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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

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.

Black House Museum

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.

White Temple in Chiang Rai without Crowds

Check out my full article on visiting Chiang Rai.

Mae Sai

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.

Wat Phra That Doi Wao

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.

Mae Sai to Tachileik Frienship Bridge

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.

Pai

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.

Narrow Trails of Pai Canyon

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!).

Selfie at Pai Hot Springs

Check out my full article on visiting Pai.

Mae Salong

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.

Tomb of General Tuan Shi-wen in Mae Salong

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.

Mae Salong Tea Plantations

San Kamphaeng

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.

Sankhanpang Hot Springs Gardens

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.

Sankhanpang Hot Springs Geyser and Egg Pools

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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Trips from Chiang Mai Pin

Further Reading

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.

If you’re looking for some attractions to do in Chiang Mai, here are a few more articles.

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.

Finally here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.

Although I’ve been on the road through three Christmases, this was the first time I spent it somewhere unique and special. Pai, Thailand.

My brother arrived in Thailand on December 18th for his first overseas adventure. After a brief exploration of Bangkok, we made our way up to Chiang Mai, and then to Pai. I had heard about Pai last year when I spent a month in Chiang Mai. Pai was just becoming a key attraction in the Chiang Mai region. My brother had planned to come see me in Thailand for the holidays last year, so I chose to hold off on Pai to go with him, and went to Kuala Lumpur instead. His plans then fell through, and Pai remained on my bucket list…until now.

An Adventure in Pai

Last year when I was looking at guest houses in Pai, I didn’t see more than a dozen or so. Now there are a couple hundred. Moreover, while the town has a permanent population of 2,000, I’d say there were at least five times that in the couple days we were there. Luckily, one of the last guesthouses with availability over the holiday weekend was one of the more popular.

Pai Walking Street

The Famous Pai Circus Hostel opened in December 2012, and has been improving itself ever since. In the morning you can get free yoga classes, there is a two-hour circus school every afternoon, and at night you can enjoy an hour-long fire show. While I didn’t end up using it, they even have an infinity pool overlooking the Pai valley. I’d say the only disadvantage of the hostel was the quality of the bungalows. The walls were paper-thin, the door had space around it allowing anyone to look in and several guests complained of bedbugs (luckily not us).

Famous Pai Circus Hostel

On our first night there, we grabbed a dinner on the Pai Walking Street, a short distance from the hostel. After that, Payton fell asleep while I watched the fire show. Although it wasn’t as good as the one I later saw on New Year’s Eve, it was still fun.

Fire Show Circus Hostel

The next day was spent adventuring to the hot springs and Pai Canyon, mentioned in Pai Part 1.

Mae Yen Waterfall

Christmas Day was entirely spent on a hike to the Mae Yen Waterfall. The two main waterfalls of Pai are Pam Bok and Mo Paeng, but those both have entrance fees and are outside of town. On our budget, we decided on the third, free option. We were also told it was only an hour hike to the waterfall, and the drive to the hike was less than two kilometers. It didn’t quite turn out the way we were told.

Sign to Pai Waterfall

You can find the beginning of the trail here on Google Maps. There’s a small hippie hut called Valhallah if you want food or drinks before or after the hut. From there, just follow the signs for the trail, which starts off walking through the center of the stream. Instead of taking an hour, the hike was closer to three hours, and we ended up crossing the stream a total of 40 times!

River to Pai Waterfall

Mae Yen is hardly a world-class waterfall. The water cascades down the rocks maybe 15 meters into a pool. If you’re courageous, you can climb up the rocks to a ledge a couple meters up and stand under the ice-cold water. The best part was the lack of tourists. There were less than a dozen people hanging out at the waterfall, and we passed less than that on the trail up and back.

Pai Waterfall

The main requirement for this hike is sturdy footwear. I’d recommend a pair of water shoes, or high-quality sandals. As mentioned, you’ll be crossing the river a total of 80 times on the hike. Not knowing this, Payton was unable to wear his sneakers and ended up doing the hike barefoot, which he felt afterward! I wore my sandals, and they finally fell apart! Believe it or not, these durable Land’s End sandals had lasted a whopping 25 years. Comfortable, sturdy and durable, I never had a reason to replace them. They survived countless trips to the beach in my life and two years of travel, including two months of only wearing them in SE Asia, and even a day hike through the mountains of Doi Suthep. Alas, they finally gave up on this hike. RIP, wonderful sandals! Perhaps I can get Land’s End to send me another pair to promote for the next couple decades! LOL

Land's End Sandals

I’d also recommend bringing some food on the hike, and lots of water in a good high-quality hiking backpack. At a decent pace, with a little time spent at the waterfall, the hike took us about six hours. By the time we made it back to town, we were absolutely famished!

We grabbed a bite to eat at the same restaurant we had breakfast at and then moved into the KK Hut Guest House across the street. Cool travel tip: it’s half the price of the Pai Circus Hostel, and offers much nicer facilities. We happened to get a free upgrade to a “family room” with a massive bed and en-suite bathroom. From there you just have to walk across the street if you want to enjoy the circus activities.

KK Hut Guest House Family Room

And that was our adventure in Pai. The next day we got a bite to eat in town, and then returned back to Chiang Mai. It should be mentioned that I might have unleashed the beast in Payton on the scooter. He was accustomed to it this time, and he didn’t hold back.

We left so many adventures in Pai behind. Luckily I’ll be working in Chiang Mai for the next three or so months, and I’ll be back up for the other waterfalls, caves and hot springs. Payton will be back in the states, so I’m looking for others to share the adventures with me. Any takers?

If you like beautiful scenery, few tourists, a hippie culture and off-the-beaten-path attractions, Pai is the place for you. Hot springs, waterfalls, caves and Pai Canyon are just some of the attractions available.

My brother and I went up to Pai for Christmas 2016. Renting scooters from Mango Bikes in Chiang Mai, we were able to complete the 140 km ride in a little under 3 hours, and on a single tank of gas. As a warning, please only attempt this journey if you have previous experience on a scooter or motorcycle, and you’re fully sober. A huge percentage of the tourists who attempt the ride have accidents. It doesn’t even have to be your fault either. I had less than half a second to swerve around an oncoming truck in my lane while going around a corner in the mountains at high speed. If you don’t have experience, bus tickets are as low as 140 baht. Then you can rent a scooter in Pai with the same admonition.

There are plenty of activities to choose from. Many have a price tag of 1000-2000 baht. These include rafting trips, bareback elephant rides (ecotourist friendly), and tours to the waterfalls, caves, hot springs and canyon. With our scooters, we decided to create our own tour.

Sai Ngam Hot Springs

There are two main hot springs near Pai. The more famous one is the Tha Pai hot springs, which have a series of pools. The entrance fee there is 200 baht. While I didn’t go to that one, I was told the top pool is 80°C, hot enough to boil an egg. There are then a series of lower pools, each with a cooler temperature.

The other option is the Sai Ngam hot springs.

With a couple friends from the hostel, we went to the less-touristy Sai Ngam hot springs. These are located 15 km north of Pai (about a 30 minute ride). There are two meager fees to pay. The first is just off the main highway. The Lom Nam Pai Wildlife Sanctuary (in which the hot springs are located) has an entrance fee of 20 baht for the scooter and 20 baht per person. Then there is an additional 20 baht fee for the hot springs themselves when you arrive.

Sai Ngam Hot Springs

There are a couple pools at the Sai Ngam hot springs, but nearly everyone congregates in the large pool at the top. When I say everyone, there were less than couple dozen people there, and half of those were locals. I’d say the water is around 40°C, although it’s not consistent throughout the pool. Whatever the temperature was, it was certainly relaxing. We just sat there for hours, soaking up the warmth and minerals. Later, a couple cute little Thai kids jumped off logs into the water without really being a distraction.

Austin at the Hot Springs

In fact, we enjoyed the water so much that we kinda lost track of time. We had planned to go spelunking in the Tham Lot cave, but after driving halfway there, it became clear that it would be long after sunset before we returned to Pai. None of us wanted to be driving on the cold mountain roads in the dark.

Pai Canyon

Instead, we decided to make it down to the Pai canyon for sunset. That was easier said than done, since we’d made it pretty far north, and would really have had to haul ass to make it back in time.

But make it we did!

Sunset was scheduled that night for 5:46 PM. We pulled into the parking lot at 5:40 and then had to run uphill for a couple minutes to reach the lookout. When we reached the top, I discovered the rush was more than worth it.

Okay, maybe the Pai Canyon isn’t as impressive as the Grand Canyon, or any canyon for that matter. The location basically has very narrow trails atop sandstone formations running through the forest. But we really lucked into a gorgeous sunset.

Pai Canyon

I’m also an adventure junkie, and running along the narrow paths in sandals with sheer drops to either side was wonderful. I would have loved to spend a full day traversing the numerous trails, and I plan to do so some weekend while I’m teaching English in Chiang Mai.

Narrow Trails of Pai Canyon

On the way back, we stopped at Coffee in Love, a top attraction to visit in Pai. Unfortunately, we got there just moments after they closed! So that’s still on the bucket list too.

The next day, we explored a mysterious waterfall, but I’ll mention that tomorrow in the next post. Stay tuned.