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How to get off the beaten track in northern Thailand

Northern Thailand is a complete contrast from southern Thailand. But what it lacks in beaches and islands, it more than makes up for with mountainous countryside, ancient cities and authentic adventures. Here are the seven best places to visit in northern Thailand.
Author: Aimee White - SEO Copywriter
Date Published: 11 June 2024
Northern Thailand feels like a different world from the beaches and islands of southern Thailand, but it's just as worth visiting. The ideal northern Thailand itinerary will see you take in milky-blue waterfalls and ancient temples, as well as verdant countryside and bustling night markets.

International flights to Thailand land at Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport and Chiang Mai International Airport. Flights from Australia (including Sydney, Perth, Melbourne) to Thailand take around nine hours; from the UK around 11 hours; and from the US around 18 hours. You can secure cheap flights to Thailand by booking well in advance, or by travelling at certain times of the year.

The best time to visit northern Thailand is between May to December. Between January to April, northern Thailand experiences a "burning season" where air pollution is at its worst, so it's advisable to avoid the area during this time.

Read on to discover the best places to visit in northern Thailand:

Best for wildlife: Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai in northern Thailand is one of the country's most exciting cities. The Bangkok to Chiang Mai train is a rite of passage in itself; this overnight sleeper train takes around 12 hours. As soon as you arrive into Chiang Mai, you'll instantly notice a calmer contrast from Bangkok.

Chiang Mai accommodation ranges from boutique hotels and upscale spa resorts to sociable hostels and self-catering guesthouses. In terms of where to stay in Chiang Mai, first-time visitors can opt for the Old City, with most sites in easy walking distance, while the tranquil riverside area makes for a true luxury escape in Thailand.

There's plenty of things to do in Chiang Mai, from Bua Tong "Sticky Waterfalls" and the famous Doi Suthep temple to the bustling Chiang Mai Night Bazaar. The best elephant sanctuary in northern Thailand is Elephant Nature Park. This is one of the largest elephant conservation centres in the country, where the gentle giants roam huge swathes of land and splash about in the river. Watch them from a dedicated viewing platform on our Northern Thailand tour.

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Best for relaxation: Pai

Popular for its peaceful ambience, Pai in northern Thailand is an ideal place to switch back and relax. Pai is also popular with backpackers for its hippy-like atmosphere and cheap nightlife, with Pai Walking Street at the heart of the action.

Pai's natural attractions include Pai Canyon, where you can watch a beautiful sunrise or sunset over the rocky landscape. Or lower yourself into the natural waters at Tha Pai Hot Spring, where pools of steaming water simmer at varying temperatures.

Some 11km southwest of Pai lies Kho Ku So Bamboo Bridge. A complex of bamboo bridges and platforms snake across the rice fields, providing a chance to get up close with nature and endless photographic spots.

Best for history: Sukhothai

The first capital of Siam (present-day Thailand), Sukhothai was at the heart of Thai civilization between the 13th and 15th centuries. It became abandoned from the late 1400s, gradually becoming a "lost city" in the jungle, before being excavated in the 19th century.

Today you can explore this old city by bicycle; there are 21 historical sites within the city walls and a further 70 outside. While historic Ayutthaya is a popular day trip from Bangkok, Sukhothai makes for a great alternative, as you can escape the crowds and soak up just as much rich history - if not more.

Cycle across Thailand

Best for temples: Chiang Rai

Close to the border of Myanmar and Laos lies Chiang Rai. This northern Thai city is well-known for its myriad of temples serving a wide-range of styles, including traditional, modern and downright quirky.

Chiang Rai is located around 240km northeast of Chiang Mai, making it a popular day trip. The must-see temples in Chiang Rai are Rong Suea Ten Temple (the "blue temple"), Wat Ron Khun (the "white temple") and the Baan Dam Museum, which is home to the "black temple".

If you have more time to spare, consider a longer stay; you could spend up to three days in Chiang Rai. Most will return to Chiang Mai at the end of the day, leaving the beauty of Chiang Rai to unfold before you.

Best for nature: Mae Hong Son

Mae Hong Son is the most forested and mountainous province in Thailand, so it's a haven for nature lovers. Experienced riders take on the circular Mae Hong Son loop, which covers some 600km, although it's just as easy to get around by public transport.

The province borders Myanmar (Burma), so you can see lots of Burmese influences, notably in its temples. When it comes to what to pack for Thailand, this northern region is a prime example of what to bring: loose-fitting clothing (including covering your shoulders and knees at religious sites), mosquito repellent and sturdy footwear.

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Best for local art: Lampang

In between Chiang Mai and Sukhothai lies Lampang, the third largest city in Thailand. While Lampang is firmly on the beaten track, with buses and trains running between Bangkok and Chiang Mai stopping here, this historic city sees fewer tourists than other Thai destinations.

The city is well-known for its beautiful ceramic items, which are created using kaolin (a white clay mineral) before being hand-painted with local patterns. Learn more about this traditional Thai artform at Dhanabadee Ceramic Museum, where you can paint ceramics for yourself, or buy one of the intricate pieces from multiple shops and market stalls across the city.

See more art in Thailand

Best for homestays: Na Ton Chan

To the north of Si Satchanalai and Sukhothai lies the rural village of Na Ton Chan. Here you can explore this small area by foot, taking in the lush rice paddies and learn how the local community stitch clothes using bamboo tools, create bamboo items and carve intricate ornaments. 

Na Ton Chan gives you the chance for an authentic homestay experience, where you can enjoy hearty homecooked meals. This authentic experience really gives you the chance to get under the skin of the destination, and is great for history lovers who want to understand the 'real' Thailand.
Book our Best of Northern Thailand tour

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