phuket is a gorgeous island with stunning beaches and coastal nature with rainforest, mountains, and clear blue waters in the Andaman Sea. Phuket City’s old town has nice 19th-century houses, Chineses Portugues buildings, and animated markets.
When discussing Phuket, however, many travelers refer to Patong, the main resort area. Patong is generally considered noisy, touristy, with loud music and bars, and constant partying crowds engaged in drinking night and day.
Travelers often find the people in Phuket less warm and welcoming than in the rest of Thailand. The vendors are quite pushy and the tourist area is not always so clean. Many travelers feel Phuket is not representative of Thailand due to the hassles that come with mass tourism.
Chiang Mai, on the other hand, is often seen as a more authentic and friendly Thailand destination to visit with normal Thai prices and rich history and culture. Chiang Mai is also the gateway to the Northern part of Thailand (see Day Trips below)
Phuket or Chiang Mai: sights & culture
In Chiang Mai, the main sights include the multiple Buddhist temples, the Night Bazaar, the Elephant Sanctuary, the river cruises on the Ping River, the Doi Inthanon national park.
Chiang Mai’s city center (dating from the 13th century) has about 30 temples surrounded by ancient wall remains. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep (14th century) is one of the most important and ornate temples in Thailand, sitting atop a hill overlooking the city – visitors can climb the 300 stairs to access it. Wat Chedi Luang is another important temple in the area.
The Night Bazaar is a large, very busy but relaxed Thai market that opens after sunset and where both visitors and locals can buy silk, silverware and lacquerware handicraft.
Chiang Mai also has the interesting Lanna Folklife Museum and Cultural Center, and a visit-worthy Botanical Garden with Thai Orchids. Other popular activities include getting a Thai massage or having a Monk Chat.
Activity in the Chiang Mai area include visits to Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s tallest mountain and scenic national park with stunning hiking trails, waterfalls, and pagodas. You can take treks into the mountain and visit more temples, wildlife sanctuaries such as the Elephant Nature Park, and secluded hill-tribe villages.
Although Phuket does not have as many cultural sights, you can visit Thalang Road in the old town with its historic houses and buildings, the 1903 Bann Chinpracha mansion with its colonial style, the Thai Hua city history museum, a few Chinese Buddhist temples and shrines, an interactive art gallery with 3D paintings, and the Rang Hill hilltop lush gardens.
Phuket or Chiang Mai: nature & outdoors
There are beautiful beaches in Phuket, although in the high season, popular beaches like Patong, Kata Beach, and Paradise Beach, tend to get very crowded and loud – the South end of the island can also get a bit dirty.
Patong is a nice little bay but it generally gets swamped by hoards of people.
Nai Thon beach is another one of the most highly-rated beaches in Phuket. It’s lesser-known and quieter than Patong and the beaches further South, with more distance between beach chairs and not as many rows. It also has many nice restaurants and bars right on the sand. Surin Beach nearby is also a popular beach among locals. Another quieter beach with good restaurant options is Nai Harn.
Phuket or Chiang Mai: food & nightlife
In Chiang Mai, most of the nightlife takes place in the old city inside the 4 gates. Loy Kroh Road has many beer bars and the famous Night Bazaar on the river end, where most tourists hang out.
Outside the Old City, Nimmanhaemin Road is lined with upscale restaurants, cafes, galleries and boutiques. There are good places for having the khao soi, the local dish made of curry noodles. Traditional khantoke dinners with traditional Thai music and dances can be found in many places in Chiang Mai.
Rak Tha Nam on Pa Dad Road is a fine but pricer restaurant, with an upstairs room offering a river view. Tawandang Club on Nimman Hemin Road is a very lively club with Thai music and a capacity of 1000 people, mostly locals.
In Phuket, as mentioned earlier, Patong Beach is the center of the fiesta, with the best beer bars and the biggest clubs running all night until 6 am every day of the week. At night, Bangla Road turns into a pedestrian street filled with non-stop entertainment of all kind. The area attracts all kinds of partygoers, from families, couples, backpackers, groups of women, to sex tourists – particularly after midnight, when the area becomes more sleazy. Patong is very popular with both tourists and locals.
Besides Patong, there are also a few other areas such as Rat-U-Thit Road and Beach Road which also offer lively night clubs and live music.
Phuket or Chiang Mai: shopping
In Chiang Mai, while the Night Bazaar market is primarily geared towards tourists, the Chiang Mai Sunday street market sells crafts, Hmong and hill tribe craft. Further North, the Wararot Market (Kad Luang) is open all day. There are also other craft villages outside Chiang Mail. The air-conditioned shopping malls in Chiang Mai also have some great shops and nice food.
In Phuket, the Jung Ceylon complex in Patong Beach is a large and modern shopping mall easily accessible on foot from most hotels in the area. It has a wide choice of international stores, beauty salons, cheap market stalls, and reasonably priced restaurants offering international cuisine.
Phuket or Chiang Mai: lodging
Accommodations are much more affordable in Chiang Mai than in Phuket. In Chiang Mai, travelers recommend booking a hotel with a pool to cool down after the heat of the day and the extensive walking for visits the city.
The old city/moat area in Chiang Mai is quite small and all low-rise buildings with many B&Bs and boutique type hotels. Recommended places include highly-rated Pak Chiang Mai, De Naga and Bodhi Serene, U Hotel and Sirilanna, all in the old city.
Outside of the old city, there’s also a wide range of options near the night market as well as in between, which are still close to the old town. D2 (modern and slick), Downtown Inn (3-star), Centara Duangtawan (inside the night market), Imperial Mae Ping, Royal Princess, are all upscale but still affordable.
Some Chiang Mai travelers recommend staying by the river at the beautiful Baan Orapin hotel.
Phuket has many hotels and resorts. The C&N Hotel in Patong is often warmly recommended, close to the beach and to all the animation.
Phuket or Chiang Mai: day trips
Chiang Mai is the gateway to the northern part of Thailand. From there you can explore Chiang Rai (nearby), Mea Hong Son, Lampang, Phayao.
From Phuket, you can jump on a ferry and go to Koh Phi Phi (another, quieter island with stunning beaches) for a day or two.
Krabi is another beach resort less busy than Phuket. Koh Lanta, Koh Yao Yai, Koh Samet, Koh Chang, Koh Tao are smaller islands, also beautiful and touristy, but with a somewhat more authentic vibe.
(1) Featured: “Phuket” (CC BY 2.0) by Tyler Merbler
(2) “Chiang Mai” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Mikel Lizarralde
(3) “Patong Beach, Phuket” (CC BY 2.0) by jo.sau
(4) “Chiang Mai-35” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by travelinknu
(5) “Phuket Day 1” (CC BY 2.0) by chee.hong
(6) “IMG_0977” (CC BY 2.0) by ChingTeoh
(7) “PAT NG B C” (Public Domain) by Dennis S. Hurd
(8) “Night Bazaar, Chan Klan road, Chiang Mai” (CC BY 2.0) by David McKelvey
(9) “1” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Marufish
(10) “Four Seasons Hotel Chiang Mai” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Cait_Stewart