Best Chiang Mai Day Trips: Chiang Rai vs. Doi Inthanon


Tours to both Chiang Rai and Doi Inthanon have plenty of fun activities and beautiful things to see. But, you may have limited time and so many other things to do and see while you're in Northern Thailand. How do they compare? To help you make a choice, we have put Doi Inthanon and Chiang Rai side by side and talk you through the options.

Where and what? An overview

Chiang Rai is about 3 hours by bus from Chiang Mai. It is Thailand's most northern province and borders both Myanmar and Laos across the majestic Mekong river. It's home to many hill-tribes such as the famous Longneck tribe. It's also part of the Golden Triangle, the area shared between Laos, Myanmar and Thailand that used to be notorious for its drug trade.

Doi Inthanon National Park is arguably Thailand's best national park. It is located about an hour's drive south of Chiang Mai. Doi Inthanon is home to the Karen and Hmong hill-tribes that grow coffee, macademias and strawberries on the mountainside. The park also features some of the most stunning views, waterfalls and nature you'll find anywhere in Northern Thailand.

The best day trips to Chiang Rai

You can choose to do many different things in and around Chiang Rai province and its sleepy capital. We send many of our guests to Chiang Rai and none come back disappointed. Over the years, we learned that its most enjoyable to have a full day program that gives you many different impressions. It's a bit of a drive, so this makes it worth it. Chiang Rai is great if you love sightseeing, enjoy unique architecture and religious culture and art, as well as a bit of exotic shopping.

The White Temple, Black House and Blue Temple

If you appreciate Buddhist and modern art, this is the day-trip for you. Chiang Rai's White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) is already one of Thailand's most famous landmarks. Even though it is not even that old! The architecture and imagery is a true visual spectacle and one of a kind in the world, created by Thai artist Ajarn Chalermchai. Chalermchai's work used to cause controversy, because of his introduction of modern styles in Buddhist art. Later, the late King Bhumibol (Rama IX) became his client and his work became a source of Thai pride.

Similarly, Thawan Duchanee's Black House (Baan Dam) is a work of modern Thai Buddhist art. And similarly to Chalermchai, Duchanee's work has also caused controversy because of its non-traditional style and themes. The Black House and the surrounding complex of dozens of buildings, symbolizes the suffering that Buddha saw in his travels. The art exhibitions you find inside and architecture outside use very original materials and themes.

The day trip we offer to these great works of art also include a visit to the lovely Blue Temple (Wat Rong Sear Tean, traditional in style and really really blue!) and the local hot springs. A side tour to the Longneck hill-tribe is optional.

The Golden Triangle

The name itself evokes images of opium growing and smuggling, covert military operations, the CIA and general lawlessness. Visiting the area you can clearly see why. The vast area features  rolling mountains and hills covered by dense jungle and split up by the biggest river in Southeast Asia and its subsidiaries: the Mekong. Allegedly, the area takes its name from the gold that Chinese traders used to pay for the opium. Nowadays, the lawlessness is gone, but drug trafficking still goes on. Thailand, Myanmar and Laos are now coordinating efforts to put a stop to it.

We love the day trip to the Golden Triangle because it offers so many different things. First, it includes a visit to hot springs and the White Temple (see above). You then visit the Golden Triangle three-country point with a boat trip to Done Sao island (in Laos!) for a visit to the market there. A visit to Mai Sai at the Myanmar-Thai border follows. There you can make a visit to the market, which offers many handcrafted items from Myanmar. A visit to the Ahka hill-tribe follows, who are known as growers of excellent coffee. Optionally, this could be a visit to the Longneck hill-tribe. During all of this, you travel through amazing scenery, with grand views of the mountains and the Mekong.

Top tours to Doi Inthanon

In Thai, Doi means 'mountain'. Doi Inthanon is Thailand's highest mountain at 2,565 meters (8,415 feet). Doi Inthanon National Park was established in 1972 to protect the unique and diverse wildlife in the 482 km2 preservation area. It protects wild monkeys and gibbons, Goral and Serow (two types of rare goat- antelope creatures that live at high altitudes) and many rare flowers and plants. Indigenous hill-tribes also populate the area, such as the Hmong and Karen. Several trekking and sightseeing tours provide activities in and around the park and these help generate income to upkeep the park and support the local population.

Trekking and Sightseeing at Doi Inthanon

Compared to the trips to Chiang Mai, Doi Inthanon offers more for the outdoors, active person. What we love about Doi Inthanon is that lets you escape the heat, get into nature and enjoy it up close. Especially the two- and three-day walking trips that have you enjoy the mountain at night at local Karen hill-tribe villages, where you cook together and enjoy the cool nights by a campfire. A perfect way to slow down and enjoy the sights to your heart's content, we think. Of course, you do this in the company of an excellent guide, such as Ada, Pong, Pat, Juy, Watt, Peck or Khum. Did we mention the swimming in waterfalls along the way?

A more adventurous option is our Exclusive Jungle Trekking program. Particularly the two-day option offers a lot; besides everything that the walking trips offer, the Exclusive Jungle Trekking tours also include a visit to an elephant camp (including bathing them in a river!) and taking a bamboo raft down the river. One of our favorite guides, Rambo, takes care of you on this tour.

But you don't need to be a hardcore trekker to really see Doi Inthanon. If you want to cover more ground in less time, we recommend a combined sightseeing and trekking trip. You will see beautiful waterfalls (such as the impressive Wachirathan waterfall) and drink the freshest coffee at the White Karen village. A visit to the highest point of Thailand and the beautiful twin pagodas, dedicated to the late King and his wife, are included. During a trek that lasts about two hours, you walk along mountain streams (more waterfalls!) with enough time to appreciate the beautiful wildlife and scenery. When you opt for the eco-tour, our expert guide Boom will take you on the Pha Dok Siew trail. On this trip, she explains how tribal villagers apply traditional skills in the forest to make medicine, tools and forage for food.

The verdict: Doi Inthanon vs. Chiang Rai

So how do Doi Inthanon and Chiang Rai day trips compare? Chiang Rai tours offer more 'urban' options. If you enjoy beautiful architecture, modern and traditional Buddhist art and bustling markets, look towards Chiang Rai. We think that particularly a visit to the White Temple is something that stays with you. Of course, when visiting Southeast Asia, an opportunity to look upon the grand Mekong river is worth the trip.

Visiting Doi Inthanon National Park is a plunge into the beauty of nature. Here too there is some beautiful traditional architecture (the twin pagodas) but its the wildlife, its sounds, smells and sights that you will be telling people about. Because you trek through it, for a couple of hours to a couple of days, you get a real sense of it, and its ultimately relaxing. It is the kind of trip you can tell people about, but ultimately they have to experience for themselves.

Compared to Chiang Rai, a trip to Doi Inthanon gives you more of a taste of rural Thai culture and a sense of how traditional communities lived and live. In contrast, a visit to Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle offers plenty of photo opportunities and some great souvenir shopping.

We hope this will help you make a good choice! Check out our Day Trips for various tour options.