Most people think of the Mae Hong Son Loop as the loop of choice when it comes to exploring northern Thailand, but if you've got a bit more time, want to get a bit more off the beaten track and especially if you have your own transport, a loop across far northern Thailand to the north and east of Chiang Mai is an excellent alternative.
We've done this loop twice (with a couple of variations) and both times we did it by motorbike. This (or by car) is the preferred means of transport as it will give you maximum flexibility day to day. The Northern Thailand loop can, however, almost all be done by a combination of bus and songthaews, but some legs will become quite time-consuming, and you may be better off modifying the trip to use the provincial capitals as hubs, as these are all well-connected by bus.
All the towns mentioned on this itinerary have accommodation. Some lodgings are quite basic, with limited facilities (hello warm Sprite and instant noodles), but you'll never struggle for a roof over your head.
The best time to do this trip is December-January. At this time of the year you'll have clear, big skies and the burning of paddy will not have started, so visibility will be excellent. By late February the burn will be starting to smoulder, and will build right through till the start of wet season. Given much of the appeal of this trip is the outdoors, doing it in the height of wet season doesn't strike us as the best of fun -- especially if you're on a motorbike.
Evenings and early mornings will be cold. Dress appropriately. If you're doing the trip by motorbike, note that all the routes we're covering are fully sealed and should be reasonable for a motorcyclist of intermediate ability. Always wear a helmet and make sure your travel insurance is in order—SafetyWing is a popular and affordable option. Where possible, avoid riding at night.
In a nutshell, the routing is Chiang Mai - Chiang Dao - Phrao - Phayao - Phu Lang Ka - Nan - Phrae - Lampang - Chiang Mai. There is time for significant side-trips from Chiang Dao, Nan and Lampang so if you were divvying up your days, we'd give more time to those towns.
It's a straightforward trip north on route 107 from Chiang Mai to Chiang Dao. The best accommodation (while perhaps overpriced by Chiang Mai standards) is a few kilometres out of town, just past the Chiang Dao cave. Chiang Dao is known for its trekking, cave and mountain climbing, but it is also a pleasant place just to hang out for a few days. Travellers with young children will find it particularly attractive.
Our pick of the accommodation scene is Chiang Dao Nest 1. Allow two-three nights.
Head north from Chiang Dao and take a right turn onto Route 1150 for the pleasant ride east to Phrao. The town itself is little more than a farmer's hub, but it is a pleasing, rice-filled valley where, unlike Pai, the main crop remains rice rather than tourists. Roving foreigners are few and far between, but accommodation is available at the near-impossible to find Doi Farang, a few kilometres out of town.
Activities are very low-key. There's a hilltop temple with good views and the valley just makes for a pleasant place to ride around taking endless pix of people and rice. Doi Farang also has a pool, though we'd imagine it would be pretty frosty in January. Allow a night.
Lakeside Phayao has to have one of the highest concentrations of bars per capita in Thailand. It seems peculiar at first, but then sunset arrives -- and then you'll understand why. Save the rundown torture garden at Wat Sri Khom Kham, downtown sights are few and far between in Phayao (aside from the lake), but Wat Analayo outside of town is a rambling esoteric place that is well worth the effort of reaching.
The best accommodation is close to the lake, where a clutch of places of a quite good standard are all on offer at similar room rates. We stayed at Jumjai Homestay and were more than satisfied. Those looking to spend less will struggle -- the Chinese hotel/budget safehouse turned us away, citing an odd "No foreigner" rule. Allow two nights.
There is a single place to stay at Phu Lang Ka, perched on a cliff looking across an oft-mist-filled valley with limestone outcrops that gives it an almost Ha Long Bay in the mountains kind of vibe. Unfortunately Phu Lang Ka Resort has slipped a bit since our last visit -- slipped in a "we have no drinks but warm Sprite and water" kind of way, bit annoying when the closest shop with a fridge is 4-5 km away.
Sigh, the hardships of travel.
Also, we have to comment on the beds at Phu Lang Ka Resort. In more than 15 years of travel in Southeast Asia, these were the worst ever. Ever. One of our travel companions seriously considered sleeping on the ground outside her bungalow.
That said, the breakfast is good and the views are to die for, but next time we'd probably aim to just stop by for the view, rather than overnight. The closest alternative accommodation is in Chiang Kham -- and the rooms even have flat surfaces that do qualify as beds.
Nan is a sprawling, mango-shaped province wedged up against the Lao border. A hit with nature-lovers, there are a half dozen national parks (of variable quality) to pick from, some great riding and at least three towns (outside the same-named provincial capital) with accommodation, making this a great area to lose a few days or even a few weeks.
Nan town is a riverside affair with a handful of restaurants and bars lining the river's banks. There are some important wats and a National Museum to busy the history and architecture buffs, and best of all there are some quite good guesthouses, along with a gaggle of midrange hotels to rest your head.
We like Nan.
Outside town, accommodation is available in Bo Kluea, Pua and Huay Kon (along with some of the national parks), so you could spend quite a while exploring the province. In Nan we recommend Nan Guesthouse.
Set to the southwest of Nan, Phrae is best known for a couple of Burmese-syle temples that are set around the periphery of town. There's also a mildly interesting historic house and the old town makes for a pleasant walk around ... yeah okay, we're clutching at straws a bit here, but Phrae is a convenient spot to break the journey between Nan and Lampang and there are a couple of okay hotels to choose from -- we opted for Thep Vong Place and it was ok.
Not excited yet? The food is good, with a bustling night market, but overall you won't meet many travellers beelining it for here from Bangkok -- maybe that's just what you're after? Allow one night.
Like Nan, Lampang is a riverside town. The main attraction of the town and province is the spectacular Wat Phra That Lampang Luang, a ride out of town, but Lampang town has some excellent guesthouses and eateries. Out top pick? R-Lampang.
This is a town where half the attraction is simply hanging around town doing pretty much nothing. There are pony-drawn carts for the desperate, but next time we return we'll pack a few more books and book in a few extra slow days. Allow two nights.
We did this trip most recently in January 2011 and our travel companions Dave and Lauren will probably write about it on their travel blogs. So for more photos, commentary and moaning about the state of the beds at Phu Lang Ka, we suggest you check out their travel blogs at What's Dave Doing and Never Ending Footsteps.
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org 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.
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.