side by side photos comparing Pai or Chiang Rai; left side includes Pai's charming river in the countryside, on the right side is Chiang Rai's world famous White Temple

Pai or Chiang Rai: Which is Better to Visit?

Are you debating between visiting Pai or Chiang Rai? Both destinations are located in Thailand’s charming northern countryside and share many of the same characteristics.

Pai is a small northern town known for its mountainous landscape, quiet countryside, waterfalls, hiking trails, and lively nightlife in the evening. Today, Pai tends to attract a young crowd of backpackers and adventure seekers.

Chiang Rai is most known for its famous temples, specifically the White Temple and Blue Temple, two of the most famous attractions in northern Thailand. Besides that, Chiang Rai is also known for its countryside, hot springs, and waterfalls.

In many ways, Chiang Rai is sort of like a much larger version of Pai. It still very much has countryside to it, but it’s also quite developed, with a shopping mall, an airport, etc.

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

Is Pai a day trip from Chiang Mai?

It’s not; a day trip to Pai would involve a total of 6 hours of travel time. That’s 3 hours from Chiang Mai to Pai and then 3 more hours back to Chiang Mai.

The journey involves many winding roads in the mountains; six hours of winding road travel isn’t a good idea.

Besides that, only one tour agency offers a daily trip to Pai. Alternatively, what you should do if you’d like to visit Pai is book a minibus van ride and spend at least one night in Pai.

stunning high up viewpoint in Pai, Thailand

Is Chiang Rai a day trip from Chiang Mai?

It is, but understand the travel time is a total of 6 hours in a minibus van, quite a lot for one day.

Chiang Rai’s popular temples make day trips to Chiang Rai from Chiang Mai very popular among tourists.

If you have the time, it’s best to spend one night in Chiang Rai and attend a tour from there!

photo of the elaborate famous White Temple in Chiang Rai

Pai vs Chiang Rai: Main Differences

Pai and Chiang Rai are similar in many ways and share many of the same attractions. But for the sake of comparison, let’s look into a few differences between the two destinations.

Regarding town sizes, Chiang Rai is much larger than Pai. Chiang Rai can be considered a city at the end of the day, especially compared to Pai, which is a small, remote town.

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

Pai Highlights

  • Remote small countryside town
  • Several landscape types
  • Unique Hotel stays
  • Cooler evening climate
  • Most laidback

Chiang Rai Highlights

  • Ideal mix of Countryside and City
  • Best Buddhist temples
  • Restaurant/Food options
  • More Attractions to Visit
  • Big city conveniences
pond around a large bamboo bridge in Pai, Thailand

Pai or Chiang Rai: Things To Do

Both Pai and Chaing Rai offer plenty of things to do during the day, and then in the evening, both places respectfully have their own lively night markets.

Here’s a shortlist of the best things to do in Pai and Chiang Rai. Both destinations have a great number of activities for those who love nature, such as viewpoint hikes, waterfall visits, hot springs, and more!

For the most part, any activity you can do in Pai can also be done in Chiang Rai.

However, comparing Chiang Rai to Pai regarding things to do, Chiang Rai has many stunning temples, parks, and unique things to do, like visiting the northern triangle or visiting Laos for a day/2.

Ultimately, there are more things to do in Chiang Rai than in Pai. Pai’s biggest appeal compared to Chiang Rai is its evident laidback atmosphere and unique accommodations.

This section should be helpful in determining which destination is best for you to visit. It ultimately comes down to what you’d like to experience most during your visit!

WINNER: Regarding things to do in each place, Chiang Rai wins.

vibrant blue and gold trim temple known as the famous Blue Temple in Chiang Rai, Thailand

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!

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!

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.

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.

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.

Things to Do in Chiang Rai

White Temple: Known as the #1 tourist attraction in Chiang Rai, this stunning contemporary Buddhist temple is famous for its bright white facade, intricate carvings, unique detailed artwork, and reflective symbolism. It’s a must-visit when in Chiang Rai; you cannot miss it

Visit the Waterfalls: Chiang Rai is rich in nature; beyond its lush countryside landscape, there are several waterfalls to visit in town: Huay Mae Sai Waterfall, Huay Kaew Waterfall, Pu Kaeng Waterfall and Pong Phrabat Waterfall

Blue Temple: Chiang Rai’s second famous Buddhist temple is Wat Rong Suea Ten, known as the Blue Temple. Its vibrant blue colored theme temple features several majestic sculptures and artwork

Explore the Blackhouse: Another one of Chiang Rai’s popular attractions is Baan Damn or The Black House; it’s an enclave of unconventional dark contemporary artwork and architecture. Inside, you’ll find animal remains, unique artwork, and eerie structures

Singha Park: Named after one of Thailand’s most famous beers, Singha Park is a beautiful recreational and agricultural landscape featuring organic farming, viewpoints, a zoo, and so much more

Pai or Chiang Rai: Nightlife

Chiang Rai and Pai’s nightlife is very much the same; both places offer several bars scattered around the main town areas and a large night market to explore in the evening.

Pai’s Nightlife revolves around its night market, which happens in the evening every day in the center of town. Surrounding it, you’ll find several bars and pubs to explore. An added bonus is some nights, there are jungle parties going on!

Chiang Rais Nightlife is pretty much many bars/pubs in the center of town, along with its large Chiang Rai Night Bazaar, also located in the town center.

WINNER: Regarding nightlife and things to do at night, Pai wins slightly.

Pai Nightlife

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

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

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

Chiang Rai Nightlife

Reggae Home & Bar: A fun reggae bar ideal for having a laidback evening; they’ve got a pool table, and you can smoke here as well

RTCR Bar & Rooftop: Relaxing rooftop bar, the perfect place to come have a drink and catch the sunset

O’Kane’s Irish Pub: A Popular Irish-themed pub in town, a great place to socialize, tends to attract a mature crowd

RAD Bar: Lively, fun bar offering live music some nights; the bar attracts a wide crowd variety

bright lights and cars passing by at night in Chiang Rai

Pai or Chiang Rai: Hotels & Resorts

Being the larger city of the two, Chiang Rai has more hotels to consider. Pai also has its fair share of hotels and hostels in town, but nowhere near as much as Chiang Rai.

Pai isn’t known for its luxurious accommodations but for its unique hotel experiences, like hotels on the riverside, in the rice fields, or remote lodges in the forests. But Pai also has many hotels in the center of town.

Chiang Rai has a few 5-star hotels and many 4 & 3-star hotels all around the city. You’ll also find plenty of hostels and guesthouses here as well.

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

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

picturesque street in Pai with scooters parked on the side of the road, greenery ahead on a clear sky day

Where to Stay in Chiang Rai

The Riverie by Katathani5 Stars / Pristine luxury hotel located right along the Kok River; full of excellent amenities, a large pool, activities for kids, a great spa, and a stunning rooftop

Le Patta4 Stars / Convenitally located right in the center of town, Le Patta not only is in an excellent location but it’s an ideal quaint boutique hotel with everything you need

Nak Nakara Hotel – 3 Stars / Excellent mid-range priced hotel with a nice pool, large breakfast buffet and in a great location

Bed Friends Poshtel – Ranked #1 hostel in town, Bed Friends offers both private and dorm-style rooms; the overall decor of the hostel is very modern and clean

seats and tables sitting amongst several rice fields ahead

Pai or Chiang Rai: Restaurants

Besides Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai represents northern Thai cuisine the best, coming second.

So there isn’t much competition in this category regarding food and restaurants when comparing Chiang Rai or Pai.

Also, Chiang Rai is much larger than Pai, so it offers a far larger selection of restaurants and cuisine.

Whether you choose to visit Pai or Chiang Rai, you must visit each place’s night market.

Pai has a charming night market happening every evening in the center of town. Chiang Rai is known for its large Chiang Rai Night Bazaar, where you’ll find countless food/goods vendors.

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

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

Where to Eat in Chiang Rai

Chivit Thamma Da Coffee House, Bistro & Bar: Known as Chiang Rai’s most famous and recognized restaurant located in English colonial White Houses, they’re best known for their wide selection menu featuring plenty of local Thai dishes, western cuisines as well as Asian

Lu Lam Restaurant Chiangrai: Widely famous with locals, Lu Lam serves all the Thai classics and represents Nothern Thai food well; the restaurant is located right along the river and offers beautiful views while dining

LA OLA CHIANG RAI: Serving up a wide variety of Mediterranean foods, including BBQ grilled seafood, many pasta types, and many various appetizers

Dear Friends, Bistro: Well-decorated charming cafe known for its desserts but also for serving excellent lunch options, different seasoned salads, kinds of pasta, and more

meat skewers being sold by a vendor at the a Chiang Mai night market

Best Time to Visit Chiang Rai or Pai

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

Here’s a breakdown of the different weather periods in the year for Chaing Rai 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 Rai.

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 Rai 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.

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

Pai or Chiang Rai — Final Thoughts

Have you made up your mind about visiting Pai or Chiang Rai to visit?

Both places are similar in many instances, but in terms of city size, Chiang Rai is significant compared to Pai.

As mentioned before, both destinations offer many of the same things to do, but still, at the same time, each place has its highlights of things to do the other doesn’t offer.

If you have the time, I highly recommend you visit both. A good amount of time to spend in each place would be around 2-4 days.

Of the two, Pai is more of a unique destination, but Chiang Rai’s temples are not to be missed.

Pai and Chiang Rai are two of the cheapest places in Thailand to visit!

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

Pai has its appeal over Chiang Rai in its charming laidback countryside, quaint small-town atmosphere, and unique accommodations.

waterfall in the middle of the woods in Chiang Rai, Thailand

What is better Pai or Chiang Rai?

Both destinations offer many of the same attractions; if you’d prefer to visit a small charming town in the countryside, then Pai would be best for you. But if you’d prefer both countryside and big city conveniences, visit Chiang Rai.

Why is Pai a hippie town?

Over the years, Pai has become a hotspot for both hippies/backpackers because of its tiny town atmosphere, laidback countryside surroundings, and emphasis on simply living.

Is there a direct bus from Pai to Chiang Rai?

There are mini buses that provide service from Pai to Chiang Rai.

How do you spend 1 day in Chiang Rai?

Take a tour and experience many of Chiang Rai’s attractions, such as the White Temple, Blue Temple, Black House, and remote Chiang Rai countryside.

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