comparison side by side of two popular streets in Chiang Mai or Pai

Chiang Mai or Pai: Which Should You Visit?

Are you debating between visiting Chiang Mai or Pai? Both destinations are quite different from one another, but they’re debated due to their close proximity.

Chiang Mai is the most famous and largest northern city in Thailand, famous for its temples, excellent northern Thai cuisine, mountainous surroundings, and laidback big city environment.

Pai has become quite popular over the last decade, and it’s a small town north of Chiang Mai in the mountainous countryside of northern Thailand. Pai is famous for its rich nature, many day tours to waterfalls, hot springs, hiking trails, and lively nightlife in the evening.

In this Chiang Mai vs Pai comparison guide, I’ll compare each destination’s best things to do, the food scene, accommodations, and nightlife!

views of the beautiful Ping River near sunset hours in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Chiang Mai vs Pai: Main Differences

First, let’s consider the main differences between Chiang Mai and Pai because there are quite a few!

Location type stands out: Chiang Mai is a large city in the north surrounded by mountains, while Pai is a small town further up north in Thailand’s northern countryside.

Here’s a short list of pros each destination claims, though I recommend you to read further to help you determine which place would be best for you to visit between the two!

Chiang Mai Pros

Pai Pros

  • Remote, relaxing small town
  • Many day tours to experience
  • A Cooler climate in the evening
  • Several landscape types
  • Unique hotels
street with mountains in the distance and a street cafe on the side of the road

Chiang Mai or Pai: Things To Do

Chiang Mai and Pai both offer plenty of things to do during the day and in the evening, which I’ll cover below under nightlife.

Here’s a shortlist of the best things to do in Chiang Mai and Pai. Though some activities are similar, both destinations are close to one another after all.

Chiang Mai is a historic city and is known for being a large city surrounded by beautiful mountains, while Pai offers a laidback, relaxing town atmosphere with mountains, rivers, hot springs, and more!

This section should really help you determine which place is better for you to visit. Remember, along with things to do, ask yourself if you’d prefer a large city or remote small town atmosphere during your visit.

WINNER: Regarding things to do in each place, It’s a tie.

Things to Do in Chiang Mai

Explore the Old City: Located in the center of Chiang Mai is the Old City, a historic district home to famous ancient walls, well-preserved Buddhist temples, and many narrow streets full of restaurants, shops, and more!

Doi Suthep National Park: A stunning national park famous for being home to Wat Phra That Doi, a golden temple located at the top of a mountain, offering exceptional panoramic views of Chiang Mai. It is also known for being home to the highest land point in Thailand.

Visit an Elephant Sanctuary: Chiang Mai is the most famous place in Thailand for elephant sanctuaries because of its location and ideal climate for these large, gentle creatures.

Chiang Mai Sunday Market: On Phae Walking Street, every Sunday is the city’s largest night market. This walking street is taken over with countless street food and good vendors.

Explore the many Buddhist Temples: As you go for a stroll around the Old City, you’ll continuously be met with remarkable temples to explore. Most are free to enter, but some charge a small fee to enter.

Visit Chiang Rai: One of the most popular day trips from Chiang Mai is visiting Chiang Rai, a popular destination known for its famous white temple, blue temple, and much more!

beautiful medium sized elephant by the river in the countryside of Chiang Mai

Things to Do in Pai

Half or Full Day Tour: The best way to see Pai’s several famous attractions, such as the famous Big Buddha, Bamboo bridge, waterfalls, and more, is by attending a half or full-day tour!

Tipsy Tubing: Enjoy a tipsy tubing adventure in Pai, Thailand—coast down the river in a donut floaty, partying with others after a few drinks. The two-hour tour includes stops at three riverside bars with live music, face painting, volleyball, and tacos.

Pai Canyon: Renowned as Pai’s top tourist attraction, Pai Canyon offers a stunning hiking trail with narrow paths and panoramic views. The canyon features multiple viewpoints, attracting crowds during the sunset, and is a must-visit when in Pai!

Fluid Swimming Pool: Enjoy a laidback day at Fluid Pool, just a short walk from Pai Town. This 25-meter pool is accompanied by a restaurant/bar, offering an ideal way to relax in the afternoon or a lively party scene in the afternoon—a perfect spot for drinks and appetizers by the pool.

Visit a Hot Spring or Waterfalls: There are several hot springs and waterfalls to explore throughout Pai’s mountainous landscape. Some charge to enter, others are remote and free. To get to any hot springs/waterfalls, you must drive yourself there or attend a tour.

a long trail amongst the mountainous known as the popular Pai Canyon

Chiang Mai or Pai: Hotels & Resorts

Chiang Mai has many hotels and resorts to consider; being one of the largest cities in Thailand, it makes sense. Pai also has its fair share of hotels/resorts in town, and as the town grows, development continues.

Chiang Mai has a few limited 5-star hotels, but many 4 & 3 star hotels all around the city. The city is also well known amongst backpackers, so you’ll find many hostels in Chiang Mai.

Pai has many unique hotels and accommodations to consider, and that’s part of Pai’s fascination. You can find hotels along the river, in the forest, or far into Pai’s countryside.

WINNER: Regarding hotels, Chiang Mai wins in quantity, and Pai wins in uniqueness.

Where to Stay in Chiang Mai

InterContential – 5 Star / A contemporary, luxurious modern hotel located in the Old City of Chiang Mai, with nearby shops, restaurants, and massage parlors

Pingviman Hotel – 4 Star / Stunning relaxing boutique hotel near Nong Buak Park in the Old City; it’s also near the Old City River and many restaurants/shops

Phor Liang Meun – 4 Star / A well-decorated hotel with a modern and old-school look, located on the edge of the Old City in an excellent location

Hidden Garden Hostel Top-ranked hostel offering exceptional clean and beautiful decor, with a pool, working space and located right by a night market

enterance gate into Old City Chiang Mai in the as the sun is shining onto the clouds / Is Chiang Mai Expensive

Where to Stay in Pai

Reverie Siam – 4 Stars / Located within walking distance from Pai Town, Reverie Siam is a luxurious oasis within Pai’s countryside

Pai Boutique Resort – 3 Stars / Beautiful bohemian decorated hotel right in Pai Town; rooms offer stunning countryside views, and the hotel has many amenities

Family House Pai – 3 Stars / Charming hotel with beautiful Pai river views, a restaurant on-site and located right in Pai Town

Revolution Hostel Pai – The most popular hostel in Pai, located right in Pai Town; they’ve got several dorm rooms, a pool, and a large communal space

lots of greenery amongst the Pai river and palm trees in Northern countryside of Thailand , Is Pai worth visiting

Chiang Mai or Pai: Restaurants

Regarding cuisine in Chiang Mai and Pai, both are home to local Nothern Thai cuisine. But there’s no competition here.

Chiang Mai is one of the largest cities in Thailand and is the gem of Northern Thai cuisine. Also, due to Chiang Mai’s size, the options here are far superior to what Pai can offer!

No matter if you choose to visit Chiang Mai, Pai, or both, make sure to visit each place’s night market. Chiang Mai has an excellent daily night bazaar and a famous Sunday market. Pai has a well-known daily evening night market!

WINNER: Regarding local food & restaurants, Chiang Mai is a clear winner!

Where to Eat in Chiang Mai

Khao Soy Maesai: Known as the top Khao Soy spot in the city, with three years of Michelin Guide wins, get ready to wait in line; it’s worth it

Rasik Local Kitchen: Dishing out contemporary Thai food with only seasonal ingredients; expect various meats and seafood, with a variety of wine

Kiti Panit: Located in an old renovated mansion from 1888, Kiti Panit focuses on a small but well-executed menu representing Nothern cuisine; recently, Michelin Guide awarded

Ancient Beef Cuisine: Near the Ping River, Ancient Beef is a halal restaurant serving many various beef dishes with rich flavors; their complimentary soup is delicious (free refills, too)

Huen Muan Jai: Specializing in a wide variety of Northern Thai food, Huen Muan is the one-stop restaurant to experience Northern Thai cuisine to the fullest

a beef based dish with rice and thai chili peppers at Kiti Panit in Chiang Mai

Where to Eat in Pai

Nong Beer Restaurant: Popular amongst both locals/tourists, this restaurant serves just about every Thai dish you can think of; they’ve also got a Western menu as well

Cafecito Mexican: An authentic Mexican restaurant serving tostadas, tacos, tortas, and more. Don’t forget to try one of their many Mexican cocktails

Baanpai restaurant: Fresh seafood, pineapple rice, burgers, there’s just about everything you be craving can be found at Baanpai

Cheese Madness: Specializing in everything cheese from mozzarella sticks to a wide variety of delicious grilled cheeses / they’ve got a gluten-free bread option too

Street Eats10 Baht Fried Chicken Lady / Kaw Jeaw Bar

stir fired basil dish with shrimp served street side in Pai, Thailand

Chiang Mai or Pai: Nightlife

The nightlife in Chiang Mai and Pai are very much the same; the only difference is Chiang Mai offers a larger variety of the same things because it’s a large city.

Chiang Mais Nightlife features many bars/pubs around the city, several excellent night markets happening daily, and a few nightclubs around the city.

Pai’s Nightlife revolves around its popular daily night market in the center of town. Around it, you’ll find several restaurants, bars, and pubs to explore. Some nights, there are jungle parties going on!

WINNER: Regarding nightlife and things to do at night, Chiang Mai is the winner.

Nightlife in Chiang Mai

Blacklight CNX: A fun nightclub featuring Blacklight in the Old City of Chiang Mai, live music, beer pong, and fun decorations for ravers

RED Nightclub: Nightclub featuring DJs playing authentic techno and tech house music in an intimate environment

Rise Rooftop Bar: Fancy rooftop bar in the Nimmanhaemin area, with a pool and beautiful mountain and city views

Woods Bar Rooftop: Laidback pool rooftop bar serving a wide variety of beers

a vibrant sky at the Khlong Mae Kha Bridge in Chiang Mai

Nightlife in Pai

Paizy Bar Cocktail: Welcoming, fun beer and cocktail bar located on the main walking street

Boom Bar: The most popular bar in town, offering a fun happy hour promotion, beer pong, and pool tables

Why Not Bar: Fun bar located on the walking street, known for allowing you to bring your own food inside

Jungle Parties: On some weekend nights, jungle parties happen in Pai; you can find jungle taxi services as you walk on the main walking street

food vendors, lantern lights during the start of a lively night in Pai, Thailand

Getting Around Chiang Mai or Pai

Transportation is always a consideration when debating destinations; ease of movement in a place besides walking is important.

Chiang Mai offers many ways to get around, from Songthaew red pick-up truck taxis, TukTuks, Grab, or renting a scooter. It’s rather easy to get around Chiang Mai, being the big city it is.

Pai doesn’t offer many ways to get around; when in Pai, you must rent a scooter to get around; there aren’t taxis, Grab, or TukTuks around.

In Pai, if you choose not to rent a scooter, it’s best to stay in the main Pai Town area and walk to places around the small town. But you won’t be able to get to any attractions around the city unless you attend a tour.

a beautiful temple with the sun shining on it in the evening in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Best Time to Visit Chiang Mai or Pai

There’s a tight window for ideal weather in Chiang Mai and Pai; the best time to visit either destination is from November to March.

Here’s a breakdown of the different weather periods in the year for Chaing Mai and Pai.

November – January: During this time of year, you can expect many dry days, with lots of sunshine and low humidity. This is by far the best time to visit Pai or Chiang Mai.

February – April: These three months in Nothern Thailand is when the burning season is, a time when farmers burn crops, and the air quality index becomes some of the worst in the world. It’s advised not to visit Chiang Mai or Pai during these months.

May – October: Considered the off-season, during this time, you can get lucky with sunshine some days, but heavy rainfall some days and high humidity levels are to be expected. However, Pai is far cooler than Chiang Mai due to its land elevation.

viewpoint of mountionus hills from the Big Buddha in Pai, Thailand

Chiang Mai or Pai — Final Thoughts

Have you decided which place between Pai or Chiang Mai would be best for you to visit?

Both places are rather similar in the sense that many activities you can experience in Chiang Mai, like hiking, waterfall visits, etc., can also be experienced in Pai.

However, regarding city size, Chiang Mai and Pai couldn’t be more different; Chiang Mai is a large and well-developed city, whereas Pai is a remote small town.

If you have the time, I highly recommend you visit both. But keep in mind you’ll need more time to visit Chiang Mai due to its size. However, if you’d rather have a laidback remote destination, you’ll want to spend more time in Pai.

Also, both destinations are also two of the cheapest places in Thailand to visit!

Chiang Mai has its appeal over Pai in the sense of more things to do, many more restaurants to discover, and big city conveniences.

Pai has its appeal over Chiang Mai in the sense of its countryside surroundings, laidback atmosphere, and unique accommodations.

bridge featuring decorations for the Lantern Festival during a vibrant sunset in the evening in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Should I go to Pai or Chiang Mai?

It depends on what you’d prefer; Chiang Mai is a large city offering countless things to do, many temples to visit, and more.

At the same time, Pai is a remote small town in the countryside with a more laid-back atmosphere.

Is 2 nights in Pai enough?

Yes, you can experience most of Pai in two days, especially if you spend one of your days attending a half or full-day tour.

Is 3 nights in Chiang Mai enough?

No, it’s not 3 nights is too short for Chiang Mai. There’s so much to experience in Chiang Mai, and it’s best to spend at least 5 nights there.

Is Pai really worth it?

Pai is definitely worth visiting; the charming countryside town offers many things to do, a vibrant nightlife scene, and its laidback atmosphere must be experienced.

How long to spend in Chiang Mai and Pai?

Spend at least 5 nights in Chiang Mai and at least 2 nights in Pai; that way, you’ll have enough time to experience both destinations well.

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