Thailand Itinerary 10 days: Chiang Mai -> Pai -> Chiang Rai
Chiang Mai, Pai and Chiang Rai in northern Thailand remain underrated comparing to the south of the country. As for us, we truly prefer the northern part of Thailand and if you have a spare 10 days or so, this itinerary for Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Pai will become handy for you! We have compiled the best options on where to stay, where to eat and most importantly what to do in northern Thailand based on our own experience!
Table of Contents
Chiang Mai Itinerary
When you imagine the “Old Chiang Mai” which you see in pictures, with the broke backpackers surviving on .50 cent noodle soup and partying like rockstars have come and gone. Digital nomads and business people of all sorts now call this home, and it’s easy to find yourself spending 10x the normal daily price of a dish to have fine Thai dining if not western cuisine.
However, that’s not to say you cannot fully engulf yourself into the beauty which lies before you now. We must accept change, embrace it, and move forward. Like Joel Olsteen once said “what worked 5 years ago may not work today, if you’re going to be successful, you have to be willing to change.
We spent a total of 10 days this trip in Chiang Mai, Pai, and Chiang Rai. Yes while it was a different experience compared to Jim’ visits in the past, it still managed to fulfill every need in which he had of Thailand and brought him a completely different adventure than the visits prior. For that we are both grateful!
We opted to stay in Chiang Mai for 5 days, but we could definitely spend more time there! If you are short on time, we recommend that you spend the most amount of days in Chiang Mai out of your northern Thailand trip. By the way, Chiang Mai and Thailand on the whole is on the list of best places to visit in January.
What to do in Chiang Mai
Old City Self-Guided Tour - When first getting situated in Chiang Mai we highly suggest you get your trainers on and immediately immerse yourself into the Old City walls. Here you can spend hours wandering through side streets, exploring local markets, and avoiding all the traffic and noise that lies outside of the city walls.
8adventures (ATV/White Water Rafting/Trekking/Ziplining) - We opted for a full day 3hr ATV and 10km white water rafting experience with 8Adventures, as it was highly recommended by other travelers in the past, and lets face it, you can’t but help read TripAdvisor and Google reviews. It turned out to be one of the most exhilarating and adventurous days to experience in Chiang Mai whatsoever!
We had a great time doing an ATV tour up the mountain and visiting a local village. There, you’re give a chance to interact with local people and play with the kids, this was one of our highlights to say the least.
After spending some time on the mountain, touring through the village, and taking pictures of the scenery, we returned back to the camp and were pleasantly surprised! We were promised to get lunch when we come back, but what we got was more than an average meal you get on this kind of tours! We were served soup, chicken steak with rice, fresh salad, and half of pineapple. The idea sounds simple enough, but the delivery topped our expectations as the food was genuinely delicious.
Yes, if you’re vegetarian or have any allergies they ask at the start of the morning, so they can prepare something different for you! They have a selection of drinks available such as water, tea, coffee, even coco for free at the self-service stand... or for $1 you can order a cappuccino and that’s what Jim did, as he wanted to guarantee he’d be fully awake.
I have never driven an ATV before and driving is definitely not my best skill, but I was eager to learn and it worked out perfectly.
So even if you’ve never driven an ATV, the professional team of 8Adventures will provide you all the support necessary for your first ride.
After that we prepared for our 10km whitewater experience. We were extremely nervous about doing the rafting, but can honestly say aside from skydiving this was one of the most fun and exciting adventure activities done to this day.
Not a moment went by that we felt unsafe, as we were trained properly by a great guide, and also had 10-15 people along the course making sure everything was going as planned. 5/5 is what they deserve, we’d give more if we could.
Pro tip: Great couples retreat idea! As you can get a chance to explore nature and just get in tune with yourself.
Take a motorbike to Pai - located across the water from the old city and one block away from Sunday Backpackers you’ll find a shop at the end of a tiny street called Bamboo Bikes. They’re an english speaking group who run a very nice shop and don’t try to rip you off whatsoever. For 250 Baht a day you can get a really nice fully automatic scooter that’ll make it to Pai on just about 1 full tank of gas.
Pro Tip: If you’re thinking of going to Pai, but taking an express minivan…we highly suggest you do not drink heavily the night before, as we can guarantee just how that’ll end up.
Doi Suthep (Wat Phra That Doi Suthep) - With a view from high above the city, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep or “Doi Suthep” is one of Thailands top 5 temples. The entrance is reached after a 306 stair climb, temple is open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and there is a ฿30 (US$0.88) entrance fee.
You would probably spend 2 hours or so exploring Doi Suthep. We personally decided to devote less time to Doi Suthep and ventured to discover other areas of the mountain.
San Kamphaeng Mineral Hot Spring - located about 40 km from Chiang Mai and is well worth visiting. Getting there is not difficult at all, it will take you around 40 minutes by motorbike on a simple and scenic route.
The place is very picturesque and popular among the locals. It is actually a ‘go to’ place for families living in Chiang Mai and you will see huge amount of people having a picnic that includes eating boiled eggs of course and soaking their feet in hot water. To avoid the crowds, we recommend to not go there on weekends.
The hot spring are located in a well maintained and flourishing park, so the surroundings create a nice and relaxing atmosphere.
Prices are as follows:
Admission to Hot Spring 100 THB for a tourist and 40 THB for Thais.
Admission fee to the mineral pool is another 50 THB.
Parking for the motorbikes is 10 THB
The source of the hot springs is a large geyser, and the numerous places for recreation have been arranged along the manmade canals . The channels are divided into sections and the closer the section is to the geyser, the hotter the water. So everyone can find the ideal temperature to soak in their feet. The water has a high sulphur content and smells pungent.
Also next to the mineral spring there is a small pool in where you can boil eggs. Eggs are sold for 40 THB per basket (chicken and quail eggs). The selection of any other food except for eggs is not so varied, but you can find some snacks such as papaya salad and drinks, of course.
If you want some free space you can rent a private room with mineral water bath tub (one hour) for 300 THB
Photo Session - Have a photo session with a professional photographer, we decided to have a couples photo session and were pleased to have James de la Cloche as our photographer, he is exactly that kind of person that makes you feel like you have been friends for a while even though you have just met. He made us feel very comfortable from the moment he stepped in the lobby and throughout the entire photoshoot. It’s truly an inspiration to be able to see someone doing what he genuinely and truly has a passion for. View his portfolio or some of his Instagram feed.
Have an ethical elephant experience without riding or elephants being forced to do anything to entertain the tourists. For such an experience you can visit Mahouts Elephant Foundation.
Chiang Mai Restaurants
Cooking Love – serves a great variety of healthy Thai food including vegetarian meals. Some of the greatest curries we ever tried, which includes coconut and mango curries, cost between 90-120 THB. At the beginning of the meal staff usually offers complimentary bottled water, and at the end – watermelon and tea. Cooking Love is so popular that it has recently expanded to seat guests in the BB Mantra hotel opposite their restaurant for more room. Since visiting this past time you can also find Thai craft beers, first place we’ve seen this in Thailand!
La Terrasse – A real and authentic French restaurant in the center of Chiang Mai. This was Jim’s 4th time visiting and he can honestly say it never fails to amaze him just how consistently good the food is. We would recommend you grab yourself a large carafe of red wine, escargot, seafood tapas, and the filet de boeuf! You’ll leave satisfied and happy that you came across this gem of a restaurant.
Dash Teak House - Located down a quiet street in the Old City, you’ll feel like you’ve stepped onto the set of a movie when you first lay eyes upon majestic two story wooden house with an outdoor terrace. It’s a bit on the higher end for the area, but for the price you’re given a cozy environment, live music, fresh seafood, and an above average glass of house red wine. If you’re looking to share food like we did and you’re extremely hungry upon sitting down, the sampler plate is a nice way to begin your evening.
Where to sleep in Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai has a place to sleep whether you’re scraping by with a few dollars or you’re a wealthy business person on holiday. So here are 3 of our favorite accommodations that we’ve stayed at during the last few visits.
Budget – Holiday Chiang Mai. A lovely guesthouse where for 5$ a night you get a spacious double bedroom with a personal bathroom. The hotel is located a bit far from the city center, so we were surprised to meet so many other travelers who were staying there too! There is a nice common hangout area, a kitchenette where you can make something simple like instant noodles, a fridge, and unlimited amount of drinking water. The biggest plus for this place though is the fact that they have the best internet package you can get in Chiang Mai.
Mid-level – Baan Klang Vieng. Spotless clean, perfectly located guesthouse with a charming owner and friendly staff. Despite for it’s central location, the guesthouse is very quiet which was a deal breaker for us! The prices start for $20 for a private double room and it sells out very fast. Underneath it you’ve got a Belgian beer bar and a place to rent scooters for cheap next door.
Luxury - North Hill City Resort. Located a little bit outside of the city away from it’s hustle and bustle, so you can relax and take advantage of the hotel’s property. The pool and the lounge zone around is fantastic, nature around the hotel is picture perfect! The breakfast buffet is varied and the food is truly delicious, illy coffee and finest tea served upon your request. We found that the resort extended their warmth & hospitality far and beyond! Moreover, they provide a free shuttle to the city, so you don’t need to feel limited in exploring the city.
762 turns each way to your drive to Pai
Still one of the best activities you can do in this Northern Thailand Circuit
When doing the ride you want to wake up early enough rent the motorbike for around 9am, fuel up and hit the road. Remember that driving a scooter in Thailand is still illegal, so you’ve got to be careful of the police as they’ll stop you at a barricade and extort you for money ranging from 250-500 baht depending on the officer.
Travel with a partner if at all possible, that way you can always look after one another. It’s safe to drive the whole way, but always best to have someone watching after you.
Pro Tip: Inna and I made sure to cover our faces with bandanas, wear long sleeve shirts and long pants, and didn’t carry a lot of luggage. This way we blend in with the locals, doing so they waved us past at each of the two barricades we went through.
In all honesty we will say this is the last time we ever visit Pai as backpackers. It’s just not the place it once was. Jim came 4 years ago and every year since and has watched it unfold right before my eyes to a point where it no longer fits the expectations of what he’d want from a backpacking area.
On the contrary if we’d like to take a luxury vacation, we’d certainly fly to Chiang Mai and Pai together for a wonderful time as they’ll be catering to all 5 star needs in the coming years.
What to do in Pai
Visit Pai Canyon for sunset - A short 10-15 minute scooter ride outside of the main part of town, and located right off the main road that leads you back to Chiang Mai is where you’ll find this wonderful sunset location. During peak season this place gets extremely crowded and some of the areas you have to pass by to get a good view can be extremely scary and dangerous. If you’re afraid of heights then we suggest just staying at the beginning of the peak. The best part about this place is that it is completely free of charge!
Hot Spring Resort - the are a couple of hot springs in Pai, but we discovered the one that is a part of the meditation center and didn't have any people at all. The entrance price for the hot spring is 150 THB with a bottle water and a towel provided. Check the map to see the location.
Visit The White Buddha (Wat Phra That Mae Yen) - the Buddha can be reached by motorbike or on foot as it is located in 2 km from Pai. Climb 353 steps to the top to see a breathtaking view of Pai and surroundings. Long skirt can be rented for 20 THB at the entrance.
Where to eat and drink in Pai
While it certainly isn’t a place built off of its wonderful restaurants or unique cuisines, a few places and areas here are worth mentioning!
The Pedlar - If you’re a Digital Nomad, blogger, or someone who just needs to sit inside the air-conditioning to get some stuff done then you may want to take a stop here. Located in the city center on the corner, this lovely cafe serves up top-notch cappuccinos, lattes, and yes believe it or not breakfast sandwiches! However, they do come at a western price…but trust us, it’s well worth it. Oh yea, and they’ve got the best wifi you’ll find in Pai by far!
Pai Night Market - It can easily be said that this is still one of the best places to get your food in Pai. With a large variety of Pad Thai, dumplings, skewers, crepes, sushi, and now an abundance of lasagna, bruschetta, and even burritos. It surely is a one stop shop if you’re a foodie and not looking to break the bank and you want a chance to support the locals who’re trying to make a decent living. Aside from the food you’ll find the laid back hustle of clothing and goods that’s nothing like you get in Bangkok, here it’s slow-paced and they allow you to approach them first.
Spirit Bar Pai - A must visit venue for good cocktails, live music, and all around good vibes. Located in city center on the main road, you’ll find this gem tucked away behind Paizy Cocktail bar…yes you literally have to walk through a bar to get to another bar. Once there you can either choose to sit at a table, climb up to a loft, or sit around a fire and tell stories to one another.
Where to sleep in Pai
Budget - Kanravee Guesthouse. A 10 minute walk from the city center, this lovely little hideaway is a must have if you’re going the budget route. For only $12 a night you can have a private bedroom with a fridge, dining area, and your own bathroom/shower with unlimited hot water! If the dorm life is your way of living you can grab a bed here for $5 a night…and here’s the kicker they’ve got an inground pool in the backyard!
Mid-Range - Happy In Pai. Jim stayed here last year when he made the trip and absolutely loved the stay here. It was perfectly located in the center of town, but not in the noisy section. Run by a wonderful couple who tend to all your needs and the rooms have some of the best aircons you’ll find in Pai. It goes for about $30 a night but is a solid selection if you’re going to be sharing a room and staying out late as that sunlight will heat your room up really fast.
Upscale - AI Pai. Offering an outdoor pool and views of the mountain, Ai Pai Hotel is located just a few steps away from Pai Night Market. This is the type of place you’d want to stay if you’re trying to just relax and not do anything whatsoever except lay by the pool, sip on cocktails, and take photos of you riding on an inflatable unicorn for Instagram. But it’ll cost you about $100 a night…but hey it comes with free breakfast!
Transit from Chiang Mai -> Chiang Rai
Take a ride back to Chiang Mai where you’ll spend the night and head out first thing in the morning to head to Chiang Rai by VIP minivan, which will cost about ฿300-350 ($10USD).
The following morning you’ll wake up early and head out around 8 am collecting passengers from other guesthouses and hotels in the area before beginning your 4 hour trek north. You’ll stop over once for about 40 minutes for lunch, and another 20 minutes to visit the White Temple. We don’t recommend going too crazy trying to take all the pictures you can in this amount of time as it’s at the suns strongest point of day and the pictures don’t really come out too well…and in all honesty who really wants to pay money to run through a place and risk missing getting back in the van with all their stuff. Do yourself a favor and wake up early the following day as we’ll address again later.
Chiang Rai Itinerary
A city on the backpacker trail that gets most of its traffic from Wat Rong Khun (White Temple) and because it’s only major city between Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang, Laos. It’s slowly becoming a city built for tourism, as Jim was here 3 years ago and can honestly say nothing looks anything like it used to. Buildings are being built up, coffee shops are arising, and the cleanliness of the city as a whole is leaps and bounds better than it was last time. In the next couple years we see this city no longer being a 1 day stopover city, but a destination to add to your itinerary!
What to do in Chiang Rai
White Temple - Wat Rong Khun is a relatively new temple as its construction began in 1997 and it is completely white, so it is often called the White Temple.
It is built by a Thai artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat, with his own money from the sales of paintings. The artist refused to have any sponsors, because he doesn’t want someone have conditions dictated to him and wants to built everything the way he wants.
The best time to visit the White Temple is at sunrise or sunset, when the white color is beautifully reflected in the rays of the sun.
The temple is full symbolism as are the entire grounds in which it is laid upon. The bridge is a way to Paradise (the White Temple), and to get there you have to cross from ordinary worldly life through Hell by following the bridge. When crossing the bridge you can see thousands of sinners reaching out their hands which symbolizes human sufferings.
Inside the temple you will see the drawings created to symbolize constant war between good and evil. Here you can see various characters fighting for good: Superman, Batman, Avatar, Terminator, heroes from the Matrix and many others. Also there are villains, rockets, weapons, spaceships. Over time, new paintings appear and many of them reflect our modern life.
When visiting the White Temple, you should follow the same rules as when visiting a traditional temple in Thailand: covered shoulders and long pants, appropriate clothes can be rented across the street for 20 THB. You can not enter with food, dogs, umbrellas (from the sun), and you can not smoke in the temple.
Opening hours: 8:00am-5:00pm
Entrance fee: 50 THB
Photography: Permitted outside but prohibited inside.
Tip: Don’t miss out on the gallery with Chalermchai Kositpipat’s original paintings. The gallery is located next to the temple and the admission is free.
Black Temple (Baan Dam Museum) - even though it is called a temple, it is not a religious place at all. It’s located just 30 minutes away from its white sibling Wat Rong Khun. Black Temple was once home of the late and prominent artist Thawan Duchanee and now became a museum for his legacy. The museum hosts bizarre exhibits: carved woodwork and elements made of animal skulls, bones, antlers, an entire elephant skeleton and animal skins.
Opening hours: 9:00am-5:00pm (closed for lunch 12:00pm-1:00pm)
Entrance fee: 80 THB
Photography: Permitted both outdoors and indoors (but for a few exhibits being closed to public).
Golden Triangle Park Hall of Opium - One of the most informative places you can learn about the opium trade from the past centuries and how it has influenced the area and transformed it. It also shows you everything from how the poppy is grown, manufactured, and consumed. Some may say that it’s a bit too much information, but we found it fascinating!
Opening hours: 8:30am - 4:00pm (Tuesday - Sunday)
Where to eat in Chiang Rai
CAT ‘n’ A CUP Cat Cafe - This is a must do if you find yourself staying in the downtown area of Chiang Rai. Whether you’re coming for a latte, cake, or just to snuggle with some of the cutest little fur balls…they will deliver! We chose to go with an Iced Cappuccino, Smores hot chocolate, cookie cake, and of course we had to get our little friends a treat as well so they’d be satisfied and hang out with us. Don’t be worried about getting fur on you and leaving all furry, as when you leave they have high quality cat brushes to remove it from your clothing!
ฟ้าใสกุ้งกระทะหมูกระทะ - This just happened to be one of the places we stumbled upon while we were in the area trying to escape the rain. When we entered we were maybe 2 out of 10 people in this giant picnic table filled hall. What slowly turned out to be well over 100 people and only 2 tourists, we knew we had picked the right spot. For $7 each you get an unlimited amount of seafood (fish, shrimp, lobster, clams, oysters and many others), meat (beef, pork, lamb, chicken, and plenty of mystery meats), on top of that you can help yourself to all assortments of side dishes, soups, and sauces. Once you’ve got your meats and vegetables you can head back to your table and begin your hotpot experience. (Click name for location coordinates)
Saturday Night Market - A true Northern Thailand food experience where you can try different foods of all kinds. Jim had been talking about how we needed to try the crickets and maggots whenever we finally got a chance, and this market that only happens once a week did just that. You can also enjoy fruit shakes, skewers, dumplings, noodles, soups, kebabs, and many many others. All in all you can easily spend an hour or two walking through and trying different things for only a few dollars.
Where to sleep in Chiang Rai
Budget - Adchara Mansion. Where can you possibly go wrong when you’ve got a family run hostel, a thai speaking bird, good food, and a clean space all for $6 a night?!…ENOUGH SAID
Mid Range - 'Spinomad' luxury hostel. For our stay we opted for something more than a normal hostel but not quite a hotel, and it is more than recommended by us! The staff were very friendly and carrying, everything spotless clean, new and designed in one style. The location is central and the beds were super comfortable! View our complete review of Spinomad.
Luxury - A-Star Phulare Valley Resort. Situated in the mountains about 20-25 minutes outside of the city is where you’ll find this all-villa luxury retreat! If you’re looking to find a place where you can enjoy an infinity pool alone, have a good breakfast, sleep in a comfy bed, and just take in the nature, then this is your spot.
All in all if you’re even slightly thinking about visiting Thailand, we highly recommend you skip the partying in the south to take in the culture of the North while you still can! Can you and should you spend more the 10 days if you can?…Absolutely! But this is the bare minimum amount of time you should spend while trying to take in the north.