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A Great Northern Thailand Itinerary Posted by on Apr 28, 2015 in Culture, Travel

Although Thailand is mostly known for sun and sand on the islands or debauchery in Bangkok, the northern part of the country has a lot to offer – motorbike trips, jungle trekking, stunning temples, massive caves and waterfalls, elephant sanctuaries, ruins of ancient capitals, and so much more. Go-go bars and Full Moon parties are great and all, but this is the part of Thailand for those seeking adventure, culture, history, and awe-inspiring landscapes. If you’re like me and you’d rather hike to remote villages than sit on the beach, you’ll love traveling in northern Thailand. Here’s a route that can be completed starting in either Bangkok or Chiang Rai. For those on an extended journey, this can easily be combined with a trip to Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia, or the southern part of Thailand. Headings are links that will take you to more in depth posts about each destination:

Chiang Rai

White and Black in Chiang Rai.

White and Black in Chiang Rai.

Often overlooked by travelers, this northern Thai city is a great first or last stop on a northern Thailand trip, depending on which direction you’re traveling. There’s not a whole lot going on in the city center, but there are plenty of options in the surrounding area. Make sure you visit the “Heaven & Hell of Architecture” at the White Temple and Black House to see two artists’ contrasting visions brought to life. There’s also a solid trekking industry based in town if you want to get out to the ethnic minority villages deep in the jungle. You can find a few interesting temples, a great night market, and plenty of bars and cafes to keep you entertained the rest of the time.

Chiang Mai

Part of the old city wall and the moat.

Part of the old city wall and the moat.

Known as Thailand’s second city and its northern capital, Chiang Mai is one of the most popular and exciting places to visit in the country. It’s a bustling city with plenty of temples, markets, museums, restaurants, and bars, and it’s a great place to base yourself for some adventures. Spend a day or even a few weeks at an elephant sanctuary, cruise up to the hilltop temple Doi Sutthep, lounge by the lake, go rafting, or take flight at one of the zipline courses. If you can, consider planning your trip here to coincide with Songkran, the Thai New Year festival that goes from April 13-15. All of Chiang Mai turns into a massive water fight, and it’s a huge party everywhere you go.

Jungle Trekking

Go for a jungle trek outside of Chiang Mai.

Go for a jungle trek outside of Chiang Mai.

From most of the tourist towns and cities of the north it’s easy to join a trekking group. Treks usually last from one to three days and are a great way to escape from the tourist trail and see a bit of the Thai countryside. On our 3-day trek outside of Chiang Mai, we learned a lot about the jungle, jumped in waterfalls, rode elephants, and stayed in small villages where we had campfires and shared stories over a little Thai whisky.

The Mae Hong Son Loop

Riding along the 1,864 curves.

Riding along the 1,864 curves.

If the open highway beckons to you, consider renting a motorbike and tackling the famed MHS loop. Starting and ending in Chiang Mai, this loop takes you along 1,864 curves through some of the country’s most beautiful landscapes. It’s a long and winding road, but there are plenty of places to stop along the way and stay for a night or more. Stop at the highest point in Thailand, chill by rushing waterfalls, take in some incredible views, explore caves, or party down in the backpacker Mecca of Pai. Some complete the loop in as little as four days, but you’ll have much more fun with a bit more time. We spent ten nights on the road, mostly because we loved Pai so much.

Soppong/Pang Mapha

Caves, trekking, and more in Soppong.

Caves, trekking, and more in Soppong.

Those who are interested in caves need to budget a few days for Soppong. The Australian owner of the Cave Lodge and Co. have been exploring the area’s many caves for decades and lead various strips to them. Visit one at sunset to see the mass exodus of bats and the returning swifts. There are also plenty of walks you can do in the area on your own, or you can sign up for treks to visit some remote villages.

Pai

Lots to do in Pai.

Lots to do in Pai.

People had been telling us we’d love Pai for years, and they were all proven right when we finally went on our last trip to Thailand. Days here can be spent hiking in the canyon, tubing down the river, exploring the surrounding villages, or soaking in hot springs. Nights are full of delicious food, great bars, live music, and the occasional art and music party. If you’re inclined to drum circles, poi spinning, and yoga, be warned – you just might never leave.

Sukhothai

Sukhothai Historical Park

Sukhothai Historical Park

Much smaller and far less crowded than Angkor or Bagan, the ruins of this ancient Thai capital make for a great leisurely day on a bicycle. Anyone interested in Thai history and culture should consider adding this to their itinerary, as it’s an easy fit in between Chiang Mai and Bangkok that really only needs one extra day.

Ayutthaya

Get your history and culture fix.

Get your history and culture fix.

Another option for exploring the ruins of a former kingdom is Ayutthaya. There’s a bit more to see here than Sukhothai, but its proximity to the capital makes it an easy day trip. Tuk-tuk drivers are waiting at the train station and can give you a great tour of the temples with a stop for lunch and have you back in BKK in time for Happy Hour.

Bangkok

Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok

Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok

After that epic adventure in the north, chances are you’ll be a little bit tired when you arrive in the city. Take our advice and give yourself a week here, rent an apartment or at least a decent room, and take it easy. There’s a lot to see in Bangkok, it’s huge, and it’s usually pretty damn hot. Spend your time sightseeing, hitting some of the famous markets, enjoying the culinary scene, and sampling a bit of the city’s infamous nightlife. There’s a lot to see, do, and eat in Bangkok, but we’ll get to that another day.

Here’s an interactive map that shows you the route we took for those who may be interested to see what kind of land this trip covers.

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About the Author:sasha

Sasha is an English teacher, writer, photographer, and videographer from the great state of Michigan. Upon graduating from Michigan State University, he moved to China and spent 5+ years living, working, studying, and traveling there. He also studied Indonesian Language & Culture in Bali for a year. He and his wife run the travel blog Grateful Gypsies, and they're currently trying the digital nomad lifestyle across Latin America.