From Bangkok, fly into Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai. Air Asia and Nok Air fly to both, but they leave from Don Muang in Bangkok, not Suvanabhumi, so make sure that your connection works. Nok Air is ridiculously cheap and we have found them to be consistently excellent.
Once you are in the north, there are two parts to the journey described here – the Mae Hong Son loop and Chiang Rai. They are in different directions, with Chiang Rai to the north of Chiang Mai, and the Mae Hong Son loop to the west of Chiang Mai. All up, I think you could comfortably see everything outlined below in a two week period. As always, the more time you can spend, the greater the depth of experience.
Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai
You can easily ride the nice straight highway between these two cities. If you feel like relaxing, you can take the VIP Green Bus. If all buses were like this, I would travel by bus at every opportunity – safe, comfy and reliable. You can buy tickets inside the moat in Chiang Mai, and at the bus station in Chiang Rai. The bus station in Chiang Rai is right in the middle of town, and in Chiang Mai, you will depart/arrive at Arcade bus station. See below for more info on this. There is a good place to hire a bike in Chiang Rai if you take the bus. It’s at the southern end of Jetyod Road (the street with the clock tower) – we hired a Honda PCX (150cc) that got us around very nicely.
The Mae Hong Son loop
From Chiang Mai, you will want to do what is known as the Mae Hong Son loop. Mae Hong Son is a province, and the town of Mae Hong Son is its administrative centre. As you go round the loop, you can go Chiang Mai – Pai –Soppong (aka Pang Mapha) – Mae Hong Son – Mae Sariang – Chiang Mai, or you can go in the other direction. We like to go to Pai first as the places get smaller and there are fewer tourists by the time you get around to Mae Sariang. Mae Sariang is very small. Soppong is probably too small to stay in, but it’s great on market day and there are lots of caves in the surrounding area, if that’s your thing. There is some accommodation near the caving places if you want to stay. You can also keep going from Mae Sariang and add Mae Sot before heading back to Chiang Mai. We haven’t done this, so can’t comment.
Travelling the loop
To say that the roads are very windy is a massive understatement. The road between Chiang Mai and Pai was being upgraded and should be finished by now. The completed sections we saw looked really good. After Pai, the roads aren’t great and if anything, are more windy than the first leg. You have two options:
- Travel between the main points by minivan and hire a bike when you get to each town. On the plus side, it’s safer than riding between the towns. On the downside, as you get further around the loop, the bikes available for hire become fewer, crappier, and more expensive. If you choose to travel by minivan, Prempracha is the only company to use. There are some awful vans and drivers, and there are many stories of accidents and near misses. Prempracha vans depart from/arrive at Arcade Bus Station in Chiang Mai. This is east of the river and a few kms north of the train station. You can walk there from Central Festival. If you want to travel with Prempracha, you will need to go to the bus station and buy your tickets there. If you try to buy tickets from a hotel, they will likely put you in some dodgy minivan with no allocated seating and a shoddy driver. Prempracha to Pai is about $5 AUD I think. http://premprachatransports.com/
- Hire a bike or bikes in Chiang Mai and ride yourselves around the loop. On the plus side, you will have loads of choice for bike hire in Chiang Mai, and you can rest in the knowledge that you have a good bike for the duration of the trip. The downside is that it’s more dangerous, and you will be limited to a small bag, although this is probably a good thing! If you choose to ride from Chiang Mai to Pai first, get an early start so you are on the road before the minivans – some of the drivers drive very dangerously. Things thin out a bit after Pai so this is not as much of a problem. Another possibility in this category is to hire a car; easily done in Chiang Mai. If you’re going when it’s hot, a car with air con might be a pleasant way to travel.
In addition to the above, you must read the most excellent and detailed overview supplied by Budget Thailand. It gives an amazing amount of information. Mae-Hong-Son-Loop-Budget
Pai is like the Nimbin of Thailand. It’s a crazy mix of hippies, Thai tourists, backpackers, crusty expats, alternative lifestyle Thais, Korean/Japanese tourists, reggae, fire twirlers and who knows what else. Beware the Korean/Japanese tourists as they often hire motorbikes even though they have never ridden before and they are in a foreign country in an area with less than ideal riding conditions. Jeremy says Pai is zombie land as you often see tourists who have come off their motorbikes bandaged up and lurching down the street.
There is a definite charm about Pai. Set in a valley, the surrounding area is incredibly beautiful. On the western side, the ridge is lined with ‘Pai in love’ style coffee shops where you can look over the valley to the big white Buddha sitting in the east. This ridge also has lots of places to stay – most are little self-contained villas, and most have gorgeous views. If you go for a ride to the eastern side of the valley to visit the big white Buddha, you will be rewarded with amazing views in the other direction. A short distance along the road on the way back down from visiting the Buddha, there is a restaurant on the left hand side. I think it’s called Sunset View. It’s a great place to spend an hour or two, and the views are second to none.
Back in town, every evening the main street is closed to traffic and food stalls set up along the road. You can wander along and eat a bit of this, a bit of that, see stalls selling kitsch souvenirs next to groups of hill tribe women selling their handicrafts. If you want to stay right in town, I can’t say enough about the Hakka Guest House. It has location, quality, balcony with views, and a really nice quiet vibe even though it’s so close to the action. It’s also very reasonably priced. http://www.agoda.com/hakka-guest-house/hotel/pai-th.html Hakka is often full, so book it in advance if you intend to stay here.
If you don’t stay in town, stay on the western ridge in a villa with a view. Pai Happy Village is a great choice. We went there and made a deal directly with the owner, I think it was $25 per night. The newer villas and pool had just been completed when we stayed.
Pai has a day market, an afternoon market, and best of all, the Wednesday market. These all take place at different sites, so check a local map to find them. If you go to the Wednesday market, go really early to see the people coming down from the hills with their produce, and the monks receiving alms from the stall holders. Other things to see include Pai canyon, waterfalls, and the Chinese village at the top of the hill.
Mae Hong Son
We really like this place. It has many of the charms of Pai, but without the tourist numbers, reggae and tattoo shops. Every night the area around the lake fills with street food stalls. The Wat on the lake is lit up beautifully, and everyone is happy. It’s a laid back place that doesn’t see a lot of action. Most recently we stayed at The Point Villa and thought it was a nice room with great value for money. It’s one of those places that frustrates you because with a little extra effort, it could be absolutely amazing. The pickings aren’t huge in Mae Hong Son, and we were happy with this place – very nice bed, cool air con, fridge, hot shower, plenty of space in the bathroom area to dry some washing.
Once you are in Mae Hong Son, there are some great day rides to do up to the Myanmar border. There is a lovely Chinese village that was settled by Kuomintang called Ban Rak Thai. The scenery is beautiful. We followed a little dirt road from the village that led us right to the border, which was just a roll of barbed wire. Local people cross on foot and there’s nobody much around.
If Mae Hong Son is laid back, Mae Sariang has managed to slide off the scale. So laid back, you will wonder where everyone is! It’s a charming little place and the hotels are mostly located along the river front. We stayed at Above the Sea guesthouse which is great apart from the rock hard beds. They are so hard that you might as well be sleeping on the floor. I’d look for another option even though everything else about Above the Sea is lovely. While in Mae Sariang, we rode to the Salawin River national park.
On the way back to Chiang Mai, it’s easy to do a side trip to Doi Inthanon, the highest peak in Thailand. There’s plenty to see, but they hit you quite hard for entry fees into the national park. It’s worth paying the money to go up, but it’s one of those things we would only ever do once.
There is a lot to see and do in Chiang Mai.
- Go to Baa Baa Black in Mae Rim for lunch and end up sitting around there for the whole day.
- Get up early and go up to Doi Suthep for sunrise as the first rays hit the golden stupa.
- Go to Catmosphere and hang out with the cats.
- Have lunch at Archer’s Bar and Restaurant in the old town.
- Go to Wat Umong and wander through the caves and temple grounds.
- Check out all the amazing wats in the old town.
- Wander around Warorot Market. Be sure to check out the lovely fresh flower section.
- Visit Royal Park Ratchapruek gardens.
- Visit the amazing supermarkets and ogle the array of cheeses. Rimping in Maya mall is particularly outstanding when you are fresh from Hoi An.
- The night bazaar area is pretty seedy.
You can stay in the old town, east of the old town or west of the old town. Accommodation in the old town tends to be in traditional guesthouses. There are loads of hotels between the eastern side of the moat and the river. We stayed in a nice place just east of the river called Sakorn Residence. It’s a bit pricey at $50 a night, but the area around this hotel including the riverside is lovely. There are loads of restaurants, some quite fancy, and the traditional teak buildings are really well maintained. Another area to stay is over on Huay Kaew Road, on the way to Doi Suthep. There are great night markets at Malin Plaza opposite the university that have excellent cheap food, around 30THB/$1AUD a dish. Huay Kaew Palace 2 is a nice cheap option in this area. Ibis Styles is also close, but a lot dearer. There are lots of condo buildings in this area, so Air BnB can be a good option. Most recently we stayed over the other side of town in an Air BnB at D Condo Sign, next door to Central Festival. The gym and pool in this complex are second to none in Chiang Mai, and being next door to Central Festival is great for cheap food and supplies to bring back to the apartment.
Chiang Rai is a great place. The day trips are plenty and interesting, the local people are happy to see you, and the food options are very good.
Things to do and see in town:
- White Temple – do not miss this, but go early. Crazy numbers of people.
- Black House – do not miss this, but go early. Slightly fewer people than the White Temple, but still crazy numbers.
- Chiang Rai beach – weird! It’s fun to ride around and get a bit lost.
- Rai Mae Fah Luang – teak museum, very relaxing, good for an afternoon visit.
- Restaurants on the river near Le Meridian – Lu Lam was good, lots of locals and local food.
- Wat Phra Kaeo has a Buddhist info centre – we learnt a lot about Buddhism, e.g. how to spot a Burmese buddha in a crowd of Thai buddhas, and recommend a visit.
- Night market is very good – food stalls around the outside of a big square dining area. There is often some Ladyboy entertainment on the stage to round out the experience.
- Gallery & Restaurant on Phaholyothin Rd – really nice food if you’re sick of the night market.
Day trips – you must do all three:
- Santikhiri (Mae Salong) – another Kuomintang mountain village with lots of surrounding terraced tea plantations.
- Golden triangle – see Thailand, Laos and Myanmar all at once!
- Mae Sai/Tachileik – big border crossing with a market on the Thai side selling lots of everything. I found this place fascinating.
There are lots of accommodation options, but I have just found out that there is a new apartment complex called D Condo Hyde. We know this chain from staying at D Condo Sign in Chiang Mai, and I would definitely check Air BnB for an apartment in D Condo Hyde. We have also stayed at Baanbaramee Guesthouse (ok), Grandma Kaew’s House (better). Both of these are walking distance to the night market. Most recently we stayed at Maryo Resort. If you will be in Chiang Rai on a Sunday it’s worth staying here to be right near the amazing Sunday night market. This hotel also has a shuttle that will take you into town and bring you back.