Why Northern Thailand?
Northern Thailand is the true charm of the country. The North attracts a different type of tourist, less of the party-goers from the South and more travellers who are really keen to get to know the traditions, land and people. With Thailand being such a popular travel destination, the North isn’t lack of parties and gift shops so you can get the best of both worlds as you venture North.
The Main Stops
Chiang Mai is the first stop in your Northern Thailand trip. Get your dose of temples and laid back Thai charm in Chiang Mai. The Old City of Chiang Mai is enclosed by an ancient wall making a nearly perfect square and grid. With that being said, Chiang Mai is super easy to get around. Grab a map and walk. Everything you need is within these walls.
P.S. You might not want to leave! We stayed 3 + weeks in Chiang Mai and its surroundings!
How to get here
Take the train from Bangkok and get an overnight sleeper. Fan is totally fine if you’re worried about that. Air conditioning gets really ridiculously cold (they crank it UP) so bring winter clothes for the ride. You can also fly into Chiang Mai. Another note, pack food because the train food is pricey. Check out Seat61 for train timetable and pricing for any of your land transport in South East Asia.
What to do
Temple hop, take a Thai cooking class, bathe with elephants, attend a Vipassana meditation course with the monks, go to one of the many big markets in town, enjoy all the lovely cafes and restaurants, catch up on your classics from one of the many bookshops, stay at the Yoga House, and cruise around on your motorbike exploring the surrounding region.
Warorot Market – Tha Phae Rd and Chang Moi Rd – This is the local market where you can buy cheap clothes and fruits. You may also stumble upon sad little turtles being sold for the stir fry (or however they eat them).
Daily Night Bazaar – Chang Khlan Road – Check out the Night Bazaar for all your souvenir needs.
Saturday Night Market – Wualai Road – Same same but different to Sunday’s market. Smaller and also a great place to grab souvenirs. Why don’t you go to both?
Sunday Walking Street Market – Sunday Night Market Walking Street -Rachadamnoen Road, Tha Pae Gate – Make sure you’re in town for the Sunday Walking Street Market. This is right in the center of town by the old wall. It is massive and great for buying more unique Thai souvenirs.
Gecko Books 2/6 Chang Moi Kao Road
Backstreet Books 2/8 Chang Moi Kao Road
Lost Books 34/3 Ratchamankha Road
Shaman Books Kotchasan Soi 1
On the Road 38/1 Ratwitthi Road
We stayed in many different places in Chiang Mai. The story starts at a Helpx Farm house which didn’t work out so we moved into the Old City. The first hotel was dirt cheap, 5 dollars a night and while it did look great at first, some things are just too good to be true. We actually stayed there three nights until one day…the bed bugs came out! We frantically moved over the next few days to two other hotels until we decided to move out to the countryside to the Yoga House.
So moral of the story, don’t book online if you’re booking the super budget options. Check out the hotels in person, carefully looking at the beds. Use Wikitravel on this one.
The Bird’s Nest Cafe – We found this restaurant on THE last day we were in Chiang Mai and we can’t believe there was no recommendation for this place anywhere. It was absolutely delicious. Organic, fresh Thai fusion and Mediterranean food.
Morning Glory Vegan – What a lovely and humble restaurant. The prices were the most fair in town for meals at around $2. The owner is a very vibrant Thai woman who makes a mean black sticky rice with coconut milk and mango. She also hosts a cooking course which I would definitely recommend, you’ll never forget it!
The Tea Tree – A cool place to hangout, make some friends, enjoy a hot cup of chai + a veggie burger, and write in your journal. Oh yeah, they also give great massages. Not everyones scene though – a sort of expat hippie community.
I’m so glad we ventured in the greater Chiang Mai area. This is the real fun. You can take songthaews in Chiang Mai to get around (cheaper than the tuk-tuk which you should avoid if you can! Beware of the tuk-tuk mafia in Thailand!)
Wat Doi Suthep – This was our first venture out of the city. This temple is just a 30 minute motorbike drive out of the city center and up into the small mountain. The temple overlooks all of Chiang Mai and truly has some great views up there. Hords of tourists come to Wat Doi Suthep and the temple has a sign that reads “FOREIGNER PAY THE TICKET!!!” Literally….I’m like no way not if you don’t give a good reason and ask nicely. We walked up the side stairs instead of the main entrance. You can get here by songthaew for about 50 Baht.
Highlight: beautiful gold plated pagoda and panoramic views.
The Yoga House – Jonas stayed here for a full 3 weeks, and I stayed here for 1 and it was just really really peaceful and I finally felt like I had some time to myself to get grounded. You can come stay for even just one day/night at this place. It’s right in the country, just a 20 minute drive out of Chiang Mai and the owner will come pick you up for 2 dollars. If you have some time to enjoy the true village life of Thailand, stay out here for 3 days. Tops off everything else!
The Buffalo Market – Yes, the name is true. This is where they trade buffalos…and elephants. This massive market in the more local outskirts of Chiang Mai sells just about everything from fighting beetles, beta fish, clothes, honey, fruit to elephants. You could spend three full days here and probably not see everything!
The Ganesh Museum – Everything GANESH! Learn about the interconnectdness of Hinduism and Buddhism, the Lord Ganesh and play around in costumes. Great for a fun photo day!
Rumor has it that once upon a time a Japanese hippie was exploring Northern Thailand when he found this beautiful valley named Pai. Oh yeah, and he found shrooms there. So he told a friend who told a friend who told a friend and there you have it. Pai is now a popular travel destination for the hippies and the more alternative crowd who just wanna lay back, drink a chai and eat salad wraps.
How to get here
From Chiang Mai you have essentially 3 options.
- Motorbike. Rent the bike at Aya and nowhere else. Aya is reliable and fair. If you crash the bike without insurance like we did, they won’t charge you for the whole bike just the price it costs to fix. Plus the bikes are reliable. They offer a service where you can leave the bike in Pai if you wish or take it back to Chiang Mai. If you’re confident for the many winds up to Pai (which aren’t that crazy on a bike) then hands down moto is def the way to go! You’ll need a bike in Pai anyways and the drive is just fantastic from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son.
- Minibus. This is probably the most popular option. You need to get to the local bus station – The Arcade Bus Station – and buy your tickets to Pai for the nauseating minibus. The minibuses leave all day and night so you should be fine for times. Ride is only 3 hours but very twisty and these busses hurl up the mountain. However, I am very prone to motion sickness and I didn’t have a problem. Tickets are around $6 each way.
- Local Bus. The local bus is a big bus that is a couple of dollars cheaper. It only leaves once a day at 7am from the Arcade Bus Station. You may not get on as competition is fierce (at least for us). We waited hours for the late local bus then didn’t get a spot. It says online it operates twice a day, but it is only once early in the morning. Bus takes around 4 hours and your chances of throwing up are less.
What to do
Pai is a nice place to just chill out. If you’ve been on the road for awhile and you feel your back needs a break, come to Pai to laze around in a nice bungalow, enjoy the fresh mountain air and scenery, hang out at the lovely cafes and just be. Of course there are other sites in the area if you’ve had enough chilling.
Waterfalls and Hot Springs – There’s a few waterfalls in the area that you can cruise to and take a dip. Just ask your hotel for the map. There’s two hot spring sites – basically one site is expensive next to the resorts and other one is cheap for the backpackers. Be careful on the roads to the waterfalls – they are very bumpy and many travellers fly off on the cracks.
The Land Split – Strangely, one of my Thailand highlights. This is a road stop on the way to one of the waterfalls and you just have to stop. You won’t regret it.
Temples – There’s a big temple in the mountains under construction when I was there. Probably finished when you are there. You will see a Buddha hiding in the trees when you look at the mountain. Nice place to watch the sunset. And if you can get a photo of that Buddha in the bush it would make a great photo.
Chinese Village -The Chinese village is quite touristy but a nice little drive out there if you’re bored. We had fun with the bow and arrows.
I have two tips. If you want to stay some place chill and clean, you need to cross the wee bamboo bridge over the river. On the other side of the river is where the good accommodation is.
Pai Country Huts – We stayed in Pai Country Huts and these were great. Excellent for the more mature who want hotel style bungalows. They get booked out so book a night in advance. They have bungalows for as low as $10.50 a night up to $20. Better than any of the hotels in town.
Cozy Pai – The cheapest in all of Pai and just perfect. Cross the bridge and walk all the way down the path to the last group of bungalows. You’ll see the funny backpacker sign. Bungalow with a double bed near the pond is only $5 – $6 dollars. They also have a super cheap dorm for the solo travellers. The owner is just lovely and the place is clean and quiet.
The Circus – If you’re a fun lover who wants to have a little bit of a crazy unique time in Pai, head to the circus. This place has a pool and free circus lessons in all sort of circussy things! Great place to socialize, play and party.
The Good Life – I went here every morning for breakfast. It’s good value for Pai and the food is great. They have both Thai, Western and fusion. It caters to the organic crowd and they specialize in fermentation. Try their kombucha or their kefir! Yum! You can also take a fermentation class here.
Lemon Thyme Cafe – This humble little cafe is probably often overlooked. It is adorable and the food is pricey even for Pai but well worth it. We had their slow cooked mushroom shakshouka and their pasta. It was 5 star. Impressed. Heard their chai is really good too. Just try it for me.
Art in Chai – Cool hangout especially if you like chai, books and live music. They have a library, art shop, and open mic nights.
Kin J – Took a whole lot to find this place. Ask around. Apprantly if you get there for lunch you can get two dishes + rice for 25 baht ($1)
Once the sun goes down, the market come up. You can find delicious street food wherever you look. The bruschetta stall is super yum!
The Northern Thailand village of Soppong marks the start of cave country. This region is full of an extensive cave network in the mountain’s limestone. If you love caves, you must go to Soppong. Caving adventures are reasonably priced and are organized by an Australian caver at The Cave Lodge. You can take a day tour through Tham Lod with local guides and of course you can go find a cave on your own and make some hikes!
How to get here
You have two options: Minibus or Motorbike.
Definitely most definitely opt for taking a motorbike. Rent one at Aya in Pai and set off. Take it slow at first to get used to the twists and turns. The ride is just beautiful, probably the most scenic and drivable road in South East Asia. There’s hardly anyone else on the road, it’s smooth and you can just enjoy the endlessly rolling mountains.
What to do
Caves – If you want to explore caves and get back to nature, go to Soppong – the home of Tham Lod caves. You can explore Tham Lod with a local guide by bamboo raft and gas lantern. To experience some adventure caving or river rafting book a tour with the Cave Lodge. Or you can always explore caves on your own if you know where to look (take a look at the maps at the Cave Lodge). Make sure you always go with a friend, take at least 2 torches each, bring water, and tell someone where you’re going. However, we didn’t really like the fellow who runs this place. He tried to sell us tours and then shrugged us off when we asked him if he could point us in the right direction for some safe caves to explore on our own.
The Karen Tribe (aka Long Neck Village) – There are a few Karen Tribe refugee camps, AKA Long Neck Village. Going to visit one of these villages is controversial. We couldn’t decide if it was good or bad but didn’t go in the end although we were interested. There is a 5 dollar entry fee for visiting the village and we have heard of people being charged up to $15 as well.
The Cave Lodge – There’s just a few options in town but The Cave Lodge is the most popular. You can meet other travellers and have a lot of fun on some of the caving adventures. Bungalows are quite cheap for less than $10 a night. Caving explorations are around $15.
Camping – We have a tent so we decided to pitch it right in the Tham Lod National Park Headquarters. It was free and absolutely no problem.
The Cave Lodge – For all your needs like pizzas and coconuts. Wish I didn’t have to recommend them so much but there’s not a lot of options in town.
On the highway – On the main highway, there are restaurants and stores. This strip sort of makes the village. You can get a yum Pad Thai out here.
Mae Hong Son, our very favourite part of Thailand. Most people won’t make it to Mae Hong Son and just stop at Pai. This is the real Thailand that doesn’t get many tourists (the Thais come here for holiday!). Get a motorbike and cruise to Mae Hong Son to experience the beauty of the North. The drive itself is worth it.
How to get here
Motorbike or Minibus. Don’t be afraid of the bike!
What to do
Mae Hong Son is a village right on the Thai border with Burma. There is a huge Burmese influence on the town with Burmese temples and ethnic minorities. The village has a cute little lake as the center piece where street markets pop up all around. This is where Thai people come for vacation so it is interesting to go to these markets! The market food is Thai food you won’t see anywhere else. With your motorbike you can explore the surrounding nature, maybe spot a wild elephant, admire waterfalls, go on massive treks, visit the Chinese village, and visit the temples.
Walking street markets – Very interesting, cultural, lively markets. Not selling all the same Thailand genie pants like the rest of the markets in Thailand – but more an array of unique foods and local favourites. We even found an open air cinema that played Thai movies.
Su Tong Pae Bamboo Bridge – Walk across the long bamboo bridge over the rice paddy fields to the temple with rather unique statues and decorations.
Wat Phai Doi Burmese Temple – Make the hike or cruise up to the top of the mountain to appreciate the views out to the village and across the mountains out to Burma. Here’s your taste of Burma.
Pha Sua Waterfall – This waterfall is on the way to Mae Hong Son from Pai
Fish Cave – Another oddity worth a visit. The fish who enter this cave for some unknown reason never leave.
The budget accommodation is by the lake. All the budget hotels are literally on one street. You can find rooms for $5 – $8 here. No need to book in advance.
Friend House – Basic but clean and the cheapest option. It is run by a lovely tribe family.
Johnnies – Friendly owners. The renovated rooms are good value. Easy access to the lake. You can go on 5 day treks with Johnnie.
Grilled fish by the lake – Enjoy a grilled fish by the lake. Popular with the locals. Get one while you can (they go fast!).
The Walking Street Markets – yum yum yum!
Crossroads – Western country biker style. Recommended by Lonely Planet. We liked their pizza.
Cafe off the highway by the rice paddy fields – I don’t know what the name is but it has really beautiful views over the rice paddy fields. You can get a nice iced cocoa, coffee or Thai tea.
Chiang Rai is the center of the Golden Triangle We would have loved to come here but we were just taking it too easy on the Mae Hone Son loop. This is a another border town to Burma and so in Chiang Rai you will experience a very mixed and unique part of Thailand.
Highlights: The White Temple and The Black Temple on opposite sides of town. Get a songthaew to the temples for 50 Baht.
How to get here: Many busses operate out of Chiang Mai from the Arcade Bus Station.
Definitely make a trip up to the North if you’re having any doubts about it. Especially if you are a nature lover! The North has some very special spots! It was a relief after coming from the stressful Bangkok where everything just happened to go not according to plan. I hope this was helpful to anyone planning a trip!
P.S. Thank you Jonas for all your beautiful Northern Thailand photos!
P.P.S. Do you even tourist?
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