Waterfalls, caves, temples – Thailand’s north

Waterfalls, caves, temples – Thailand’s north

Thailand’s north is well developed for tourism, but with its karstic mountain ranges, caves, waterfalls and river plains still represents the dream of the individual „Far East experience“ for many backpackers and Southeast Asia fans. There are enough accommodations, from the simple bamboo hut to the luxury resort with infinity pool and saltwater lake.

And then it’s off into the adventure – on foot, with a rental bike or on a borrowed scooter. Lonely paths through the mountains beckon, whether individually or on an organized trekking tour with a local guide. Waterfalls are always a magnet and some developed caves await discovery with a splendor of stalactites and natural sculptures.

Adventure between Laos, Mekong, Ping river and Myanmar

Chiang Mai, the old capital of the Lan Na Empire on the Ping River, is the pulsating center and hub for the journey through Thailand’s north. Backpackers meet there, digital nomads have set up their quarters and tour operators arrange their trips into the mountains at the border to Myanmar.

In this article you will get some insights, suggestions, experiences and tips for the region in the northwest of Thailand. Your journey to Southeast Asia and a lot of information about your stay in Thailand can be found in the article „Discover Thailand individually“.

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Chiang Mai – Provincial Capital in Thailand’s North

Chiang Mai is the northern provincial capital on the Ping River. For many backpackers the junction on the way to the regions at the border to Myanmar, to the „Golden Triangle“ or last down before the onward journey to Laos or North Vietnam. But also for „digital nomads“ Chiang Mai is a popular meeting point and place to stay. Every day, hundreds of them move into the newly emerging coworking spaces with their travel laptops or hang out in the many cafes planning their projects. Chiang Mai is at the other end of the Northern Railway, so you can hop on the train in Bangkok Hua Lamphong (or Ayutthaya) in the evening, sleep comfortably in a couchette*, and arrive in Chiang Mai the next morning.

Chiang Mai train station in Northern Thailand
Chiang Mai – train station

Historic ancient royal city

Chiang Mai is home to some impressive Buddhist temples that glisten white and gold, especially at night when illuminated. With a total of over a hundred temples and monasteries, Chiang Mai is also a religious center of Thailand’s north.

Chiang Mai - Temple by night
Temple in Chiang Mai

After all, the oldest temple Wat Chiang Man was built by King Mengrai in 1296, which at the time was surrounded by the growing capital. Chiang Mai was the once capital of the kingdom of Lan Na, next to the even older Sukothai a first kingdom of the Thai. While Sukothai lost importance due to the strengthening of another Thai state in Ayutthaya and later merged into it by „marriage“, the northern Lan Na kingdom continued to exist.

The core of the old city of Chiang Mai was laid out almost square and surrounded by a city wall. Parts of the wall are still standing today, but the old city boundary is more clearly defined by a multi-lane ring road, which is partly separated by green areas and partly by water basins with fountains. These are said to be remains of an old moat of the fortifications. On several arterial roads, city gates still stand or have been reconstructed.

Part of the ancient city wall in Chiang Mai
Part of the old city wall
Wat Ratchamontiam
Chiang Mai, Thailand

Northwest of the center on the „Superhighway“ there is also a national museum, which, however, is rather modest in its exhibition and hardly appropriate to the historical significance of Chiang Mai as Lan Na capital.

At 117 Ratchadamnoen Road, which leaves the historic center to the east and leads to the train station, there is also a Lanna Architecture Center. This can be visited as a museum.

While the more rural typical teak houses of Chiang Mai are falling victim piece by piece to the modernization of the city, you can still find some historic structures in the narrow streets within the city walls of the core area.

Chiang Mai - Teak House
Teak Houses will be rare in Chiang Mai
North of Thailand: Lan Na Architecture Center in Chiang Mai
The Lan Na architecture center

A newer attraction in Chiang Mai is the „Art in Paradiese“ – 3D museum (art in paradise, spatially, thus represented in 3 dimensions). This is located about 1km southeast of the old city core on Chan Klan Road, 199/9 Chan Klan Road, Chang Klan, Chiang Mai.

Open from 9am – 9pm for 400 THB, it offers 6 levels of Classical Art, Ancient Egyptian, Surreal, Wildlife Zone, Underwater World and Dinosaur Reserve. The 3D displays allow you to step into the paintings and be „in the middle of it“.

Chiang Mai: backpacker – hotspot of the thai north

In Chiang Mai you will find many local providers of trekking and rafting tours, elephant safaris, jungle camps, etc., as well as bicycle, scooter and motorcycle rentals. This is mainly concentrated in the old town center around Ratchamanka Road. So from this city you can make organized tours to the nearby mountain areas and follow your adventure preferences. However, this is not obligatory. If you go by bus to the region of Pai or for nature hikes to Mae Hong Son in the northwest, you will get more options with the locals there.

The number of hotels and guesthouses is immense and has grown in recent years. Both prices and quality show a considerable range. In the cheap hostel – dorm unfortunately repeated for me, of all places in Chiang Mai, the unpleasant experience with bedbugs, the simple guesthouse, on the other hand, offered me for 1 or 2 euros more privacy and restful quiet. Especially in the vicinity of the guesthouses in the center, Western-style restaurants are widespread, an opportunity to eat pizza instead of Thai food again – for all those who are a bit in trouble nutritionally.

Vegan start-up "All you eat is love" in Chiang Mai
Vegan start-up „All you eat is love“
Sliced melon with tomato and cheese au gratin in vegan start-up "All you eat is love" in Chiang Mai
Melon slice with tomato and soy cheese

In addition, there are several dedicated restaurant and snack bar start-ups by young Thai with explicitly vegetarian offerings both in the old town and outside the center of Chiang Mai. For example, in the old city center, the „All you eat is love„, where I enjoyed a slice of melon au gratin with tomatoes and soya cheese. Or on the road to the train station two – the Asa vegan kitchen between the city gate and the Ping river opposite the Krungthai Bank and further out the vegan Shewe Cafe about halfway between Ping bridge and train station.

You can enjoy a real healthy drinking – pleasure on the same street. A few steps behind the Aya vegan restaurant about opposite the Thanachart Bank, a woman of Chinese origin sells out of a window for 5 Thai baht per glass a ginger drink that has it all! Sharp, but noticeably beneficial for the stomach and certainly other organs 😉

Vegan Shewe Cafe in Chiang Mai on the road to the railway station
Vegan Shewe Cafe
Healthy Chinese Digestive Drink with Ginger and herbs
Chinese Digestive Drink

Skip hostels in Chiang Mai

Budget hostels and guest houses in Chiang Mai

Finding a budget – accommodation is quite easy… or again not. The choice is huge and the prices are a bit higher than usual in the Thai province.

A quick overview is provided by hostelworld Chiang Mai*. Here you can also play it safe and book something in advance.

Very well rated in the budget range are the following houses:

About a Bed Hostel*“ is located about 200m from Chang Puak Market and about 1km from Chang Puak Gate. Shared kitchen and a lounge for meeting other travelers make a communicative center of the house. Simple western breakfast with „toast, butter, jam“ .

Close to life is the Khunluang Hostel* with 650m to the center. So convenient to explore the nightlife in Chiang Mai without a long way back. Garden and terrace invite you to chat, breakfast buffet helps you to start the day. The team organizes tours and tickets and everything you need…

The Green Sleep Hostel*, only 400m from the center, also offers a tour service. In addition, a laundry service is offered for long-term travelers who want to wash through everything again. The breakfast is also well received…

Green temple yard in Chiang Mai

Upscale accommodation in Chiang Mai

Everything important is within walking distance of the Gusto guesthouse* in Chiang Mai. That’s because it’s located in the inner Old City core, yet offers some space in the garden to sit outside. The rooms are simply but functionally furnished. A breakfast buffet is provided, and if you want to eat in, the restaurant also offers other meals a la carte.

Staying at the Chiang Mai Heritage House* is very much in demand. Room amenities include satellite TV, refrigerator, electric kettle and hairdryer in addition to the obligatory air conditioning. Breakfast is offered a la carte. There are plenty of restaurants, bars and cafes in the vicinity to take a breather on the 700-meter walk to the city center.

Modern living with reminiscence of Thai traditions, that roughly describes the accommodation in Na baanya Chiang Mai Hotel*. If you want to relax, you can sit on a shady terrace in the garden. If you like it active, rental bicycles are part of the offer. Breakfast is included, kettle allows you to make afternoon coffee. The Elephant Spring and other Chiang Mai attractions are within easy reach. Tours can be arranged. Family rooms are available for families.

Top – Accommodations in Chiang Mai

If you’re traveling as a couple and want to enjoy carefree days in Chiang Mai, don’t miss *****Na Nirand Romantic Boutique Resort*. Modern Thai-style rooms with en suite bathrooms and comfortable seating areas allow you to enjoy your stay. Bathrobes and slippers are part of the basic amenities. The in-house restaurant overlooks the Ping River and treats guests to the finest Thai dishes. The night market and other popular Chiang Mai spots are just a 10- to 15-minute walk away.

In the middle of it all and still relaxing in the outdoor – pool, that’s what „*****The Inside House*“ in Chiang Mai, 700m from the (temple) Wat Phra Singh allows. The hotel building itself is often used as a photo backdrop – which is not surprising at all. Terrace and garden allow relaxation after long exploration – tour through the city. Families are welcome here – extra large rooms are available for parents with several children. Water is included as a playful element in the interior design – from the balcony bathtub to the outdoor pools and pool suites, water facilities are integrated into the architecture in a variety of ways.

The *****Empress Premier Chiang Mai* is particularly attractive for fitness enthusiasts, with two outdoor pools and a fitness center. If that’s not enough, you can enjoy a sauna and jacuzi. Bicycles are also available for rent. The distance to the center is about 1.7 km, but especially for the evening hours a free shuttle service is offered. If you stay at least 3 nights, you can enjoy a special free dinner. Also free of charge – the airport transfer. For those who want to do business in Chiang Mai, the hotel offers meeting and conference services.

Very tastefully furnished rooms with wooden furniture are offered by the *****Smile Lanna Hotel*, about 1 km from the old town center. Here, too, you can relax in the pool from the heat of a day in Thailand’s northern metropolis. Families with children are especially welcome in the family suites. The hotel is alcohol-free – there are no alcoholic beverages on site. A fitness room is available for use.

Also family-friendly is *****Phra Singh Village in Chiang Mai*. An outdoor pool and jacuzi and fitness room await your visit. The location on a side street promises peace and quiet, but it’s not far on foot to the city’s many attractions. Afternoon tea and neck massages are included for those who like them. Asian buffet breakfast is provided.

Onward travel from Chiang Mai

From the Chiang Mai train station, the only option is to return to Bangkok*, possibly in stages. Chiang Mai is the northern terminus of the Thai railroad. In front of the station is an old steam locomotive of European origin – a specimen of the Räthische Bahn in Graubünden (Switzerland), which has been in service in Thailand since 1926.

Train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok ready to leave
Train to Bangkok in the Chiang Mai station

For this, the Arcade Bus Station (1+2, right next to each other) opens up various possibilities. As already mentioned, to the „Golden Triangle*“ high in the northeast at the border triangle with Myanmar and Laos, to Chiang Rai*, or Mae Hong Son* and Pai* in the northwest or even further south. Basically, almost all regions of Thailand north of Bangkok are served by buses from Chiang Mai. Connections and tickets online are also available here via 12go.asia*.

Chiang Mai has an airport. Bangkok* can be reached regularly from here, as well as smaller airports in the province such as Mae Hong Son and several other cities* in Thailand. In addition, various destinations throughout Southeast – Asia such as Luang Prabang in Laos, Singapore or Kuala Lumpur can be approached.

Swiss steam locomotive in front of Chiang Mai station in Thailand
A swiss steam locomotive in Thailand

Mae Sariang

Peace and quiet off the beaten track

A little off the beaten track and therefore much quieter is the small market town of Mae Sariang west of Chiang Mai. You can get here by minibus from the Arcade Bus Station in the northeast of Chiang Mai. (Approx. 4 hours drive). You can look for the right connection and book directly here on 12go.asia*. If you prefer, you can also find there a private cab ride.

Due to the proximity of the border to Myanmar, many tribes, ethnic groups and refugees live in small villages throughout the region, some of whom had to flee from there. (Karen, Shan etc.)

In Mae Sariang there is a small museum about the 540 – year history of the town. And even a catholic church. In addition, Wat Chom Kham, which is worth a special attention of the population: In about the middle of October, the monks move along the decorated and illuminated streets of Mae Sariang in the morning around 3 o’clock and get food packages from the residents. For this, extra cooking and packing is done on a grand scale! The story behind it is probably about – trees were planted a few weeks before. So that the monks do not trample these young new plantations, they were locked up in their temple – monastery for a fasting period and only weeks later again „let out“ So that they now quickly regain strength and out of gratitude, the residents put them the „care packages“ in the morning.

Thailands Morning Alm in Mae Sariang
Mae Sariang – decorated for the walk of the monks

Small family guesthouses in Mae Sariang

There are relatively few guesthouses in Mae Sariang, they are small and familiar. I stayed at the North-West – Guesthouse*, which I can recommend. A few simple rooms without or with air conditioning are distributed on the second floor of the wooden house (shared bathroom), below between the thick posts of the open wooden framework is the guest room or the guest terrace(?). There you can eat cheaply, the owner speaks good English, makes all meals fresh and takes care of your wishes. Scooters and somewhat rickety bicycles for trips to the surroundings of Mae Sariang are also available for rent. Trekking tours or boat trips are arranged or possibly offered by the man of the house.

Mae Sariang North-West-Guesthouse in Thailands North
Mae Sariang North-West-Guesthouse

Across the street is a small laundry, where I had my clothes washed „professionally“ one day. The „River Guesthouse“ is located nearby. In general, this street along the Yuam River is the tourist center, so to speak, with 1 or 2 other restaurants, an ice cream parlor and the guesthouses. For the evening I recommend you diagonally opposite the Sawadee – Bar and Restaurant. There is a German cook with his Thai wife the host, especially on weekends meets an international audience. Not travelers, but employees of various aid organizations that run camps for refugees from Myanmar in this border region and involve the local population. The restaurant has a balcony or terrace on the river side. In the middle of the dining room there is a billiard table, where it can get hot.

Sawadee Bar in Mae Sariang
The Sawadee Bar in Mae Sariang with german cook

More accommodations in Mae Sariang

In Mae Sariang, Chok Wasana Guesthouse* offers best accommodation about 600m from the city center.

Mae Sa Riang Home* has family rooms. A terrace invites guests to linger. You can prepare your own meals in a shared kitchen. Meeting point for exchange of experiences is the common room.

Directly on the banks of the Yuam River, the Riverhouse Hotel* in Mae Sariang offers air-conditioned rooms, some with views over the river and the riverside meadows.

1864 – a number makes waves

t-shirt 1864 bends of the Thai national road 1095 near Mae Hong Son

There’s a number that’s making a splash in the Northeast, especially between Pai and Mae Hong Son – on T-shirts, postcards and other souvenirs.

1864

This is not a year that stands for a special historical event. It is the number of turns to be made on the unique circuit of the Mae Surin Mountains at River Pai and Mae Surin National Park. Consequently, the region is also a mecca for the worldwide two-wheeler community, some of whom take to the roads on their own motorcycles, but most of them on borrowed ones. Unfortunately, not always in proper style and often without helmets, so that every year there are serious accidents and the curves claim their victims.

Mae Hong Son

About halfway along the winding stretch of the main 1095 road, Mae Hong Son is on the edge of the Mae Surin mountains in the far northwest of Thailand, accessible by scheduled buses from Mae Sariang or from the other direction from Chiang Mai via Pai. Booking the ride, about 4 1/2 hours, is again via 12go.asia*. Here you can also find the alternative cab ride.

The Mae Hong son temple lake in Thailand's North
The Temple lake in Mae Hong Son

Mae Hong Son is a small regional center with a temple complex on the lake, where most of the backpacker guesthouses, some very nice restaurants and cafes not only geared to Western tourists, and a street with souvenir stores, art dealers and trekking tour providers are located.

In the Mountains near Mae Hong Son in Thailand's North
Nam from Sawasdee Trekking Tours

Individual Trekking Tour west of Mae Hong Son

Here I met Nam from Sawasdee Tours, which runs one-day and multi-day hikes through the mountains. Since I was traveling a bit ahead of the season, I got my private day tour from her in the mountains on the Myanmar border including a visit to Karen village, lunch around a campfire with herbal tea prepared in a bamboo cane, and visitation with a farmer family friend. She captivated with her knowledge of the local flora and fauna and never tired of showing me things that I probably would have passed by unrecognized.

Karen village in Thailands North near Mae Hong Son
In the Karen village
Long Neck figures in a Karen village near Mae Hong Son
Long-Neck-Figures in a Karen village

The Karen are one of the many indigenous tribes living in small villages in the region. One subgroup (Padaung) of the Karen in particular is known as „longneck“ because the women stretch their necks with neck spirals from childhood and deform the shoulder skeleton. Since the 1980s, several „show villages“ have sprung up in the region, where the Padaung women are „paraded“ as an ethnic attraction. This has enabled these families to improve their financial situation somewhat, but the big money is earned by others. This practice was rightly condemned by the UN, among others.

Trekking in Thailands North: parasitic plant on a tree
parasitic plant on a tree
Spider with net in Thai mountain wood
Spider net in mountain wood
Trekking tour in Thailand's northern mountain wood - campfire for midday rest
Camp fire for midday rest
Thailand trek in the northern Mountain wood: Visit a a local farm
Visit at a local farm

Thai night market at the lake

At the temple lake of Mae Hong Son many local families and groups gather in the evening to a local soup kitchen market, which is typical for Thailand. (night market) Even if here always some tourists meander through – that is the Thai a celebration! Many of the families come with their cooking equipment, set up their stall at the beginning of dusk under gas lights and fairy lights and then it is cooked, sizzled and stewed, served, tasted, feasted, talked shop …

Thailand: night market in Mae Hong Son at the temple lake
Night market in Mae Hong Son

Explore the surroundings of Mae Hong Son by scooter

To be able to explore the surroundings of Mae Hong Son, I rented a scooter for several days. This was really a good decision, because many of the true treasures can otherwise only be explored with organized tours and day trips.

A few kilometers south of Mae Hong Son on the road to Khun Yuam and Mae Sariang is a „hot spaPha Bong Hot Spring on the right.

The facility itself was quite run down when I visited, the large pool drained and large cracks showed at the bottom. But it was possible to enjoy the hot bottom water in bathtubs in individual cabins, also treatments are offered. That had something of bath cures in the sixties and seventies.

For me as always interesting I used the offer of Thai massage, of which there less tourists, but mainly locals make active use. The store was well attended, I even had to wait about 1/2 hour, although about 5 places were available. Cost-wise it was the cheapest massage I had in all of Thailand, nevertheless good and offered by friendly, knowledgeable masseuses.

The Mae Sakut Nature Trail – 3 hours exciting hike

In the mountains around Mae Hong Son there are several national parks. At Mae Surin National Park, I got what I was always looking for without a guide and organization – a sketch with a circular route, the Mae Sakut Nature Trail, which was good to walk in about 3-4 hours and from waterfalls (would have liked to take a shower right away, but the mosquitoes!) over different tree species and vegetation types to the distant view from the ridge path opened up a number of interesting insights into the ecological structure of the northern Thai mountain forests. Information boards explained the vegetation and significance at several points. The final highlight was the three-tiered Maekut Long waterfall. Exactly such instructive offers are still too rare for my taste in the Thai national parks.

Mud spa and Fish Cave – destinations north of Mae Hong Son

Also north of Mae Hong Son there are several small exploration destinations „hidden“. These are also best reached by scooter. In a state-awarded mud spa (Phu Klon Mud Spa) you can test the healing effects of mud.

A bit further into the mountains in the north the (signposted) path leads to another waterfall. Watch out, the border to Myanmar is not far and describes there an arc to the east.

Thailand's Phu Klon Mud Spa north of Mae Hong Son
Mud Spa in Phu Klon
Thailands North:  Mud Spa Phu Klon near Mae Hong Son - Guests Mud cure
Mud cure in Mud Spa

At the main road 1095 from Mae Hong Son to Pai at Ban Huai Pha the Thai people are raving about an attraction – the „Fish Cave„. There are several streams and small ponds flowing there, where carp-like fish live in larger numbers. A grotto is connected to the pond underground, so the fish can swim into it. For the locals it is a pleasure to throw food pellets into the small basin at the bottom of the grotto, so that the fish crowd in there and „fight“ over each other for the food like in a sardine can, so that the water bubbles.

Thailand's Fish Cave - a Grotto north of Mae Hong Son at the 1095 Thai road
Fish cave north of Mae Hong Son

Accommodation in Mae Hong Son

Skip hostels in Mae Hong Son

Budget – Overnight Stays

A real hostel is the Saiyud Hostel in Mae Hong Son*. Here are usually single dorm beds free. If you want to make a reservation, you can do so on the above mentioned page.

Dorm beds are also available at Crossroads House* in Mae Hong Son, which is very popular with travelers. Campfires in the evening, breakfasts and plenty of space for socializing ensure social exchange among backpackers. There is even fitness equipment available. Bicycles and scooters can be rented.

The P.L.P. – Guesthouse* offers mainly double rooms, but also a family room – all with private shower. The garden with hammock area is very popular. Simple breakfast is included.

A bit more expensive, but still „backpacker style“ is the Bondee House*. This is especially popular with the aforementioned motorcycle buffs. There is a lower part of the building, where motorcycles can be parked under cover and shaded in front of the rooms. Refrigerators for self-catering are available, instant coffee, tea and some fruit etc. is provided in the morning – but no real breakfast included.

Upscale for overnight stay in Mae Hong Son

Outside and secluded between rice fields, the national park in front of your eyes is the Fern Resort Mae Hong Son*. Ideally suited as a starting point for a nature trail, which starts almost in front of the door and leads over 3-4 hours through the forests of the national park. With infinity pool and barbecue evening in the restaurant an experience for couples and families. The two-person rooms can be upgraded for families.

Quiet yet close to town is the Rimtarn Resort Mae Hong Son*. A large beautifully landscaped garden surrounds the buildings. Guests also feel comfortable on the terrace in community, and the rooms are simple but friendly and tastefully designed. Guests are expected at the bar. Otherwise, many restaurants are available nearby and the night market is also virtually around the corner. A family room is happy to accommodate 4 to 5 guests.

Pang Mappa (Soppong) – Tham Cave

Personal  Tip for Thailand trip

Halfway to Pai (main road 1095) near Pang Mapa (Soppong), a few kilometers north of the road is Tham lot Cave. The visit of the cave is also one of the organized offers of the tour operators of Pai. However, if you arrive individually, you will have more time to explore the charming area.

Thailand's North: Cave Tham Lot near Pang Mappa (Soppong)
Entrance to the cave Tham Lot

The visit to the cave is well organized so that not everyone tramples everywhere. Local guides are provided (all appropriately trained, had a little the charm of the “ ABM – work – acquisition programs “ of the social authorities in Germany), which accompany tourists individually or in small groups into the cave. These guides carry large petroleum – lamps, which are lit before the cave. At the entrance again the usual Thai attraction: throwing fish food pellets into the river – then hundreds of carp (or something like that) fight over them, which brings the Thai people into rapture.

Tham Lot – the cave with the dripstone figures

Behind it is the entrance to the cave, where the river is dammed up a bit. The tourists have to take a seat on small bamboo rafts and are pushed a few meters into the cave. Good idea to guide and limit visitors! There are some beautiful rock formations and stalactites in the cave, which the guides point out… as far as they can in English. Since usually several guides meet, all help each other… and hold funny chats, of which I unfortunately understood nothing.

cave Tham Lot In Thailand's North near Pang mappa (Soppong)
In the cave Tham Lot

My Garmin handheld GPS (with openstreetmap chart material) showed me another cave near Pang Mappa (Soppong) as a „point of interest“. I wanted to look at that of course also still. I had to stop at a military checkpoint. But they left me unmolested. It went a piece of a trail up, there was an old neglected pavilion. Next to it a big hole in the ground – the entrance to the cave. Everything was overgrown and overgrown. There must have been a visitor entrance at some point, because there were remnants of a collapsing staircase leading down into the hole. What I would have found exciting would have been an evening visit here, because these caves are usually the daytime quarters for masses of bats, which swarm out at dusk. But unfortunately it was much too early in the day, so that I would have had to wait for hours…

River at the cave  entrancte to  Tham Lot in northern Thailand near Mae Hong Son
Through the cave is streaming a river

Accommodation in Pang Mappa (Soppong)

Skip hostels in Pang Mappa

In the smaller village of Pang Mappa, there are not quite as many accommodations, even including the closer villages. Four of the best-rated here, regardless of price range, can be found below:

Bar 124 Cafe & Accommodation* in Soppong offers a restaurant, bar, cafe and some rooms for accommodation. Bicycles can be rented to explore the surroundings, which makes this accommodation popular with cyclists. Even though there are some mountains surrounding the river valley, it is still possible to cycle in the valley, e.g. to Tham Lot. And of course not only hungry cyclists are offered a proper breakfast.

Pencave Homestay* has several chalets with private terraces and relaxing garden areas. A good breakfast with fresh fruits of the region from own kitchen offers the native-rooted owner Pen to her guests – so that all come into the raving.

Kanlaya’s Eyrie Luxury Homestay* offers luxury accommodation about 1km from the Tham Lot, far from the metropolises. Several buildings in the region’s typical teak house style allow for relaxation and a close connection to the region’s nature. The extensive subtropical garden of the property emphasizes this reference. In addition to the tourist use as a hiking and biking base camp, the booking for meditation groups is also proposed. Tours and activities can be arranged, as well as massages upon request.

The Cave Lodge in Ban Tham Lot* welcomes active visitors. A sauna is available for the evening. Canoeing is possible in the region as well as trekking and cycling. Delicious food is offered by the lodge operators. Tham cave is very close by. Table tennis is a popular evening activity among the guests of the Cave Lodge.

Pai – backpacker meeting point of the north

Pai is the backpacker stronghold in the north par excellence. No idea how such a place can develop such a hype – with all the good and bad sides that has. Allegedly, the drug channel par excellence from the border area with Myanmar led through Pai and the drug money contributed to the emergence of bars, dives, entertainment establishments of all kinds, etc.. The drug smuggling is long gone, but the myth remained.

If you are looking for „original Thailand“, you are wrong in Pai. If you need again contact to many westerners and the „backpacker scene„, want to relax, party, meditate, enjoy fish spa and other wellness fashions, raft down the Pai river on car tires, go on a trekking tour, elephant camp, climbing or cave spot (e.g. Tham Lot with travel) or organize your onward and outward journey or just want to consume, you are right there. Yoga, cooking classes, Thai Chi and Qui Gong – everything is possible in this place.

Pai can also be reached by minibus from the Arcade 2 bus station in Chiang Mai (see an book online at 12go.asia*), or alternatively by private cab. Many are already moaning about the rapid ride through the mountains with many curves…. „only manageable with barf bag

Thailand's north: Tubing at the Pai River
Tubing at the River Pai

Locals among strangers

Of course, locals also live in Pai. A temple and a mosque close to each other and many corresponding visitors were clear indications (whereby the Muslims with several stores in the backbacker quarter mix vigorously). Since the popular King Bhumibol had just died in the fall of 2016, the locals organized an evening funeral service on the most important square of the backpacker street, which was close even to many Westerners. But in the evening this scene with nightlife, parties, alcohol consumption and loud music dominates the streetscape of Pai like no other place in the northwest of Thailand.

Pai therefore has a range of accommodations. From very good hotels to simple bamboo huts you will find a wide range for all price ranges. Some of the guesthouses are located directly on the main street of Pai right next to the bus station, many as „ressorts“ on the river. If you don’t like so much civilization at once, there are still secluded quiet accommodations in the nearer and wider surroundings of Pai.

Thailand's main means of transport
Scooters are the main means of transport

With the scooter to the surroundings of Pai

Also in Pai there are many scooter rentals with masses of scooters in front of the door. So I didn’t hesitate long to have a look at the surroundings. (Simple automatic scooter for from 3€/day)

Because the surrounding area is a beautiful hilly country crossed by rivers. As attractive excursion destinations south of Pai at the road Thai 1095 are propagated a „Canyon“ and the „World War Bridge„. The Pai Canyon is a kind of mini version of the Grand Canyon. Washouts have created narrow ridges from which steep slopes lead down into the depths. It is a jewel of nature, even if it is not that spectacular. Only a short distance away is a historic iron girder bridge, the Word War II Memorial Bridge (8km south of Pai). This is for the Thai a landmark from the 2nd World War, as it was defended against the Japanese invaders.

The main road 1095 from Pai to Chiang Mai now runs on a wider concrete bridge next to it, but at least the old bridge is so important to the Thai that it was not demolished. The somewhat comparable bridge of the „Encounter on the Elbe river“ in 1945 between Soviet and American soldiers near Torgau in East Germany was quickly blown up in the early 1990s, despite all its historical significance.

Thailands North: Word War II Memorial Bridge near Pai
World war II memorial bridge near Pai
Thailand's north: Canyon near Pai
Pai Canyon
Chinese village and waterfall – slide

West of Pai there is a „Chinese village„. Thailand was, as already mentioned, again and again the destination of refugees from the surrounding countries like Burma, China, Laos or Vietnam because of the wars, unrests and hard dictatorships taking place there. For example, Chinese also came to settle near Pai. The Chinese village is now partly something like a museum village, where you can admire „traditional Chinese life„, you can eat Chinese food and of course there are souvenir stores and so on. In this way, some of the exiled Chinese have found a source of income. If you are there on the way, it is worthwhile to stop and have a look.

And then there is the waterfall Mo Paeng which attracts backpackers in droves. You can splash around a bit in the pools, but many also use the rocky water channel to slide. This is one of the pleasures for the international tourist masses from Pai.

The white Buddha and the elephant carports

About 3km from Pai to the east, a white Buddha greets us from the mountains. This belongs to Wat Mae Yen, where you can climb up many steps. This is rewarded with a good distant view into the valley of the Pai River.

Tourist attraction "Elephant camp": Elephant Carport near Pai in Thailand
Elephant Carport near Pai
Tourist girl is riding a captured Elephant in an elephant camp near Pai
Some Tourists still love Elephant riding

Unfortunately, I passed several times on the tour around Pai at „elephant riding stations“, where I missed the pleasure from the start. Whether the tourists (mostly I have seen girls who let themselves be photographed elephant-riding) completely hide how the elephants are kept there? The animals stand, if they are not used, chained in an „elephant-carport„: On bare concrete under a roof from bamboo supports with a chain around a front foot! This is certainly not species-appropriate keeping. But as long as there are tourists who ask for such things, nothing will change.

Thailand Elephant Camp - Elephant with foot chain at the concrete surface
Elephant foot chain

Accommodation in Pai

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budget travel in Pai – cheap accommodation

The Backpacker Meeting Place* is just that in Pai – a place where everyone meets. Or at least relatively many do, and they are happy with what they find there. There are dorm beds available as well as private rooms, and all in good quality.

The Suandoi Backpacker Resort* also offers dorm beds or private rooms. Hammocks on the terrace let the chill atmosphere of Pai start right in front of the door. Free yoga is part of the house offer.

At the Nine House in Pai* you can immerse yourself in Thai life. Because this is a typical teak house, as they are common in the region. In the middle of the green. Accommodation is possible in Mixed Dorm, Female Dorm or Private Rooms.

Dorm beds close to the pulse of life you will find in La Mom Hostelo*. There is a drinking water dispenser and free (instant) coffee, as well as hammocks to chill out on the terrace.

Pai for the more upscale

Cozy rooms with AC and private bathrooms offer you Baan Pai Nai Wieng* just a few meters‘ walk from Pai’s promenade. A good breakfast and bottled water are part of the offer. The good coffee is generally praised.

Right on the banks of the Pai River is the Pai Village Boutique Resort & Farm*. Wooden cottages provide comfortable rooms with kettles and bathrooms. A breakfast buffet provides for your refreshment in the morning. You can get a Thai massage at Mamalon Massage. Local specialties and wines are on offer at Blue Ox Restaurant. The center of Pai is within walking distance.

The Family House Zen Boutique Resort* is located across the Pai River and is accessible to pedestrians via the Bamboo Bridge. These modern stylish building is transformed into a relaxing oasis by its garden and outdoor pool. Continental or American breakfast is available a la carte for an additional charge.

The Kirina Retro House in Pai* welcomes guests with a well-tended garden and outdoor pool about 1.5km outside the town center. A speedy shuttle service is offered. Families with children are welcome, and spacious family rooms are available. The resort is spacious and quiet.

Le Mont Resort* is very rurally located about 5km outside of Pai. Bungalows with balconies are available for guests, all beds have mosquito nets. Every morning a tasty organic breakfast is waiting for the visitors. The owner often takes care of the transfer to the city himself or organizes it if possible, and also permanently takes care of the well-being of his guests.

You can enjoy the relaxing view over the Pai valley from Kuad Khon Thoe Pai Cottage*. It is located about 7km from Pai, close to the Pai Canyon. Breakfast is included, simple Thai dishes are available throughout the day. The outdoor pool invites you to refresh yourself. About 300m away is the Love Strawberry Garden, where freshly picked strawberries and strawberry cakes and drinks are available in season. A shuttle service to Pai is offered several times a day, and the staff can help organize other tours in the region.

The top level accommodations in Pai

The Reverie Siam in Pai* is slightly off the beaten path, only about 1.2 km from the center, and offers all the amenities for solo travelers, couples, small groups, and families. Two outdoor pools promise cooling off. The restaurant serving Thai and Mediterranean cuisine is open all day. A varied breakfast is standard. En suite rooms have private balconies. A family room is available. Although downtown Pai isn’t out of walking distance, the Reverie Siam offers regular shuttles. Laundry and other services can be arranged through the front desk.

The Boutique Pai Island Resort* is close to the action in Pai, at around 900 yards, but far enough away for quiet accommodations. Forests and ponds surround the individual villas. The park-like grounds and wooden houses make you dream of a stay in tropical paradise. The suites each have their own small gardens. A family room is available for families. A sumptuous breakfast brightens the start of the day. Thai dishes and international offerings are available at the restaurant.

Set on a man-made saltwater lake, The Oia Pai Resort* is the place to be. Swimming in the pool or feasting in the restaurant, relaxing on the balcony, or kayaking are popular activities at the resort. Breakfast is brought to the room by boat. A variety of fresh fruit is offered. To get to Pai, you can either take the free rental bike or the shuttle.

Chiang Rai

Since I only experienced Chiang Rai at a break on the drive through, I only want to mention this city. If you are looking for historical cities or love Buddhist temples, the visit for 1 or 2 days is definitely worth it. Because already on the passage I discovered there one of the most impressive temple complexes outside Bangkok. There is a museum about the culture of the hilltribes. Especially long-term travelers who don’t like the party scene in Chiang Mai prefer to spend the cooler season in quiet Chiang Rai.

Chiang Rai can be reached by bus from Chiang Mai. You can search and book connections online here at 12go.asia*. You can also book a „direct“ bus from Pai (they all go to Chiang Mai first) at one of the small travel agencies that take tourists to the Laotian border (Chiang Khong).

Thailand's border to Laos at the  Mekong near Chiang Rai
Mekong at the Lao border

Accommodation in Chiang Rai

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Hostels for budget travelers

For travelers who want to get as far as possible with limited funds, Chiang Rai offers a number of hostels*. Dorm beds are available from about 200 ThB e.g. in the Baan P‘ Maali Hostel*, a bit more expensive from 230 ThB the SoundSleep Hostel*. Not far from the bus station and in about the same price range is Connect Hostel*. The hostels also have private rooms, but these are much more expensive. The distance of these houses to the city center is less than 500m.

Relatively inexpensive is the SuaanTung Coffee and Guesthouse* with double rooms. All rooms have private bathrooms. There is a rich breakfast. The main destinations in the city are within easy reach.

Chiang Rai for more demanding guests

About 500m from the center is Le Patta Hotel Chiang Rai*. Fresh fruit to welcome you and an outdoor pool to cool off in are among the hotel’s standard amenities. Rooms have refrigerators and kettles, plus private shower baths. Fitness centers and rental bicycles are available for active guests. The bus station and night market are just 200m away. Tour organization and laundry services complement the facilities.

The modern NA YA Hotel* also features an outdoor pool. A small fitness center and garden invite you to active recreation. The attractions of the city center can be reached on foot or with rental bicycles. Breakfast is offered as buffet or a la carte breakfast. A family room welcomes guests with children.

The Nak Nakara Hotel* welcomes guests with tea and cookies. Lanna – style rooms with modern bathrooms have mosquito nets over beds, refrigerators and hair dryers. At the hotel, the outdoor pool or massages provide relaxation. The city center is within walking distance, but rental bicycles are also available.

Thailand at its best – the top accommodations in Chiang Rai

No.1 in Chiang Rai is the *****Mora Boutique Hotel*, only about 900m from the city center. There is a restaurant, a large outdoor pool as well as jacuzi and family rooms available. Bicycles can be rented free of charge. A fitness center is part of the offer. Massages and laundry services, too.

*****The Riverie by Katathani* is located on an island in the Kok River. The spacious and well-maintained complex includes an outdoor pool, garden, fitness center, tennis courts and various dining options, including a rooftop restaurant. Family rooms are available for families with children. A children’s club can be used at times. Rooms feature minibars and tea and coffee amenities. The city is within easy reach.

If you prefer accommodation away from the hustle and bustle of the city and would like to find quarters outside in the mountains, surrounded by Buddhist temples and small hill tribe villages, *****Le Meridien Chiang Rai Resort* could be the first choice for you. Nevertheless, you don’t have to do without the usual comfort – the spacious rooms with balconies have bathrooms with tubs and showers and views of the greenery. In the spa you can enjoy massages, oil baths and herbal drinks. Outdoor pool and 24h fitness center are available. A rich breakfast is offered. The counter arranges day trips to the city as well as mountain tours. A free shuttle service to the town, about 3km away, is available.

Small conclusion – Experiences in Thailand’s north

The karstic mountains in Thailand’s north hide a lot of waterfalls and also some caves (Lot). At some point I didn’t feel like seeing another waterfall… But the landscape is altogether charming and varied. Remote villages can often only be found via dirt roads, sometimes with fords through or bamboo bridges over streams.

In the cave Tham Lot in Thailand
Waterway in the cave Tham Lot

There are some who also tour there with bicycles, but so far rather a minority. The paths often lead with serpentines in the height and especially the main roads are relatively busy. Where it is flat (river meadows) and many villages are, cycling is fun. You can rent bikes in many places, often the guesthouses offer simple everyday bikes for little money. Mountain bikes or other sports bikes are only available in Chiang Mai and possibly in Pai – where many Westerners are constantly pushing around.

Otherwise, you won’t be able to avoid renting a scooter at some point. Many guesthouses offer a few from their own stock, in the main towns you will often find rental companies with a larger supply. There is left-hand traffic and the driving style of many Thai is chaotic! I was told on the spot that there are no driving licenses and therefore no driving schools in Thailand. So be careful!

Alternatively, for exploring the rural regions, you can book an organized trekking tour (for days or for several days with overnight stays in mountain villages), which includes arrival and departure. Also such tours are either arranged through your guesthouse or organized in larger towns by small local trekking providers.

On the way to sunny Thailand? Don’t forget your sunglasses!

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