Chiang Mai is a great place to start your adventure in Northern Thailand. It’s easy to reach from Bangkok and several other places around Thailand (plane, bus and trains) plus there is plenty of accommodation that range from budget to luxury.
Did you know that Chiang Mai is Thailand 2nd largest city, though roughly 40x smaller than Bangkok (crazy, uh?).
You can fill your days in Chiang Mai with tons of different activities that range from temple hopping over hiking and bustling markets to entertaining museums and parks. And if you’re ‘stressed’ from a long day of walking around the city, you can get a relaxing massage for just a few bucks at one of the many spas and smaller massage shops.
But if you’re hungry for more adventures and you want to explore as much as possible while you’re here, you should definitely visit the following destinations that you can easily combine with a trip to Chiang Mai:
1. Mae Hong Son
Mae Hong Son is the capital of the same-named province that borders with Myanmar in north-western Thailand. Being pretty laid-back and small it’s easy to explore the town just by walking. It is also the entry point to northern Thailand’s mountains, speaking you can join one of the many daily hiking tours which are offered by most guesthouses and hotels. Though small in size the town has many ethnical influences including from the Burmese and many hill tribes like the Hmong and Shan which live around the area. But you don’t have to come just for hiking; Mae Hong Son is perfect after some busy days in Chiang Mai and to simply disconnect and relax. A perfect alternative to the beach.
How to get Mae Hong Son from Chiang Mai: by bus (5-6 hours) or by plane (30 minutes, Kan Air)
Ah the (in)famous Pai. Widely known as one of Thailand’s backpacker hot spots, Pai has definitely more to offer than just parties. Located on the northern route to Mae Hong Son, Pai is bedded within a picturesque valley in rural northern Thailand. The town itself and has a pretty simple layout; most of the restaurants, shops as well the daily night market are located along one single road, Chaisongkram Road, until the crossroad with Rungsiyanon Road. Get a motorbike when here as Pai’s main attractions such as Pai Canyon, Memorial Bridge or its several viewing points are scattered around town.
How to get to Pai from Chiang Mai: by mini-van (3 hours) or by plane (20-25 minutes, Kan Air)
Lamphun is just about 20km from Chiang Mai and, because of its distance, the ideal place for a half-day trip. It’s one of Thailand’s smallest provinces (again, the capital has the same name as the province), but one of the country’s oldest; it was founded in the early 9th century and back then known as the Hariphunchai Kingdom until it was incorporated to the Lanna Kingdom in 1281 by King Mengrai. The best way to explore Lamphun is by motorbike as almost all noteworthy spots are spread around the city, speaking it would make your life way easier than depending on tuk tuks and Songthaews. We recommend to start your trip at the Terracotta Art Garden, a superb place for photographers; by the way, they also run a popular café in Chiang Mai, known as Clay Studio in the Garden, near Chiang Mai Gate.
How to get Lamphun from Chiang Mai: best way by own motorbike; bus (30 minutes) and train (20 minutes)
Phayao is still relatively unknown among many travellers but it’s definitely worth a trip. Sri and I came the first time here when I attended the 26K run around the lake and felt immediately in love with the town. Its main-draw is the huge Phayao Lake with plenty of trails and small villages in its surrounding. An extensive market with lots of eateries and super cheap clothes starts in the late afternoon on Rob Wiang Road. There are not many farang (foreigners) here, in other words, you won’t find many bars or clubs around here. On the other side, Phayao is a hot spot for those wanting to explore a place that is not (yet) hit by mass tourism.
Tipp: Get a hotel near the lake. We stayed at the M2 Hotel, about 5 walking-minutes away from the market and 8-10 minutes from the lake.
How to get Phayao from Chiang Mai: by bus (3 hours)
5. Chiang Rai
Chiang Rai is a popular town that you can easily visit from Chiang Mai and make its back on the same day. The most popular spot here is undoubtedly the famous White Temple, an extraordinary and fascinating temple just outside Chiang Rai. Another place worth visiting is the so-called Black House or Baan Dam which lies on the other side of Chiang Rai. If you depart around 08:00 am from Chiang Mai, you can visit both places within a day. If your bus departs at night from Chiang Rai, head over to the Chiang Rai Night Market which takes place next the bus terminal.
Tipp 1: since the temple is about 20 minutes before Chiang Rai, you have to inform the bus staff to drop you there. The temple is located near the main road that leads to Chiang Rai.
Tipp 2: if you purchase a two-way ticket, make sure to check the terminal your bus will depart (there are two); we once missed it
How to get Chiang Rai from Chiang Mai: by bus (3 hours)
6. Chiang Dao
About 80km north of Chiang Mai lies Chiang Dao (‘Dao’ means ‘star’ in Thai), a laidback town known for its famous caves under Doi Chiang Dao, Thailand’s 3rd highest mountain. Aside from the caves, you can find numerous great hiking trails here (it’s even possible to ascent Doi Chiang Dao itself), as well a number of nice restaurants and accommodation. Chiang Dao is also one of Thailand’s few wine regions with several vineyards you can actually visit. If you don’t plan to stay for a couple days here, you can even return back on the same day to Chiang Mai; it takes about 70-90 minutes by motorbike.
How to get to Chiang Dao from Chiang Mai: we recommend taking a motorbike. The streets are well paved while there is pretty much no traffic after you leave Mae Rim.
Have you been to any of these places? Let us know in the comments below!