Visiting Northern Thailand on a Road Trip

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Northern Thailand is one of the best places to visit in Thailand if you want to see beautiful temples, villages, unspoilt landscapes and “real” Thailand, away from the holiday beaches. This post coverst the best, most beautiful places to visit in Northern Thailand and gives you ideas for a Northern Thailand Itinerary, we talk about some of the best and moth beautiful places to see in Northern Thailand, with photos.

Beautiful Places to Visit in the North of Thailand

Don’t stop at Chiang Mai! We think Northern Thailand is one of the best parts of Thailand and over the years we’ve been exploring the north of the country by car and on foot, whenever we get a chance.

Places to visit in Northern Thailand
You can save this beautiful temple to Pinterest, just hover and a red button will appear in the middle. This one is in Chiang Mai.

You can get north of Chiang Mai by bus or even fly, but self-driving is a great option in the north of Thailand and an affordable one.

Rental vehicles and self-drive works out cheaper than taking the bus for us, as a family of four.

It’s also possible to arrange tours into northern Thailand, one day tours and longer, we’ll cover those too.

For now, some recommended destinations for you to explore and northern Thailand itinerary suggestions including the Mae Hon Son Loop and the northeast of Thailand.

We also give you some recommendations on accommodation, some budget, some more luxury.

If your Thailand trip allows, fit some of these northern Thailand destinations into your itinerary.

Northern Thailand Itinerary

Your northern Thailand itinerary should include as many as you can of the best places to visit in northern Thailand. Choose your favourites and connect them in a logical way to form your North Thailand itinerary.

Itinerary tips, ideas, and more information on these places in northern Thailand below, to help your trip planning.

Chiang Mai

Things to do in Northern Thailand Chiang Mai Oldest Temple Wat Chiang Man
Chiang Mai is the gateway to the north and there’s plenty to keep you busy for days or weeks. Here Wat Chiang Man’s Chedi, the oldest temple in Chiang Mai Old Town (1296)

Chiang Mai Old Town is a fortified, perfectly square enclosure surrounded by a well maintained and attractive moat.

The Old Town houses dozens of ancient temples and wats along with busy markets, cool shops and plenty of hotels, guest houses and hostels.

Night markets and walking streets are abundant and popular inside the old city of Chiang Mai and in the newer parts of the city.

Thai street food sausages
Street food in Chiang Mai. Sausages are a big feature in the north of Thailand, along with a delicious curry noodle soup, Khao Soi.

Outside Chiang Mai you’ll find beautiful Doi Suthep (with Wat Phrathat ) as well as multiple large tourist attractions based on elephants, trekking, zip-lining, animals, art or even elephant manure paper-making.

We have a post on Art in Paradise 3D art museum here and another on Living in Chiang Mai and facilities available ( ice skating, English cinema, co-working spaces etc) here.

We have tried a few more of these tourist attractions but we’re yet to write them up, our favourite activity up here is just wandering the old town, moat and markets.

Chiang Mai is where we always pick up a hire car to journey further north. We have a post on car hire and driving in Thailand here. For information on getting to Chiang Mai from Bangkok you need this post.

You can fly to Chiang Mai from Bangkok, or take the bus, but the overnight sleeper train is a great thing to do if you have time.

You will arrive at Chiang Mai train station, on the outskirts of town, from here you’ll have to negotiate a fare into town. This can be troublesome.

Where to Stay in Chiang Mai

Beautiful places to see in north thailand Silver Temple
The Silver Temple is south of the walled city, beyond the moat. This one is a must see and there is a nearby night market bursting with food and souvenirs.

It’s best to stay in or very close to the Old Town, we’ve stayed further out of town towards the Ping River and it’s much harder to access everything you need.

The Night Bazaar area (outside the Old Town, to the southeast) isn’t so nice, you’re better off in the Old Town in our opinion.

The Night Bazaar usually runs every night but the walking streets (markets) in the Old Town are more on weekends. Check the current scheduling of markets for yourself.

We can recommend the following hotels, guest houses and hostels based on personal experience. For ultra-budget stays try the hostels just north of the old town on a quiet street the other side of the moat.

We have used the following. Details and pricing may have changed, please double check.

  • Roof and Room hostel, it’s small, clean, modern and friendly and has family rooms for 4 or 6 with private bathroom from under $30 per night. Free coffee is a bonus and a small night market and vegetarian restaurant give good cheap eats just footsteps away. Check Roof and Room here.
  • A little more expensive but still budget, is Central Guest House, this one also has a private family room, actually 2 rooms with bathroom and a prime location almost on Tae Pai gate, this is the main gate in the middle of the east wall and very close to the Sunday Night Market.  Check Central Guest House here.
  • For a few dollars more ( in the region of $55) try Baan Klang Vieng, the family room is almost an apartment with 2 big rooms and kitchen area in an old style Thai house. Mr Veiss will cook you a great breakfast. Check Baan Klang Vieng here.
  • If you want a luxurious stay in a great location try Chala Number 6, it’s within the Old Town, has an exceptional 9.6 rating, 2 bedroom family suites and a great pool to cool off in.  See what the luxury end of family accommodation is like at Chala Number 6 here.

Chiang Mai Festivals

North Thailand lantern festival chiang mai
The twin lantern festivals on the Ping River in Chiang Mai. This was in November. Expect huge crowds.

There are many festivals in Thailand but the lantern festivals make Chiang Mai a tourism hotspot in northern hemisphere autumn.

Thousands of flaming paper lanterns take to the skies above chiang mai and thousands more float on the Ping river, and in the moat.

You will also see spectacular displays in some of the temples and monasteries, as well as in the city’s central Three Kings Square.

beautiful thailand lantern festival
Scenes inside one of Chiang Mai’s stunning monasteries during the period of the lantern festivals.

These two festivals, Loi Krathong and Yi Peng are the stuff of Instagram dreams, but we found the crowds and potential dangers of traffic and falling fireballs a little hair raising.

Songkran, the water festival, is also popular in Chiang Mai, and all over Thailand, this happens in spring.

Chiang Mai also has “burning season” when local fields are burnt as part of the agricultural process. This can destroy air quality, so please look into this if you are planning your best time to see Chiang Mai and the north.

Chiang Mai can be a really good place to spend Christmas in Thailand, with lots of decorations, western style, adding to the mix.


Lod cave near Pai Thailand
Pai has beautiful countryside, vegans, bliss balls and backpackers. Lod Cave, above is a drive outside Pai. It’s still a nice little town and worth a stop.

Pai used to be a sleepy country town, beloved of hippy backpackers and in many ways it still is. It’s just grown.

Expect beautiful green fields, a winding river and lots of tourists. The night market is great and there’s plenty to do in the surrounding area, from rafting to elephants to hill tribe visits.

Where to Stay in Pai

We’ve stayed outside Pai when we’ve hired a car which is better for parking but not so good if you want to wander into town to eat in the evenings. We won’t recommend the resort we stayed at, instead we’ll recommend you stay somewhere closer to town.

Mae Hong Son

mae hong song
Stunning Mae Hong Son itself, surrounds a lake, with markets, restaurants and simple tourist infrastructure. Nearby you will find many Hill Tribe villages and trekking opportunities.

Mae Hong Son province borders Chiang Mai Province in the northwest of Thailand. It is bordered by mountains (Myanmar, to the west) and is known as the city of three mists.

A mountainous and historically poorer province of Thailand, this region is now one of the most beautiful and interesting parts of Thailand.

It is also very pleasant to explore, with far fewer tourist on the ground than elsewhere in Thailand.

Hill Tribe Woman Mae Hong Song
Mae Hon Son town has a pretty lakeside temple illuminated after dark and a pleasant night market to explore. From here you can visit the long neck Karen village above or explore the countryside and villages.

Where to Stay in Mai Hong Son

Stay close to the lake, if you’re driving, find somewhere with parking. You’ll want to walk around the lake, temple and night market in the evening.

Alternatively, there are some nice resort-style hotels just outside town.

The Mae Hong Son Loop

This somewhat famous road loop takes travellers on a 600 Km mountain exploration from Chiang Mai, to Chiang Dao, Pai, Soppong, Mae Aw,  Mai Hong Son, Mae Chaim, Doi Inthanon and back to Chiang Mai.

There are multiple options on where to stay on this route, it’s up to you.

The giant swing which you will pass on this journey is in our short video. The kids loved it!

Doi Inthanon National Park

Doi Inthanon is Thailand’s highest peak and is in Chiang Mai Province to the southwest of the city. You can easily book day trips to Doi Inthanon in Chiang Mai, or online.

Chiang Rai

Things to do in Chiang Rai The White Temple
The White Temple is an utterly incredible work of art. It’s just outside Chiang Rai in Northern Thailand.

There is so much to see and do in and around Chiang Rai that a few days wouldn’t be too much time to spend here. We already published a post on things to do in Chiang Rai (click through here).

Blue Temple North Thailand White Buddha
The Blue Temple is in the north of Thailand, near Chiang Rai. It’s a work of art and is rightly famous. You really should see the blue and white temples during your time in Thailand.

Chiang Rai is where you’ll need to be to see the rightly-famous white and blue temples. These are two of the most stunning, and most unusual, temples in the whole of Thailand.

Where to Stay in Chiang Rai

Because we were road tripping and had our own car, we stayed just outside Chiang Rai City at Pan Kled Villa Eco Hill Resort.

This place was comfortable and affordable, housing was in adorable wooden villas in a stunning forest garden. Highly recommended!

They served a great breakfast and had a reasonably priced outdoor restaurant for the evenings. Check out Pan Kled Villas here.

Mae Salong

Places to visit in Northern Thailand Mae Salong
Dawn from our hotel just outside Mae Salong. One of our favourite adventures of recent years, check out this hotel, Phumektawan Resort, below.

Where to Stay in Mae Salong

You can either stay in Mae Salong town itself to be within easy walking distance of the market and restaurants or, as we did, you can stay slightly outside town, a 5-10 minute drive, to wake up to dawn views like the one above.

This photo is actually taken from our hotel, it was low cost, comfortable and provided a good breakfast and dress-up opportunities. Much more to come on Mae Salong soon but for now check out Phumektawan Resort Hotel here.

 Kwan Phayao (Lake Phayao)

Kwan Phayao Lake Northern Thailand
Lake Phayao isn’t on the normal tourist trail but it’s well worth a stop. It’s the largest lake in northern Thailand and famously has a sunken temple.

No, we’d never heard of Phayao either but we were having so much fun visiting new places that we thought we’d visit one more.

Phayao was very different, large empty roads, plenty of restaurants, no tourists. We ran and walked on beautiful bike paths around the lake, enjoyed sunsets and sunrises and wondered why nobody comes here.

It was a slice of real Thailand and would make an excellent digital nomad base.

You can get to Phayao by bus from Chiang Mai, by car it took us around 4 hours or it makes a good stop if you’re driving up from the south.

Where to Stay in Phayao

We chose The Cozy Nest because of its excellent reviews and weren’t disappointed.

Their family room was absolutely huge and breakfast was included. They also had rooms for 2 and deluxe rooms, it’s just footsteps from the water’s edge, take a look at The Cozy Nest here.


Sukhothai Historic Park Northern Thailand
Sukhothai deserves a day or two of your time, sunrises and sunsets are particularly spectacular.

Much further south than all the places mentioned above but technically in the northern part of Thailand, Sukhothai could make a good stop on the way up or down from Chiang Mai.

You can even book a day trip to Sukhothai from Chiang Mai, and this would certainly be the easiest way to see this incredible ancient city. It’s actually one of my very favourite places in Thailand, but getting there by bus and train is tricky. I’d really recommend booking the day trip (the price is for 3 people for this particular tour, but there are other options on this site) if you don’t need to spend a few days in Sukhothai.

Sukhothai Historic Park is one of the best and largest historic sites in the whole of Thailand. If you’re serious about your exploration, absolutely not to be missed.

Sukhothai to Chiang Mai is about 5 hours by bus. Bangkok to Sukhothai is about 7-9 hours by bus (there is a stop at Ayutthaya on this bus route).

There is no train on this route that stops close to Sukhothai.  The two buses combined were cheaper than taking the sleeper train direct from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.

Bangkok to Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai to Bangkok train Chiang Mai station old style train Northern Thailand travel blog.
The Bangkok to Chiang Mai sleeper train sitting in Chiang Mai station. You could also take the bus or fly up to northern Thailand. Some new trains are now running on this route.

A classic journey of around 12 hours, the Bangkok to Chiang Mai sleeper train is a comfortable way to get to the north of Thailand and we’ve taken this route many times with kids and without. The buses on this route can be good too.

We have a full post on getting from Bangkok to Chiang Mai here. Of course you could also fly if time is very short.

When to Visit Northern Thailand? Weather, Rain, Air Pollution and Temperatures.

The dry seasons in Northern Thailand are November to February (cool) and March to June (hot). Rain is less likely during these periods.

Be aware of the terrible air pollution in Chiang Mai in spring, February to May. You will probably need a light sweater high in the mountains in the evenings.

Finding the Best Prices on Hotels, Guest Houses, Resorts and Hostels in Thailand

It is still possible to turn up and knock on doors to find a room but the internet really does make this somewhat pointless these days.

On a tour of the north of Thailand, we tend to book just a day or two in advance and generally use Agoda because we collect their credit vouchers to use against future stays. They are Asia specialists and every experience we’ve had with their customer support has been superb. Visit Agoda here.

Northern Thailand

Northern Thailand Itinerary, 1 Week, 2 Week, a Month?

If time is short you’ll have to choose between travelling northeast ( Chiang Rai, Mae Salong) and north-west ( Mae Hong Son).  3-5 days should be plenty of time to get around these areas and you could potentially include Pai and Chiang Dao. Pai is not really on the way to Chiang Rai but you could take a detour.

If you have 2 weeks or longer you could see most of the places mentioned above and more.

Your northern Thailand itinerary will depend on onward travel plans. Do you need to return a rental vehicle to Chiang Mai? Will you be crossing into Laos from northern Thailand? Can you fly back to Bangkok from Chiang Rai or another northern airport, so avoiding having to return to Chiang Mai?

If you possibly can, find time to add Sukhothai Historic Park to your trip, visit on the way north to Chiang Mai or on your return to Bangkok.

Of course, if you visit Sukhothai you should also visit Ayutthaya, the other UNESCO-listed Ancient Capitol of Thailand. We can’t call Ayutthaya Northern Thailand, it’s quite close to Bangkok towards the south. We have a post on Ayutthaya here.

Both Ayutthaya and Sukhothai are stunning, however, I’d choose Sukhothai if I could only see one.

1 Day Tours to Northern Thailand

It’s possible to book day tours into northern Thailand in advance. Try these options, they come with a company’s best price guarantee. Find the tour cheaper and they say they’ll refund the difference, please check terms for yourself.

  • A 1 day tour to Chiang Rai from Chiang MaiThis tour picks you up from your Chiang Mai hotel, takes you to the White Temple and Wat Phra That Chedi Luang in Chiang Saen Ancient City  and includes a boat trip on the Mekong River. Check details and pricing here.
  • A small group tour Including Chiang Rai’s White and Blue Temples plus the chilling Black House. (this one is slightly cheaper) This tour again, picks up from Chiang Mai and includes Golden Triangle highlights, White Temple, Blue Temple and Black House. Check details and availability on this tour here.

We hope you find our selection of places to visit in northern Thailand useful. I know this post would have been a big help to us in planning our tours and destinations in the north. A set northern Thailand itinerary is of little real value as of course, everyone is different with different needs and comfort levels, but we’ve done our best to give you an idea of what’s possible in a week, 2 weeks or a month. Enjoy the north, it’s where we spend most of our time in Thailand these days and we will be back for more. Detailed posts are still in production on all of these destinations. Sign up to follow and get them as soon as they’re published. For our general Thailand travel guide, click here. or you can visit our Thailand Travel archives.

If you'd like to hire a car during your stay, use this car rental comparison tool to find the best deal!

We also suggest you take a look at this company to get a quote for all kinds of the more tricky adventure or extended travel insurance.

Try Stayz / VRBO for an alternative way to find rentals on homes/apartments/condos in any country!

About the author
Alyson Long
Alyson Long is a British medical scientist who jumped ship to chase dreams. A former Chief Biomedical Scientist at London's West Middlesex Hospital she started in website creation and travel writing in 2011. Alyson is a full-time blogger and travel writer, a published author, and owns several websites. World Travel Family is the biggest. A lifetime of wanderlust and over 6 years of full-time travel, plus a separate 12 month gap year, has given Alyson and the family some travel expert smarts to share with you on this world travel site. Today Alyson still travels extensively to update this site and continue her mission to visit every country, but she's often at home on her farm in Australia.

9 thoughts on “Visiting Northern Thailand on a Road Trip”

  1. We are an elderly, active healthy couple in our 80s, We are wanting to spend time in northern Thailand with the possibility of visiting our daughter who lives in Vetienne, Laos,
    Have you any suggestions of accommodation, maybe in a reasonably priced resort, we have been to Thailand on a tour and know there are some lovely places to stay,
    Is the train journey from Bangkok north worth doing?

    • The train journey is great Ann but presumably you’d not want top bunks, you’d need to specify two lower bunks. You don’t see much, you’re asleep most of the way, it’s just a fun experience, so maybe for you, no, take a plane. Bouncing around on the train and having to use moving bathrooms may be tricky. Have you looked at the place we stayed at just outside Chiang Rai? Pretty little bungalows in a forest setting, I think it’s in this post, if not it will be in the Chiang Rai one. There are endless nice hotels in and around Chiang Mai too.

  2. We are heading to Northern Thailand in just over a week. We have booked a place in Chiang Mai for when we arrive and are planning to rent a car to explore on our own. Can you offer suggestions on how long we should rent the car for? We have read your posts and are planning to see most of it if the girls are game as we go. We are wondering where you suggest stops for nights and how long. We have driven and lived in Australia for 2017 so hopefully the driving will be easy to pick up again. We have as long as 1.5 weeks to explore up North but we know the weather will be hot and perhaps bad air quality as well.

    • If you go towards Chiang Rai and Mae Salong, 3-4 days is enough, same of you go the other way towards Mae Hong Son. Combining the two…nt sure at this point and I’m on the road right now sorry, can’t check a map. Try to stay ( at least) in Pae, Chiang Rae and Mae Salong. For the other way Pai and Mai Hong Son.

  3. We are planning a 3 week trip to Thailand in June. I will be taking my 3 boys (8, 6, and 5) I am not sure how to pre book/plan everything before we get there (if I didn’t have kids I wouldn’t mind freelancing the trip.) My boys love water and animals.

    • Just book your flights and accommodation using your favourite online booking engines. Taxis will get you around locally very cheaply. Do you need flights or long interal bus or train journeys? If so you can even book those in advance using 12 Go.

  4. This is very informative! A 12 hour bus ride?! I would never think that this would be a suitable journey with kids, but as usual, you’ve inspired me. Stunning photos-must be that new fancy camera. 😉

    • Do you mean the Bangkok to Chiang Mai bus Gillian? It’s 11 hours, it’s quicker than the train. I wouldn’t do it by day but by night I would. We take the sleeper train with the kids. The bus coming back from Sukhothai to Bangkok was 10 hours in the end, but a nice bus, comfortable, no problem. Had we known it would be 19 hours ( they told us 7) we probably would have gone by night rather than day.


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