They say you haven’t really done Thailand until you’ve checked out the highland scenery and distinctive Lanna culture of the north. With its laidback lifestyle, impressive (and unique) architecture and cooler climes (in December and January), the cities of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai have long delighted local tourists looking to escape the hustle and bustle of Bangkok. In terms of international travelers, the region has also attracted a significant number although still way below the likes of Phuket or Krabi. That is starting to change. With increasing international flights to Chiang Mai International Airport, the gateway of the north, plenty of international travelers who have already done Bangkok in the past venture to the cities of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai for something different.
This itinerary aims to show how you can do Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, the main cities of Northern Thailand, in as little as 3 or 4 days – essentially the weekend plus 1 or 2 extra weekdays.
Day 1 – Walled City of Chiang Mai & Doi Suthep
Wat Phra Singh
In Chiang Mai, there are three main areas that are of interest to travelers. If this is your first time in Chiang Mai, choosing the Walled City as a base is a good option as many of the attractions are located in the vicinity. For folks who are interested in Northern Thai “Lanna” architecture, the walled city offers plenty of temples to check out with the Wat Phra Singh being the highlight. This is probably the most popular temple in the city and is known for the Phra Buddha Singh statue and intricately drawn murals of the building housing it, the Wihan Lai Kham.
Wat Chedi Luang
Another temple to check out in Chiang Mai is the Wat Chedi Luang. This temple has a large stupa made of stone in the middle and is quite evocative of the ancient temple ruins found elsewhere in Southeast Asia due to its unfinished nature. Wat Chedi Luang dates back from the 14th century but remains in its incomplete state even to this day.
Just beside Wat Chedi Luang is Wat Phantao. It is different from the previous two temples in the sense that its wooden construct is made much more apparent, with less of the gold and murals seen in other temples. It’s also just a short walk from the previous temple so you might as well have a look.
Chiang Mai City Arts and Cultural Center
For a peek into the culture of Northern Thailand, the Chiang Mai City Arts & Cultural Center (daily except Sunday, 9AM to 8PM, admission: 90 Baht) offers a cooler respite from the punishing heat outside with its well curated exhibitions detailing the history and culture of the region.
Afternoon is a good time to go up to Doi Suthep. There are a few ways to get up there but the most recommended is to take a taxi (or Grab) to Chiang Mai Zoo and hail a songthaew from there. Mine waited for a few passengers to board before commencing the ride up although it is entirely possible to pay 600 Baht and have the car all to yourself if you are feeling extravagant.
It’s a zig zag ride up to Doi Suthep and at the higher reaches, you can get nice views of the city. Save for a few buildings here and there, Chiang Mai is still relatively low-rise.
At approximately 1,073 meters above sea level, you will find the Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep. Another temple you may ask? Don’t make the mistake of skipping this simply because you have been to the temples in the inner city. The highlight here is the golden chedi surrounded by golden statues and murals. The recommended route here is to go around the chedi by walking clockwise. In between, you might also see newly wed couples coming here for blessings, pilgrims praying fervently and others trying to make merit by sticking gold foils in the surroundings. The chedi is accessed after climbing more than 300+ steps from the parking lot, where the songthaew drops passengers off.
After coming back to Chiang Mai, I’d recommend visiting the same sites suggested for the morning. Many of the buildings – such as Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chedi Luang take on a different mood when floodlit in the evening.
Chiang Mai Night Safari
If you are visiting Chiang Mai with family and are looking for something to do in the evening, check out the Chiang Mai Night Safari (open daily 1 to 8PM). The park hosts over 1,400 animals and although it was inspired by the Singapore Night Safari, the one in Chiang Mai surpasses it in area, covering over 132 hectares. You can book your ticket inclusive of transfers, which is more convenient as the zoo is located in the city outskirts. You can buy discounted tickets here.
Day 2 – Nimmanhaemin, Chiang Mai Outskirts & Sunday Walking Street
One of my favorite areas in Chiang Mai is undoubtedly Nimmanhaemin. Originally considered a university area, this neighborhood has since attracted expatriates as well as digital nomads who call Chiang Mai home for prolonged periods of time. You can find plenty of hipster cafes here – top in that list is Ristr8to (daily except Wed, 7AM to 5PM), an award winning cafe that is as much about the coffee as it is about the aesthetics. Check out their coffee which is served in their iconic skull caps!
For food, Kao Soy Nimman (daily 11AM to 8PM) is popular for its highly customizable bowls of the Northern Thai staple. Instead of just chicken, I had mine topped with chicken AND seafood.
Wat Suan Dok
At the southern end of the neighborhood is another temple – Wat Suan Dok – looking picturesque in the day with its whitewashed mausoleums with the highlands of Northern Thailand in view.
Baan Kang Wat
Baan Kang Wat (open daily except Monday, 11AM to 5:30PM) is so much more than a market. It’s a functioning artist village where skilled craftsmen get to practice their craft. There’s no hard selling here as the studios are mostly manned by the artists themselves and if you’re lucky, you can chance upon them doing one of their creations as you walk in. The crafts found here range from ceramics to paintings, wood work, sculptures and clothing. Workshops are also offered to the public and you can spend an hour or two learning the likes of pottery if you have time to spare.
Wat Umong Suan Phutthatham
Located along roughly the same stretch as Baan Kang Wat is one of Chiang Mai’s most atmospheric temples. While the main structure here does not boast of elaborate carvings or gilded exteriors, Wat Umong intrigues with its fortress-like construct as well as elaborate tunnels that evoke an explorer kind of feel while being surrounded with nature. This temple is well-worth the short ride out of the city center.
Wiang Kum Kam
Check out the ancient city of Wiang Kum Kam (daily 8AM to 5PM). Once the ancient capital of the Lanna Kingdom, the ruins of an area a couple of kilometers south of Chiang Mai’s walled city were renovated and over 40 buildings now stand for visitors to see. The highlight here is the five-tiered chedi called Wat Chedi Liam which dates back from the 1200s.
Royal Park Rajapruek
Late afternoon is the best time to visit Royal Park Rajapruek especially if you are in Chiang Mai during the warmer months (morning is best if you are in town from the months of December to early February). The park has a diverse collection of flora and even those with a mere passing interest in plants may find something interesting with its international gardens section featuring landscaped depictions of countries such as Malaysia, India, China, Vietnam and even African countries like Kenya. It’s a sprawling complex but thankfully the admission fees come with complimentary shuttle rides. Do check out the imposing Grand Pavilion (Hor Kham Luang), built during the 60th year of the previous King’s reign. It is a lot more elaborate than any of the Lanna architecture you can find in town.
Escape the afternoon heat with a session of Thailand’s famous massage. Let’s Relax Spa is one of the more popular massage places and has been recommended as well by Lonely Planet. They have three branches in Chiang Mai. You can book a discounted massage session here.
Sunday Walking Street
If you have time to visit only one night market in Chiang Mai and happen to be there on a Sunday, let that visit be to the Sunday Walking Street. Running from Tha Phae Gate to the edge of Rachadamnoen Road and the small alleys in between, this is probably the most extensive night market I have seen in Thailand that runs in the streets. This is also not your run-of-the-mill night market, as I’ve seen plenty of unique goods for sale including knick knacks and apparel made by local designers and all sorts of food. There are even some stalls selling fried larvae and bugs or for something more appetizing – sushi. There’s of course, plenty of local food to go by as well. If you can’t make it on a Sunday evening, you can check out the Saturday Walking Street instead. The Saturday night market is located south of the walled city along Wua Lai Road. It is of a slightly smaller scale than the Sunday one but make no mistake about it, you’ll find many of the same stalls here as well.
Day 3 – Doi Inthanon National Park
One of the highlights of a trip to Northern Thailand is a visit to the country’s tallest peak – Doi Inthanon. The national park is one of the region’s most visited places partly due to the year-long cool weather as well as the myriad of attractions on the way to the summit. A visit to the national park usually involves a group tour or a private tour.
You will mostly likely pass by a number of waterfalls while making your way around Doi Inthanon. The most impressive one here in my opinion is the Wachirathan Waterfall which has a picturesque rainbow effect when seen against the sunlight.
Various tribes live along the slopes of Doi Inthanon and one of the most often visited is the Karen tribe. A typical tour includes a short walk along one of the villages and a stop for coffee tasting. The one I visited, a cafe called Pati non (daily 8AM to 5PM) is locally run and they grow their coffee from the fields just next to the cafe itself.
Doi Inthanon Summit & Cloud Forests
If the idea of scaling a country’s tallest peak with minimal hiking sounds attractive to you, then you’re in luck. Doi Inthanon (2,565 meters above sea level) requires only a short walk from the parking lot to reach the summit. You won’t miss it. A large sign that says “highest point of Thailand” is usually filled with visitors taking selfies but the true summit is located a short walk behind it near an altar. There are also short walking trails nearby such as the Angka Nature Trail that wind visitors around cloud forests and trees filled with moss.
For some people, the Twin Pagodas are the highlight of the trip to Doi Inthanon simply because of the visually striking landscape. As compared to the Doi Inthanon summit which is mostly covered by forest, the area around the Twin Pagodas allow visitors to survey the view and the surrounding mountains while walking alongside stunning flower gardens.
A typical tour lasts roughly 10 hours, starting around 8:30AM and ending at 6:30PM with pick-up and drop-off near the old walls. You can book a join-in tour covering these places here or a private tour here.
Day 4 – Chiang Rai
How to Go From Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai
Thailand’s northernmost city, Chiang Rai, is located some 190 kilometers from Chiang Rai and involves a 3.5 hour car ride. Folks who don’t have enough time usually turn Chiang Rai into a day trip and there are several day tours to Chiang Rai you can join that will bring you there, show you the main sights and come back to Chiang Mai in time for dinner but if you can spare one more day, an overnight stay is definitely less hectic. Alternatively, you can also take a bus ride to Chiang Rai.
Wat Rong Khun
Assuming you have an extra day to spare, you will find that Chiang Rai is an interesting enough destination in its own right. Although there are similarities in attractions in the sense that many are Lanna-style temples, Chiang Rai also offers something slightly different. Top in that list is Wat Rong Khun or the gorgeous White Temple. Probably the only one of its kind in Thailand, this structure has probably come to define the entirety of the north. The temple was built by artist Chaloemchai Khositphiphat and despite over 20 years of construction, it remains to be a work in progress. Aside from its fully white color scheme, other noteworthy aspects of the temple include sculptures of hands reaching out from the ground. This adds a rather bizarre aspect to the temple. If possible, try to visit Wat Rong Khun first thing in the morning as the queues can get pretty long especially in the late morning/afternoon.
Another interesting place to visit in Chiang Rai is the Baan Dam Museum (Black House). This is a large complex constructed by artist Thawan Duchanee and consist of dozens of houses incorporating local styles as well as the style of neighboring countries.
Mae Fah Luang
For a relatively chill time, the Mae Fah Luang Art & Cultural Park (daily except Monday 8:30AM to 5PM) is just the perfect place with its greenery, lakes and huts from where one can just watch the world go by. While here, you can also check out the Haw Kam, a pavilion housing Lanna artifacts.
Try Some Khao Soi
A trip to Chiang Rai or Northern Thailand for that matter, isn’t complete until you try the local specialty – Khao Soi – or Crispy Noodles bathed in Chicken Curry. One recommended place to try it is Por Jai (daily 8AM to 4PM) in the heart of town.
If you are in Chiang Rai as a day trip from Chiang Mai, you’d probably need to end here to make it back to Chiang Mai by dinner time. However, if you are staying a night, you can also check out attractions farther afield such as the Golden Triangle – the border between the 3 countries of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. Alternatively, you can also head to Mae Salong for a bit of alpine scenery, nature trails and excellent coffee or Doi Tung for the Mae Fah Luang Flower Garden.
Travel Tips for Northern Thailand
- Travel Insurance: Thailand now requires incoming foreign travelers to have travel insurance with Covid-19 coverage when entering the country. If you reside in Singapore, check out Starr Travelead, one of the cheapest travel insurance. They have a promotion that comes with S$5 cash rebate that helps to cover the insurance cost. If you are based elsewhere, you can check out Worldnomads as they have quite an extensive coverage, even including personal accidents into their list of benefits.
- Weather: Best time to visit Chiang Mai is during the cooler and dry months of December to early-February. November is also a good time although it might still be the tail-end of the rainy season. I would personally avoid heading there from late February to April. During these months, haze is common in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai and it can sometimes reach hazardous levels.
- Connectivity: For your surfing and social media needs, it is possible to purchase local sim cards upon arrival at Chiang Mai Airport but purchasing in advance will save you the queues and you can also get up to 50% off. You can purchase local sim cards here.
- Traveling between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai: If you are coming as a couple, as a group of friends or with family, it may be more sensible to hire private transport for a comfortable 3.5 hour journey between these two cities. It is also possible to travel by public bus but do try to select a direct bus if you can to avoid multiple stops along the way. You can book private Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai transfers here or check for direct buses here.
Where to Stay in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai
Lee Chiang Hotel – Located right in the walled city of Chiang Mai, Lee Chiang Hotel is conveniently situated and cheap. You are essentially getting a hotel room for what is slightly more than guesthouse/hostel prices, with breakfast included as well.
Raya Heritage Chiang Mai – A cross between the sleek Muji-style and local Lanna interiors, Raya Heritage is a 33-suite property decked with local crafts – handwoven textiles, artifacts and wood carvings permeate the guestrooms and public spaces. The location in the city outskirts also make it more relaxing/tranquil compared to most city hotels.
Mora Boutique Hotel – A good all-around option in Chiang Rai especially if you wish to stay somewhere central. Rooms are stylish and up-to-date with creature comforts at a reasonable price.
Le Meridien Chiang Rai – Probably the most luxurious among the hotels found along the city center of Chiang Rai. Expect consistent chain hotel service befitting the Le Meridien brand.
Packing Tips for Northern Thailand
While there is probably that sense of adventure in bringing nothing but a backpack for a trip to Northern Thailand, I have found that it is not really a practical option in the long term. I used to do it in my younger days but it led to back pains, not to mention the added perspiration brought about by something heavy brushing against you especially when traveling to warm places.
In my more recent trips, I have resorted to something easier to carry. A luggage with 4 wheels is personally preferable as I can just let the whole thing slide when I need to walk from point to point – for instance from the train station to the hotel. There are plenty of four-wheel luggage options in the market but I found Rawrow’s R Trunk 63L which is being retailed by Sift & Pick to have those little extras that make the travel experience easier.
The luggage comes with a built-in weighing scale so I don’t have to keep guessing whether I’ve surpassed the airline’s baggage allowance. The Rawrow R Trunk series also comes with a smaller 37″ version and the weighing scale tells you exactly whether the weight’s good enough for plane cabin storage or not.
I also like the unique T-shaped handles which I rarely encounter for this type of luggage. The shape allow for easy hanging of clothes or a supplementary laptop case or backpack if need be.
The most impressive feature however has got to be the pocket found just beneath the handles which can be used to store valuables quickly or as a holder for mobile phones. Combine it with the Pack Slim Case, a water repellent passport and credit cardholder which fits perfectly in the pocket, so that you won’t have to scramble to find a place to empty your pockets to the next time you’re subjected to the airport security scanners.