When visiting the Land of Smiles, people often head straight to Bangkok or hit the idyllic white-sand beaches of Phuket. While nothing is wrong with that, they often miss out on all the beauty northern Thailand offers.
Every Thailand itinerary should include at least a week in the northern region. That way, you’ll get a proper introduction to this area of the country and see the juxtaposition between the impressive mountain ranges and the island lifestyle in the south.
Northern Thailand itinerary: Week 1
Most travelers begin their Thailand adventures in Bangkok due to the abundance of international flights and the ability to access the rest of the country easily.
To start your epic northern Thailand experience, head from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, your home base for the next week.
Chiang Mai: 3 or 4 days
Every northern Thailand travel expert will tell you to base yourself in Chiang Mai. It’s the perfect city to start in because it is much more laid back than Bangkok and will allow you to immerse yourself in Thai culture right from the start.
Begin by exploring the Old City, its ancient walls, and the Old City Gate. They are the most popular attractions in the area, with tons of ancient temples and buildings over 700 years old.
While you are here, be sure to spend time enjoying the Chiang Mai Night Market, one of the most famous in all of Thailand.
Chiang Mai day trips
You can use Chiang Mai as a base while you take some epic day trips.
One day should be dedicated to Doi Inthanon National Park. This national park is home to the highest mountain in Thailand, plus there is a fantastic hiking path along the Kew Mae Pan trail. Additionally, you’ll find Wachirathan and Mae Ya Waterfalls, two stunning cascades that will impress any nature lover.
You can do Doi Inthanon National Park as a day tour or hire a yellow songthaew, a shared taxi, found all over Chiang Mai. It’s about two hours southwest of Chiang Mai.
Another great day trip is to Chiang Dao. Located about 90 minutes north of Chiang Mai, Chiang Dao is known for its spectacular limestone cliffs and magnificent hot springs.
It is also possible to trek through the bamboo forests in Pha Doeng National Park, formerly known as Chiang Dao National Park. It’s an incredible place for bird enthusiasts who can marvel at over 350 different species in this wildlife sanctuary.
You can organize a day trip from Chiang Mai to Chiang Dao or take a shuttle and have the flexibility to create your own schedule and itinerary.
Chiang Rai: 2 days
After spending some time acquainting yourself with the Rose of the North, head from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai.
This sleepy town is known for its abundance of incredible art and exciting history. However, Chiang Rai is most famous for its quirky and impressive temple. The White Temple, Wat Rong Khun, is actually part temple, part art exhibit. There are so many remarkable details in this temple that you’ll want to give yourself plenty of time to wander around and soak it all in.
The Blue Temple is also stunning. This modern temple is painted bright cerulean (hence its name), and the inside is just as bright and interesting.
You could easily spend two days simply walking around the White and Blue Temples, but you want to make sure you leave time to check out the Black House, a collection of wooden houses that feature art by contemporary Thai artists.
Don’t forget to eat all the northern Thai food at the Chiang Rai night market.
Pai: 2 days
Pai, Thailand, is for anyone looking to chill out and relax for a few days.
This charming town has some serious hippie vibes because of its dedication to being green and the abundance of healthy food options.
The best things to do in Pai are to wander the walking street and take in all the beautiful nature around you. In addition, there are hot springs, walking trails, whitewater rafting, and outdoor yoga spots galore.
Pai is about 135 km from Chiang Mai on a seriously windy road. No joke–this road has over 750 twists and turns!
You can get from Chiang Mai to Pai by bus in about three hours.
Northern Thailand itinerary: Weeks 2+
If you have more time to spend in northern Thailand, stick around and explore a few less touristy locations. The Mae Hong Son Loop and the town of Nan are seriously impressive and would be a shame to miss.
Mae Hong Son: 3 to 10 days
After a week of exploring Chiang Mai, Chaing Rai, and Pai, set off on the Mae Hong Son Loop.
No Thailand travel guide is complete without mentioning this 600 km (~375 miles) road trip with hundreds of switchbacks—not a good idea if you are prone to car sickness. The drive can take between three and ten days, depending on how slowly you want to make your way around the loop and how much time you want to spend at each stop.
The best thing to do is rent a car or a motorbike in Chiang Mai and drive yourself along the loop, stopping at what interests you. Along the way, you can see Burmese-style temples, a Mexican sunflower field, and plenty of charming Thai villages.
If you wanted to break up the driving, you could pop into Pai and stay over for a night or two.
If driving in a foreign country isn’t for you, you can get from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son by bus or minivan. You can still take in the stunning landscapes along the way without the stress of driving.
Nan: 2 days
Nan, a unique town in northeastern Thailand, is a fantastic up-and-coming travel destination.
For centuries, the area was an independent kingdom called Nanthaburi, which was left isolated for most of its existence. However, Nan and its surroundings were eventually incorporated into the kingdoms of Lanna in northern Thailand and Burma.
Because of this fascinating history, Nan has tangible ties to its ancient past. You’ll see examples of this all over the city. In addition, Nan has its own White Temple, which rivals the one in Chiang Rai.
It’s straightforward to get from Chiang Mai to Nan. You can grab an economy bus for about $9, which will take around six and a half hours.
If you end your trip here, it is also possible to get from Nan back to Bangkok to explore more of Thailand.
Hill Tribe trek: 2-5 days
If you are an adventure junkie, trekking through the hills of northern Thailand is an ideal addition to your trip.
Several fantastic companies organize two-five day treks through the region with the opportunity to interact with some of Thailand’s ethnic minorities.
Most of the treks leave from Chiang Mai and bring you back to the city once you’ve finished your trip.
This northern Thailand Itinerary is designed to help you see as much as possible in one-two weeks. However, there is so much to this region you could easily spend months exploring and still feel like you haven’t seen it all.
Ultimately, no matter what you do in northern Thailand, you are bound to enjoy yourself and learn about Thai culture. That’s what it’s all about, right?
Yes, so get one before you leave. But don’t be surprised if they don’t ask for it.
Elephant Nature Park, near Chiang Mai, is one of the best elephant conservation centers in the world. Look for places that do not offer riding experiences and keep interactions between the animals and people as natural as possible. They should be able to roam freely around the property and not be hit with bullhooks if they are truly an ethical location.
Late October to February is the best time to visit the country’s northern region. Temperatures average 20-25℃ (~68-77℉) during the day and can dip to 10℃ (~50℉). That is perfect trekking weather, though, and a great time to take advantage of the beautiful mountain ranges in the north. This is also the peak time to visit the waterfalls