A trip to explore the cultural and historical side of Thailand can be very rewarding. Whereas the southern islands might get the spotlight, the north has arguably more to offer. This North Thailand Itinerary gives you a route that explores ancient cities, beautiful temples and much more. Starting in Bangkok it leads you north and covers several stops during a 2 to 3 week period.
Thailand is a wonderful country for travellers to explore. Its well established on the Southeast Asian backpacking trail. There is plenty of infrastructure here for those who wish to travel the country. Generally the way to get around is by mini van or bus. There are some rail lines too, and this North Thailand Itinerary does utilise them. You can find plenty of hostels, guesthouses and hotels. Thai food is of course well known for being tasty and affordable, and the people are friendly too. Overall Thailand is a really great place to investigate and journey around.
This North Thailand Itinerary specifically looks at what is considered the ‘northern’ route. Technically the first couple of stops are classed as ‘The Central Plains’ when talking about the geography of Thailand. However generally for travel purposes Thailand is usually divided into the North (Bangkok and up) and the south (focused around the islands). There is also the east though it’s not as well visited as the other parts.
The main attraction about the northern route is exploring the culture and history of Thailand. It gives some good opportunities to enjoy nature too, especially around the most Northern points.
The route and recommend time
This North Thailand Itinerary starts in the capital Bangkok. It then heads north from there. It ends in Chiang Rai, though you will need to return to Chiang Mai or Bangkok to catch a flight out. Unless your planning to head to Laos, in which case I talk about doing that later. For each stop on this North Thailand Itinerary I have given the amount of nights I recommend spending there. This is obviously for you to amend as you please. I am a strong believer in not rushing too fast when travelling. Especially when visiting several places, I think it’s good to slow down a bit and enjoy them. Especially when having busy days, it’s important to get some rest so you don’t burnout.
I have highlighted some of the activities and attractions in each stop. When appropriate I’ve given some personal recommendations about where to stay and eat. This is based on my own experiences, and what I’ve enjoyed. I’ve only selected places that stood out for me.
You will find details about how to get from place to place in italics. There are 3 methods of transport used to get between these stops. They are train, mini van and bus. If you want to check train times have a look at Thailand’s state railway website. As for mini vans and buses, they are best checked locally. Generally hostels in Thailand can book your mini van or bus ticket to your next destination. Its good to go through them as it adds extra security as the staff will sort everything for you. Otherwise just turning up at a bus station is normally fine, there are usually plenty of buses running.
The 6 main stops on this North Thailand Itinerary are:
- Bangkok (3 to 4 nights)
- Ayutthaya (1 to 2 nights)
- Sukhothai (2 nights)
- Chiang Mai (up to 6 nights)
- Pai (up to 4 nights)
- Chiang Rai (2 to 3 nights)
At the end of this North Thailand Itinerary I have also included information in regards to heading to Laos, should that be your next stop. I have also included 2 additional stops you can add in if you have the time.
Bangkok – 3 or 4 nights
The capital of Thailand, Bangkok is the obvious starting point for this trip. In fact its an obvious starting point for any trip to Southeast Asia, as I’ve said in my Southeast Asia itinerary. With it’s international airport connections it’s within reach of anywhere in the world, many places flying either direct of with only 1 connection.
The Highlights of Bangkok:
- Bangkok Grand Palace and Wat Pho
- China Town
- Khao San Road
- Malls and Markets
Starting you trip
After arrival an settling into your accommodation, the first cultural exploration of this North Thailand Itinerary can begin. The Bangkok Grand Palace and Wat Pho are located next to each other and make for a great introduction to Thailand’s temples. These two are my ‘must see’ recommendation for the city. They offer a great introduction to Thai Buddhist culture. The Palace in particular is impressive with it’s massive statues and Buddhist artworks. And at Wat Pho you can find a huge Reclining Buddha as well as some nice Chedi’s and statues.
Bangkok’s China Town is one of the largest in the world. You will find many restaurants and a large marketplace full of interesting stalls. Wat Traimit with it’s Golden Buddha is a good temple to visit here. The statue is 3 meters tall and made from solid gold.
Khao San Road is the backpacking hub in the city. Any given evening you will find it an it’s surrounding area filled with backpackers. There are loads of bars and restaurants here. Whilst it can have somewhat of a negative reputation, in my view it’s worth a visit. Not necessarily because it’s actually representative of Thailand at all, but for it’s atmosphere. Its a good place to meet other backpackers and pick up any supplies you need. And there are loads of hostels in the area too.
Exploring Bangkok further
Heading into central areas you can find some of Bangkok’s well known shopping malls. The MBK centre, Siam Paragon and Siam Square are all close to one another. The Sukhumvit area is popular for shopping too, as well as it’s nightlife. Regardless of whether you want do any shopping or not, coming here gives you a great insight into life in the Thai capital.
Don’t overlook Bangkok’s parks when your in the city. Lumphini Park is central and a great place to spot Monitor Lizards. It has some nice views with the skyscrapers looming in the background across the park’s lakes. Rot Fai park in the north of the city is pleasant too, and it’s near to the Chatuchak weekend market. As the name suggests, yes it is indeed only open at the weekends. It has loads of different things on sale as well as places to eat and drink.
Hostel and Food Recommendations:
If you want to stay in the backpacker area around Khao San Road then Khaosan Immjai is a great option. Its dorms are decent and it’s a few minutes walk way from the actual Khao San Road. Should you want somewhere quieter then I suggest Cozy Bangkok Place. It has a very relaxed feel and is much quieter. For a start no drunks wandering in after partying late on Khao San Road! It is near to the train station and a MRT stop too, so good for transport.
Food wise I don’t think the food around Khao San Road is that good. Bangkok is obviously famous for it’s street food, but you might be disappointed if all you experience is around there. Try other places as well such as China Town, Ratchawat market and around Sukhumvit. The shopping malls usually have food halls which do decent and cheap meals. I’ve eaten in several across Bangkok and thought overall the quality was ok, worth the price.
Ayutthaya – 1 or 2 nights
The Kingdom Of Ayutthaya was one of the predecessor’s to modern day Thailand, and the city of Ayuttaya was at its heart. Originally founded in 1351 it played a vital role throughout the regions history. In 1767 the city was burned by invading Burmese forces. They looted the city for all the wealth they could find and left it ruined. Today the remains of it are what comprise the Ayutthaya Historical Park. This is the next stop on this North Thailand Itinerary. It’s a really interesting place to visit with some amazing temples to look at. Look out for the Buddha head in tree roots – that’s a popular photo spot! Take note also of all the decapitated Buddha statues. The Burmese chopped their heads off looking for gold.
There is a modern town now around the historical park. Here you can find plenty of guesthouses and restaurants. As well as a train station, it’s about 2 and half hours from Bangkok to get here. Whilst the train is slow the fares can be very cheap, it’s a good budget way to travel here. Whether you spend 1 or 2 nights is up to you. If you are rushed then you can do the park in a day, arrive as early as you can and head straight out. Take the bus or train to the North Thailand Itinerary the next morning. Otherwise take an extra night so you can take your time and explore fully.
Sukhothai – 2 nights
As with Ayutthaya, the Sukhothai Kingdom was also important in Thailand’s history. It existed from 1238 until 1438, and eventually became part of the Ayutthaya Kingdom. There are a lot of temples to see here, it will take a full days exploring to get around the park. There is also a museum that has some interesting artefacts.
Today the city is divided into two. The Sukhothai Historical Park is where you can view the ruins of the old city. Its 12km away from New Sukhothai, which is a modern Thai town. Take a Songthaew from the bus station to reach the park.
I’ve recommended 2 nights as to get here will take several hours from Ayutthaya. Arriving late it’s best to visit the park the next day. You can either take the train here, changing at Phitsanulok for a bus. Or you can take a mini van/bus straight here. The same applies to reach the next stop on this North Thailand Itinerary. To get to Chaing Mai either go to Phitsanulok and get the train or take a bus/van direct.
Chiang Mai – 6 nights
The city of Chiang Mai is the jewel of Thailand’s north. Its a cultural hub and full of temples, cafes and restaurants. The area has some great natural beauty to explore too. This is why I’ve allocated 6 nights to Chiang Mai, its really is a nice place to spend some time. If your time to complete this North Thailand Itinerary is limited i’d suggest that you still allocate at least 4 nights (including arrival) for the city.
The Highlights Of Chiang Mai:
- The Elephant Nature park
- Jungle and Hill Tribes
- Food and Cafes
There are loads of temples to explore in Chiang Mai. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep (aka Doi Suthep) is a popular half day trip. Its located on the mountain Doi Sutep outside the city. You can find red songthaew’s that head here from the city. Huay Kaew Road is a good place to catch one from. The temple area also has some nice gardens worth a walk around.
Wat Chedi Luang is at the historic centre of the city. It was first constructed in the 14th century. One of the highlights here in the Monk’s who chat to visitors. They like to practice their English so invite people to join them daily for discussions about Buddhism and life in general
The 700-year-old temple Wat Umong is outside of the main city centre to it’s advisable to catch a tuk tuk to visit it. It’s a forest area which makes for a pleasant relaxed atmosphere. There are a few things to see, including a Chedi, some Buddhist caves, interesting artwork and a peaceful pond area. Look out for the black statue of the Fasting Buddha.
Other’s to look for in the city are Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chiang Man. I found the latter to be quite visually striking, it’s black and gold Chedi’s particularly caught my eye.
The Elephant Nature Park
Unfortunately the Southeast Asia region is rife with Elephant abuse. The animals are tortured to make them accept people riding on them or to perform tricks etc. However there are some ethical places to see Elephants who are free from this. Run by the Save Elephant Foundation, the Elephant Nature Park is a elephant rescue and rehabilitation centre. Its a fantastic place to see and interact with Elephants. It works to combat abuse of Elephants in Asia and give a home to those it’s recused and their children.
You can take a day trip to visit or spend longer. They have an office in Chiang Mai that you can visit to find out details. This is a very popular activity so you might want to book online first to not miss out. Check out there website to see what’s available. Note that link also shows the other projects they operate. So make sure you’ve selected the correct one to visit from Chiang Mai.
Into the jungle
Doi Inthanon is the highest peak in Thailand, and the national park around it has some excellent walking trails through the jungle. From Chiang Mai you can visit the park for a trek. There are various options for this, I just did a day one but you can choose 2 nights, 3 nights or longer! The jungle is good to explore and there are some greet waterfalls in the area. There are also various hill tribes who make the region their home. These are the ethnic minority groups that inhabit the mountainous North and Western parts of Thailand. During my trek we had a Karen guide and we visited a Karen village. To do a trek check out the various operators around Chiang Mai. I of course recommend you avoid any that offer Elephant Riding.
Hostel and Food Recommendations:
My favourite ever restaurant is located in Chiang Mai, so naturally recommend it you. It’s a vegetarian places but even if your not check it out, the food tastes great. Well at least it did when I visited! It’s named Taste From Heaven and it has a huge range of dishes available. I also really like the J Station Vegetarian Restaurant. This is a ‘Jay’ style restaurant meaning it follows a particular Buddhist style of veganism. The dishes are cheap and really good. There are loads of other good restaurants found inside the city walls too. keep a look out and see what you find. In my personal opinion the food on offer in Chiang Mai is the best you will find whilst following this North Thailand Itinerary.
There is also a good cafe culture in Chiang Mai. Whilst I don’t have a particular place to recommend, I think if your a fan of sitting around enjoying a drink you’ll be pleased here. And by drink I mean both alcoholic and non!
If your visiting on Sunday then check out the evening market (also known as Walking Street). Its runs from the centre of the walled city to the Eastern side. It starts at 4pm and has loads of different food stalls. The Night Bazaar is a popular place for shopping in Chiang Mai and it has street food options and a good food court too. Find it to the east of the walled city around Chang Khlan Rd.
In terms of hostels the city is full of places to stay. I would advise you stay inside the old city walls as this is the most pleasant part of the inner city area. And it’s also the most convenient in terms of waking to attractions and restaurants.
Pai – 4 nights
Found in the mountains, the backpacker town of Pai is a great place to relax for a few days. Spend your day visiting waterfalls and hot springs. And your evenings enjoying street food and the towns chilled out bars. This part of the North Thailand Itinerary is all about chilling out and taking it easy. That’s why I’ve allocated 4 nights here. If your pushed for time then you could reduce it 2 if your happy pack your days in with activities and leave out the relaxation. And if you have an open schedule you can easily spend more days here.
The Highlights Of Pai:
- Pai Canyon
- Waterfalls and Hot Springs
- Lod Cave
- Taking It Easy
A few kilometres outside the city, Pai Canyon is a great sunset spot. It can be visited during the day too there is just little shade and it’s very hot! Its a fun place to walk around (tip: flip flops won’t cut it here) and enjoy the valley views. The hillside White Buddha statue is another popular sunset place. Many people come here in the evening to watch the sun go down behind the mountains.
Two of the best waterfalls to visit are the Mor Paeng Waterfall and thePam Bok Waterfall. The former in particular has some really nice views. In terms of Hot Springs the Tha Pai Hot Springs are the most well known and popular option. There are several layers to this, some of which you can bathe in. Some levels are simply to hot for that! There are also the ‘Secret Hot Springs‘ which have a much more natural feel to them. They are much cheaper too. Find out from the local tour guides where they are.
Lod Cave is a fair distance out of Pai and often included as part of a day tour. Its a great cave to visit, especially at sunset for the swallows flying around. This huge cave has 3 sections that you will be guided through by a local guide with a lantern. This includes a bamboo boat ride through one section. As well as the caves natural features and it’s bats, you can see evidence of prehistoric inhabitants including (very faded) cave art and burial coffins. On the route to the cave is the Pang Mapha Viewpoint. This is a cool place to stop for a while. It has a giant 4 person swing as well as great views across the area.
Hostel, Food and Drinking Recommendations:
When staying in Pai I advise you stay out of the central town area. You can find bungalows and hostel dorms across the river to the east of the main town area. I found Darling View Point Bungalows to be a pretty relaxing place, staying in the dorm area there. If you like to party or engage in lots of activities then the Famous Pai Circus Hostel is a cool place to stay for a few days. Even if you don’t stay there it’s worth popping up one night if they are having a ‘party’.
If you enjoy street food then Pai’s walking street is fantastic at night. It has lots of different food stalls selling all kinds of different styles. Its actually a little lacking in Thai food as it’s more international in style. Restaurant wise there are so many different options to choose from. If your vegetarian/vegan then Chew Xin Jai is a great budget place doing Jay food. Other places worth checking out are Om Garden Cafe and Na’s Kitchen.
In terms of drinking Pai is arguably the most social place listed in this North Thailand Itinerary. Whilst the bars are supposed to close at 12 each night one of those out of the main town area usually stays open later. Sunset Bar and the Don’t Cry are two of my favourites for socialising with other backpackers. Both are out of town heading southeastwards. Yellow Sun and Almost Famous are 2 fun places too.
Arrival and departure
To get to Pai take a mini van from Chaing Mai. This is best booked through your accommodation if possible. It takes about 4 hours. The roads are full of curves, the road is infamous for this. So be prepared for a crazy ride! To reach your next stop on this North Thailand Itinerary – Chaing Rai – you will need to return through Chiang Mai. You may wish to spend the night here it try to get to Chiang Rai straight away, Its up to you really, depending how much time you have and how you are feeling.
Chiang Rai – 2 to 3 nights
The Highlights of Chiang Rai:
- White temple
- Black House
- Touring The Local Area
The major highlight is Chaing Rai is the White Temple. Officially known as Wat Rong Khun, this temple really does stand out. It is the brainchild of Chalermchai Kositpipa, an artist who has used Buddhist imagery in a contemporary fashion to construct this amazing temple. This is certainty one of the most interesting sites listed in this North Thailand Itinerary.
One of the most famous parts of the temple is the bridge across the main shrine. This bridge represents the ‘the cycle of rebirth’. The hands here represent human suffering and hell. They are reaching out towards you in desire. You need to cross over and pass through the ‘Gate Of Heaven’ to reach the main temple shrine.
Inside the main temple shrine take a look at the walls, they are covered in characters from transformers to Harry Potter. There is much more to the site that just this though. Look around the temple complex and you can find all kinds of artwork on display, There is also an art gallery with some great Buddhist artwork in. And some political drawings too!
If the White temple represents heaven and light, then the Black House represents hell and darkness. Well, it’s not that simple but it’s a decent comparison to explain the difference between the two. Baan Dam as it’s official name is is also the work of an Thai artist, Thawan Duchanee. Set across a peaceful garden it features many buildings and sculptures.
Many of the artwork designs are made from the remains of dead animals. they are said to have died form natural causes. Baan Dam uses dark colours in abundance, their is a lot of black and brown here. White is sometimes used to contrast this or highlight things, particularly animals skulls.
Whilst there is Buddhist and Hindu imagery on display here it would be incorrect to call it a temple. This really is an art space, a look and exploration of dark imagery.
The White Temple and Black House can be done together in a day using public transport or taxi’s. Should only have 2 nights including arrival then I would recommend that is your priority. If your able to spend another night, then I suggest a day tour of the local area.
There are a whole host of tours offered in Chiang Rai, so if you have the time it’s worth investigating what’s offered. Many of these go to the Golden Triangle which is the border where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet. The area is infamous for it’s opium production. Personally when I was there I didn’t want to visit here however as i’d heard some of the touts can be rather tacky. Instead I looked at tours which explored the local area around Chiang Rai. Unfortunately some tours do offer Elephant riding and it can be difficult avoiding the companies involved with that. The best I managed was take a tour with people who also didn’t want that.
Obviously when doing this North Thailand Itinerary you will see lots of different tours offered. The tour I took started with a boat trip along a river followed by walking through some of the hills scenery. You can see local fruits and crops being grown. As well as some nice views.
As with Chiang Mai, the area around Chiang Rai is home to various hill tribes. The tour I took visited a Akha hill tribe village. There are around 80,000 Akha living in Northern Thailand. The rest are spread across Myanmar, China and Laos. Here we got to speak to some of the people and have a walk around the village. The tour also took in a waterfall and hot springs. I recommend shopping around the tour agents in the city to see what they have to offer. I wouldn’t book in advance online, it’s better to turn up in person and negotiate with them.
One of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed in is located in Chiang Rai. It’s named Mercy Hostel and is definitely the number one place i’d recommend for backpackers following this North Thailand Itinerary. A well as good dorm rooms it has a large common area including a kitchen, which is also great for backpackers. the location is good too, in the centre of the city.
If you need to fly out of Thailand after completing this North Thailand Itinerary then it is best to return to Chiang Mai or Bangkok. Chiang Rai does have a small airport that offers flights to Bangkok. Otherwise return to Chiang Mai for a flight from there or to take the train straight to Bangkok.
This brings the route this North Thailand Itinerary recommends to an end.
However if your heading to Laos next then your journey in Thailand is not finished! You can cross from Chiang Kong for the Slow Boat.
If your planning to visit Laos after completing this North Thailand Itinerary then taking the show boat is a great option. Its well known tradition amongst backpackers exploring Southeast Asia.
The small town of Chiang Kong is located on the Thai side of the Mekong River. You can reach it by bus from Chiang Rai. There are also plenty of travel agencies who will offer packages to travel from Thailand to Laos via the slow boat. But I recommend doing it yourself, it’s more fun and cheaper.
Funky Box is a good hostel in Chiang Kong to meet people to take the slow boat with. Its basic and cheap, but it’ set up makes chatting to people easy. The town has some restaurants and importantly shops where you can stock up on supplies before you catch the boat.
Cross over the Thai-Lao friendship bridge via the Thai immigration centre to leave Thailand. Then pass through Lao immigration to enter their country at Huay Xai . From here you can board the slow boat. Make sure to withdraw some Lao Kip from the ATM’s here.
The slow boat travels down the Mekong river to Luang Prabang. It takes 2 days. It stops for the night at Pakbeng. Here you can find many accommodation options and a few restaurants. Carrying on you arrive in the afternoon at Luang Prabang. This city is the second largest in Laos and great for travellers. It’s also the gateway to the North of Laos with fantastic trekking options. And you can find mini vans here to take you down to Vang Vieng, well known for it’s laid back lifestyle and party spots.
Extra stops – Kanchanaburi (2 nights) and Lopburi (1 night)
Should you have the time there are a couple extra stops you can add to this North Thailand Itinerary. They aren’t essential but are nice additions if you have the time.
The first Kanchanaburi is west of Bangkok and takes 2 to 3 hours to reach by mini van or public bus. There are 2 main reasons to visit this town. The 1st is the Death railway. The famous Bridge over the River Kwai is here. This railway was built by the Japanese during World war 2 to assist their campaign in Burma. Over 16,000 allied POWs and 90,000 Asian labourers died during it’s construction. You can also visit Allied graveyards in the town too. The second main reason is the Erawan National Park. There is a beautiful 7 tiered waterfall here that really worth a visit. If you want to spend longer in Bangkok when you arrive then this a good side trip. You could also do this at the end of your North Thailand Itinerary, if you have time to spare in Bangkok before you fly elsewhere.
As for Lopburi, it’s another of Thailand’s ancient cities, in the vein of Ayutthaya and Sukhothai. Its not as spectacular as those but worth a look if you enjoy Thai history. Situated between the 2 of them it makes for a good overnight stop on the journey between the two. The city has a long history and actually served as the capital city of the Ayutthaya Kingdom for awhile in the 1600’s. There are several temple sites here worth checking out. And the former Royal palace Phra Narai Ratchaniwet is now part of the Lopburi Museum. The town is almost famous for it’s monkeys. They roam around the ‘old town’ area, focused on Prang Sam Yod temple in particular.
Thanks for reading this North Thailand Itinerary. I hope you have enjoyed it and it helps you plan your own trip to the country, if your interested in reading more about Thailand then please check out my guide to the country.
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