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The Ultimate Northern Thailand Travel Guide

The Ultimate Northern Thailand Travel Guide

Planning a Trip to Northern Thailand?

When you think of Northern Thailand, what cities do you think of? I bet that Bangkok will come to mind and probably Chiang Mai. Both of these are great cities and offer tons to do and see, but what is in-between these two cities? They are pretty far apart from each other, there has to be more lying in between them, right?

Yes you are so right! For 2 years I lived in and explored some of the best places in Northern Thailand! If you are an adventurous traveler which I am pretty sure you are, then this post is for you!

Where are the best places to visit in Northern Thailand?

I want to order this post kind of like an Itinerary so that you can travel this route easily! I have personally been to every one of these cities via bus so I can assure you it is 100%  possible to do this entire journey, #1 on the cheap cheap and #2 it’s reliable!

If you don’t want to scroll through the whole post feel free to click ahead to whichever city you are interested in looking at!

Bangkok
Kanchanaburi
Ayutthaya
Phetchabun
Phitsanulok
Sukhothai
Lampang
Chiang Mai
Pai

Your best travel route for Central and Northern Thailand

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Travel Route

Bangkok

OKAY so let’s start in Bangkok. I know that Bangkok is most likely already on your list if you are visiting Thailand but if it isn’t then put it back on! It is an awesome city and should not be overlooked!

How long should I stay?

Two or three days

I think that if you spent 2-3 days in Bangkok you would feel as though you really have seen it quite well. Although, due to its size that is totally impossible! IT’S GIGANTIC. Regardless, I think two or three days will be good.

How Should I get Around?

Taxi or Uber

Big Tip! Make sure to negotiate your taxi fare BEFORE getting into the car or insist on meter. You aren’t being rude by insisting the meter, they are just trying to rip you off.

What scams should I look out for?

It is very popular for people outside of the main temples to tell you “the temple is closed today” and then funnel you to their buddies boat tour which shows you NOTHING. Have I fallen for this? Yes. Will you? No.

Another scam I have fallen for is the nicely dressed man offering you directions. LADIES (and men) this guy is not being nice! HE IS TAKING YOU TO A TAILORING SHOP. It doesn’t matter how friendly they are or how much they insist, if they see you have no idea where you are going they will tell you they can help, and then lead you straight to their friends tailoring shop.

While you’re in the glittering chaotic mess which is Bangkok there are a few things that you absolutely must do!

What should I do?

Temple Hop

Visiting temples is a total must while in Bangkok make sure not to miss The Grand Palace, Wat Pho and Wat Arun. These are my three favorites and offer a great introduction to Thailand architecture and history. Get there early to avoid the crowds!

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Cruise on the Chao Phraya River

Just off the BTS stop, Saphan Taksin you can access the boats that cross the river and travel down it. Don’t pay for a tour or anything just buy a ticket for the last stop on the river which shouldn’t be very much at all. Then you can have the freedom to hop off at any of the tops or just stay on it until it carries you back.

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Go out on the town

Grab a drink at one of the city’s sky bars! Bangkok is it’s most beautiful at night so why not head up 60+ stories and take it all in! In all of the major hotel’s there are awesome sky bars. Some of my favorites are, Vertigo in the Banyan Tree, Octave in the Marriott and Lebua at the State Tower. Some lesser known and more grounded bars are: Above 11, Speakeasy in Hotel Muse, and Maggie Choo’s.

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Visit Chatuchak and JJ Green Market

Just off the BTS stop named Chatuchak is the weekend markets of JJ Green and Chatuchak. The largest market in the whole of Asia is Chatuchak and what an experience it is!!! It’s easy to get lost in all of the crazy but keep an eye on the clock tower for your bearings.

Across the road is JJ Green Weekend Market, this is a much more low key and almost more upscale weekend market with exclusively Thai products and goods. It feels a little bit more artisan but just like everything else in Thailand it is complete with tons of retro bars and blasting Thai music.

Where should I stay?

NEAR A BTS, this is very important. The city’s lifeline is this beautiful transport train. If you stay far away from it, will you pay more with taxis to get places! Bangkok is HUGE estimate at least 30 to 45 minutes to get anywhere all the time, but if you are close to a stop it may be shorter!

Best places BTS stops to stay near are on the Sukhumvit Line → Phrom Pong, Asok, Nana and Ploen Chit or really anywhere in the middle of the line because then you are central!

Kanchanaburi

Kanchanaburi is one of my favorite cities in Thailand! It is located between two sets of gorgeous mountain ranges, and has so much history packed into such a small city. Though, not all the history is good history.

In WWII the Japanese forced their POW’s to build a railroad in some of the most impossible conditions. Thousands died in building of this railroad. But, along with some of this rather dark history there is also a ton of beauty in the province!

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How do I get there?

From Bangkok you can get a bus from it’s Southern Terminal (Sai Tai Mai), these buses leave throughout the day, about every 30 minutes.

How long should I stay?

Three days

My two weekend trips to Kanchanaburi seemed always far too short! I would recommend three days at the least to really be able to see everything you can! The waterfalls and Hellfire pass are located a bit away from the city making them more like day trips, not small outings.

What should I do?

Explore the city and learn about the Death Railway

During WWII Japanese prisoners were forced to build a railway which was supposed to go through Thailand to Myanmar. It was an impossible mission and thousands of people died while building it.

The railway is still there, now called the “Death Railway,” in regards to the myriad of bodies that are buried along the tracks. In the city there is a great museum dedicated to it where you can learn all about the building of the railroad.

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Visit Hellfire Pass

This is a stretch of the railroad which was not completed but shows the conditions in which prisoners were forced to work in. No trains run through this pass and it serves as an educational site as well as a memorial to those who died in the making of the railroad.

Swim in the Erawan Falls

These majestic tiered falls are located in the Erawan National Park and are an absolute must see while traveling through. These naturally occurring tiered oasis’s are deep within the Thai jungle. Surrounded by greenery you can easily spend a day exploring, swimming and hiking in the national park!

*Tip* Climb up to the 7th and final waterfall FIRST as they will also close it first around 4:30. The 7th is definitely the most beautiful and it would be such a shame to miss it!

Visit Wat Tham Sua

This temples name is translated to Tiger Cave Temple and is something you 100% don’t want to miss! It’s views of the surrounding Kanchanaburi area are breathtaking along with the Chinese and Thai styled temples themselves which are gorgeous.

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What are some other things I can do?

Visit Sak Yok Noi Waterfall

Visit Huai Mae Khamin Waterfall

Take a cooking class

Walk around the POW Cemetery

Learn about Khmer History at the Prasat Muang Singh Ancient Temple

Related: How to Teach English in Thailand

Ayutthaya

Ayutthaya is one of the three ancient capitals of Thailand. The reign of Ayutthaya was one of the wealthiest periods in Thailand’s history. In the 1600’s it was a kingdom that was flourishing, and expanding, having just recently become the primary kingdom in the region, overpowering the Cambodian Angkor Empire.

Then, in the mid-1600’s Ayutthaya was repeatedly attacked by Burmese armies (Burma – modern day Myanmar) and eventually this led to its demise.The destruction from these wars practically leveled Ayutthaya’s landscape.

When the Burmese left the city, having only held claim to it for a few months, there was nothing left of Thailand’s capital. Fast forward to present day and the ruins have been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site!

Although its history is riddled with conflict, Ayutthaya is a fantastic city in Thailand and full of interesting things to do!

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How do I get there?

From Kanchanaburi you can travel by bus to Ayutthaya in two legs. First you can take a bus to Suphan Buri then another to Ayutthaya. You can buy tickets at the bus terminal in Kanchanaburi. If you are traveling from Bangkok there are mini buses, and larger buses that leave all around the clock from Mo Chit or National Monument.

How long should I stay?

Two days

Having visited Ayutthaya numerous times over the years I have a special place for the city in my heart! Ayutthaya, like all the places on this post are just absolutely full of things to do and see! You could easily spend a week here but if you are on a schedule at least spend two days!

What should I do?

Temple Hop

This is probably the most popular thing to do in Ayutthaya because of its history. Sprinkled all across the river-enclosed city are hundreds of ancient chedi’s, temples, and structures. Some of them are starting to be restored to their former glory but others remain in disrepair due to the Burmese Wars in the 1600’s.

Here is a list of my favorite ruins to visit:

Wat Chai Watthanaram – Yai Chai Mongkhon – Phu Khao Thong – Mahathat – Phra Si Sanphet

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Eat at the best local markets

Located near the river is the Hoa Ro Night Market! Here you should get some Som Tom (ส้มตำ), which is green papaya salad, and sticky rice. Because this market is primarily Halal another great find the Curry Roti. There is a stall that sells them and there are only two kinds: chicken and beef. THEY ARE AMAZING.

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Escape the heat in the cities best cafes

Ayutthaya gets ridiculously hot, chill out in the cafes around town! The passion fruit cheesecake at Busaba Cafe was amazing, it’s also located super central near Wat Mahathat which is a great location! Also, Slip-Pa สิปป has a super cool interior and awesome icy smoothies, and Summer House has great food and just overall is beautiful.

Grab a cocktail on or by the river

Ayutthaya has some amazing sunsets, why not watch it drink in hand, by or on the river!? Head to the SALA Ayutthaya for a gorgeous view of the temples that will pair nicely with your cocktail where you can also watch the boats pass by. If you would rather be on a river cruise you can also do that! Although beware the obligatory karaoke…

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Where should I stay?

The city itself is surrounded by a river so it would be a safe bet to stay inside that perimeter. There is a nice mix of cheap hostels and also higher end hotels in the city! Within those river boundaries the city is quite small so you really can’t go wrong!

Phetchabun

Phetchabun was my home base for the two years I was in Thailand and therefore has a super special place in my heart! It is a fantastic Northern Hub and is really starting to get popular with local Thai tourists. Most famously Phetchabun is known for it’s amazing Mosaic Temple located in the mountains.

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How do I get there?

From Ayutthaya you can get a bus to Phetchabun. This departs many times throughout the day from the Wang Noi station. This is less of a station and more of just a stall on the side of the road. From the city of Ayutthaya it will cost around 300 Baht for a taxi to Wang Noi วังน้อย.

How long should I stay?

Three days

There is so much natural beauty in Phetchabun you could probably stay week but if you are on a time limit, I think three days would be tight but you could do most of the things to do!

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What do I absolutely have to do?

Rent a motorbike and explore the countryside

Phetchabun is relatively in the middle of nowhere, which means it is surrounded by beautiful untouched Thai countryside. You will have to rent a motorbike to get around, though there are taxis and tuk tuk’s if you don’t want to drive.

Venture down Highway 21 to the Black Buddha in Petchaburda Park. Here you can walk around the pond and sometimes in the winter there are sunflower fields!

Drive the opposite direction out to the Khlong Chaliang Lap Reservoir. The drive is gorgeous and the reservoir is right at the base of these amazingingly huge mountains. Most likely it will just be you there, well and maybe just some Thai teenagers. It’s a great spot to catch the sunset!

A beautiful sunrise spot is the Hui Pa Daeng (เขื่อนป่าแดง) this is another reservoir and it is SO peaceful! Route your maps to สำนักสงฆ์เขาธงทอง and that will take you to the viewpoint above the reservoir! There is a small shrine/temple there so it’s important to be respectful.

I would also recommend just getting lost. Having driven down all the roads around Phetchabun some of the most beautiful sights I have just stumbled upon! You can take pretty much any small road in any direction and be sure to find some rice paddies or mountains.

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Trek to the waterfalls

Phetchabun is full of waterfalls though the most popular one is in Tat Mok National Park! This is about 45 minutes away from the town center, make sure to go in the wet season, as in the dry season there is no water! In Phetchabun’s national parks are home to many different wild animals, a friend of mine even spotted a wild elephant there!

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Visit Wat phra Sorn Kaew

In the nearby city of Khao Kho is the famous mosaic temple! The easiest way to get there is by riding a motorbike! The roads are paved and enormous all the way up through the mountains.

If you wouldn’t like to ride a bike there then you also could hire a songthaew to take you up the mountain. These are basically pick up trucks with benches in the back! They should charge around 1,000 – 1,500 Baht (28-40 USD) for a round trip.

If there are no song thaew’s in sight you can go to front counter at the Sat Yao bus station and ask to go to Khao Kho, there is a second class bus that stops there en route to Phitsanulok, this should only be around 60 Baht (2 USD).

Once you arrive in Khao Kho you will have to arrange some sort of transport to the temple as it is up in the hills, off the highway. This could be difficult so I advise you ask around in town for a songthaew.

Related: A Complete Guide to Visiting Wat Phra Sorn Kaew

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Camp on Phu Tub Berk

Located a little bit further than Khao Kho is Phu Tub Berk, this mountain town is a nothing short of stunning. You can pitch a tent on the hillside, and wake up in the clouds. The hillsides are filled with cabbage and strawberry farms adding even more charm.

You can hire a songthaew to take you up or you can ride your motorbike!

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Camping on Phu Tub Berk

Where should I stay?

In the city there is a central area called Sat Yao this is where most of the main town things are. If you stay at Maneechan Villas, The One Hotel or Me Place you will be in a great location to get around!

If you need a Song Taew, contact a lady named Por. She owns one and charges 1,500 Baht for the day, with an extra 300 Baht if you need the driver to stay overnight. Her phone number is 0927073330. She asked that people text her as she cannot speak English, and with texts she can google translate them.

Phitsanulok

Most people don’t stop in Phitsanulok but that is totally their loss! It is one of the oldest cities in all of Thailand and was birthplace of it’s Great King Naresuan who was the ruler that freed the nation from the Burmese in the 16th century. All around the province there are tons of different waterfalls to explore and the city itself is pretty cool, not tons to do but definitely worth an explore for a true feel of provincial city in Thailand.

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How do I get there?

From Phetchabun you can get a bus from the Sat Yao bus terminal. There are many different times that these buses depart.

How long should I stay?

One day

I think that a day or two is an appropriate amount of time to stay in Phitsanulok. It is an awesome look into a provincial Thai town but you could take the vibes of the city in relatively quickly!

What should I do?

Check out all of the incredible waterfalls

In and around the city there are tons of waterfalls! Some of the best are Poi, Kaeng So Pha and Sakunothayan Waterfalls.

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Visit Wat Ratchaburana

This temple is the oldest in Phitsanulok dating back over 600 years! It is said that it houses relics of the lord Buddha.

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Have dinner along the river

Running through the city is the Khwae Noi River. All along it’s banks are small open air restaurants that make the perfect dinner spot!

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Where should I stay?

In the city center there are tons of hotels and even a few hostels for cheap cheap! You won’t have a problem finding somewhere to stay!

Sukhothai

One of the four ancient capitals of Thailand was Sukhothai! Today it stands as a well preserved look into ancient Thailand. During the war, unlike in Ayutthaya where most temples were destroyed, Sukhothai was spared and protected. The ancient city lies outside of the current one, and is stunning!

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How do I get there?

From the Phitsanulok bus terminal you can buy tickets to Sukhothai.

How long should I stay?

Three days

I have been to Sukhothai a couple times for just short 2 day trips which have always left me wanting more! I think that three full days or even more would be good to spend here!

What should I do?

Explore Sukhothai’s Ancient City by Bike

In Sukhothai the Old City is separated from the New City  which keeps the temples protected and intact. There isn’t much English signage to explain what each temple you come across is. This is why I recommend taking a bike tour through the temples.

This way you will get a feel of the countryside and understand more about the temples! We took a tour with Sukhothai Bicycle Tour and it was AMAZING. You learn a ton, the guides are super sweet and overall it’s just a great experience! I couldn’t say enough good things about it!

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Visit Si Satchanalai

Si Satchanalai was the second center of ancient Sukhothai, and today is anothwe UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is far less crowded than the Sukhothai Historical Park, and is just as gorgeous! You can rent bicycles here and peruse around the grounds! The surrounding area is also stunning, full of rice paddies and banana trees, making it a great place to just get lost in!

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Shop at the local Saturday Market

Every weekend there is a market on saturdays! Around sundown the market will open and you can try all sorts of delicious traditional Thai street food dishes, along with shop for local handicrafts.

Where should I stay?

Sukhothai new city is relatively small, most things are walkable if you stay in the center!  There are lots of different options for accommodation, the prices are quite affordable as well!

Lampang

Lampang is SUCH a hidden gem, the city is adorable. Full of traditional wooden houses with beautiful carved details along with a great walking street at night has made it one of the cities that I will always recommend people go to!

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How do I get there?

From the bus terminal in Sukhothai you can get a bus to Lampang.

What should I do?

Stroll around the Old Town

Lampang’s old town is SO cute! It’s history as a trading town is reflected in it’s mix of different architectures. Horse drawn carriages remain now as a tourist attraction but are meant to mimic the transportation that was used in Lampang back in the day.  

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Saturday Walking Street

Similar to other Thai cities, there is a Saturday market that takes over the main street in the Old Town. Along with your cheap market staples, Lampang’s market had some unique sustainable artisan goods. It had more of a farmers market/artsy vibe in some parts. Also, there was a fantastic pizza restaurant located right on the street which had wine as well! *gasp*

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Venture up to Wat Chalermprakiat

One of my favorite things about Lampang is Wat Chalermprakiat. This temple is located as close to the heavens as they could make it! 800 meters up, it resides on top of the mountains, making it one of the most magical temples I have ever been to.

In order to get there you will have to rent a motorbike or coordinate an alternate mode of transport to the mountain’s base. From there you will take a songthaew up the mountain, then after that, you will hike.

The hike isn’t too bad at all, toddlers were speeding up the mountain past me, but it is just enough of a walk to discourage the faint of heart, making the top of the temple oh so peaceful and quiet.

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Where should I stay?

Staying central is your best bet! Most hotels will just be your basic accommodations and prices will be low.

Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is a fabulous city, it’s modern and trendy while also keeping a bit of a hippy vibe. There are great cafes, beautiful temples and gorgeous waterfalls. There is a huge expat/traveler community in Chiang Mai!

How do I get there?

You guessed it… a bus! From Lampang’s bus terminal you can get a bus ticket. There are buses that depart every hour and will cost around 50 baht.

What should I do?

Visit Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

This stunning golden temple is high on every Chiang Mai travellers to bucket-list, making it a very popular outing! Rent a scooter to get up the mountain but please be careful! If you have not driven before in Thailand I would recommend just getting a taxi!

Go Cliff Jumping at the Chiang Mai Canyon

About 20 minutes outside of the city is the famous Chiang Mai canyon! Here you can swim and explore, even do a little bit of cliff jumping!

Take a cooking class

Spend a day learning about Thai culture through it’s food! Visit the market, and prepare a huge Thai meal!

Go Zip Lining or Rafting or Trekking

There are loads of different companies that offer these activities. Chiang Mai has so much natural beauty it would be a shame not to explore some of it!

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Where should I stay?

Stay within the old town gates if you want to be central! There is a great but very crowded Saturday market that goes on in the town.

Pai

The last stop in our journey is the mountain town of Pai. Like it’s neighbor Chiang Mai it is a mecca for free thinkers and yogis. Home to some of the most gorgeous sunsets and canyons Pai is another must see city on your Thailand Itinerary. From Pai you will can make your way to Chiang Mai again and there you can fly out to your next destination.

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How do I get there?

Located roughly three hours away from Thailand’s northern hub – Chiang Mai it is accessible by wheels or airplane (although flights are a bit pricey – around 60 USD for the 30 minutes of air time).

There are vans and buses that depart every hour. If you are motorcycle savvy, you can opt to ride the curved roads yourself. The ride is quite scenic but full of twists and turns, many buses and vans cut corners so you have to be very careful!

From Chiang Mai’s Arcade Bus Station you can catch a van at their office across from the Van Station. The first van departs around 6:30 AM and one departs every hour after that but seats fill quickly, make sure to hustle over there to get a spot!

In Pai there is one bus station. It runs vans down to Chiang Mai, again seats fill up so buy your return ticket the moment you arrive. Although, if you are unable to buy a seat at the station, don’t worry!

There are tons of different tourist agencies that can sort out a van for you, they will just take a bit longer – the bus station buses pride themselves on their timely schedules. A ticket, regardless of where you buy it, will cost you around 150 Baht, (4.20 USD).

What do I absolutely have to do?

In Pai there are countless natural beauties to be explored! Mountain drives and waterfall adventures will fill your days and the lively Walking Street is abuzz at night. If you don’t care to do much, Pai is also just the place to do that! Take a nap and laze about in a cool coffee shop. The food is top notch, full of vegetarian specialties but if you are craving some spicy Thai cuisine that is available as well!

You can hire a Tuk Tuk or rent a bike for the day in order to see the sights around Pai for yourself. If you would rather take part in a tour you can arrange one in the city!

Navigate the thin walkways of the Pai Canyon

A gorgeous place for sunset (although super crowded) is the Pai Canyon. This steep ravine filled landscape looks otherworldly. Be careful exploring the canyon though, there are no rails or safety precautions and it is slippery!

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Visit the famous “Land Split”

Although it has a dramatic name The Land Split is far from breathtaking. The earth just moved a little creating a small crevasse. I wouldn’t recommend this solely for its archeological grandness BUT what totally made it amazing is that there is a little fruit stand at the entrance.

If you donate a small amount of money the owners will give you fresh Roselle juice and passion fruits or bananas to snack on! The workers there were delightful and so sweet – making this a must visit regardless of if you appreciate tectonic movement.

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Shop on The Walking Street

This street makes up the majority of the town and is lined with delicious eateries, cool coffee shops and hip bars! There are a myriad of shops and the majority are not your typical tourist fare (yay!!).

Everything from artisan soaps to handcrafted goods line the streets and in the evenings there are tons of different food stalls that set up that will curve any craving you may have! It is very easy to get lost perusing this chaotic wonderland.

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Take a dip in natural hot springs

There are a couple of different hot springs in Pai. One is close to the city, Tha Pai Hot Springs, not to be confused with the Tha Pai Camping Grounds which are man made springs and cost around 300 Baht a person to get into!! The original Tha Pai Springs are deeper in the National Park!

Sai Ngam Hot Springs are 30 mins outside of town, all natural and cost 20 Baht for the National Park entrance fee and 20 Baht per person! The water was warm and clean, locals and foreigners alike paddled about the shallow water.

Discover Hidden Waterfalls

Pai is full of waterfalls, most of them are close to the city! Here are a couple of good ones to explore:

Pam Bok Waterfall: Pictured above, is a short drive out of the city. There is a small parking lot and it is a small walk to the actual falls.

Mo Paeng Waterfall: This waterfall is known for its large slippery exterior making it perfect for sliding down!

Mae Yen Waterfall: About seven kilometers from town, and a couple hours hike, but it is renowned as the most beautiful!

Where should I stay?

There are many different places to stay in Pai and the prices range to accommodate all different types of travelers. There are hostels, hotels, and resorts all around the city. The further away from ‘The Walking Street’ you get the more rural and scenic the views are. Keep in mind that this also means you will need transportation in and out of town!

There are motorbike/scooter rentals that range from 100 – 300 Baht a day. This is a good budget option for getting around town as well as to explore the surrounding areas.

There are a couple of larger hostel compounds that are a little bit outside of town. These have many amenities and the need to go into town is less great. This would be a great option if you want to maximize chill out time!

If you want to be inside the city, you want to be looking for proximity to The Walking Street. This is where the best places will be. The closer you are the more likely you will be hearing music from the bars that line this street and the surrounding ones. As long as you bring ear plugs, it shouldn’t be a problem!

Some great options for accommodations are:

Spicy Pai – Many friends of mine from around Thailand have stayed in this hostel and absolutely loved it! Beds go for around 10 USD.

Day Off Guesthouse – I stayed at this guesthouse while there and had a wonderful experience. It was clean and the vibes were chill. Great location although very close to the bars at night! Rooms go for around 11 USD a night.

Thailand is a country absolutely packed with awesome places and destinations! Although most people go to the beach I hope that this guide can help you navigate the lesser known cities in Northern Thailand!

Happy travels!

Xx

Kels

4 Comments

  1. Great guide and blog! We will be going here soon and will definitely be referring back to this post when we go!!

  2. Hi! I’m researching for a trip to Thailand and my husband and I are really interested in Petchabun. Any idea of where we can rent a scooter/motorbike? That sounds like the best way to get around the area and explore things on our own time but there doesn’t appear to be anywhere that rents them… Any tips?

    • Hi Lauren, there is one shop in town that does rent them! I am sure that if you ask the people who work at your hotel they will be able to help you find them! Also on my last visit I was surprised to see there were many normal taxi cars around the city as well!

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