Dates: October 16th – 25th
Main Language of Country: Thai
Transportation Used: Songthaew, Motorbike, Taxi, Bus
Currency: Thai Baht (THB)
Accommodation: Hostels, Guesthouses
Number of Photos Taken: 1652
Favorite Place: Doi Inthanon
Average Cost of a Full Meal: 40 – 100 Baht ($2.00 to $4.00)
Average Cost of a Night per Person: $5.00 to $9.00
Best Foods Eaten: Khao Soi, Pad Thai, Gyoza
Tap Water Drinkable: No (But we brushed our teeth with it)
Capital City of Country: Bangkok
National Sport of Country: Muay Thai Boxing
The Complete Guide to Travelling Northern Thailand
Everything you need to know about things to do, places to see, where to eat, and how to get around.
After spending a few weeks in Myanmar and Singapore before that, our next stop was Thailand. We didn’t have enough time to cover the entire country, so we chose to focus on Northern Thailand only as it looked a bit more relaxed and less touristy than the southern beaches of the country.
Our stay in Thailand was 10 days which is a good amount of time for this area although you could easily spend more time, or get by with less in a pinch if you needed. The northern part of Thailand is filled with rolling green hills, national parks, waterfalls, relaxed cities and towns, great food, friendly people, and lots of temples.
When to Visit Northern Thailand of Thailand:
We visited in the end of October which is when the rainy season is coming to an end. Unfortunately, the rainy season wasn’t quite finished what it had started and we spent quite a few days in the pouring rain. The other downside of the rainy season is that lots of things are closed, such as some walking trails and waterfalls, because of high water and flooding.
The bonus, however, is that there seems to be less people around so things are a bit quieter.
If we could have timed it slightly differently, I think planning to visit during Loi Krathong (the famous lantern festival throughout Thailand) would have been awesome. In 2017, this happened in early November, but it changes every year so you have to check the dates for when you’re visiting.
The first of November is when things begin to open again after the rainy season and it stays dry and cool all the way until early April. This is the most popular time to visit the country, but also the most busy.
November to April: Dry season and cooler weather, busiest time to visit, early November a good time to see rice before harvesting, Loi Krathong
May to October: Wet season and hot weather, less busy, some things closed in the national parks because of high water. Can see the rice fields before harvesting towards the end of the wet season, and rice planting towards the beginning of the wet season.
Chiang Mai: (October 16th – 19th)
For our time in Thailand, Chiang Mai served as our home base that we kept returning to again and again. It’s where we flew in and out of the country from and conveniently sits at the centre of mostly everything to see in the area.
Chiang Mai seems to be one of those cities that grows on you over time. I’ve heard a lot of people say that they weren’t really impressed by the city at first, but after a bit of time they eventually grew to love it. This is exactly how I felt. I was completely underwhelmed at first because at first the city seems very plain and uninteresting and there aren’t really many sights to see within the city.
After a few days and once we had explored a bit, I really began to like the city. What I realized is that the charm of the city isn’t in any particular sights or “must do” activities. Instead, it’s the endless number of shops, stores, restaurants, cafes, and markets that there are to explore. So you can do a quick walk of the city and see a few of the main temples, but it’s the experience of finding an awesome market to get dinner, or a small cafe on a side street that has great coffee that really makes Chiang Mai a lot of fun to explore.
TIP: To navigate and get around Thailand, we used the app called maps.me. It lets you download maps of certain areas so we were able to use it offline and mark places that we wanted to visit on it. It was also invaluable many times when we were trying to navigate small back roads in places like Pai or get around the city of Chiang Mai.
The layout of the city also makes things really simple. The centre of the city is a simple square with walls around part of it, a gate on each side and a canal around the outside of the walls that is kind of like a moat. If fact, I meant to look up the history behind the walls and moat but forgot. In hindsight, I probably could have stopped writing these sentences and looked it up, but apparently my choices have been made. So if you’re interested I’ll let that be your own moment of discovery. 🙂
How to Get Around Chiang Mai:
To get around Chiang Mai, you can walk most places, or rent a motorbike for 24 hours which costs around 200 baht (plus a little bit for gas but it’s only about 40 to 80 baht per day) to get outside of the city on day trips.
TIP: You might notice many westerners trying to look cool while riding a moped in Thailand. Some things to look for might include riding with one hand, leaving the helmet clipped to the back bar, or wearing just a Chang Beer muscle shirt. My advice is…don’t bother, just embrace it. No one looks cool riding a moped and trying too hard just makes things worse.
You can also catch things called Songthaews which are red covered trucks and generally cost 30 to 40 baht to get anywhere within the city. You can also use these to get to and from the airport, but if you arrive late they might have stopped running which leaves you with a conventional taxi.
Where to Eat in Chiang Mai:
I don’t have any specific recommendations for places to eat in Chiang Mai as we ate mostly at markets, but we also never had bad food in the city so I don’t think you can go wrong either way.
For dinner, we ate solely street food from either the night bazaar or the street food near the Chiang Mai (south) gate which usually cost less than 120 baht each (which was usually a full meal and a smoothie of some sort). For lunch we would often look for a place once we started feeling hungry and would find somewhere where ever we happened to be. You never seem to be far from a good spot so this was always a good strategy.
In terms of things to eat, make sure you have Khao Soi which was by far my favourite dish. Near the east gate of Chiang Mai, you’ll also find some western fast food like McDonalds, Burger King, Subway, Starbucks and so on.
Where to Stay in Chiang Mai:
We stayed in two different places in Chiang Mai and really liked both even though they were quite different.
The first was a place called Big and O’s near the south gate which was a small family run hostel. It was quiet, the owner, Big, was super helpful and friendly, breakfast was great, and it was a quick 5 minute walk to the south gate.
The second place that we stayed was the Thunder Bird Hostel. It was much bigger, more social, super clean, new and modern, had a good breakfast and was located near the east gate. If I had to choose, I’d say the Thunder Bird Hostel was my favourite, but Big and O’s had a really cool small family feel if you’re looking for that. Both were around 200 baht per night.
Things to do in Chiang Mai:
I mentioned that there aren’t many sights within Chiang Mai itself, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t anything to do. After you’ve spent a day or an afternoon checking out a few temples, then you can let your adventures truly begin with trekking, elephant sanctuaries, nearby towns and cities, national parks, cooking classes or meditation classes, or market hopping.
Here is what we got up to in Chiang Mai:
Explore the Temples within Chiang Mai:
I mentioned that you could spend a day or an afternoon quickly checking out the temples and sights within the city itself. This list is pretty short and less than spectacular but definitely worth doing it quick to check it off. The three temples are Wat Chedi Luang (the biggest one), Wat Chiang Man (the oldest one), and Wat Phra Singh (the prettiest one). Then there is also the 3 kings monument.
Go to Doi Suthep on a Scooter:
A quick and easy day (or afternoon) trip out of the city is up to Doi Suthep. This is a temple halfway up a hill looking over Chiang Mai that offers great views (might be a good sunset spot) and is fun to explore at the same time. I would recommend renting a scooter/motorbike as it allows you to check out a few other things past the temple. We rented a scooter for 200 baht from our hostel (Big and O’s) which made this really easy.
TIP: We spent a lot of time renting motorbikes (or scooter or moped, whatever you want to call them), but found out that you actually need to have an international drivers license to ride them. We had no issues at all, but if you do get stopped at a checkpoint and they ask for your license, you can get fined for not having a proper license. This also means that riding is illegal which might void your travel insurance if you get injured. Again, we had no issues and it might be the same for you, but you could look into getting your international license before arriving in Thailand if you plan to drive or ride a bike.
Also on the way to Doi Suthep is a waterfall called Montha Than, which we were unfortunately unable to visit because it was closed due to flooding (stinkin’ wet season anyways).
Further on up the road from the temple you get closer to Doi Pui. Along the way you pass lots of little view points and areas where you can stop to get food or water. We decided to go all of the way to the top of Doi Pui where there is a little campsite. First of all, we were curious to see what a campsite in Thailand would look like so we were happy to see that, and second, there is a trail that leaves from this campsite that takes you to the summit of Doi Pui.
This walk is only about 2 km’s each way and takes you up a small little jungle trail to the summit and a viewpoint area. It was really foggy when we got to the top so we weren’t able to see the actually view from the summit but it was cool nonetheless.
Check Out the 7-11’s:
I hadn’t done much research before arriving in Thailand so I didn’t really expect to see the abundance of 7-11’s everywhere. If you’ve never been in a Thailand 7-11, then you definitely have to check it out. It’s just like any convenience store and is a good place to grab snacks, but it’s the strange variety of weird baking and different food that is the experience. I never thought I’d see such a wide range of hot dog bun pastries as I did in 7-11. Who thought it would be good to put jam and crusty whipped cream inside of a hot dog bun?
Explore the Markets and Night Bazaar:
I would have to say that the markets of Chiang Mai were my favourite part. Every night in Chiang Mai, that’s where we would head. The street food market by the south gate has really good food and is good to check out, but for the real atmosphere, you should go to the Night Bazaar just east of the city centre. Make sure to check out the Anusarn market within the Night Bazaar as well.
To give you an idea of all the things that you can buy around the markets of the Night Bazaar, here’s a collage of pictures:
Along the Main Street, there are vendors set up on either side selling souvenirs and clothing that may or may not interest you. But off of the street there are several markets and plazas where you’ll find street food, restaurants, live music, and shops. It’s a great place to just wander, eat, and shop. Make sure that you try Khao Soi, the crepes, and a strawberry yogurt smoothie.
TIP: If you want to get some photos within the market, my favourite thing to do was to keep things really simple and only take a camera and one lens. The first time we went I tried to take my tripod a backpack and a few lenses, but never really ended up taking any photos because it was a hassle. We went back the next day and I only took a camera and a 50mm lens and had so much fun and a lot better results.
There is also a supermarket near the south end of the night bazaar called “The Big C” which was our haven and hot spot for snacks. If you haven’t before, you have to try a chewy candy called Hi-Chews. They’re the absolute best!
Watch a Muay Thai Fight:
We had such good intentions to make it out to a Muay Thai fight while we were in Chiang Mai but never made it. We kept putting it off until later in the trip and finally it was a few nights before we flew out and we decided that we were going to go. Unfortunately, however, there were a bunch of ceremonies being held to commemorate the 1 year anniversary of the king’s death which meant that the fights were closed for a few days.
So, I don’t have any first hand advice to offer you, but you will inevitably come across some guys on the street that do promotion for the fights that can give you information. My research told me that fights were anywhere from 300 to 600 baht and were held every night. It might not hurt to find out which arena is hosting the fight on the night that you want to go because some are supposed to be better than others. The one held just behind the night bazaar is supposed to be decent if you want to check that one out.
Sign up for a Thai Cooking Class in Chiang Mai:
On our last day in Chiang Mai, we decided to do a bit of self-improvement (I think that there is still a lot still left to be desired in that area for me…especially in the cooking department) and signed up for a cooking class. It was a really awesome experience and I would highly recommend it.
It was a bit more expensive than a lot of things that you can do but it was worth it to me. The cost was around 1300 baht each and included a pick up around 8:30 AM and went until around 4:30PM. Along the way, you stop at a local market to see how ingredients are purchased, then you drive just outside of the city to a farm area where you do the class itself. There is a bit of time spent walking around the farm where you get to see and taste the natural ingredients that you will be cooking with like the eggplant, two types of basil, cilantro, lime, lemongrass, ginger, turmeric, and so on.
In the place that we were, everything was open air, including the small building where you do the cooking and the outdoor eating area. It was a really cool spot!
TIP: I would recommend doing the cooking class partway into your trip because this allows you to try some Thai food first and taste some of the ingredients. You’ll be able to see some of the vegetables, leaves, spices, noodles, and other ingredients and ask yourself “what the hell is this?” Then, once you do the cooking class, you’ll get the answer to the question and you’ll already have seen and tasted some of the things before so it won’t be as much to take in all at once.
The class operates with the instructor going through how to use the ingredients and showing you how to prepare everything and then actually cooking it. Everyone then goes to the stations and gets things fired up. In total we made 5 or 6 dishes including our own curry paste, pad thai, stir fried basil, tom yum soup, and a coconut milk and banana dessert. You have some choices within each of those as well such as chicken, beef, or vegetarian, and green, yellow, or red curry.
It’s tough to really explain everything that you learn, but it’s a lot of fun, the food is great, and I learned so much doing the class. At the end you get a cookbook as well with everything that you make so that you can whip it up at home as well.
Other Things to do in Chiang Mai:
There is probably a ton of other stuff to in Chiang Mai as well, but with the time that we had we stuck to the things that I’ve listed above. Some of the other things that you might want to look into are:
Chiang Rai: We had Chiang Rai on our list of places to see but ended up cancelling it last minute to go to Doi Inthanon instead (see below). If you have time, however, there are some temples to see in Chiang Rai that are supposed to be good. The white temple is the most famous but there is also a Blue temple and a Black Temple. Otherwise, from what we’ve heard, Chiang Rai is a bit underwhelming so it might be a good day trip if you have time.
Elephant Sanctuary: There are lots of elephant sanctuaries around Chiang Mai and Pai but we never made it to any. You should do some research before booking one, however, because there are apparently some that are known for mistreating the elephants, whereas others are true sanctuaries that help and care for the elephants and it’s probably a good idea to support the latter instead of the former. I’m not an expert but make sure to do a bit of research beforehand. Here is a cool short film about an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai (https://theremarkableones.org/episode-1).
Nightlife: We didn’t do much drinking or partying in Chiang Mai, but there is quite a good night scene so this might be something that you want to partake in.
Trekking: We didn’t have enough time to commit many days to trekking, but there is supposed to be some in the area that you could look into if you’re interested.
Pai: (October 19th – 23rd)
After spending a few days in Chiang Mai, we made our way to the small mountain town of Pai. We took the bus there and back which took just over 3 hours each way. The road between Chiang Mai and Pai is super windy and twisty but is a really beautiful drive. We considered riding motorbikes to get to Pai so that we could stop at a waterfall along the way and take our time, but at the last minute changed our mind because we had heard about check stops along the way that charge foreigners for not having a license. Either way, the road is really beautiful, but it’s a relief when you finally arrive in Pai.
TIP: You can rent a motorbike and ride to Pai yourself from Chiang Mai using a company called AYA Rentals. With these guys, they will also deliver any of your luggage to Pai so that you don’t have to carry it with you on the bike. You can also choose to ride only one way and take the bus back the other direction if you want. It costs around 120 baht to do this. We thought about doing this but then opted to take the bus instead for 180 to 200 baht each.
The first thing that you need to know about Pai is that it is a small hippie town in the far northern corner of Thailand. That pretty much sums the place up, with a huge emphasis on the hippie part. The town itself is quite small, but spread around the town for miles are countless numbers of resorts, rice fields, restaurants, and houses. The centre part of town is made up of several criss-crossing streets with the main one being Walking Street where you will find lined with bars, restaurants, cafes, and a street market in the evening.
You’ll undoubtedly form your own opinion of Pai, but I’ll quickly share my impressions of the town with you because, well, I think that’s what I’m supposed to do here, right? The first thing is that the hippie vibe in Pai is strong. That sounded more like a Star Wars quote than I had intended, but I’ll let it slide.
You’ll see more vegan restaurants, people walking around with bare feet, nose rings, dreadlocks, tattoos, flowy pants, and bracelet-clad wrists than you ever thought possible. But even if you’re not into smoking funny things, chewing on chia seeds, or inhaling matcha tea powder, it’s hard not to get lost in the relaxed and chilled out feeling of the town. After a few days in Pai I already felt time slipping by a little bit slower, my worries and cares slowly faded into the background, and it felt like every little thing was going to be alright.
My only complaint about Pai would be that it seems to have become very touristy. The street market is great (correction, it’s the best thing ever), but there is more western food than Thai food, everywhere you look around town you see resorts and hostels (or signs for resorts and hostels), and you’re bound to see more tourists riding around on motorbikes than actual locals. And I know, you can easily get away from this by heading around the block to a different part of town or heading out of Pai to another town in the mountains, but it’s just something I had to complain about.
For me, this is something that is to be expected when you visit a popular place, but the part that I really struggle with is being somewhere like Pai, or watching a sunset in a cool spot around Pai, and being surrounded by a group of obnoxious shit heads just looking for the next party. But all of this aside, Pai really is an awesome place.
Where to Stay in Pai:
We stayed at Paitopia. It was quite a cool place because everyone had their own little bungalow cottage for a room. Then there was a pool and a restaurant if you needed. It was quite cheap (although it didn’t have free breakfast like we had thought) so might be a good place to look into. Don’t worry about getting a place right in town if you are planning on renting a motorbike anyways because then it’s easy to get in and out of town from wherever you are.
How to Get Around Pai:
We rented a motorbike from a place called Vespai. It cost 200 baht per day (or 130 baht for a smaller bike). If you plan to double or ride north of Pai getting one of the slightly more powerful bikes (I think ours was 125cc but I can’t remember) is a good idea as they will be able to actually make it up the steep hills that you will encounter. The guy as Vespai is also really good and does a good check of the bike with you before sending you on your way which feels a bit more legit than some of the other companies.
Where to Eat in Pai:
Breakfast: Because our hostel didn’t include breakfast, we ended up eating out each morning. The two best places were Lemon Thyme Cafe (the eggs Benedict, bagels, and coconut milk porridge with fresh fruit were all super good) and Earth Tones (the waffles and smoothie bowls were really good). Earth Tones was cool because it was a bit out of town and had a really hippie feel to it that wasn’t overboard but made you feel like you could have a bottle of Kombucha followed by a session of yoga and meditation.
Lunch/Dinner: For lunch we often just ate while we were out and about exploring things so this meant we often stopped by roadside cafes or restaurants or skipped lunch entirely. In the evening, we always walked through the market and ate from the stands there. We had things like papaya salad, gyoza, falafel, pesto and onion baked potato, khao soi, sushi, crepes, and fried sandwiches.
How Long Should You Spend in Pai:
We spent around 4 days in Pai and although you could probably spend as little as 2 days, having more time lets you explore a little bit further and puts less of a time restraint on you.
Things to do in Pai:
While you can definitely spend a lot of time wandering around Pai or just relaxing, there is a ton to see and do in the surrounding area.
Head to Pai Canyon for Sunset:
Just outside of Pai is a little place called the Canyon. It’s just off of the road but you’ll need to take a motorbike or a taxi to get there (we drove our motorbike). It’s only a few minutes walk from the parking lot and doesn’t cost anything to enter.
If you have an evening free, it’s a good place to go for sunset, although everyone else has the same idea and “Sunset at Pai Canyon” is part of a lot of tours around Pai so people come in bus loads.
There are a bunch of narrow little walkways and paths that take you around parts of the canyon that you can explore. The further along you go, the harder it gets, so to get to the very last viewing point where you look over into the largest of the canyons you have to go down a steep little cliff and then scramble up another steep, rocky trail on the other side. Lots of people don’t go that far, so for a bit of breathing room, you can try to go as far as you can.
Yun Lai Viewpoint:
Far up on the hillside of Pai is the Yun Lai Viewpoint. It costs 20 THB to enter and makes a great spot for sunrise.
I tried my luck at a sunrise one morning while Hilary made the smarter move and stayed in bed. I rode our motorbike across Pai and up the long road to the top of the viewpoint only to find it completely covered in cloud.
There were lots of other people there as well, having morning coffees from the small cafe and waiting for the sun to burn off the clouds, but it never happened. A few times it seemed to lighten and look promising, but then it would cover up with thick cloud again.
We did end up going back later just to check out the view from the top, but it wasn’t quite as nice as a sunrise would have been.
WWII Memorial Bridge:
One of the first things that you see when you enter Pai is the Memorial Bridge that was built by the Japanese in 1942 to ship supplies for their attack on Myanmar (Burma at the time).
On the way up to the Yun Lai Viewpoint, you drive through a little village on the side of the mountain that is like a small China Town. There is a big parking lot, a few restaurants and shops, and a big clearing with a pond and a playground of sorts.
There is also a strange castle sort of building that you can climb to the roof of.
Mo Paeng Waterfall:
If you’re into waterslides, check out Mo Paeng. I guess that’s a bit of a rhetorical statement because who isn’t into waterslides?
To get away from the heat, however, this is an awesome place to go for a swim. And if you get there earlier in the day you’ll likely be one of the only people there, but it tends to get quite crowded and busy towards late afternoon.
To get there, it’s a bit of a drive down a long road, so it’s a good one to get to by bike if you have one. Otherwise, there are some day tours that usually include a stop here as well.
There are a few different waterfalls as well. The very bottom one is down a narrow, overgrown path and, as it’s shaded by trees on either side, not many people go to it so it’s great for a bit of seclusion.
The middle waterfall is in the full sun and there is a shallow little pool at the bottom where you can get fully underwater.
The top waterfall is the highlight, however, as there is a rock slide into a big deep pool. It’s a little bit scary the first time, but then it makes you want to keep doing it over and over again.
The Land Split:
So the story goes that a farmer in Pai woke up one day and found that his land had been torn in half by a giant crack in the land. It happened overnight without any warning and made his land impossible to farm afterwards. So instead, the farmer took the opportunity to turn this into a tourist attraction.
So now when you go there, you can wander around and check out the crack and the rest of the land. Near the entrance is a stand where you can get some fruit and hibiscus juice that the farmer has prepared.
There is no official cost to visiting the land split and everything is donation only into a box at the entrance.
To get to the land split, it’s 20 minutes from town by motorbike on the way to Pam Bok Waterfall.
Pam Bok Waterfall:
While you’re in waterfall mode, you can also check out Pam Bok waterfall. It’s a good one to check out and maybe go for a swim if you want, but it’s in a deep canyon so it doesn’t inspire you to jump into the water to cool off quite as much.
So if you want to spend a day by the water, Mo Paeng is the one to choose instead.
It’s just past the Land Split, so it’s easy to do them both in the same trip.
The Bamboo Bridge:
At the end of the road past Pam Bok waterfall you get to a large rice field where there is a bamboo bridge built through the field. It doesn’t cost anything, although there is a restaurant and such there.
The bridge is about a kilometer long and at the very end is a little temple. We happened to be in Pai at the end of the wet season so the rice was tall and green which made it really cool. After harvest or through the dry season, I would imagine that it isn’t quite as nice, but probably still worth a visit.
Sai Ngam Hot Springs (North of Pai):
There are a few hot springs near Pai and the two that we heard of quite often were the Sai Ngam Hot Springs in the north and the other ones in the south.
The hot spring south of Pai is supposed to be quite a bit more expensive and gets quite busy, whereas the one in the north is a lot cheaper the enter. Because of this, we headed for the ones in the north which cost us 50 THB total (we paid 25 at the entrance off of the road and then another 25 at the hot springs). Sorry for the blurry picture.
To get to the Sai Ngam Hot Springs in the north, we rented a motorbike and doubled. I would advise on getting a slightly more powerful bike (ours was the slightly more expensive and larger size) because there are a lot of steep hills north of Pai and on the way to these hot springs.
Once you’re there, however, there is a large shallow pool to sit in which is nice for an hour or so. It’s not super spectacular by any means but definitely worth checking out, especially if you’re heading on a trip north anyways.
Tham Lod Cave and Doi Giwlom Viewpoint:
We had big ambitions to visit Lod Cave when we were in Pai but never quite made it there. We had heard that lots of the caves were closed because it was the wet season, and different reviews that we read online were quite mixed about whether or not it was worth visiting in the wet season.
It did, however, look cool and you can either get there yourself by riding a motorbike which would take just over an hour, or you can join a tour from Pai. If you happen to be visiting during the dry season, I think it would be totally worth visiting Tham Lod Cave.
We did, however, make it about halfway to the cave. We rode our bikes from Pai to the Doi Giwlom viewpoint which is just under halfway to the cave. It was pouring rain and quite cold and we weren’t quite prepared, so even though we planned to go further that day, we ended up turning around after the viewpoint.
We did, however, explore a little side road off of the top of the viewpoint that the guy from the Vespai rental place had recommended to us. The road is immediately to the left as you crest the summit of the pass and takes you to a radio tower a little further up the hill. T
here are some great views and you can have the views all to yourselves, unlike the busy viewpoint down below.
White Buddha on the Hill (Wat Phra That Mae Yen):
Behind the town of Pai, high up on the hill is a large white Buddha. It doesn’t take long to get there at all and there is a long flight of stairs to walk up once you get there. You get some really nice views over the Pai valley which makes it a nice spot to visit at sunset.
Just Driving Around and Exploring Pai:
On our last day in Pai, we had a few hours before we had to return our motorbike and catch the bus back to Chiang Mai. We hopped on the bike and drove around the outskirts of the town and explored some of the roads that we hadn’t been down yet. We didn’t find anything particularly special or interesting but it was awesome to just explore without any particular destination.
We saw many of the different resorts and hotels, some areas were more of the local people lived, and some nice scenery.
Doi Inthanon: (October 24th – 25th)
After returning to Chiang Mai for a night after Pai, we were off again for Doi Inthanon (pronounced Doi Int-Ah-Non) which is a national park just south of Chiang Mai. This was kind of a last minute decision that we made when we decided that it looked a lot more interesting than going to Chiang Rai, and it absolutely was. In fact, Doi Inthanon was my favourite part of northern Thailand.
It seems that not as many people go the Doi Inthanon (there are lots of Thai travellers that go here but not as many westerners) so it’s a bit of a hidden gem in a way. It’s only about 90 minutes from Chiang Mai and is home to waterfalls, the King and Queen Stupas, awesome landscapes of mountains, jungles and cliffs, rice fields, and the highest point in Thailand.
Lots of people do Doi Inthanon as a day trip from Chiang Mai, but I would at least spend a night there. In fact, I would have loved to spend several nights as there was lots that we had to leave unexplored.
TIP: It costs around 300 baht each to get into the park and they let us use the same ticket for both days in the park. Apparently things aren’t very strict here and everything can be negotiated. My point is that I have no idea if the tickets are actually good for several days or if they just felt sorry for us being rained out the day before.
We had a few unexpected setbacks on our trip to Doi Inthanon. First off, the Mae Ya waterfalls was closed due to flood water, the Giew Mae Pan Nature Trail was closed until November, and we got hit with a really heavy rain storm on the first day as well as heavy fog which made visibility next to nothing.
Part of this was our bad timing in going during the rainy season, so it might have all been avoided if we had gone at a different time of year, but even with all of the above, we were still able to enjoy it and even still, it was my favourite part of the country which says a lot.
How to Get to Doi Inthanon:
There are several ways to get to Doi Inthanon, and the easiest is probably to take a tour from Chiang Mai. Otherwise, if you want a bit more freedom you can rent a bike or car straight from Chaing Mai and drive out yourself.
Or you can do a bit of each (which is what we did) and catch a Songthaew which is a covered pickup truck with benches in the back. It’ll be a yellow one that you’re looking for (the yellow go outside of Chiang Mai while the Red ones seem to just do internal around Chiang Mai). You can catch the Songthaew at the southern gate of the old city (Chiang Mai Gate) and look for one with a sign on top that has red background and white writing. Our ride cost us 40 baht each. This one will take you to Chong Thong, a town just outside of the park where we chose to stay. I’ve marked on the map above where the Songthaews drop you off in Chom Thong as well.
You can then rent bikes within Chong Thong to get around in the park.
How to Travel Within the Park:
The best thing to do is to have your own transportation. There isn’t public transportation so you either go on a tour or arrange your own. We rented a bike from Chong Thong (the shop directly across from the temple on the main road where crosses and Songthaews drop you off.
TIP: From the town of Chom Thong (around 450ish metres in elevation) to the summit of Doi Inthanon (2600ish metres in elevation) there is a huge temperature change. We went from hot, humid, and sweaty in town where we wore shorts and tee shirts, to freezing cold at the top of the park where we had to put on pants, down jacket, and a rain jacket. So make sure that you pack some warm clothing on your trip to the top of the park!
Our bike rental cost us 300 baht for 24 hours (they actually let us have it for more like 28 hours which was nice).
The other thing to think about is gas. We typically fueled up in the town of Chom Thong where there are several gas stations, and there is also one just before the entrance of Doi Inthanon (although it’s hard to spot so you may need to ask someone). A tank of gas would just barely last us a whole day of exploring the park so you definitely need to fill up each day. The cost is very minimal so that’s not an issue, but you should make sure that you have a full tank of gas before heading into the park for the day. There is supposed to be one inside of the park, but even though we looked for it briefly, we never found it so it’s not in a really obvious location.
Where to Eat Within Doi Inthanon:
There are a lot of places to eat within Doi Inthanon, and probably the best spot is near the national park head office located near the centre of the park (I’ve marked it on the map above). There are a few restaurants and a small market selling fresh and dried fruit. You’ll inevitably be able to find something here that interests you. We also ate at a spot near the summit one day when we got stuck in the middle of a rainstorm, but it was quite terrible food so I wouldn’t recommend it.
If you’re staying in Chom Thong, you’ll also be able to find a few restaurants, street food, markets, and a tesco where you can eat. Chom Thong doesn’t seem to see as many visitors as Chiang Mai or Pai so all of the restaurants and markets are far more traditional and we didn’t know what half of the things were and couldn’t find very much English that helped us make an order. It’s a cool experience though and we ended up finding a restaurant where the owner spoke decent English and helped us place an order, which was essentially pointing at different pictures on the wall.
Where to Stay in Doi Inthanon:
Figuring out where to stay was a bit of a tricky one. We stayed at the Inthanon Hostel in the town of Chom Thong which was great. Because we were in the wet season, we were the only people in the whole hostel. The owner is great, has good English, and is super helpful. The rooms and beds are quite basic but that didn’t bother us at all. The nice thing about staying in Chom Thong is that you’re near places to rent motorbikes, there are quite a few places to eat, and it’s an easy place to set up a homebase and catch transportation to and from Chiang Mai.
The problem, is that Chom Thong is still a little ways away from Doi Inthanon. It takes 20 minutes or so to get to the park entrance and another 40 minutes to get to the summit of the park without any stops or detours. This ends up being quite a bit of time on the road, especially if you’re planning to be there for a few days. It also means that once you leave in the morning, it’s not very practical to head back to your accommodation for a quick rest or to grab something that you forgot. And it makes getting sunrise photos within the park a very long commute.
So, the other option is staying somewhere closer to the entrance, or within the park itself. In the dry season, you can also look at camping, bungalows, or staying at a place like Agatha View. I’ve marked some of the different places that you can stay on the map above.
Things to See in Doi Inthanon:
Doi Inthanon is filled with awesome things to see, from waterfalls, to nature trails, and from rice fields to summits.
The King and Queen Pagodas:
One of the most iconic pictures from Doi Inthanon, is of the King and Queen Pagodas, named Phra Mahathat Naphamenthanidon and Nophamethanidon. These two pagodas sit on the hillside near the summit of Doi Inthanon and were built by the Royal Thai Air Force on the 60th birthdays of the King and the Queen.
You can wander around the gardens, take in the views of the valley (if it’s not too foggy), check out the inside of the pagodas, and there’s even some really cool tile-work on the side of the King’s Pagoda.
The Queen’s pagoda is a light pinkish-white colour, while the kings is a dark reddish-brown. Surrounding the pagodas are some really spectacular gardens, fountains and walkways. It only costs around 20 Baht each to enter the area.
The best place to get a good photo, is on a small little hillside just behind the Queen’s pagoda. You get a bit of elevation to see down into the gardens, then you get the Queen’s Pagoda off to the left and the King’s Pagoda in the distance overlooking the hill. On a clear day you can see far into the valley, back towards the entrance of the park as well. You have to get a bit cheeky to get to the spot and there is a bit of fence jumping involved, but I’ll leave that decision up to you.
Unfortunately, when we visited the pagodas, there was a heavy fog, so we didn’t weren’t able to see any of the views that this area offers, but when it would clear slightly from time to time, I was at least able to see both of the pagodas. If you’re able to make it here for sunrise, this would be an awesome spot for some photos!
The Doi Inthanon Summit:
At 2565 meters, the summit of Doi Inthanon marks the highest point in Thailand. Although there isn’t much to see at the summit it’s worth making the trip and doing the short little walk through the trees to take a photo in front of the sign marking the summit.
Viewpoint Near the Summit:
On the road just below the summit, there is a viewpoint that is a popular spot to visit at sunrise. I couldn’t tell you what the view actually looks like because it was completely shrouded in fog when we stopped.
The Giew Mae Pan Nature Trail:
Also near the summit is the start of the Giew Mae Pan Nature Trail. We were there at the end of October and the trail is only open after November 1st so we just missed it. Here is a good article on the trail, however, which looks like a lot of fun. (https://www.chiangmaitraveller.com/kew-mae-pan-nature-trail-chiang-mai/)
Pa Bong Piang Rice Fields:
Like everything in Thailand, there seems to be a few different spellings for this one. I’ve seen Ban Pa Bong Piang, or Pa Pong Piang, and a few other variations, but they all lead to the same place.
This was one of the things that I was most disappointed to have missed seeing in Doi Inthanon. We had plans to get there, but after being completely rained out the first day, and only having slightly better luck the next day, we ran out of time. It’s a long ways from the entrance of the park and the last 2 or 3 km’s of the road is supposed to be super muddy, especially after all of the recent rain.
What you end up seeing, however, are some really spectacular terraced rice fields on the side of a hill. Not many people seem to make it there and it isn’t on any of the typical Doi Inthanon itineraries, but it is a really popular spot for Thai Photographers. In fact, I found out about it when I was stumbling around 500px and decided to look into it a bit more.
In terms of the best times to visit, I think early November, before the rice is harvested, or May when the rice is planted would likely be best. The access is difficult so if you were committed, you could drive a motorbike as far as you could and then walk the last 2km’s of muddy road (this is what I planned to do), but if you want to spend more time and get sunrise or sunset photos, staying overnight in one of the homestays might be a better option.
Come to think of it, there is a campsite at Huay Zai Luang waterfall which is right at the start of the muddy road, so you could always spend a night there and hopefully walk or catch a ride into the rice fields from there.
Either way, I’ll leave you where I left off with a few really good articles and links that might help you find out more. Hopefully you have better luck getting there than I did!
Here is a good blog with info about Ban Pa Pong Piang.
Markets on the Side of the Road:
About halfway between the park entrance and the summit, you should pass a market set up on the side of the road. I believe the things sold here are from the local Hmong and Karen tribes. It’s a good place to stop for some dried fruit and other small things.
Huay Zai Luang and Mae Pan Waterfalls:
About 20 minutes past the turn off for the summit (at Checkpoint 2), there are two waterfalls that are worth checking out. Huay Zai Luang is just off of the road and only and short walk, whereas Mae Pan is accessed by a narrow single track trail that takes about 10 or 15 minutes to get to.
Both are great, but are a bit out of the way, so might not be worth visiting just by themselves. We went down there to check out the road on the way to Pa Bong Piang rice fields that I had mentioned above.
The Other Waterfalls:
The list of waterfalls in Doi Inthanon is long, so you probably won’t run out of them. When we were there, they were all pumping brown water from all of the recent rains. This made them quite impressive and intimidating, but the didn’t look quite so good in the photos. It was also tough because there was a ton of spray coming off of each waterfall.
Mae Ya Waterfall: Closed when we were visiting. It’s actually outside of the park and 15 km’s down a totally different road leaving from Chom Thong so it’s a tad out of the way. It’s supposed to be beautiful, however.
Wachirathan Waterfall: To the right side of the main road into Doi Inthanon is Wachirathan. It’s a fairly major waterfall and a few small paths take you down the river below the falls or to a lookout just about the falls.
Mae Klang Waterfall: Just before the main entrance (checkpoint one) into Doi Inthanon is a turnoff to Mae Klang Waterfall. There is a gate here which is called checkpoint three and a few minutes walk from the gate the road ends at Mae Klang falls.
Sirithan Waterfall: Just off of the left side of the road a ways into the park is Sirithan. It’s a short walk down to a nice platform looking onto the falls.
Other Things to See in Doi Inthanon:
We had to skip lots of things in Doi Inthanon, but if you have some extra time, here are some other things to look into if they interest you:
Inthanon Royal Project
Tham Bori Chinda (Brichinda) Cave: I think this cave is closed now unfortunately but it’s worth a quick Google if it interests you.
Karen, Meo, and Shan Hillside Tribe Villages
Final thoughts on Northern Thailand:
There’s not much to say about Thailand that hasn’t already been said as it is a country that is very well travelled. This makes travel in the country quite easy and straightforward and things like getting around and finding places to eat that don’t stray far from western comforts is never hard to do. The problem that arises with this is obvious, however, as it means that nearly everywhere that you go, you will be surrounded by other travellers and things can often become busy or touristy in a hurry.
With this said, however, even though Thailand is quite busy and touristy in a lot of popular places, it is incredibly easy to escape the crowds. The popular places are usually highly concentrated which means that within them, you will be in a busy and westernized version of the country, but escaping this by moving a small distance away or finding a few hidden gems and off-the-beaten path places will allow you to see the country without the crowds.
We chose to do northern Thailand because we preferred the mountains and relaxed atmosphere over the island hopping beaches and diving of southern Thailand. It was definitely the right choice for us and if you head to northern Thailand you can expect to find awesome scenery and culture. Whether it’s the busy hub of Chiang Mai with all of its shops, cafes, street food, markets and night bazaar, the relaxed hippie vibe of the small mountain town of Pai, or the open exploration of the twisty mountain roads of Doi Suthep. From temples to waterfalls to the highest point in Thailand, there is no doubt that everyone can find some reason to fall in love with Northern Thailand.
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