Published: 12th August, 2019
This two week itinerary for northern Thailand is aimed at the first time visitor to Thailand. It takes in some of the crowd-pleasing, easier to reach spots, and is easily done by public transport. Those with more time, or differing interests, should add in the Mae Hong Son Loop.
The trip starts in Chiang Mai and finishes in Chiang Rai. Both have airports and the train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai is a good way to ease your way in. If coming by train, consider breaking the trip at Ayutthaya or Sukhothai (via Phitsanulok). All these destinations offer plenty of historic appeal and great food. For this itinerary though, we’ll start at Chiang Mai.
One more thing, you’ll see we’re allowing time to slow down and smell the coffee. Yes, you could fit more in, but do so and you’ll spend more time travelling than enjoying. Once you allow for side trips, you could spend a month covering the ground below. Or, you could conceivably do this trip in as little as a week—something we do not recommend you do.
As mentioned, the start and end points both have airports, with connections to Bangkok. They are also interlinked to most regional centres by public and private bus. Thailand’s northern train line terminates in Chiang Mai, but there is no rail line to Chiang Rai. The closest railhead to Chiang Rai is at Den Chai, near Phrae.
Many choose to do this itinerary, or some variation of it, by hired car or scooter. If you’re planning on this, check your travel insurance, especially with regard to scooters. Please note that one leg (the Kok River boat trip) is not possible by bike or car, but don’t fret—there’s a road.
Save the leg up from Bangkok, most of the trip times below are just a few hours long. Thailand’s north has an excellent road network, but do take care if DIY driving or riding. Always, always, always wear a helmet—and watch out for others—great roads equal fast driving.
When it comes to travelling in northern Thailand, there are three considerations. The weather, the crowds, and the smoke.
Weather wise, the best time to go is between the start of November and the end of February. This period is (by Thai standards) cool and dry. In particular in November, off the back of the wet season, the forest can be lush and extremely pretty. March through to the start of May can be unpleasantly hot (and smokey, more on that below). By mid May the monsoon rains should start, peaking around August. Though this period there may be flooding and the jungle will be muddy as all hell. In heavy monsoon seasons, there may be transport difficulties.
Crowd wise, December and January are peak season. Some destinations, notably Chiang Mai, will be jammed with tourists. Thai New Year occurs in mid-April and likewise Chiang Mai will be packed. Reservations in advance are prudent at this time of the year. If crowds are not your thing, aim for the shoulder—November or February. Monsoon season attracts fewer visitors, but you will need to deal with the rain.
The third issue is the smoke. Every year farmers burn back the stubble of their fields in preparation for rice planting. This occurs not just in Thailand, but also in Burma and Laos, in February through April. Smoke from both this burning and general air pollution can make the air very unpleasant. It can burn the eyes and drastically effect visibility. If you have breathing difficulties, you should consider avoiding the north during burning season. In March 2019, the air pollution in Chiang Mai was the worst in the world.
Day 1: Chiang Mai
Thailand’s northern capital, Chiang Mai, is the epicentre of the north’s tourism scene. A historic city with a moat-ringed wall enclosing the centre, the city is awash in sights. So where to start?
Once you’ve settled in , we’d recommend spending the first of your three days on a walking tour of the old town. Not only will this help you get your bearings, but you’ll also be able to take in some of the top sights.
Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chedi Luang should be your temple first stops. For museums, start with Lanna Folk Museum and the Historical Centre. The centre of town also has a bunch of markets, begin with Somphet Market. As light fades prepare yourself for one of the city’s shopping markets.
Day 2: Chiang Mai
Start early, ideally with your own transport, and head in the direction of Doi Suthep. On the way, stop at Wat Jet Yot and Wat Umong for your minor temple fix. We especially like the latter. Once finished at Doi Suthep, push on to the touristy but worthwhile Doi Pui.
From here, roll back back the mountain to Huay Tung Tao. Its a fair sized lake (you can swim) and a great spot for a late and local lunch. If you have the energy, set aside a few hours of the afternoon for a wander through the ruins at Wiang Khum Khan. Especially so if you skipped Ayutthaya and Sukhothai before coming to Chiang Mai.
Day 3: Chiang Mai
A large part of the appeal of Chiang Mai is shopping and eating, so you could easily do that for the third day. The more energetic could consider day trips to Mae Sa or Hang Dong. If you have your own wheels, consider the Samoeng Loop. Just remember an early start tomorrow.
Day 4: Pai
The minivan ride from Chiang Mai to Pai takes around three hours. We’d suggest an early departure to dodge the worst of the morning traffic and to get to Pai with time to explore. Spend the afternoon wandering the town. There are some minor points of interest and the river is pretty. Pai does lend itself to lazing though, so pace yourself!
Day 5: Pai
With your own wheels, set aside a day to explore the surrounds. While the distance in our one-day itinerary by scooter is only around 40km, you can easily fill a day with this. Nam Hoo and Santichong villages are well worth a visit. If scootering around is not your thing, perhaps a cooking class, or do a one day tour. Short trekking and bamboo rafting combinations are available from the myriad agents in town.
If you have more time, from Pai you can press on to the west, either just to Soppong (highly recommended) or all the way to Mae Hong Son. From there head south to Mae Sariang, following the Mae Hong Son Loop. We’d suggest at least three days for the loop, though a week or so is better!
Day 6: Chiang Dao
Many give Pai far more than two full days, but as we’re coving a lot of ground we’re going to push on to Chiang Dao. To reach Chiang Dao you have two primary options. Take a tourist van direct, or get a Chiang Mai bound van and jump out at the Route 107 junction. From there you’ll need to flag down a bus or songtheaw to Chiang Dao.
Once arrived, settled in and fed, fill your afternoon with Chiang Dao cave. Comprised of some 12 km of tunnels and caverns (no you can’t explore them all), it is well worth your time.
Day 7: Chiang Dao
Some hiking could appeal—ask at your hotel for suggestions on what will fit in a day. If you’d prefer to strike out into the wilds, consider Arunothai and/or Pha Daeng. If you want to climb Doi Luang, you can do it in a long day, but many choose to combine the climb with a night camping. Officially, guides are compulsory.
Day 8: Mae Salong
Today is a bit of a travel day. First a bus from Chiang Dao to Tha Ton and then a yellow songtheaw up to the mountain town of Mae Salong. Our advice? Leave Chiang Dao early! Once you finally get there, sort out your hotel and feed yourself. In the afternoon, visit some of the outlying tea plantations and drink plenty of tea. It is that simple. Hit hilltop Prathat Santikhiri in late afternoon and cross your fingers for clear skies. Warning: Mae Salong at night gets cold!
Day 9: Mae Salong
If you have your own transport, today is a long day trip to Khun Sa’s old digs at Thoed Thai (previously Hin Taek). If you don’t have your own transport, it will be longer as you’ll need to switch songtheaws along the way. While the museum is dilapidated, the scenery enroute is spectacular. Motorcyclists, take extreme care on these roads!
If visiting a dead drug load’s home isn’t your thing, there are other options today. Explore Doi Mae Salong’s markets, the Chinese Martyr’s Memorial Museum or perhaps do a day hike.
Day 10: Mae Salong
Spend the morning back out at some more tea plantations, then begin the long slow roll back down the hill to Tha Ton. If you want to save a day, leave early to be sure to get the 12:30 boat departure, but we think Tha Ton is worth a night.
Day 11: Kok River trip
The public boat to Chiang Rai leaves at 12:30, so this is your day for sleeping in. If you want to make a full day trip of the trip, stopping wherever you want along the way, then you need to charter your own. Boats go for 2,400 baht, so depending on your budget, either just go for it, or rustle up some others to share with. The public boat is a good fall back. The trip takes around four hours (without stops) so you will arrive in Chiang Rai late afternoon.
Day 12: Chiang Rai
Chiang Rai is, in many ways, the younger sister to Chiang Mai. The city is smaller, it has fewer temples, fewer hotels and fewer places to eat, but there is still oodles to do.
To beat the tour crowds, head out to Wat Rong Khun (the White Temple) in the morning. It is one of the most famous temples in the region and worth the time to visit. Note this temple can get extremely congested with tour groups, so pick your time wisely.
Like Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai is well suited to a walking tour. So once you are back in town, spend the afternoon taking a wander. Be sure to visit two of the city’s most important temples, Wat Phra Singh and Wat Phra Kaew. In the evening, hit the Night Bazaar.
Day 13: Chiang Rai
Fill the morning with some market visits, then, if you’d like to see that produce put to work, do a cooking class. Come the afternoon, cool your heels at the rather excellent Oub Khan Museum and Baan Dam. If you are going trekking, consider the Hill Tribe Museum, but it is looking a bit shabby these days. If neither of these appeal, consider a long day trip to Doi Tung.
Day 14: Chiang Rai
Spend your final morning visiting a couple of Chiang Rai’s other outlying temples. Wat Huay Sai Khao and Wat Huay Pla Kung would be at the top of our list. Another option could be a cycling tour or perhaps even a visit to Elephant Valley. Once you’re all done, time to head to the airport or bus station to move on to your next destination.
Chiang Rai forms a great base for exploring further afield. If you have your own wheels, and some time up your sleeve, seriously consider the Chiang Rai Loop.
There are bus services from Chiang Rai to Nan, Phrae and Phayao (among many others). All three are worth a visit for the slow traveller. If you’re making your way to Laos, Mae Sai, Chiang Saen and Chiang Khong are all worthy stops—and are on the way ... kind of.
How long have you got?
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.