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.
One of the most common Thailand double-headers seems to be a stop in Bangkok and a visit to Chiang Mai. If you are heading to the north, you’ll run into the question of how best to make the journey from the capital. The roughly 600 km trip is pretty painless no matter how you break it down — deciding which way to do it is really just a matter of how much money and time you are ready to spend.
Flying between the two cities is obviously the fastest choice, but also naturally the most expensive. The flight takes only about an hour, and even with the added in time of airport finagling and additional transport it should take only three to four hours at the most. A few budget airlines travel multiple times a day between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Start your ticket hunt with AirAsia, Nok Air and Bangkok Airways. One-way tickets are usually 1,500 to 2,000 baht, but if you can do any planning ahead scour the sites for discount tickets. AirAsia in particular often has cheap seats for as low as 600 baht if you are able to plan a few months in advance.
After planes, buses are the next speediest route up north. The trick to bus travel seems to be taking the overnight bus, which makes the trip in nine hours. The same route during the daytime can take up to 12, due to traffic. I would not advise taking buses from the Khao San area as those are often overpriced or a bit of a scam. The most reliable buses to Chiang Mai’s Arcade Bus Terminal leave from Bangkok’s northern & northeastern bus terminal, more commonly known as Mo Chit.
Two good bus companies to look for are Sombat Tour and Chayasit. The easiest thing to do is buy tickets at Mo Chit station. Buying ahead of time is not necessary but does guarantee you the bus you want. Buses leave at least every hour and tickets generally cost about 600 or 700 baht depending on the company and whether or not you splurge for VIP seats. Mo Chit bus terminal is a short way from Mo Chit BTS station. From the BTS station you can catch city bus 3 or hop in a taxi to get you the rest of the way.
The train’s biggest selling point is getting to take in the beautiful country scenery. The train departs from Bangkok’s Hualamphong Station and arrives at Chiang Mai’s train station 11 to 15 hours later. Currently, seven trains a day ply the route from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, with the first departing at 08:30 and arriving the same day at 20:30, and the last departing at 22:00 and arriving the next day at 12:45. Seats cost 270 to 620 baht, while sleepers go for 880 to 1,460 baht. Sleepers tend to sell out extremely quickly, so if you are last-minute planning it’s likely you will be upright for the entire trip. The State Railway of Thailand has a mildly English-friendly site where you can look into things, and a free hotline, 1690, to call for information and bookings. And do check out the Bogie Gourmet Express!
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!
Where to go, how long to stay there, where to go next, east or west, north or south? How long have you got? How long do you need? Itinerary planning can be almost as maddening as it is fun and here are some outlines to help you get started. Remember, don't over plan!
Burma lends itself to a short fast trip with frequent flights thrown in or a longer, slower trip where you don't leave the ground. There isn't much of a middle ground. Ground transport remains relatively slow, so be wary about trying to fit too much in.
Roughly apple-shaped, you'd think Cambodia would be ideal for circular routes, but the road network isn't really laid out that way. This means you'll most likely find yourself through some towns more than once, so work them into your plans.
How long have you got? That's not long enough. Really. You'd need a few lifetimes to do this sprawling archipelago justice. Be wary of trying to cover too much ground - the going in Indonesia can be slow.
North or south or both? Laos is relatively small and transport is getting better and better. Those visiting multiple countries can pass through here a few times making for some interesting trips.
The peninsula is easy, with affordable buses, trains and planes and relatively short distances. Sabah and Sarawak are also relatively easy to get around.The vast majority of visitors stick to the peninsula but Borneo is well worth the time and money to reach.
So much to see, so much to do. Thailand boasts some of the better public transport in the region so getting around can be fast and affordable. If time is limited, stick to one part of the country.
Long and thin, Vietnam looks straightforward, but the going is slow and the distances getting from A to B can really bite into a tight trip plan. If you're not on an open-ended trip, plan carefully.
This is where itinerary planning really becomes fun. Be sure to check up on our visa, border crossing and visa sections to make sure you're not trying to do the impossible. Also, remember you're planning a holiday -- not a military expedition.