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5 days in north Thailand--would it be unthinkable to leave out Chiang Mai?

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Hello, Everybody who might have an opinion on this.

We're starting to put together an itinerary for Hong Kong/Thailand for October. Hong Kong/Bangkok/Chiang Rai area. Hong Kong is a revisit for us as is Bangkok. It's the north that I have a question about. We'll have between 5 and 6 days allotted to that area, 1 1/2 to 2 days of which will be to visit friends who are in a volunteer work in the Chiang Rai area. Our main purpose is to visit with them and be folded into their work for a few hours, but we would also like to have a bit of cultural immersion outside of that. Something with elephants, a cooking school, historical sites, a trip to the Golden Triangle possibly.
I've been pouring over posts here and on Trip Advisor, and it appears that while Chiang Mai is a bigger draw than Chiang Rai, it is actually a sprawling city and a large percentage of the cultural activities take place on day trips outside of town. My question is this: since we'll need to be in the Chiang Rai area for our friends, would we be "missing out" just to use that as our base and not include Chiang Mai?

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