Bangkok to Chiang Mai the slow way

Bangkok to Chiang Mai the slow way

Many first time visitors to Thailand travel between Bangkok and the Northern capital Chiang Mai with barely a thought for the intervening territory. If you’ve got a bit of time up your sleeve, many of the ruins, temples, river towns and national parks found in between are well worth being waylaid at.

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Yes, you can shuttle from Bangkok to Chiang Mai on a quick flight or overnight train or bus. But if you like taking the scenic, indirect route as much as we do, you could just as easily spend two weeks or a month, or indeed more, getting from one to the other. How much time have you got?

Slow down. Photo by: David Luekens.
Slow down. Photo: David Luekens

This route takes you straight up the historical spine of Thailand, from the kingdom’s megacity capital, Bangkok, to its second largest city and former capital of the Lanna kingdom, Chiang Mai. In between, centres of human life appeared from the 6th to 18th centuries, and the ruins they left behind tell no dull story. A “diamond wall” repelled invaders; an elephant duel pitted king against king; a warrior queen was martyred; Europeans and Siamese first came face to face; and a war that still stands as the defining moment in Thai history set the kingdom on a course it has followed ever since.

Between wars, art and religion bloomed in remarkable ways. Made of laterite and sandstone, brick and mortar, many Hindu and Buddhist monuments display ancient Mon and Khmer architecture later “redecorated” with exquisite Siamese artistry from the schools of Lanna, Sukhothai, Ayutthaya and Rattanakosin. Art history zealots will be in heaven, but even casual onlookers tend to be impressed and there’s always a market or traveller cafe nearby should you run out of steam.

Historical centres dot the region. Photo by: David Luekens.
Historical centres dot the region. Photo: David Luekens

We cover the main route in two weeks, which includes side trips that we think are absolutely worthwhile. If you only have a week, well, be selective. If you have more time or prefer mountains and jungle above ruins and temples, do check out the four alternate routes for the second half of the journey.

Getting around

The main Northern railway line connects the two cities so you could use trains for much of the journey, hopping on and off as you go. For Sukhothai and surrounds it’s buses and songthaews. Transport timetables are found in most of our destination transport pages (like this one for Ayutthaya). The Thai State Railway site can also be helpful, and various types of long-distance travel can be booked online through Travelfish partner 12Go Asia.

Two wheels works. Photo by: David Luekens.
Two wheels works. Photo: David Luekens

Within a given destination you might get around on foot, bicycle, boat, bamboo raft, various types of tuk tuk, rickshaw, taxi, songthaew and/or rented scooter or a rental car, with or without driver. If you plan to rent a scooter, please make the time to learn to ride and get a license in your home country, and always wear a helmet. If you’re thinking of riding without an international motorcycle license, you may want to read up on the travel insurance implications first.

When to go

The best weather comes from November through January when the air is cool and dry and flora remains green from the rainy season. Do bring a sweater. Sukhothai, Tak and Chiang Mai are some of Thailand’s best venues for Loy Krathong, held annually in November.

The weather can get very warm. Photo by: David Luekens.
The weather can get very warm. Photo: David Luekens

February is also pleasant, but hazier and a bit hotter. Head for high altitudes in March and April, when flatlanders like Lopburi and Sukhothai can feel like furnaces. The mercury hit 44.3 C when we researched Sukhothai in April 2016—the second highest temperature ever recorded in Thailand. Pedalling a bike in that kind of heat is a good way to end up in a hospital.

Unless going specifically for Songkran (Chiang Mai is the place to be for water splashing mayhem), April is probably the worst time to go because, in addition to the sweltering temperatures in some spots, unhealthy smog blankets much of the North due to farmers burning stubble in the fields from their previous crops in Thailand and neighbouring countries. The smog hangs around until the rain arrives, usually at some point in May.

Haze can be hard on the pics—and the lungs and eyes. Photo by: Stuart McDonald.
Haze can be hard on the pics—and the lungs and eyes. Photo: Stuart McDonald

The other period to watch out for is the roughly June to October monsoon, when flooding is common in parts of the low-lying Central and Northern Thai plains. Ayutthaya and Sukhothai both endured significant flooding in recent years, between August and October. On the other hand, some travellers prefer the bright-green paddies and thin crowds of rainy season.

Day by day

Day 1: Bangkok to Ayutthaya
Even if you’re fending off a hangover from Khao San or Sukhumvit, get your self up and catch that train! They leave early and often out of Bangkok’s Hualamphong, Bang Sue and Don Muang railway stations, and cost a pittance. If you’re in a rush, head to Morchit (Northern) Bus Terminal to catch a minibus for the 66 km ride to Ayutthaya.

The magnificent Wat Mahathat in Ayutthaya. Photo by: David Luekens.
The magnificent Wat Mahathat in Ayutthaya. Photo: David Luekens

After scoring a guesthouse (Baan Lotus is a great one), grab a bicycle and pedal to the UNESCO heritage status remains of royal temples and palaces that anchored the Thai kingdom from 1350 until Burmese invaders flattened the city in 1767, instigating the removal of the Thai capital to Bangkok. Also check out the Chantharakasem and National museums to observe some of the artefacts since discovered among the ruins. At dusk, relax into a riverside restaurant or hit the night markets for boat noodles, grilled jumbo river prawns and sugary roti sai mai.

Day 2: Around Ayutthaya
Here you have a few good options. If wanting to stay close to town, set out by hired tuk tuk, boat, motorbike or, if your legs are sturdier than ours, bicycle, and trace a path around the outer rim of Ayutthaya. Stops may include the well-preserved Wat Chaiwatthanaram, the less-visited Wat Maheyong and Wat Phanan Thoeng’s striking gilded Buddha image. Also try to pay some less-visited sights a visit, like the Portuguese cemetery and old Muslim quarters.

Explore the well-preserved Wat Chaiwatthanaram. Photo by: David Luekens.
Explore the well-preserved Wat Chaiwatthanaram. Photo: David Luekens

Another option is to catch a train or songthaew 20 km south for a day trip to the late 18th-century Bang Pa In Palace, which has quirky architecture blending Thai and European styles. Alternately, head 20 km west to settle into an immersive riverside homestay and visit the centuries-old knife making shops around Sena district. Bucolic river scenes join three-monk wats and vast expanses of paddy to colour out the area.

Day 3: Lopburi
Catch the 06:00 or 09:50 train out of Ayutthaya and roll 65 km north to Lopburi. Seat of the Thai kingdom during King Narai’s legendary 17th-century reign, it began as a tributary of the Khmer empire from the 11th to 13th centuries. The remains of Narai’s palace have been woven into a National Museum stuffed with artefacts and information—we think it’s one of the better national museums in Thailand. Elsewhere in town, layered ruins such as those at Phra Prang Sam Yod sketch a picture of different periods of ancient life. In the surrounding city blocks, modern life hums by.

Oh Lopburi. Photo by: David Luekens.
Oh Lopburi. Photo: David Luekens

For some travellers, Lopburi’s underrated ruins play second fiddle to the monkeys that scamper and flip around town like an invasion of Hanuman or Curious George—hold on to your yellow hat. Quality local fare is of course available and the old riverside market area is worth a stroll on the way to the leaning chedi of Wat Mani Chonlakan. Lopburi finishes off well with a decent night market and the lively traveller cafe at Noom’s Guesthouse. Bring a deck of cards.

Day 4: Around Lopburi
A steady supply of Saraburi-bound minibuses will drop you 20 km south of Lopburi at Wat Phra Phutthabat, the Buddha footprint wat that stands among the most revered and highest-graded Royal temples in Thailand. Revolving around a sacred footprint-shaped hole in a boulder, the complex is bespeckled with Buddhist/Hindu statuary and richly detailed pavilions in Ayutthaya, Rattanakosin and Chinese styles. There’s even a viewpoint.

At Wat Phra Phutthabat. Photo by: David Luekens.
At Wat Phra Phutthabat. Photo: David Luekens

Alternately, strike 30 km west to Singburi for a classic Central Thai atmosphere and more temples, including a 46-metre-long reclining Buddha at Wat Phra Non Chaksi. A third option is to link up with a local tour outfit (again, Noom’s Guesthouse) to strike 20 km east of town for vast sunflower fields and rock climbing at Khao Chin Lae, a 240-metre-tall limestone massif festooned with more than 40 climbing routes.

Day 5: Lopburi to Phitsanulok
Expect to lose a full day on this 260-km leg that we think is best done by train—grab the 10:30 departure or you’ll get stuck in Lopburi until 16:20 or be forced to head over to Singburi to catch a northbound bus. Once in P’lok, as it’s known for short, the train will deposit you downtown near several hotels.

Day 6: Phitsanulok
Many travellers watch this city disappear through a train window, or stop here only briefly to find a Sukhothai-bound bus. It’s the largest city on this itinerary other than Bangkok and Chiang Mai, with some 100,000 residents and several universities keeping things lively in more than one night market. Try the deep-fried larva and frog legs.

Grazing for frogs at Phitsanulok’s night market. Photo by: David Luekens.
Grazing for frogs at Phitsanulok’s night market. Photo: David Luekens

Phitsanulok briefly hosted the Thai capital during a transition from the Sukhothai to Ayutthaya periods, leaving behind two important sites. First is Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat, a 14th-century temple housing an exceptionally fine Sukhothai-style Buddha image. Second, across the nearby Nan River, Wang Chan Palace was the birthplace of King Naresuan, a towering figure of Thai history. As the much-glorified story goes, he was captured by the Burmese as a child but escaped, became king of Ayutthaya and defeated the Burmese—by elephant duel according to legend—in a tide-turning 1592 battle.

Days 7-8: Sukhothai
“Dawn of Happiness” is the English translation of Sukhothai, often cited as the “first Thai capital”. We prefer to think of it as the canvass on which a Thai cultural identity came into focus during the 13th century. Try to arrive early—it’s only a 60 km bus ride from P’lok so you could be checked into a guesthouse, belly full of Sukhothai noodles and on the songthaew to the historical park by late morning.

Wat Chang Lom at Sukhothai. Photo by: David Luekens.
Wat Chang Lom at Sukhothai. Photo: David Luekens

On the first day we’d limit ourselves to the National Museum and Sukhothai Historical Park’s central section, including top attraction Wat Mahathat. Afterwards, return to “New Sukhothai” to peruse the late-afternoon fruit market. The next morning, hit the giant seated Buddha at Wat Si Chum, the stunning Khmer/Thai artistic blend at Wat Phra Phai Luang, and Wat Saphan Hin in the haunting northern section. While here, picture the inventor of the Thai script, King Ramkamhaeng, climbing the stone bridge on a white elephant.

Day 9: Around Sukhothai
Graced by the same UNESCO status as Sukhothai are two more historical parks at Si Satchanalai and Kamphaeng Phet. “Si Satch” is 55 km north of Sukhothai, while “KP” is found 75 km to the southwest. Many travellers skip both while others choose one or the other. But you’re on Bangkok to Chiang Mai the slow way, right? Both are worth a visit.

Enjoy the details in Si Satchanalai. Photo by: David Luekens.
Enjoy the details in Si Satchanalai. Photo: David Luekens

Accessed mainly by private tour/taxi or rented motorbike/car if daytripping from Sukhothai, sites in Si Satch such as Wat Chedi Chet Thaeo and Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat (yes, another Wat Mahathat) are nearly as impressive as the top-ranking attractions back in Sukhothai. These and the ancient Sawankhalok pottery kilns draw few tourists, making the park ideal for slow observation and meditation. The tree-lined historical park lies between a pair of sedate riverside villages offering a taste of upcountry Thai life.

A few riverside homestays dot Si Satch, but those looking to wander could head 20 km north to the village of Ban Na Ton Chan to learn weaving and basketry and help out at a stray elephant care centre.

Explore and explore some more. Photo by: David Luekens.
Explore and explore some more. Photo: David Luekens

As an alternative, those who are bored of ruins could strike 25 km south from Sukhothai Historical Park to hike a four-km trail ending at a 1,200-metre summit in the Khao Luang mountains of Ramkamhaeng National Park. You’ll also find remote hermit caves and forest meditation temples out this way.

Day 10: Kamphaeng Phet
The third segment of the UNESCO Sukhothai and Associated Historic Towns circuit takes you to this small provincial capital, set along the banks of the Ping River as it flows down from Tak and Chiang Mai. Wat Phra Kaew’s complimentary mix of Buddhist art from both the Sukhothai and Ayutthaya periods is fascinating, and we always enjoy a bike ride to minor ruins spread around a forest in the historical park’s northern zone.

Cool off at the magnificent Khlong Lan waterfall. Photo by: David Luekens.
Cool off at the magnificent Khlong Lan waterfall. Photo: David Luekens

Most travellers spend a day covering both sections of KP’s historical park, plus another good National Museum and perhaps the fresh market. After dark it’s all about the night market and riverfront, followed by a beer on the way back to Three J. This is one of our favourite guesthouses in Thailand so if you have an extra day, why not join Mr Charin on a road trip to his scenic “Red Ant Egg” Garden followed by a hike to the beautiful Khlong Lan waterfall and a Pakakayor village?

Day 11: Kamphaeng Phet to Lampang
At this juncture you could take a bus 250 km north to Lampang via Tak, or retrace your steps east through Sukhothai to link back up with the train in Phitsanulok (we’d opt for the former and maybe lose a night in Tak). Either way this leg will take at least half a day. Upon arrival in Lampang, find a guesthouse, eat some corn and take a ride on one of the city’s signature horse-drawn carts.

Lampang is good for a potter around. Photo by: Stuart McDonald.
Lampang is good for a potter around. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Day 12: Lampang
Now you’ve got a full day in this mid-size provincial capital with lots of options to choose from. Start with an old town walk and then delve into Lampang’s many temples, including the namesake 20 chedis of Wat Chedi Sao Lang and Burmese-style Wat Sri Chum. Do save some daylight for a 20-km side trip to Wat Phra That Lampang Luang, featuring a splendid 15th-century wooden wihaan and one of Northern Thailand’s most revered chedis. After dark, don’t miss the herbal steam and massage.

Day 13: Lamphun
A further 70-km train or bus ride takes you to the sleepy provincial capital of Lamphun, located only 25 km south of Chiang Mai. Yes, you’re almost there and it’s tempting to skip this last little temple town, but we’re big fans of Lamphun and we highly recommend one last day in a quiet spot before meeting the bustle of Northern Thailand’s central metropolis.

Temple hopping in Lamphun. Photo by: Stuart McDonald.
Temple hopping in Lamphun. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Get to know an area first settled in the eighth century as part of Haripunchai, a powerful 8th-century Mon kingdom during the Dvaravati period. Observe remnants of this shadowy past at the stunning Wat Chama Devi and Wat Phra That Haripunchai. Also pop into Haripunchai National Museum before digging into pork noodle soup, which Lamphun is famous for.

Day 14: to Chiang Mai
You won’t have far to go. Train is an option, though we suggest catching a bus to pass the atmospheric Yang Na trees that line Highway 1141. In Chiang Mai, a great wealth of temples, museums, great food, guesthouses and trekking opportunities await.

Hello Chiang Mai. Photo by: Mark Ord.
Hello Chiang Mai. Photo: Mark Ord

Alternate routes

Did someone say mountains? While many travellers get themselves to Chiang Mai first and arrange trekking from there, we prefer going straight to the mountain towns and villages. Here are four alternate routes to start thinking about when you reach Sukhothai or Kamphaeng Phet. Taking any one of them would mean more time on the road and bypassing Lampang and Lamphun, but you could always hit them as a side trip out of Chiang Mai later on.

Nan loop
From Sukhothai or Si Satchanalai, catch any northbound bus. If it’s going to Phrae, great, but if not, hop off up Highway 11 in Uttaradit or Den Chai and make a transfer. You’ll now be on a 670 km loop, much of it mountainous, through Phrae, Nan, Phayao, Phrao, Chiang Dao and finally down to Chiang Mai. We’re calling it the “half eastern breakfast.”

The Nan loop can be fun. Photo by: Samantha Brown.
The Nan loop can be fun. Photo: Samantha Brown

It would allow you to explore some of Nan’s national parks, maybe with stops to enjoy the scenery in Pua and remote Bo Kluea. You’d need at least ten days to do this justice. Read more about the Nan loop.

Mae Salong loop
Now picture yourself taking the Nan loop described above, but instead of cutting west to Chiang Dao in Phayao, turn north to Chiang Rai. Both the town and surrounding province have loads to offer—and, more importantly—you’ll have set a course for the Mae Salong loop.

Enjoying blue skies on the Mae Salong loop. Photo by: Mark Ord.
Enjoying blue skies on the Mae Salong loop. Photo: Mark Ord

This “full eastern breakfast” takes way up into the mountains to Mae Salong, a Chinese-influenced tea-growing settlement, before running west through Tha Ton, Mae Ai, Fang and then south to Chiang Dao and Chiang Mai. If going this way you’ll add 350 km to the Nan loop and while the extra could be done in less than a week, we’d take at least two weeks if wanting to include additions like Chiang Saen, the Golden Triangle, Phu Chee Fah and Doi Ang Khang. Read more about the Mae Salong loop.

Mae Sot Loop
Venturing into the western borderlands, catch a songthaew from Kamphaeng Phet up to Tak, another river town where you could spend a night or quickly pivot west. The next step is food heaven Mae Sot on the Burma border, followed by a northward trip to Mae Sariang and finally a scenic eastward road through Hot, which is a good place to cool off as it turns out.

Market scenes in Mae Sot. Photo by: David Luekens.
Market scenes in Mae Sot. Photo: David Luekens

This 610 km loop spits you out of the mountains just south of Chiang Mai. Along the way there’s plenty to see including waterfalls and temperate flower fields in a cut of mountainous, outback Thailand. It’s a “half western breakfast” that will cost you a week.

Mae Hong Son Loop
You guessed it: The “full western breakfast.” This ambitious route picks up in Mae Sariang, but instead of cutting east towards Hot, keep plodding northwards up the valley to Khun Yuam, a small town with a market frequented by Hmong, Akha and even the rarely encountered Lawa people from the hills. Then it’s north again for more mountains and down again into another scenic valley, this time at the provincial capital of Mae Hong Son, the master of this loop.

Riverside scenes near Mae Sariang. Photo by: Mark Ord.
Riverside scenes near Mae Sariang. Photo: Mark Ord

From there, keep the compass pointed north to Soppong and backpacker-driven Pai, eventually catching a minibus for one more long mountain ride down to Chiang Mai. Adding an additional (and very mountainous) 200 km to the Mae Sot loop, the Mae Hong Son loop has a way of keeping travellers occupied for a couple of weeks or more. Read more about the Mae Hong Soon loop.

Not even going in the right direction: Umphang
So you want to take a side trip on top of a side trip? Now you’re speaking our language. Catch a high-powered songthaew from Mae Sot down to Umphang, the most isolated district in Thailand. The trucks need that extra horsepower to handle 1,219 steep curves on the 180-km “Death Highway.” The few foreign visitors find a relaxing alternative trekking and rafting hub, with one of Thailand’s most impressive waterfalls roaring nearby.

Umphang delivers on the waterfall front. Photo by: David Luekens.
Umphang delivers on the waterfall front. Photo: David Luekens

The down side: Umphang is completely out of the way. You’ll have to backtrack to Mae Sot afterwards.

Not even staying in the country: The Laos option
Perhaps we’re going too far with this one, but we can’t deny that there is another way to get from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Take a swing through Northeastern Thailand and charge into Laos via Nong Khai / Vientiane or the little-used Tha Li / Nam Hueng crossing out of Loei.

Make your way up to Luang Prabang and you’ll be within striking distance of the popular Huai Xai / Chiang Khong crossing, which drops you in Chiang Rai province to pick up the Mae Salong loop. Most travellers do this journey in reverse, taking a slowboat down the Mekong from Huai Xai to Luang Prabang. But why follow everyone else?

Reviewed by

David Luekens first came to Thailand in 2005 when Thai friends from his former home of Burlington, Vermont led him on a life-changing trip. Based in Thailand since 2011, he spends much of his time eating in Bangkok street markets and island hopping the Andaman Sea.

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