08/05/2021 by Alyson for World Travel Family
Don’t stop at Chiang Mai! We think Northern Thailand is one of the best parts and over the last couple of years we’ve been exploring the north by car whenever we get a chance. Below are some suggestions for the best and most beautiful places to visit in Northern Thailand.
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.
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 north east. We also give you some recommendations on accommodation, some budget, some more luxury. If your Thailand trip allows, certainly fit some of these northern Thailand destinations into your itinerary.
Northern Thailand Itinerary
Your northern Thailand itinerary should include Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Pai, Mae Hong Song, Hill Tribes, caves, mountains, and more unusual destinations like Phayao, and Mae Salong. Itinerary tips, ideas, and more information on these places in northern Thailand below.
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.
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 poo.
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.
Where to Stay in Chiang Mai
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 south east) isn’t so nice, you’re better off in the Old Town in our opinion. The Night Bazaar runs every night but the walking streets ( markets) in the Old Town are on weekends.
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 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.
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
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.
Doi Inthanon National Park
Doi Inthanon is Thailand’s highest peak and is in Chiang Mai Province to the south west of the city.
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).
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 serve breakfast and have a reasonably priced outdoor restaurant for the evenings. Check out Pan Kled Villas here.
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)
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 is absolutely huge and breakfast is included. They also have rooms for 2 and deluxe rooms, it’s just footsteps from the water’s edge, take a look at The Cozy Nest here.
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. Sukhothai Historic Park is one of the best and largest historic sites in the whole of Thailand and 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 are cheaper than taking the sleeper train direct from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.
Bangkok to Chiang Mai
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. If you want to find the absolute cheapest price take a look at Hotels Combined here, they compare multiple online booking sites including Booking.com and Hotels.com, but not Agoda, always check them separately. They are Asia specialists and every experience we’ve had with their customer support has been superb. Visit Agoda here. Visit Hotels Combined here.
Northern Thailand Itinerary, 1 Week, 2 Week, a Month?
If time is short you’ll have to choose between travelling north east ( 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. Or course if you visit Sukhothai you should also visit Ayutthaya, the other UNESCO listed Ancient Capitol, but we can’t call that northern Thailand, it’s quite close to Bangkok towards the south. We have a post on Ayutthaya here.
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 it cheaper and they say they’ll refund the difference.
A 1 day tour to Chiang Rai from Chiang Mai. This 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 Private Day Tour Including Golden Triangle and the White Temple from Chiang Mai. This tour again, picks up from Chiang Mai and includes the Golden Triangle, White Temple, and Mekong River. 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.