The Best of Northern Thailand
When planning a trip to Thailand, it can definitely be an overwhelming endeavor. You’ve got the bustle of Bangkok, the white sand beaches in the south and the rolling, green mountains of the north. With so much going on, it’s often difficult deciding where to go, where to stay and what to do! For those looking to explore a little more of the country’s natural, more untouched beauty, there’s no doubt that northern Thailand is on your radar. With stunning natural landscapes, colorful temples, seriously delicious food and unbelievably cheap prices, northern Thailand is in a league of it’s when it comes to Thai travel destinations. After spending a few weeks traveling through this wonderful region, we’ve compiled our highlights from each city in hopes that it helps you plan your next adventure!
No trip to Thailand is complete without a visit to the northern capital of Chiang Mai. The former seat of the Lamma Kingdom lies just a short flight from Bangkok, but it is light years away from the hustle of the busy metropolis. Chiang Mai maintains an extremely laidback vibe, inviting travelers from all over the world. With ancient temples around every corner and vibrant, lush countryside in easy reach, Chiang Mai has something to offer everyone. We spent 5 days exploring Chaing Mai, but could have easily spent a month discovering new, untouched corners of this amazing city.
Situated right inside the ancient city walls sits Hostel by Bed. A super new and well maintained hostel, this place has everything a traveler could ask for. They have spacious and comfortable dorms, offering both single and double beds, which is perfect for traveling couples and also a great way to save money! All the staff are super friendly and can help with everything from sightseeing advice to motorbike rentals and restaurant suggestions. With delicious free breakfast every morning and a killer location, what more could you ask for?
Sights & Activities
With temples around every corner, museums scattered across the city and activities aplenty, Chiang Mai always has something going on. Whether you’re in the market for exploring waterfalls, interacting with elephants, taking a cooking class or just wandering the countless side streets of the old city, there’s plenty on deck. While we certainly weren’t able to tackle everything the city had to offer, here are a few of our favorites!
Saturday Night Market
Lucky for us, our first night in Chiang Mai was a Saturday, so it was only natural that we make our way through the craziness that is the Chiang Mai Saturday night market. Linking up with our friends @theloveandadventure we indulged in total sensory overload. With vendors selling everything from counterfeit goods and handmade soaps to religious paintings and all sorts of food - the night market is a total riot. If you find yourself in Chiang Mai on Saturday you’ve got to make sure to check it out.
Bua Thong Waterfall
Located about an hour from Chiang Mai via motorbike sits the natural wonder that is Bua Thong Waterfall. Unofficially called “Sticky Waterfall”, the falls really are a wonder of nature. Unlike pretty much every other waterfall in the world that is super slick and slippery, Bua Thong has UNREAL grip! Thanks to the result of a special calcium deposit that sits on the rock, you are able to climb all the way from the bottom to the top with ease. Easily reached by a hired taxi or motorbike, Bua Thong is an awesome little day trip definitely worth doing.
In the market for some super rad vintage clothes? Then look no further because this is your place. This vintage store in the old city literally has everything that you could ever dream of - from throwback NASCAR jackets to sequin clothes and army gear, this place has it all. Since we have to carry everything that we own in backpacks, we didn’t actually end up buying anything, but if you’re not as ‘bag conscious’ as us, you’ll want to go nuts!
Visiting temples is one of the most popular activities in Chiang Mai, and for good reason! With something like over 300 Wat (‘temple’ in Thai) in the city, you could literally visit a new temple each day for almost a year. However, during our time in Chiang Mai we chose not to actually go inside any of the temple grounds. We have seen so many during our four months of travels and we’re feeling a bit “temples-out”. However, because the city is flooded with them we were able to admire the temples in passing and observe the monks going about their daily activities. If you’re planning a visit to Chiang Mai for some temple exploration, you can find some more information here.
It seems like every street in Chiang Mai is filled with all types of food imaginable. Ranging from mouth-watering curries and fried rice to enormous burgers and surprisingly authentic Mexican food, there’s plenty to eat here. Here’s a few of our favorite food spots that we found during just a few of our meals!
Saturday Night Market
Like any night market, the one in Chiang Mai is a food lovers paradise. With stalls lining the streets offering everything from pad Thai and curry, to fried chicken and burritos, there’s something on deck here for everyone. Just a heads up - sometimes the wait times can be brutal so come prepared with an appetite and some patience to match 🙂
Per the recommendation of a friend, we went for lunch at Delish Kafe and boy are we glad we did! Serving up some incredible traditional Thai dishes, this place will not disappoint. While the spring rolls and ginger chicken were absolutely on point, the dish that took the cake for us was the Massaman curry. This was easily the best curry we’ve had throughout our two months in Thailand, and because of it we cannot recommend Delish Kafe highly enough! If you only have one meal to eat in Chiang Rai, the Massaman curry from Delish Kafe needs to be it.
Every once in a while out on the road you get a craving for a certain type of food that you can’t shake - for Joel, that food is almost always Mexican food. After hearing that Salsa Kitchen had some of the best Mexican food in Thailand, we couldn’t wait to try it for ourselves. Although we were definitely bummed that they had run out of guacamole before we arrived, everything else about the meal was fabulous and authentic. The chips and queso were delicious, the burritos were humongous and the margaritas nice and strong 😉 If you’re looking for a good little taste of Mexico in Thailand, this is a surefire bet.
Without a doubt, indulging in a massage is one of Thailand’s most affordable and most enjoyable attractions. If you’ve ever visited Thailand then you’re familiar with it, but for those who haven’t - it’s really quite amazing. It seems like on nearly every block in every city across Thailand there are at least two massage parlors (and that’s a conservative estimate). For the equivalent of less than $10, a masseuse will stretch and massage your body in ways that you didn’t even know were possible. Chiang Mai is well known for it’s countless massage parlors, so we knew we had to try out a few for ourselves. Here are our top three massage experiences from our time there!
Out of all the massage spots in the city, this one definitely wins the award for coolest story. Staffed completely by recently released female prisoners, this massage center offers great services for a great cause. Here the workers not only give excellent massages, but are also able to build valuable vocational skills that will allow them to secure steady and honest work in the future! The massages are great, prices are cheap and the message behind them is even better. With a few locations across the city we would definitely recommend stopping by for an hour or two, you definitely won’t regret it.
On the upmarket side of the Chiang Mai massage spectrum is Fah Lanna Spa. Although they have a decently corny catchphrase with “Easy to Find, Hard to Forget” it absolutely holds true. A luxury spa experience from start to finish, this was hands down the most extravagant massage we had in Chiang Mai. So, if you’re looking for a bit of a splurge while you’re in town, this could be your spot! Since it tends to be pretty busy, we would definitely recommend booking a few days in advance to help secure an appointment.
Our final recommendation for a massage in Chiang Mai is from Green Bamboo Massage. Located in the southeastern corner of the old city, this place has gained a cult following and for good reason. Offering super well priced massages (250/300 Baht for a 1 hr. Thai/Oil Massage), it almost seems to good to be true. Luckily, it’s not. We were fortunate enough to get a walk in one evening, and after our finishing our session we immediately booked another one for the following day. It was so good that we had to go back for seconds, and we bet that if you try it out you’ll probably feel the same way too 🙂
The town of Pai is almost something of an urban legend amongst travelers in Thailand. Tales of laid back vibes, beautiful bungalows, vegetarian food and cheap beers circulate the backpacker community around the area. While these things might seem too good to be true, they’re not. The small town of Pai has grown into a traveler’s haven and deservedly so. Situated about 3.5 hours northwest of Chiang Mai, just a stones throw from the Burmese border sits the idyllic Pai in all of its mountain valley glory. A hippie town surrounded by green hills on all sides and activities to keep everyone happy, it’s the perfect place to kill a few days while traveling through the north.
Since Pai has grown into a more popular tourist destination in recent years, getting there has never been easier. Hands down the best jumping off point is Chiang Mai, although the drive up consists of a stomach-turning collection of mountain roads. A little advice: if you tend to get carsick, grab yourself a spot up front and load up on some motion sickness meds, it’ll make your life much better. If you visit nearly any tourist information booth/booking service in the city they should be able to set you up with an air-conditioned minivan up to Pai. The cost is a mere 200 Baht and will often times pick you up from your lodging within the old city in Chiang Mai, making getting to Pai as easy as pie.
Given Pai’s epic boom in tourism there are TONS of options for accommodations in town. There are a number of super well priced hostels and hotels right in town, with a lot of options spilling outside the town center as well. If you want to be in the middle of the action closer to the walking street, restaurants and bars, staying in town is your best bet. However, if you’re looking for a little solitude and relaxation, you’ll want to head across the river. Linked by a questionably strong but seriously authentic bamboo bridge, the opposite side of the Pai River is the sweet spot.
During our time in Pai, we stayed at Pai Country Hut and seriously couldn’t have been any happier with our lodging. Literally a stones throw across the river from the main drag, these epic bamboo bungalows have everything that you could ever need. Offering pristine bungalows with or without a private bathroom, they’re super comfortable and a seriously awesome value for your money. Helpful staff, a very basic but free breakfast and uber tranquil front porches make it easy to spend your day swinging in the hammock and lounging the day away. They tend to get booked out pretty quickly during high season so it definitely pays to book in advance!
Sights & Activities
Since Pai is located in arguably the single most beautiful mountain valley in all of Thailand, it’s only fitting that there are endless things to stay entertained with while visiting! From hiking and cliff jumping, to relaxing in natural hot springs and exploring the countryside via motorbike, the area offers endless fun. No matter what you’re in the mood for, there’s bound to be something that excites.
Pam Bok Waterfall
Given the surrounding mountains it only makes sense that there are a good handful of waterfalls worth visiting close to Pai. Our favorite was Pam Bok Waterfall, reached by an easy 20 minute scooter ride through the countryside. Even though we visited during the dry season, the falls were still absolutely beautiful and made for a great spot to cool off from the heat. There’s even a little option for cliff jumping if you’re feeling extra adventurous too 😉
Another super popular activity for anyone visiting Pai is soaking in one of the regions handful of natural hot springs. It’s the perfect way to start off or end your day, and with a few natural pools easily reached under an hour by bike, it’s a refreshingly easy activity.
Tha Pai Hot Spring is the closer option to town, and therefore tends to get a lot more tourist traffic. No less beautiful as a result, the springs here are an awesome way to unwind after a full day of sightseeing. There are a number of pools with varying temperatures of water, so there’s definitely something for everyone’s heat tolerance. However, it is worth noting that there is a fairly steep entrance fee at around 300 Baht per person, but in our opinion it was well worth the money.
The other hot spring we visited, Sai Ngam Hot Spring, was a little further from the city and much more secluded as a result, which we definitely enjoyed. About 45 minutes by bike from the center of town, it’s a fun, winding drive that is just as beautiful as the springs themselves. When we went there were barely any other foreigners there which was nice, but the national park officers shook us down for a pretty hefty entrance fee so beware of that. However, despite paying more than we expected, the springs were super pleasant and made for the perfect ending to our day of adventuring.
An equally popular and curious tourist attraction in the area is the Pai Land Split. Located on some private land of a local farmer, it’s a really interesting and cool spot worth checking out. A few years ago this farmer’s land just started to separate, and over the course of the last 10 years or so, has caused an epic little canyon to form in his backyard! It’s right on the way to Pam Bok Waterfall, and is a sweet spot to wander around for an hour or so during your day. Entrance fee is donation based so only pay what you want, but with how sweet the farmer and his family are, we think it’s definitely worth a few of your Baht 🙂
Another great spot in easy reach of town is the Pai Canyon. Although it isn’t quite as grand as the Grand Canyon back home, it’s still pretty awesome. The west-facing view provides the perfect backdrop for a sunset photo shoot, but be prepared for the crowds because it seems like nearly everyone else has the same idea. Despite the masses, it’s still possible to find a nice little secluded spot and after a short hike, you’ll forget that they’re even there.
Huai Di Mi Lake
Our final recommendation for sights in Pai is Huai Di Mi Lake. Although nothing spectacular or mind blowing by any means, it stole our hearts while we were there and here’s why: There was no one else there! After spending 4 days in Pai, we were itching to escape the crowds and this was definitely the place to do it. Surrounded by green farmlands and rolling mountains, Huai Di Mi is something that could easily be made into a postcard. Only a short motorbike from town, it makes for a perfect, relaxing picnic spot.
It seems like the number of restaurants in Pai is somehow infinite. Walking down the street, we noticed a new place every day, and certainly weren’t upset about having so many options. Most places offer similar dishes at similar prices and tend to do a pretty good job. However, there were a few spots that stuck out to us that you might enjoy trying during your visit 🙂
If you’re looking for a delicious, greasy, American-style burger go no further. Just off the main drag in the center of town, this place offers up some of the best hamburgers we’ve had in Asia. If you’re into spicy food they do a super delicious spicy burger, and definitely make sure to get an order of the French fries with garlic mayo, you won’t regret it! It’s a bit expensive compared to some of the Thai options around, but you definitely get what you pay for.
Walking Street/Night Market
During the tourist season, a night market springs up in the evenings, and tends to be the main nighttime activity in town. The streets fill with vendors selling everything from souvenirs and handicrafts to street food and likely the biggest avocados on the face of the earth. The food stalls here are incredible and definitely have something for every set of tastebuds. Pad Thai, bacon Mac and cheese, Indian samosas, burritos and waffles. You name it, you can probably find it. Our absolute favorite was the gyoza stand, it was so delicious we actually went back three nights in a row!
If you find yourself hungry while driving to the Sai Ngam hot spring, this should definitely be your stop for food. A super quaint little roadside diner just off the highway, they offer some great food and incredible views too. The food is simple, cheap and delicious - what more could you ask for! Plus, the staff are super kind and might invite you to check out the little waterfall in their backyard too!
Lemon Thyme Cafe
Our final food recommendation comes for the ultimate brunch spot in town. If you consider yourself a hardcore brunch-er (we definitely were in college lol), this is a must try. This little cafe right in town has a killer menu offering up some seriously delicious sandwiches, coffee and eggs Benedict too. Lemon Thyme Cafe makes for a great spot to have a leisurely morning meal, and their sidewalk tables are pretty awesome for people watching too. Give it a shot and let us know what you think!
Situated in the northern tip of the country close the border of Myanmar, lies the gem of a city, Chiang Rai. Often overlooked by it’s neighbor to the south, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai is a beautiful and laid-back city, begging for exploration. Known for its extremely photogenic White Temple, Chiang Rai is full of intriguing sights, delicious northern Thai food and seriously excellent vibes. Here is our guide to exploring some of what this amazing city has to offer!
Airport, transportation info, vans, etc.
Like many of the popular destinations in northern Thailand, getting to Chiang Rai is extremely hassle free. There are a number of private companies offering van/taxi services to Chiang Rai, with most using Chiang Mai as their starting point. Since we left from Pai, the van we took stopped in Chiang Mai first (roughly halfway) and then continued on north to Chiang Rai. While the journey from Pai was a long 7 hour van ride, with a cost of only 500 Baht, it turned out to be reasonable given the mileage covered. We used Aya Service, a stellar transportation company, and would definitely recommend them to anyone looking to make the trip! Just as we mentioned in the section about Pai, the ride itself can be a bit nauseating, so if you get motion sickness we highly advise sitting up front.
Depending on where you’re coming from, flying into Chiang Rai’s airport, CRX might be a good option as well. Located only 8 kilometers north of Chiang Rai, the city’s airport is an awesome option if you’re pressed for time or looking to avoid a viciously long bus ride. Multiple budget airlines operate daily flights across the country, making jetting down south towards the islands or hopping back to Bangkok extremely easy.
Forever on the lookout for budget friendly sleeping options, we ended up staying at Mercy Hostel and absolutely loved it. With both private rooms and dorms available, Mercy hostel makes for an awesome accommodation choice. It’s in a super convenient location just walking distance from tons of attractions, which makes it an excellent base for exploring the city! It’s got a great common area and outdoor patio, complete with a pool which was an awesome place to relax with a beer after a long day. We ended up meeting some super cool people and having an overall excellent experience at Mercy, and would definitely recommend it to anyone visiting Chiang Rai.
Sights & Activities
When most people think of visiting Chiang Rai, there is one main attraction that comes to mind: the ultra-famous and incredibly photogenic White Temple. While this is without a doubt the region’s most visited attraction, there are tons of other spots worth checking out if you’ve got the time! Here are some of our favorites:
Wat Rong Khun (White Temple)
Obviously, we will begin our Chiang Rai sights list with the White Temple. Hands down the region’s most famous attraction and likely most photographed structure, the White Temple draws crowds from all over the world and for good reason. An extremely ornate, and avant garde work of art, it’s seriously unlike any other temple in the world. From human hands reaching up out of the ground to images of Hello Kitty and the Matrix, there’s so much going on with this structure. We could honestly write an entire post dedicated solely to this incredibly interesting temple. It’s beautiful, complicated and simply just one of those things you have to see yourself to understand.
Since it has grown into arguably one of the country’s most popular sights, the crowds can definitely be overwhelming. We would highly suggest going either early or late in order to avoid them. We opted to visit super early in the morning for sunrise, and were able to have a few peaceful minutes before the masses arrived. Wat Rong Khun opens at 8:00 a.m, so it’s not a bad idea to get there a few minutes before to secure a spot in line (trust us, there will be a line). Luckily, it’s an easy 20/30 minute scooter from town with an entrance fee of only 50 Baht per person, so it’s a no brainer must-see. Our words here won’t do the White Temple the justice it deserves, so you’ll just have to check it out for yourselves 🙂
Baandam Museum (The Black House)
Another one of the area’s more well known attractions is the Baandam Museum, which literally translates to ‘The Black House’. A truly unique museum curated by Thai artist Thawan Duchanee, the Baandam Museum exists as a stark juxtaposition to the White Temple. A short drive north of Chiang Rai (opposite from the White Temple), The Black House holds a truly unique collection of art. Fashioned mostly from the bones, skins, furs and skulls of various animals, it’s a seriously wild museum. It definitely has a uniquely dark and somewhat grotesque vibe to it and might be a bit upsetting for those serious animal lovers out there. The entrance fee is only 80 baht, so it’s definitely worth visiting to decide for yourself whether or not it’s your artistic cup of tea.
If you find yourself in Chiang Rai on the weekend, it’s a pretty safe bet that you’ll end up walking through the night market once the sun goes down. Strolling through seemingly endless rows of street eats, handmade souvenirs, second-hand clothes and counterfeit speakers, it makes for a great Saturday night (and a delicious one too!). Located just a block away from the Clocktower in town, it’s an easy and fun night out in the city.
Pong Phra Bat Waterfall
Like the rest of the beautiful, mountainous region that is northern Thailand, Chiang Rai province is home to a collection of awesome waterfalls. Out of the handful of falls in close proximity to town, we chose visit Pong Phra Bat and couldn’t have been happier with our choice. A quick 30-45 minute ride from town, this gem of a waterfall is the perfect place to spend an afternoon. After a quick, but slightly rocky (we would advise some footwear other than flip flops) 1 kilometer hike past some smaller cascades, you will reach the main falls. There’s no entrance fee, making this definitely one of the best AND cheapest sights around Chiang Rai. Additionally, we were the only tourists among locals, which is a nice break from the usual tourist trail.
Wat Rong Suea (The Blue Temple)
Along with The White Temple and The Black House, The Blue Temple stands as another heavily colored attraction worth checking out. Located in town just across the river, this temple is absolutely the bluest of them all. Decked out from top to bottom in the most royal blue you could ever imagine, Wat Rong Suea was a pleasant surprise for us. Although it was under construction when we visited, given the incredible Thai work ethic, we’d be surprised if it wasn’t already finished by the time you read this.
Wat Huay Plakang- 9 Tier Temple and The Giant Buddha
Last but most certainly not least on our list is Wat Huay Plakang. Often referred to by it’s literal moniker, the 9 Tier Temple, it’s a seriously impressive Buddhist temple. We found it completely on accident one day when driving through the countryside. BAM! There it was in all of its glory: An enormous white Buddha statue and crazy, 9 story-tall pagoda situated at the top of a mountain. A quick little bike ride from town, we would absolutely recommend stopping by if you’ve got some time to spare in Chiang Rai. Plus, if you visit at the right time, like we did, you might even be able to score some free noodles from the stand across the parking lot 🙂
Tasty Beef Restaurant (Best Beef Noodles We’ve Ever Had)
After reading a few blogs and doing a bit of online research, we stumbled across what was described as “the best beef noodles in Thailand”. After falling in love with beef noodle soup in China and having our fair share of the dish since then, we knew we had to give it a try. Just a minute’s walk west from the Clocktower, Tasty Beef Restaurant serves up some seriously mean bowls of beef noodle soup. Rich broth, tender beef, hearty noodles and walls plastered with the pictures of satisfied customers, this place is the real deal. This soup was definitely some of the best we’ve tasted in our travels, and we would definitely say that it deserves a visit. Just one thing: do yourself a favor and order the big size, you wont regret it.
Hungry Wolf’s Steak & Ale House
If you happen to get a craving for a solid western meal while visiting Chiang Rai, this is definitely your spot. Cooking up everything from steaks and sandwiches to ribs and seafood, Hungry Wolf’s is THE spot for good western food in town. While the prices tend to be a little on the higher end, at Hungry Wolf’s you definitely get what you pay for. The service is beyond excellent, and they also have a killer selection of draft beers on tap too, which is a nice change of pace from usual Chang. So go ahead, splurge a little and get yourself that IPA you’ve been thinking about!
From the breathtaking temples, to the lush countryside, the delicious food and the unbelievable massages, northern Thailand really has it all. It’s captured the hearts of countless visitors over the years, and after spending a few weeks exploring its beauty, we completely understand why. From the laidback vibes of Pai to the temples of Chiang Mai and the bustling night markets in Chiang Rai, we were blown away by all that this amazing region has to offer. The time that we spent traveling through northern Thailand is some that we will never forget, and we hope that this guide helps you have the same unforgettable adventures that we did! If you have any questions or comments please reach out to us! We would love to connect with you.
Yours in Adventure,
Marla and Joel