Northern Thailand: The Best of Lanna
To date, through 4 separate road trips in Northern Thailand, we have now covered all 9 provinces, and have put together a simple road trip itinerary that loops through them all (nine province road trip here). So we have covered a fair bit of the north ourselves, but at the same time, it’s unrealistic to cover it all, as many attractions are just not in our own interests. So we have again recruited the help of fellow Thailand-loving travel bloggers to create a more comprehensive list for you all. And then I’ll try to fill in the blanks between. And I have tried to separate them by provinces, as each attraction in Northern Thailand will be easier reached from different destinations. Many of the better attractions are found dotted in and around the two provinces of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, which of course make perfect bases for travel in the region. With plenties of tour options, as well as cheap car hire from the various kiosks of Chiang Mai Airport and Chiang Rai Airport. But be aware that it is a bit of mountainous region in the north, so the “cheapest wheels” deal is not always the smartest way to go for road trips. Anyway, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai will be the main bases for travel for most. But I have also added in Pai (Mae Hong Son), as it’s a huge tourist/backpacker destination, and a road trip through Mae Hong Son is likely the best road trip in all of Thailand (our Mae Hong Son loop here). Also, check out our Lanna Food Guide for all the favourite foods of Northern Thailand.
We would lump mostly for Chiang Mai these days, as it is the obvious tourist hub in Northern Thailand, and we occasionally spend the occasional month or two living in Chiang Mai. But we do avoid the old city area on our stays, given it can be excruciatingly backpack-ish and touristy at times, where instead we would base ourselves just outside in the Nimman (Nimmanhaemin Road) area. A quieter, more amiable part of Chiang Mai, with lots of great food (our Nimman Food Guide here). At the same time, it is just short tuk-tuk ride into centre to explore the city centre attractions of Chiang Mai (our nine temple tour of Chiang Mai here). Anyway, all the links are there for further reading on Chiang Mai itself, otherwise, this is about the attractions of Northern Thailand, where many of which are found in the surrounding Chiang Mai province, which is just rather massive. So we have also shared a similar post specific to our own favourite Chiang Mai attractions here.
By Nick of Spiritual Travels: Chiang Mai Doi Suthep is the most important of Chiang Mai’s many impressive temples and one of the holiest sites in Northern Thailand. The temple is perched on a slope 1056m up Doi Suthep (mountain) overlooking Chiang Mai. Its glistening golden chedi can be seen from just about anywhere in the city when it catches the sun’s rays. Commonly referred to simply as Doi Suthep, the correct name is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. “Phra That” indicates that the temple houses a Buddha relic, a piece of the Buddha’s shoulder bone. Getting there requires a 15-kilometre, winding drive from the city. Upon arrival, you can choose to walk up the 309 stairs flanked by naga creatures or crowd into the electric funicular. The air is cool and fresh when you reach the top, while views looking down on Chiang Mai are breathtaking. The atmosphere as you do a full circuit of the various shrines and prayer rooms is one of pure serenity and devotion.
By James of the Portugalist Travel Blog: Although a lot of elephant sanctuaries in Thailand claim to be ethical, Elephant Nature Park is one of the few that truly lives up to those claims. Situated in Chiang Mai province, just over an hour from Chiang Mai itself, the elephant sanctuary is home to rescued elephants from all over Thailand. Elephant Nature Park founder, Lek Chailert, began rescuing elephants in 1996 and by 2016, Chailert had rescued more than 200 elephants, as well as dogs, cats, birds, and buffalos. The sanctuary’s work has been recognised internationally by publications like Time Magazine and the National Geographic, as well as accolades from organisations like The Smithsonian. Visiting the park allows you to meet the people who work there, feed and bathe the elephants, walk the dogs, and take part in other activities like hiking and rafting. You can either visit for a day or an overnight, or you can pay to volunteer here for several weeks or months at a time. You can either book your visit online. The organisation has a bus service that can either pick you up at your hotel or at their office on 1 Ratmakka Rd.
By Patrick of the German Backpacker: Northern Thailand is especially known for its cultural and natural attractions. However, it is also great for adventurous activities such as bungee jumping and ziplining! Both activities can be found just outside of Chiang Mai and you’ll be able to book it at every tour agency in the city. While these activities can get rather pricey in other countries, Thailand is your chance to experience the adrenaline rush on a lower budget. And before you ask – YES, I felt very safe and the team took good care of me. My bungee jump was approx. 30 meters high and above a smaller lake – an unforgettable but scary experience. If this it too much adrenaline, try ziplining. The jungle in northern Thailand is perfect for it, you’ll have great views and it’s a lot of fun to fly over the trees of the rainforest.
Jorge of Travel Drafts: You must be thinking… what?!?! The Grand Canyon is in the USA. Well, Thailand has one Grand Canyon of its own and it’s in Chiang Mai. This Canyon is only 20 km from Chiang Mai and is the ideal spot to go swimming, relaxing and even cliff jumping if you want some adrenaline… The best way to get there from Chiang Mai, is by motorbike. But In case you don’t have one, there are several places selling tours to the canyon or the usual tuck-tucks. The Grand Canyon is a good place to spend a lazy day, so bring some food and go early. Be prepared to pay an entrance fee of 50 THB and 25 THB for life jackets. It is definitely a place you should go enjoy the fantastic view, soak in the water and try to jump off the cliffs.
Found roughly 1 hour 30 mins from central Chiang Mai, the Giant Tree House not only serves up some top-notch coffees, but you also live out all your “Ewok dreams”. As this coffee shop is literally found up a tree. And it is relatively easy to reach (with the right car) as the coffee shop car park is connected by rope bridges, to the top tiers of a tree that stands over a towering gorge. Two persons at a time, no running, no shaking, no messing around (it would probably be dangerous as a bar). So this coffee shop up a tree, where the elevation and views are really quite impressive, looking out over the canopies of thick rainforest and jungle. Above a carpet of leaves, birds and the sirens of nature below. But there is more to the Giant Tree House than just coffee (although this is what it’s known for) as there’s also a zip-line from the coffee shop connecting roughly 200 meters to another treetop, and then there’s a homestay on the lower tiers of the Tree House itself for those interested in an overnight stay.
By Michelle of the Intentional Travelers: Sticky Falls (Bua Thong Waterfalls) is a beautiful and unique place to visit from Chiang Mai (about 1.5 hours by scooter). The porous rocks that make up the falls create a natural traction for your feet so you don’t slip. With the help of ropes, you can easily walk up and down the middle of the falls. It’s a lot of fun! Entrance to the park is free, and it can get crowded by mid-day. There are also some walking paths around other parts of the park. And just down the road is Wat Tham Buatong, a cave temple perched at the top of a dragon staircase. Definitely a worthwhile day trip!
Found roughly 2 hours out from central Chiang Mai, Doi Inthanon is the highest point in all of Thailand, which explains its common nickname as the “Roof of Thailand”. It’s so high that it’s even frosty at times (in a country with almost constant 30’c heats). And while it does sound just geographically interesting, there is much more to explore on the road up, including Wachirathan Waterfall, as well as the twin Pagodas which are close to the mountain’s summit (pictured). But I would always recommend an overnight stay in the region of Doi Inthanon, where there’s camping, chalets, and homestays scattered throughout the National Park. And for a long-stay, there are waterfalls, hiking trails, caves viewpoints and just lots of natural beauty. Note, bring warm clothes, as the weather can get nippy at times (Dec – Feb). Doi Inthanon Accommodation Here.
By Aleah of Solitary Wanderer: Less than 2 hours from Chiang Mai is the small town of Chiang Dao. Nestled against Doi Chiang Dao, the third highest mountain in Thailand, it’s known mostly for its caves. Tourists go there for a bit of quiet and relaxation; while there are guesthouses there, there are no bars or clubs for the party-lover. A unique thing it does have is its hot springs. When I heard about it, I imagined a small lake of warm water, or maybe a lagoon. It turned out to be small concrete basins that enterprising villagers built to pool the hot water in. It’s flowing so, there shouldn’t be any worries about hygiene, and it’s right next to the river where the water is cold, and where you can take your final dunking. At the time of our visit, bathing in the hot springs of Chiang Dao was free. There was no privacy screen, so we changed clothes behind a boulder. There is a resort right next to it though where you can swim in the hot springs and get dressed in private for 100 baht.
Doi Angkhan ticks all the boxes for me when it comes to attractions in Northern Thailand, and to date it has been one of the more exciting road trips I’ve taken on. There’s the challenging drive to reach this off-the-beaten-path destination, the ridiculously scenic drive along the way, and just the fascinating cultures found in this part of Northern Thailand. Doi Ang Khang is a mountain that straddles both sides of the Thai-Burmese border, which is home to pockets of lesser-seen hill tribes in Thailand (including Musur, The Palaung, Thai Yai, and Jean Hor) who, until recently, were detached from most outside influences. And the borders found at Baan Nor Lae just feel lost and unworldly, passing checkpoints and armed soldiers, to find small villages hidden beneath lingering mists. It’s really just fascinating. Otherwise tourism would be more domestic, with an interested in a Royal Project (King’s Royal Agricultural Station) which transformed the local agriculture from its prominent position on the opium route to strawberries, tea gardens and bizarrely photogenic cabbages.
By Christine of Christine Abroad: Chiang Rai is kind of a hidden gem in Northern Thailand. Most tourists go to Chiang Mai in the north, but 3 hours away, you can enjoy a little quieter and cheaper city. In Chiang Rai you have many beautiful temples. Some of the most notable temples are Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Phra Sing and Wat Phra That Doi Chom Thong. About 20 minutes outside the centre, you also have the famous Wat Rong Khun, also known as the White Temple. The most interesting temple though have to be Wat Phra Kaew, which is the place where the Emerald Buddha was found. It was discovered already in 1434 after a lightning hit an old Chedi. In 1978, Wat Phra Kaew was also named a Royal Temple by the Thai King. In Chiang Rai, you also have several other attractions such as the Clock Tower, Night Bazaar, Saturday market. Nearby you can visit other attractions such as the Black Temple, the Golden Triangle, and the tea plantation of Doi Mae Salong. The Clock Tower has a sound and light show each evening, which shouldn’t be missed. It’s quite spectacular, and the Clock Tower is very beautiful. Chiang Rai is a great base to explore Northern Thailand, and prices for guided tours are cheaper here as well. When you get back to the city in the evening after some sightseeing, you can just stroll around, have some authentic Thai food or why not go for a massage. Everything is reasonably priced here since the majority of the people are locals. Here for our own favourite attractions in Chiang Rai Province.
By Alex Waltner of the Swedish Nomad: Wat Rong Khun is one of the most famous attractions in Northern Thailand. It’s also known as the White Temple among foreigners and was built by the local artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, who decided to restore and rebuild the old Wat Rong Khun. It differs from regular Thai temples, as this is white and not in colour or decorated inside as the majority of temples in Thailand. The white symbolizes the purity of Buddha, and the glass details are a symbol for the wisdom and Dhamma. Inside the temple, you will see quite a few modern depictions from famous movies and characters in modern time. These are not the typical Buddha imagery, but they are meant to show that people are wicked. It’s easy to get here from Chiang Rai. You can go by songthaew, tuk-tuk or local buses. A tuk-tuk cost about 300 baht, and a songthaew around 40 per person. The temple is open from 8 to 5 PM each day. Entrance fee for foreigners is 50 THB, and Thai nationals enter for free.
By Maire Bonheim of Temples and Treehouses: Chiang Rai is famous for its quirky modern White Temple and the artistic Black House nearby. And both are must-sees. But the lesser-known Blue Temple, aka Wat Rong Suea Ten, is just as impressive. It was actually my favourite temple in Chiang Rai. This pop-art bright indigo temple is visually astounding, with an incredible colour-pop ceiling. It’s surrounded by quirky modern statues, fountains and Buddhas, and guarded by bright blue and purple dragons. Despite being absolutely stunning, the Blue Temple wasn’t at all crowded when I visited, especially compared to the hordes of tourists that descend on the White Temple. This is probably because it’s pretty new (the main hall was completed in 2016) so is still slightly off the beaten track. It’s also free to visit — but it is a place of worship, so the usual rules about being respectful and covering up apply.
By Ben McLaughlan of Horizon Unknown: Thailand is an incredibly popular tourist destination. So finding off the beaten path attractions isn’t easy. Especially in a city like Chiang Rai. Driving 20km south of Wat Rong Kuhn Temple (also known as the White Temple), you will reach Lam Nam Kok National Park. Surprisingly, this rural road in Thailand is one of the best-maintained roads I have ever driven. With very little traffic it’s easy to soak in the lush green jungle on either side of the road. People who visit Lam Nam Kok National Park are most likely heading to Chiang Rai’s largest waterfall, Khun Korn. Towering at 70m in height, it has immense power and sprays a fine mist before you set eyes on the beast. Not only that, the 1.4km hike to the waterfall is stunning in itself. Overrun with wild bamboo it felt even further from civilization. If you dare, you can also have a swim in the little pool at the base of the waterfall. Be warned, it is super cold and the pressure from the waterfall is intense! All up, if you’re looking for a great, off the beaten track day trip from Chiang Rai, Lam Nam Kok National Park is hard to beat!
By Laurence of Finding the Universe: One attraction in Northern Thailand that I found very interesting is the Hall of Opium. Visitors to Thailand will no doubt be aware of the infamous “Golden Triangle”, the meeting point of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, which was for a long time the world’s top opium-producing area. Today, that “award” goes to Afghanistan, but the opium trade in this region has had a marked impact on the people, both here and across Thailand. The Hall of Opium museum gives an insight into this region, as well as the devastating impact that opium can have on people’s lives. The museum is interactive and full of information, including information on the medical uses and science behind opium, as well as its darker side. Definitely worth a visit – see more from our full review of our visit to the Hall of Opium here.
By Ben Reeves of the Sabbatical Guide: Phu Chi Fa is one of the most stunning places in Northern Thailand, but one you might not have heard of. Situated about two hours by car from Chiang Rai, Phu Chi Fa is a mountain with spectacular viewpoints across the valley below and sitting right on the border of Thailand and Laos, it is actually possible to cross into Laos by a few feet at the top! It is famous for its magical, misty sunrises and if you’re lucky, you might be treated to a carpet of early morning haze in the valley below. The scramble to the top is taxing, but shouldn’t be too difficult for most people, and the good news is you can drive most of the way up! (Here for our own experience at Phu Chi Fa).
Mae Salong Tea Plantations
By Teresa of Brogan Abroad: Mae Salong caught my imagination when I first read about it. A Chinese village nestled in the mountains of Northern Thailand, it was founded by anti-communist soldiers driven out of China following the victory of communism, and after trying to unsuccessfully settle in Myanmar. During the 60s and 70s, Mae Salong was at the centre of the opium triangle, where Laos, Myanmar and Thailand meet. Today you can visit tea plantations that have replaced the opium fields, making the village a tea lover’s paradise. Mae Salong is a few hours by songthaew (passenger pick up truck) north of Chiang Rai, but it really is worth the trek. There is a big tea culture here – there are oolong teashops everywhere in the village. But for me the highlight was Wang Put Tan Tea Plantation, which looks a bit like Alice in Wonderland, with its giant Chinese lions at the gate, the gorgeous views over the mountains and the plantation and a teashop in the shape of a giant teapot! What’s not to love here? (We have our own Chiang Rai attractions, which didn’t make the list, here).
By Vicki of Vicki Viaja: Pai is a little town near Chiang Mai, just 150 km from the border with Myanmar. Even though Pai is quite small there is a lot to do, especially in the surroundings of Pai. In the area, you will find amazing nature and some of the best hot springs in Thailand. The best is to rent a motorcycle and drive around yourself to discover all those amazing attractions of Pai. However, the roads are not particularly easy because they can be extremely curvy and steep. Therefore, please just take a motorcycle if you are an experienced driver. If you don’t want to go by motorcycle you can as well join one of many tours that can bring you to all the attractions. You can’t leave Pai without checking out one of its beautiful waterfalls. Especially during rainy-season, they are a great place to visit: Our favourite was the Pam Bok Waterfall.
By Nic and Paul of The Roaming Renegades: The Lod Caves, or Tham Lod (Tham means cave in Thai), are located in the North West of Thailand in the Mae Hong Son province just 35km north of Pai. If you thought the ride up to Pai from Chiang Mai was intense with its series of twists and turns, then just wait until you set out on this incredible road that passes through amazing scenery and tiny local villages. The caves themselves are an amazing and intense experience forming over millions of years inside the limestone peaks of the region. You are guided by old-fashioned burning oil lamps where you discover some of the oldest caves in the world and some of the planets most ancient cave paintings. The highlight is taking a bamboo raft through the underground river, once again guided only by your burning oil lamp, the light from which attracts a crowd of blind white fish to gather around you!
So there are 9 provinces in Northern Thailand (Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son, Phayao, Lamphun, Lampang, Phrae, Nan, and Uttaradit). And we have easily covered the best three of these. But there are still some rather exciting off-the-beaten-path options in the north, and I’ll try to sum them up as simply as possible. Starting with Lamphun, a small province that connects just south of Chiang Mai, and is home to 2 historically significant temples of the region (below left). It’s also an easy day-trip. Then there’s Lampang (south again), a rather odd shaped province bordering 7 other provinces, and is very much untouched and exciting to explore. Then out east towards the Lao borders is the mountainous region of Phayao, which is a similar drive, although not quite on par with Mae Hong Son, but it’s a lot quieter. Then there’s Nan, which is a charming town to visit (below right), as well as Phrae, which I remember for interesting/obscure temples. Otherwise Uttaradit is back to flatlands and rice fields, and it feels more like Northeastern Thailand/Isaan. Although they are famous for their durian. Anyway, I’ve summed them all up here.
Emerald Lake (Lampang)
By Kristin of Be my Travel Muse: When I took a road trip in Northern Thailand, I wondered if there were any off the beaten path places to see. One of my road trip buddies stumbled upon the Emerald Lake in Lampang, a cenote that didn’t even have an English name when we found it, and we knew we had to go see it. Turns out, the place is considered to be holy by the locals who make offerings to it yearly. Though it’s popular with Thai tourists, you’re unlikely to see other foreigners there. Since the lake is considered sacred, swimming, fishing, and feeding the fish are not allowed. It’s an enchanting little stop and one that I never expected to see in Thailand. The Emerald Lake is located in the Ngao district of Lampang in Tham Pha National Park, accessible here down a narrow concrete and partially dirt road. It’s a perfect and definitely unique stop of our road trip, one that I will remember for a long time.
The hilltop temple of Wat Chaloem Phra Kiat in Lampang was one of the most unexpected and exciting attractions I’ve come across in all of Thailand. Partly to do with the ridiculously steep climb, which is only by Songtaew, that would be best described as a rollercoaster ride. Where you’re shaken and rattled, in all directions, as the driver darts through steep hills and turns. Then it is a 300 step trek up from the Songtaew, I should emphasize up, and it really took its toll following a merry out the night before at Lampang town’s riverside restaurants. But it was without a doubt worth it, as the views at the karst-top temple are simply enchanting, at least when enshrined by mountain mists, and the chimes of bells, and the fluttering Lanna style prayer flags.
Phayao province is within easy reach of Chiang Mai, and the route almost guarantees a pass through the lakeside city of Phayao city, with its serene promenades, and hilly backdrop. So Phayao is definitely worth a stop. But the real scenery in Phayao is out towards the Lao borders, and it’s 2nd best to Mae Hong Son when it comes to remote mountainous road trips. So Phayao is one of the further-flung mountain regions, and Phu Lang Ka is just one of the most scenic spots I have found. With rolling mountain vistas, and cheap hill tribe homestays to watch over from above. It is also near the Thai-Lao borders, so the border attractions and markets of Ban Huak and Phu Sang National Park are not far away.
By Marco of Penang Inside: I live in Penang, close to the south of Thailand. But one of my favourite places in Thailand is nestled between Chiang Rai and the Laos border, in the country’s north-easternmost corner. I’m talking about Nan province, which still remains, amazingly, off most travellers’itineraries. Nan city is quiet, and its most remarkable feature is a series of temples, of which the most unique is certainly Wat Phumin. Built as if it were standing on the back of two immense nagas (snakes), it’s even more striking inside: the walls are adorned by murals painted by Thai Lu artists at the end of the 19th century. Among scenes of traditional life in the once walled city of Nan, visitors can see references to European figures — including two funky “copulating monkeys”… probably a homage to the French, who stationed in the East of the Nan Valley until 1893. The most famous image, however, is the tattooed Thai Lu man whispering in the ear of a woman. You can find it reproduced on many of the souvenirs for sale outside Wat Phumin. Out of town, one should not miss the Nan Riverside Gallery, filled with interesting pieces of local art. And for nature lovers, the Doi Phu Kha national park, only a few minutes drive from the centre of town, is north Thailand’s biggest park and is home to a 1,980mt peak.
Found in the eastern regions of Northern Thailand, sandwiched between Lampang and Nan, Phrae province is one of the lesser visited provinces in the North. So even the more unique of attractions, the unique rock structures, is completely void of tourism. The name Phae Mueang Phi means ‘Forest City of Ghosts’, and the park is famous for its ‘mushroom rocks’ although it didn’t feel haunted or ghostly as the folklore believes. But it is no doubt great for pictures. Otherwise, it’s just a nice spot for a picnic. As it really won’t take long explore. Otherwise there are similar landscapes in Northern Thailand (like Pai Canyon) but this is easily the quieter of landscapes. I would then add Phra That Suthon Mongkhon Khiri to the Phrae attractions. And it is very much worth the visit.
- ^ nine province road trip here (www.live-less-ordinary.com)
- ^ our Mae Hong Son loop here (www.live-less-ordinary.com)
- ^ Lanna Food Guide (www.live-less-ordinary.com)
- ^ living in Chiang Mai (www.live-less-ordinary.com)
- ^ Nimman (Nimmanhaemin Road) area (www.live-less-ordinary.com)
- ^ our Nimman Food Guide here (www.live-less-ordinary.com)
- ^ our nine temple tour of Chiang Mai here (www.live-less-ordinary.com)
- ^ our own favourite Chiang Mai attractions here (www.live-less-ordinary.com)
- ^ Chiang Mai’s many impressive temples (www.nickkembel.com)
- ^ Portugalist Travel Blog (www.portugalist.com)
- ^ German Backpacker (germanbackpacker.com)
- ^ Thailand (www.traveldrafts.com)
- ^ things to do in Northern Thailand here (travelphotodiscovery.com)
- ^ Chiang Mai (intentionaltravelers.com)
- ^ waterfalls, hiking trails, caves viewpoints and just lots of natural beauty (www.tourismthailand.org)
- ^ Doi Inthanon Accommodation Here (www.agoda.com)
- ^ hot springs of Chiang Dao (www.solitarywanderer.com)
- ^ Christine Abroad (www.christineabroad.com)
- ^ favourite attractions in Chiang Rai Province (www.live-less-ordinary.com)
- ^ Wat Rong Khun (www.swedishnomad.com)
- ^ Chiang Rai (templesandtreehouses.com)
- ^ Horizon Unknown (horizonunknown.com)
- ^ visit to the Hall of Opium here (www.findingtheuniverse.com)
- ^ Phu Chi Fa (thesabbaticalguide.com)
- ^ Here for our own experience at Phu Chi Fa (www.live-less-ordinary.com)
- ^ Brogan Abroad (broganabroad.com)
- ^ We have our own Chiang Rai attractions, which didn’t make the list, here (www.live-less-ordinary.com)
- ^ Vicki Viaja (vickiviaja.com)
- ^ The Roaming Renegades (theroamingrenegades.com)
- ^ Northeastern Thailand/Isaan (www.live-less-ordinary.com)
- ^ Anyway, I’ve summed them all up here (www.live-less-ordinary.com)
- ^ Be my Travel Muse (www.bemytravelmuse.com)
- ^ here (www.google.com)
- ^ Penang, close to the south of Thailand (www.penang-insider.com)