Many overseas travellers planning a trip to North Thailand may only be familiar with Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. While they are both fabulous destinations in their own right, they also make the ideal springboard to discover more of the North. For this edition of our Itinerary Ideas series, we take a closer look at Chiang Rai and the nearby provinces of Nan, Phrae and Phayao.
This itinerary provides the opportunity to discover more of ‘Unseen Thailand‘ away from the tourist trail. We suggest a minimum of 12 days to take in all of these destinations. That gives you enough time to venture into the countryside and the provincial capitals.
- 4 days Chiang Rai
- 4 days Nan
- 2 days Phrae
- 2 days Phayao
If you don’t have the luxury of time on your side, consider pairing Chiang Rai with just one of these destinations e.g. Nan and spend a week exploring. In terms of which order to do this trip, you could do a loop and start and finish in Chiang Rai:
Chiang Rai-Phayao-Phrae-Nan-Chiang Rai
Alternatively, if you are venturing across to Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son afterwards, you could do it in this order:
Chiang Rai-Nan-Phrae-Phayao-Chiang Mai
And if you’re travelling to Bangkok another option would be to travel:
Chiang Rai-Phayao-Phrae-Nan (fly from Nan to Bangkok)
At the moment, there is no rail service to Chiang Rai. Work is underway for a branch line from the main Northern Line Railway (between Bangkok and Chiang Mai) that will go from Den Chai in Phrae through to Chiang Rai province, but it is unlikely to be open until 2028 at the earliest. In the meantime, the excellent Green Bus company run frequent and reliable bus services connecting Chiang Rai with Nan, Phrae and Phayao (and Chiang Mai).
Spending at least four days in Chiang Rai will allow you enough time to visit many of the main highlights, especially those in and around the provincial capital like the White Temple, Blue Temple, and Night Bazaar.
Naturally, the more time you have the more you can explore further afield in Chiang Rai province. A trip to the Golden Triangle or Doi Tung is a feasible day trip from Chiang Rai city, but for visits to Doi Mae Salong and Phu Chi Fah you should allow more time. Take a look at the article in this link for more ideas:
15 of the best things to see and do in Chiang Rai
When you arrive in Nan for the first time you may kick yourself for not visiting sooner. The compact provincial capital is a culture lover’s delight. With no high-rise buildings, this is a city which has preserved its charm and heritage. Many of the main attractions, like Wat Phumin and the National Museum, are within comfortable walking distance of each other. There is also the option of hiring a bicycle or taking a tram tour around the city
Allow at least two full days in the city to soak up the culture and relax into the slow life. Get up early and head to the morning market where you’ll see Nan come to life with the monks on their morning alms round. Enjoy a local breakfast at the cafes and food stalls near the market before exploring more of the city.
Don’t miss Wat Phumin and the famous murals and make time too for the nearby National Museum for an insight into local culture. The museum is located on picturesque grounds which also have the distinction of being home to the smallest temple in Thailand, Wat Noi. Enjoy lunch at any of Nan’s riverside restaurants and be sure to try local dishes like khao soi, sai oua, and kep moo.
Try to spend at least two days in rural Nan. You’ll need your own transport or you can hire a car with a driver to venture out into the gorgeous Nan countryside. Make a stop on the way at the Nan Riverside Arts Space before travelling on to the scenic Pua district. If you stay at Cocoa Valley Resort you can even learn how to make chocolate. Or head further out and sample the remote beauty of Si Nan National Park and Doi Samer Dao. Take a look at the article in this link for more ideas:
15 of the best things to see and do in Nan
Spend a few days in Phrae to enjoy the atmosphere in this amiable provincial capital. The historic Old Town area is a good place to stay and it’s a joy to simply wander around and admire the old wooden buildings and charm of the town.
From the late 1800s until the early 1940s, Phrae was famous for its teak industry. During those timber industry peak years, Phrae was a thriving trading hub with a number of teakwood mansions and houses built in the city. Elegantly preserved examples can still be seen dotted around Phrae including the Governor’s House (Khum Chao Luang), Wongburi House and Ban Pratup Chai.
Another wooden building of interest is the Seri Thai (Free Thai) Museum which is located in the former home of one of the leaders of the Siamese resistance movement. During the Second World War, Seri Thai helped the Allies in their fight against the Japanese army and the museum is filled with fascinating artefacts and wartime memorabilia.
Phayao may not be packed with loads of things to do, but it’s still a great place to relax for a few days. The star attraction is Kwan Phayao, the largest freshwater lake in North Thailand.
Located close to the city centre, the picturesque lake is at the heart of local festivities and a favourite hangout spot on weekends where locals come to eat the local speciality dish of grilled tilapia fish. The fish are caught from the lake and grilled with a tasty seasoning of salt and herbs. Served alongside grilled chicken and sticky rice and washed down with ice-cold beer, this is the quintessential Phayao dining experience.
Good to know
There are frequent flights from Bangkok to Chiang Rai. You can also fly direct from the Thai capital to the small provincial airports at Nan or Phrae.
The reliable Green Bus Company (link in Thai) runs frequent services between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai with a journey time of around three hours. Green Bus also offers a good choice of services that link Nan, Phrae and Phayao with Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai.
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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