I’m a huge fan of Thailand and everything it has to offer. Even though things have changed recently there, I look forward to getting back as soon as I can. In the meanwhile, I’m sitting in Edinburgh going through my old photographs and gorging myself on as much Thai food as I can afford. If you manage to make it to northern Thailand before I do, these are the trips from Chiang Mai I’d recommend.
Even though all of these are relatively close to Chiang Mai, transportation in northern Thailand tends to take a while, and I’d recommend planning at least a weekend, if not a full week, at most of these locations. Just the last two are better for one-day trips.
Please note: this is a sponsored post in collaboration with the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), but the opinions and recommendations are my own, as always. Also, if you’re planning to head to Thailand in the near future, check out TAT’s newest travel advice about the pandemic.
Chiang Rai is my second-favorite town in northern Thailand. It’s popularly has been growing in recent years as it continues to build up with new hotels, hostels and restaurants opening all the time. I personally think Chiang Rai is slowly becoming a small Chiang Mai (while Chiang Mai expands exponentially).
Chiang Rai is located about 130 miles northeast of Chiang Mai. There are several buses traveling between the two towns each day and the journey takes about three and a half hours. There are plenty of companies offering a day-tour of Chiang Rai from Chiang Mai, but I wouldn’t recommend those as you’ll be way too rushed.
There are several attractions in Chiang Rai that definitely shouldn’t be missed, such as Wat Rong Khun (the White Temple), Rong Suea Ten (the Blue Temple), and Baan Dam (the Black House). While in Chiang Rai, you can buy a tour to take you to all these locations and many more, such as the Golden Triangle, Mae Salong tea and coffee plantations, Tham Pla Cave and Monkey Temple, etc. You can also rent a scooter or use public transportation to visit each attraction at your own pace.
Check out my full article on visiting Chiang Rai.
You can either visit Mae Sai as an excursion from Chiang Rai, or you can go direct from Chiang Mai, but you’ll have to pass through Chiang Rai either way. It’s located about 40 miles north of Chiang Rai on the border of Myanmar. The main attraction in Mae Sai is Wat Phra That Doi Wao with its huge scorpion statue.
Perhaps the best reason to visit Mae Sai is so you can spend a few hours in Tachileik, Myanmar. I spent an afternoon there myself for one of my Thailand visa runs. While the city doesn’t have any spectacular tourist attractions, it’s interesting to see the culture in Myanmar and how it compares to Thailand.
I’d only recommend going directly to Mae Sai from Chiang Mai if you’re making a visa run. Otherwise, include it as an excursion from Chiang Rai. Most of the tours from Chiang Rai will also have Mae Sai as a stop, but you won’t have time to cross the border on those tours.
Now for my top recommended trip from Chiang Mai. Located only about 80 miles northwest of Chiang Mai, Pai is the ultimate hippie village. But don’t let the distance fool you – the road there has over 700 twists and turns, and the journey usually takes upwards of 4 hours. Most of the travelers I talked to who went in a tuk-tuk or minivan ended up violently carsick, but it’s worth the journey.
If you plan a trip to Pai, do not go for one day. Or even just two days. My brother and I rented scooters and went up for three days, and it still wasn’t nearly enough time. Pai is way up in the wilderness, and there are plenty of waterfalls, caves, hot springs, and interesting land features to explore. My personal favorite was Pai Canyon, where ridges of limestone rise above the trees.
Yes, Pai is a hippie village, and some people have given it a bad rap due to the negative side of hippies (drugs, rowdiness, etc). Personally, since I don’t do drugs and rarely drink, I avoided all those parts of Pai. I didn’t go to the bars and really touristy spots, and I also didn’t see Pai years ago before it became popular, so I can’t really compare. I just know I absolutely loved Pai, and I can’t wait to go back, if only to relax in the secluded hot springs (with an entrance fee of $1.30!).
Check out my full article on visiting Pai.
Another great little village to visit near Chiang Mai is Mae Salong. It’s northwest of Chiang Rai, but only 140 miles from Chiang Mai (since you get there on a different highway). The history of Mae Salong is fascinating. In a nutshell, the Chinese communists chased out the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) army in 1949. Most of the KMT relocated to Taiwan, but one division fled to Burma. They were forced out of Burma and ended up in northern Thailand. The Thai king allowed them to stay. They settled around the village of Mae Salong where they have grown tea plantations to this day.
Nowadays, you can visit the Tomb of General Tuan Shi-wen, the late leader in the KMT. There’s also a museum for the KMT, although they were still working on translating the panels to English when I was there. Thankfully, I had a great guide to show me around and explain things.
The main attraction of Mae Salong (in my opinion) is the tea plantations. There are several cafes and restaurants throughout Mae Salong where you can sample the local teas. There are also Thai coffee plantations in this region too. Did you know some of the best coffee roasters are in Thailand? In fact, the coffee I’m drinking as I write this in Edinburgh is from the Doi Saket District in Chiang Mai.
If you’re looking for a shorter day-trip from Chiang Mai, my top pick is the San Kamphaeng Hot Springs (which are actually in Mae On District, not Sankamphaeng District).
If you’re looking for hot springs to go swimming in, I’d recommend the ones around Pai. The San Kamphaeng Hot Springs is really just one pool with boiling water, and two man-made channels winding away through the gardens. The further you sit from the spring, the cooler the water gets. You could consider it anticlimatic for a hot springs, but I absolutely loved it. The gardens are immaculately tended and trimmed, and the flowers everywhere make it extremely peaceful.
The hot springs only cost 200 baht ($6) to enter (it used to be 100 baht). A featured activity is to buy a small bamboo basket of quail eggs at the entrance for 20 baht and then boil them in the spring. Don’t boil the soy sauce; put the sauce on the eggs after you cook them. And don’t forget to take the eggs out of the water. It’s only about 3 minutes for soft-boiled and 10 minutes for hard-boiled.
If you want to spend longer at the hot springs, you can soak in the mineral pool – a swimming pool which they pump the mineral water from the hot springs into. You can even spend the night at the hot springs. Tents are available for 150 baht ($7.50) per night, or you can get a bungalow for about 1,000 baht ($30).
Getting to the San Kamphaeng Hot Springs is fairly easy if you have a scooter. Just take highway 1317 from the Promenada Mall heading east. Travel about 17 miles (making sure to stay on 1317) until you see the turnoff for 4041 and signs for the hot springs. Turn left and you’ll be there in less than a couple miles. If you don’t have your own scooter, you can get one of the songthaews (two-bench pickup trucks) from the Chang Phuak bus station near the north gate of Chiang Mai’s Old Town.
Bonus: Doi Inthanon National Park
There’s one more excursion I’d recommend from Chiang Mai, but I didn’t get a chance to do this one myself, so I only suggest it from my incomplete bucket list, not from my own experience. Doi Inthanon is Thailand’s highest peak, and the national park around it is full of waterfalls, temples, and forest paths to explore.
If you have your own transportation, it’s not that hard to get there – about 66 miles southwest of Chiang Mai. Otherwise, you’ll have to jump on a tour from Chiang Mai, and they average about 2,000 baht ($60). As much as I wanted to visit, it was hard to justify spending $60. If you’re on a budget, the other five excursions listed above are mostly cheaper.
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After being an Expat in Chiang Mai three times, I’ve written quite a few articles on the city. Here are my articles specifically related to living here long-term.
- My Adventures in Chiang Mai, Thailand
- Come Join Me at My Winter Home Base in Chiang Mai, Thailand
- How I Balance Thai and Western Food Each Week – Expat in Thailand
- My First Thai New Year, aka Songkran Water Festival
If you’re looking for some attractions to do in Chiang Mai, here are a few more articles.
- Follow in my Footsteps: 5 Steps to Properly Feed Bananas to Elephants in Thailand
- The New Chiang Mai Water Park at the Grand Canyon Quarry
- Follow in My Footsteps: Explore the Temples Outside Chiang Mai Old Town
- A Purrrfect Catmosphere Afternoon in Chiang Mai, Thailand
- Follow in my Lost Footsteps – Stumbling Upon Huay Kaew Waterfall
- Spelunking (Cave Exploration) and Hot Springs near Chiang Mai
- Cliff Jumping at the Chiang Mai Grand Canyon
- Getting Lost in a Jungle in Thailand
- Conquering the Doi Suthep Jungle
And if you want to branch out a little bit from Chiang Mai to the other surrounding cities and villages, here are my stories for those places.
- A Day Exploring the Sai Ngam Hot Springs and Pai Canyon – Pai Part 1
- Christmas in the Hippie Village of Pai and a Secret Waterfall, Pai Part 2
- 10 Activities to Do In and Around Chiang Rai, Thailand
Finally here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.