An express trip to Northern Thailand: Chiang Mai and Pai
December 20, 2016
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Although Thailand is top of the list of many tourists and is usually one of their first countries most people who travel to South East Asia visit as most flight connections use Bangkok as their port of entry, for me it was not the case. At the beginning of the trip I had Thailand high on my priority list of countries to visit, however as my trip went by and had to make some choices of where to stay longer and where to cut some days, I ended up sacrificing some of my time in Thailand and just spent 5 days in Northern Thailand. Nevertheless, I’m happy I picked the North as it gave me a small taste of the country (not only of the beaches) and I’m sure in the future I’ll come back for more.

chiang-mai-thailand

Crossing from Myanmar (for more information on how to cross the border check this post) we arrived to Mae Sot. We arrived late in Mae Sot and the next morning got a bus directly to Chiang Mai. I was really happy to have my first meal in Thailand, as Thai food is one of my favorites.

thai-food

That first dinner for sure exceeded my expectations. I had some Basil chicken, it had a lot of chili but was so good! My friend had a really good Massaman Curry and of course great mango lassis for dessert.

Chiang Mai (2.5 days)

When I arrived to Chiang Mai I was surprised to see it is a decent sized city, I expected only a small town. I then discovered it is a big university hub; so expect to see a lot of young Thai university students. On our first day we decided to explore the old city; it is easy to find as it is a square surrounded by old city walls, and what it used to be an old moat. Most of the most important temples are here.

ceremony-temple-thailand

We visited Wat Chedi Luang (where we saw a blessing ceremony), Wat Chiang Man (oldest temple in Chiang Mai), Wat Phan On (that also has a nice arts and crafts market besides it) and Phra Singh (huge gold structures and elephants).

temple-chiang-mai-thailand

temple-chiang-mai

Believe me you have many more to see if you want, but after being in Myanmar I have to admit I was a little “templed out”. Still, the temples in Chiang Mai were quite impressive.

temple-chiang-mai-thailand

temple-chiang-mai

As you walk through the city you will find a lot of different restaurants and cafes to choose from as well little souvenir shops. So get lost a bit and explore. At night you can visit the night bazaar that sells all the possible souvenirs you can imagine. If you want some live music there is nice bar by the river called the Riverside Bar and Restaurant with a local student vibe.

For our second day in Chiang Mai, we rented scooters and went for a trek to the top of Doi Suthep, one of the mountains surrounding the city. We started our day having breakfast at this little cute café called Fruit Pulse.

fruit-pulse-chiang-mai

It had organic shakes as well as great granola bowls and parfaits.

fruit-pulse-breakfast

It was definitely what I needed after having eggs and bananas for two weeks in Myanmar. Originally that day we wanted to do the trek and visit the Grand Canyon; however, we got a little lost finding the starting point of the trek and didn’t have enough time to do both.

I really recommend trekking to the Wat Phra That temple on top of Doi Suthep rather than riding your scooter all the way there. It is nice to be in the forest and the view will be rewarding after the hard way up! On your way up you will also encounter a small monastery by the river, looks like a very special place.

doi-suthep-thailand

Once you have reached the top have a break before going up the temple because you will have to climb a lot of steps to finish your journey. So if you want you can have some fresh fruit or drinks from the stalls at the bottom of the hill. Little piece of advice, start your trek early because the sun can hit very strong and it can make it harder to go up. As I mentioned we got lost and ended up hiking almost midday, it was hot!!

temple-soi-suthep

The temple on the top is quite impressive and you will see a lot of people coming here to pray. Moreover you get a great view of the city.

doi-suthep

At night we decided to explore the western part of town: the Nimmanhaemin area. This is the more modern and hip place in Chiang Mai. You can find a huge diversity of fancy restaurants and cool cafes. As we were walking around, we stumbled and ate in one of the best Thai restaurants I’ve ever eaten in. I highly recommend stopping by Labkai Nimman. It is a nice restaurant that only serves northern Thai food.

labkai-thailand

For me this was very special as it is not the typical Thai food you can have everywhere but rather it had different dishes with different flavors. Really delicious! For desert we stopped in Mango Tango. If you are a mango lover this is your place. Every dish on the menu has mango.

mango-tango

On the next day we only had time for a good brunch and had to leave to the bus station to catch our mini van to Pai. However I do wanna recommend stopping by Chiang Mai’s Breakfast World. It serves real brunch, all the types, all the kinds. So if you are looking for some more western type of brunch stop here and indulge in their huge amazing breakfasts.

chiang-mai-breakfast-world

I have to say I would’ve stayed longer in Chiang Mai just to explore more of its hidden cafes and restaurants. Also there are some options for hikes around Chiang Mai that you can try while you are there. In our case we decided to leave the hikes for our days in Pai.

Pai (2.5 days)

First thing you should know about arriving to Pai is that it a very winding road. So if you get motion sickness prepare yourself for it. That said, it is a beautiful road through the mountains. Pai, compared to Chiang Mai, is a small cute little town. However a little IMPORTANT side note, it is extremely touristy and draws a unique crowd of very young “hippie people”. For my friends and me the scene wasn’t our cup of tea. However, it is still a nice place to go and relax for a couple of days and enjoy its beautiful surroundings.

pai-thailand

On the afternoon we arrived we walked around town. It has a couple of streets where everything is happening. Since early in the afternoon you can start smelling the night market setting up. It is a great market to have a cheap meal as well as to buy souvenirs.

street-market-pai

That day we explored the different agencies in town. They all basically offer similar routes. In one agency we had a really bad experience (one of the few places someone was rude in SEA), however the agency we chose, we encountered a very kind guide and booked our trek for the next day.

pai-bistro-thailand

At night we spotted a couple of the bars in town and checked the famous Don’t Cry reggae bar, however as I mentioned, not my crowd at all, so had an early night (also we were hiking next day so needed to sleep a bit).

pai-trek-thailand

The trek we did was very beautiful, but don’t expect a very demanding hike (if that is what you are looking for). You are going to walk through small villages and farming fields. For lunch we got a good Pad Thai in the middle of the forest (gotta love Thai food)!

garlic-plantation-thailand

The trek ends in the Mhor Phaeng waterfall (which can also be reached on a motorbike). This waterfall has some pools to cool off after the hike, and by cooling down I mean the water is really cold. Despite it wasn’t a strenuous trek, it was a great day outdoors.

thailand-waterfall-pai

We ended up spending one more day there as we didn’t feel like catching our bus to Laos the next day.  However we didn’t do much that extra day. I was able to get a Thai massage, and just spend some time in some of the nice cafes in town like Puripai Café.

puripai-cafe-thailand

Although the vibe in Pai wasn’t great, I have to say spending time outdoors is a great way to go there and if you need a spot to chill you have good cafes to choose from in town.

Chiang Rai (pit stop)

Although most people do the border crossing from Thailand to Laos by boat, we decided against it as we were running tight on time. Instead we did the crossing by bus, which allowed us to have a pit stop in Chiang Rai.

white-temple-chiang-rai-thailand

The bus stopped in the famous Wat Rong Khun or also known as the White Temple. It is the most modern Buddhist temples I have seen. As the name says it, it is white and very elegant. Definitely worth the stop!

Complete 5 day itinerary to northern Thailand. Explore the best of Chiang Mai, Pai and Chiang Rai. Hikes, restaurants, temples and more.

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