Stops between Bangkok & Chiang Mai

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First published 3rd August, 2009

Many first time visitors to Thailand travel between Bangkok and Thailand's northern capital Chiang Mai with barely a thought for the intervening territory, but if you've got a bit of time up your sleeve, there are a load of attractions between the two cities. Be it national parks, temple towns, or just nice-for-chilling-out traveller centres, there is no shortage of destinations to be waylaid at. Also as regular Travelfishers will know, we're big fans of taking scenic indirect routes so while you can shuttle between the two on an overnight train, you can just as easily spend a month getting from one to the other.

The basics

This is a planes, trains and automobiles route.

Bangkok to Chiang Mai by air
Dozens of flights ply the route between Bangkok and Chiang Mai daily, with THAI, AirAsia and NokAir all flying the route. Keen an eye out for special deals from the budget carriers. Flight time is an hour and ten minutes. Use a site like Skyscanner to compare online rates.

The Thai railway system serves this route very well with a bunch of departures day and night. Most tend to do this on a night train, but if you're planning on going there and back by train, at least do one way during the day to take in all the scenery. Full schedule and pricing details are available at the official railway website -- it is also possible now to book your tickets online. The trip takes as little as 12 hours, but the slow trains take closer to 15 hours.

Both day and night buses run from Bangkok's northern bus terminal into Chiang Mai. You're looking at 10-12 hours for the trip depending on which route the bus takes (there is a "new" and "old" route, with the former being faster).

Ruins and monkeys
The three most common spots people travelling by train break the trip up at are Ayutthaya, Lopburi, and Phitsanulok. From Phitsanulok they get a bus connection to Sukhothai to see the ruins there and then either continue on to Chiang Mai by bus, return to Phitsanulok again to get back on the train, or go by bus to Lampang where you can also jump back on the train. To do this at a comfortable pace, we'd suggest two nights in Ayutthaya, one in Lopburi, one in Phitsanulok and two in Sukhothai.

Northern national parks
Another option is to alight at Den Chai from where you can get songthaew transport north to temple town Phrae then loop north through Nan, Phayao, Phrao and Chiang Dao before approaching Chiang Mai from the north. This would allow you to explore some of Nan's national parks, little-visited Phayao and enjoy the splendid scenery between Phayao and Chiang Dao. You'd need at least ten days to do this justice, but it could be done in as little as four days (but it wouldn't be much fun).

Western borderlands I
From Sukhothai you could also head south, making a dog-leg through historic Kamphaeng Phet, before moving on to Mae Sot via Tak. Mae Sot is the jumping off point for the very remote Umphang which is home to waterfalls and a developing Thai-focussed trekking scene. Once you're done in Umphang you'll need to backtrack to Mae Sot. Not counting your trekking time you'd be looking at at least four nights.

Western borderlands II
Once you're back in Mae Sot, head north along the Thai-Burma frontier to Mae Sariang -- expect breathtaking scenery. From Mae Sariang you can take a right and complete the journey to Chiang Mai via Hot, or, instead head north, completing what is known as the Mae Hong Son Loop -- passing through Mae Hong Son, Soppong and Pai. How long have you got? You could spend a month just on this loop, but at a minimum we'd say a week for via Mae Hong Son, else overnight in Hot on the way to Chiang Mai.

Not even going in the right direction
I know we're talking about getting from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, but don't forget to veer west to explore Kanchanaburi and Sangkhlaburi. You can even go cross country afterwards between Kanchanaburi and Ayutthaya (via Suphanburi) so you don't need even return to Bangkok.

So there you go -- time to sit down and rethink that plan you had of seeing all of northern Thailand in three days. There's a lot we still haven't covered in the above -- Chiang Rai for starters, but also Lampang, Lamphun, Uthai Thani and more -- Thailand's a big place with a lot to offer -- don't make the mistake of trying to see too much in too little time -- remember Less is More!

Got more ideas on places to see and distractions to find? That's what the comment box down below is for!

About the author:
Stuart McDonald co-founded with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.

Read 3 comment(s)

  • We plan to travel summer 2012 from Kanchanaburi to Sukothai but cannot find out how to travel. We know there is a bus from Kanchanburi to Suppanburi. Does anybody know if it is possible to travel from Suppanburi up north or do we've to travel to Ayutthaya first. Is ther e a bus from Ayutthaya to Sukothai?

    Posted by Hoeksie on 23rd October, 2011

  • My husband and I want to trek around Changmai Where do we start. Could you suggest a way to do this ?

    Posted by shahnaz on 22nd November, 2011

  • I'll be going to Thailand for the first time with my friends in a few weeks. Reading your articles made me realize that there's so much to see there and how little time we have. We plan to go to Chiang Mai right after we do Kanchanaburi and we want to go on a sleeper train. Do we have to go back to Hua Lamphong station to get on a sleeper train or is there a train station close to Kanchanaburi where we might be able to catch a Chiang Mai bound train?

    Posted by Anabella on 4th May, 2014

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