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.
Table of Contents
Day 1 – Walled City of Chiang Mai & Doi Suthep
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.
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.
For a peek into the culture of Northern Thailand, the Chiang Mai City Arts & Cultural Center (daily except Monday, 8:30AM to 5PM, 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 i 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.
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 until 11PM). 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, Wiang Kum Kam & 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, 7AM to 6PM), 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!
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.
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.
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.
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 (4pm until late). Running from Tha Phae Gate to 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.
Day 3 – 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.
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.
For a relatively chill time, the Mae Fah Luang Art & Cultural Park (daily 8AM 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.
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.
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.
Travel Tips for Northern Thailand
- 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.
- 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 many of the bus departures are not direct and can stop at many towns along the way, easily added up to 2 hours to the journey (it has happened to me!). You can book private Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai transfers here.
Where to Stay in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai
Diva Hostel – Located right in the walled city, Diva Hostel is conveniently situated and cheap. Rooms are airconditioned though you probably won’t need to turn it on between December and January.
Dhara Devi Chiang Mai – One of the most iconic places to stay in Chiang Mai. It used to be managed by Mandarin Oriental. This luxury hotel boasts of a Lanna style entrance. Villas are done up in traditional Thai style.
Mercy Hostel – A good all-around option in Chiang Mai especially if you wish to stay somewhere central. Clean and spacious private rooms are available for a very good price point
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.