With so much to see and do in Northern Thailand, you could spend weeks in this region and never get bored. There is something here for people of all ages and to suit all travel styles. Whether you’re travelling as a family, a couple or own your own, the north of Thailand offers up a multitude of experiences.
Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai are the two best-known destinations in the north of Thailand. These are often the only two places that people visit when they travel to this region and while Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai are both fabulous destinations in their own right, there are so many more places to see in Northern Thailand.
If you have the luxury of time on your side, this mountainous corner of the country is ideal for slow travel. If you have less time, a multi-centre holiday is a good introduction to the north. To explore the north-west of the country, use Chiang Mai as a springboard for trips to Pai and Mae Hong Son. As a minimum, we would suggest at least one week for a multi-centre holiday featuring Chiang Mai, Mae Hong Son and Pai.
Regarded as the cultural capital of North Thailand, you could spend weeks or months in Chiang Mai without ever getting bored. Unfortunately, most of us won’t have the luxury of spending that amount of time in Chiang Mai. If you only have a week to spend in the north, you could still see and do a lot in Chiang Mai in three or four days before venturing onwards for another three or four days in Pai and Mae Hong Son. If your Thai holiday is three weeks or more, then nine or ten days in this region gives you a chance to experience so much without needing to rush around. That would then still allow you a similar amount of time at a beach destination plus a few days in Bangkok either at the start or end of your trip.
The former capital of the ancient Lanna kingdom, Chiang Mai has its own distinct cultural identity. The pace of life here (and in North Thailand in general) is more relaxed than Bangkok. When you’re planning your Thailand holiday, a combination of Chiang Mai and the north, Bangkok and a beach destination is a classic itinerary that allows you to experience the incredible diversity that Thailand has to offer.
For ideas of what to see and do in Chiang Mai, check out this article:
25 of the best things to see and do in Chiang Mai
Mae Hong Son
Mae Hong Son is an ideal add-on to a Chiang Mai holiday. Travel up and over the twisty mountain roads from Chiang Mai and you’ll see some spectacular views. This is a province of outstanding natural beauty and also one which is very different from Chiang Mai. Before the construction of the mountain roads, Mae Hong Son was a remote and difficult destination to reach and even for modern-day travellers it still has a feel of arriving in a different country.
A mix of Burmese, Chinese and Thai influences combine to make Mae Hong Son one of the most culturally diverse provinces in Thailand. Mae Hong Son town was originally established by people from the Tai Yai (also known as Shan) community. Elsewhere in the province, there are different hill-tribe communities including Karen, Lahu and Lisu. This fascinating cultural mix can be seen in the design of the temples, the local dishes, and the colourful clothes of the hill-tribe communities.
Explore the scenic rural backroads of Mae Hong Son with The Tuk Tuk Club, venture out into the hills at Doi Mae Ou Kor, relax at Pang Oung Reservoir, and get a taste of life in China without leaving Thailand at the village of Ban Rak Thai. In Mae Hong town, visit the hilltop temple of Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu in the morning to watch the morning mist slowly lift over the valley below or in the evening to admire the sunset over the mountains.
For ideas of what to see and do in Mae Hong Son, check out this article:
17 of the best things to see and do in Mae Hong Son
The town of Pai is located halfway between Chiang Mai city and Mae Hong Son town. This makes Pai a popular stopover for travellers traversing the Mae Hong Son loop. Pai has long been popular with backpackers and in more recent years has seen a rise in Thai tourists thanks to a number of films and television shows shot in and around the town.
Pai still continues to attract Bohemian travellers, but you’re equally likely to encounter bankers from Bangkok as you are hippies from Holland. With an increasingly diverse number of places to eat, drink and relax, Pai is an enjoyable location to hangout for a few days. For short trips out of go rafting on the Pai River, visit Kong Laen (aka Pai Canyon), the Memorial Bridge, and the Big Buddha.
After a few days in Pai, many travellers head back to Chiang Mai instead of continuing onwards to Mae Hong Son town. If your itinerary allows, the journey on to Mae Hong Son is worth the effort. While Pai is lovely, it can be touristy in the high season months. If you can make time for Mae Hong Son town and the rest of the province, it will reward you with more meaningful travel experiences.
Good to know
Chiang Mai, Pai and Mae Hong Son can be visited any time of the year. The cool season months (November-February) are the most popular time to visit. Temperatures do get cool in the cool season evenings especially in Pai and Mae Hong Son. March-April is hot and dry and usually the time of the year that sees the worst of the annual haze. Heading into June/July brings the arrival of the rains, but it’s still a good time to visit with clear air, plenty of sunshine and great views.
Despite what you may see in some travel guides, the rainy season (August-October) or as we prefer to call it, the green season, can be a great time to visit the north of Thailand. Although you are likely to see some rain, you’ll also see sunshine and warm weather. The green season is an apt description for a time of the year when the verdant countryside is at its best and waterfalls are in full flow.
The route between Chiang Mai, Mae Hong Son and back to Chiang Mai is known as the Mae Hong Son loop. It’s a series of twisty mountain roads and if you are prone to motion sickness, take precautions. According to the Mae Hong Son Chamber of Commerce, there are 1,864 curves on Route 108 from Chiang Mai via Mae Sariang to Mae Hong Son.
Chiang Mai is famous for the Yi Peng Lantern Festival (usually held in November). It’s also regarded as one of the best places in Thailand to experience Songkran, the Thai New Year Water Festival (April). In Mae Hong Son, the annual Poy Sang Long Festival (March/April) is a colourful event to experience as is the Chong Para Festival (October).
This article is part of our Itinerary Ideas series. These particular itineraries are for anybody, but may appeal more to repeat visitors to Thailand looking to explore different destinations on their next trip or anyone seeking meaningful travel experiences. If you’re a first-time visitor to Thailand or looking for more ideas of where to go and what to do, check out these articles too:
2-week Thailand itinerary
3-week Thailand itinerary
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