To date, through 4 separate road trips in Northern Thailand, we have now covered all 9 provinces, but for much of it we were learning on our feet. And this showed through our many mistakes, which came mostly in our choice of car hire. As the ‘cheapest wheels’ strategy doesn’t really work for road trips in Northern Thailand and I have struggled and failed to reach many nearby locations, such as Doi Inthanon, when opting for the cheaper cars. For example our 1.2 Liter Nissan Almera was a bit of a disaster. So I would advise on a 1.4 Liter engine at least, regardless, and also take caution when booking car hire online, as credit cards are almost always necessary under the driver’s name for pick-up. And, despite being offered full refund by the car hire company, we were once snubbed by the online booking agents who do not share the same policy. This came when booking through Budget Car Rental (although we’ve never had this problem with Thai Rent a Car to date). Otherwise cheap car hire can be found at the tour booths of Chiang Mai Airport, and elsewhere, without the credit card complications. And after being snubbed by Budget at the airport we blagged a 1.8 Liter Toyota Corolla, for 1,200 Baht a day, at the Cham Cha Holidays booth next door. And we were on the road within the hour. Anyway, here are our Top 10 Road Trips in Northern Thailand, covering all 9 of the northern Thai Provinces, and a full itinerary map is found at the bottom.
1. Mae Hong Son: Pai
I would start with Mae Hong Son, over Chiang Mai (which is a huge province), because it really ticks the important boxes for the perfect road trip. For me it has a challenging and scenic drive (tick), there are plenty of viewpoints and selfie ops along the way (tick) and throughout there’s just a lot of unique culture and eats (tick). And while Pai is obviously notorious for its backpackers and themed tourist tack, it also makes a very convenient base for travel in the area, as the halfway point to Mae Hong Son city. And the drive between them is fantastic, where it’s said that there are 1,864 turns to Mae Hong Song (from Chiang Mai) making it one hell of a rollercoaster road trip, with twists and turns through lush rainforests and endless mountain ranges. Although it can make some people queasy. It’s also easy to avoid the main drag of Pai, when travelling by car (we stayed in the rice fields), and there’s still a lot of charm to be found in the area, with unique culture, scenery, and an enchanting backdrop. The Yunnan Teahills and Pai Canyon are just a couple of easy nearby excursions.
2. Chiang Mai: Doi Ang Khang
It’s a hard choice for the main road trip attraction in Chiang Mai, as there’s a lot of them (our Top 10 Attractions here), but I would personally go with Doi Angkhan as it again ticked all the boxes for an adventurous road trip. There’s the challenging drive, the scenic attractions, and the fascinating cultures. As Doi Ang Khang is a mountain that straddles both sides of the Thai-Burmese border, where pockets of hill tribes (Musur, The Palaung, Thai Yai, and Jean Hor) have, until recently, been cut off from outside infuences. The borders at Baan Nor Lae are also a bit unworldly, with check points, armed soldiers and lingering mists. It is no doubt a fascinating part of Northern Thailand, well off the backpacker path. Otherwise tourism is focussed domestically, and while the area was once a prominent port on the opium route, a Royal Project (King’s Royal Agricultural Station) was set up to encourage alternative agriculture and incomes. So now it’s all strawberries, tea gardens and the local favourite, cabbages. Thai people really love their cabbages.
3. Chiang Rai: Phu Chi Fah
This mountainous border region, found miles again from any tourist trails, is best known for its “Sea of Mists” when each morning at dawn, fogs will roll up and over the hills and valleys below. However, to watch this unique attraction, it means a very early start (04:00 AM) to climb to the top of Phu Chi Fa mountain, before sunrise. Which is really not easy after a big bag of Cheetos for breakfast (noone told me it was a 1km trek, on a steep slope). So it is by far the most strenuous attraction of this road trip list, but it is no doubt worth it. And this time the location is set over the Thai-Lao borders, and views reach out past the Mekong River and into Laos. And of course this means local cultures also vary from that of the Burmese (Myanmar) borders of Mae Hong Son and Chiang Mai. And while the “Sea of Mists” is no doubt the highlight of the area, the surrounding scenery and cultures are undoubtedly fascinating, with mountain scenes and Hmong hill tribe villages. There is also an abundance of giant Duang Kwang fighting beetles (Siamese Rhinoceros Beetles) in this area, and for the domestic tourists, there’s a whole load of cabbages to have selfies beside.
4. Phayao: Phu Lang Ka
Continuing on the Lao borders of Thailand is Phayao, another mountainous region, similar to the Mae Hong Son route only not quite as challenging, and a lot quieter. So it may work for those who are apprehensive about the winding rollercoaster roads of north. The province is also within easy reach of Chiang Mai, and the route almost guarantees a pass through the lakeside city of Phayao city, with its serene promenades, and hilly backdrop. The local vibes remind me of Lake Geneva (but that’s probably just me). And while there are some worthwhile sights in passing, I would personally continue through to the further-flung mountains towards neighbouring Nan Province. And my favourite spot here would be Phu Lang Ka, a ridiculously scenic region, with rolling mountain views, and cheap hill tribe homestays to watch on from above. It’s definitely one of the more romantic spots in the region, and again it’s far far away from pretty much anything. It is also in close proximity to the Thai-Lao borders and the border markets at Ban Huak found, in the Phu Sang National Park, are another of the areas main drives.
5. Nan: The Old Town
The Lao borders take a sharp turn below Phayao, cutting east, and the province beneath is Nan Province, which was once referred to as the “Middle City”, due it’s location roughly about half-and-half between Chiang Mai, Thailand, and Luang Prabang, Laos (although the latter is not so easy to reach). Again it is a forested mountainous region, with a ridiculous amount of sights and nature along the way, but I feel the heart of Nan’s old town is definitely the main attraction in the province. Where the streets would be best described “Ta Ton Yon”, which is a Lanna phrase meaning chilled and laid back. It’s just a really cute place to kick back for a bit, maybe comparable to Pai, only without the ridiculous amount of backpackers, and noise. The old town is small as well and close knit, making it easy to navigate, so most people opt for free bike hire at cetral hotels and guesthouses when touring the old town sites. This would likely start at Wat Phumin temple, the central temple of the old town, where a pedestrian night market hosts on the neighbouring stretch of Phakong Road each weekend night (06:00 PM, Fri-Sun).
6. Lamphun: Central Temple Tour
Now I’m jumping back over to the southern border of Chiang Mai province, as obviously there are easier road trip options than the far eastern provinces, leading south. And probably the easiest of all road trips from Chiang Mai, closer to many in the province itself, is next door in Lamphun. In fact it’s so close that I didn’t even notice we’d left the city, meaning it would maybe be better covered on a day tour, rather than a destination specific road trip. Although it is the first destination when travelling south, so the list can’t really ignore it. Anyway, the main attractions in Lamphun would be the two central temples, both historically significant in the region, which easy to find within the boundary of the old city moat. The first of these temples is Wat Phra That Hariphunchai, named after the old Mon Kingdom (Haripunchai), of which Lamphun was the capital. The next is then Wat Chama Thewi temple named after Queen Chama Thewi, the former Queen of the region, who was known in the region as “the Beloved Queen of the Lanna people”. And these stops, depending on your enthusiasm for temples, could take no more than an hour, or two, before crossing the next provincial border. As Lamphun is the smallest province in the north.
7. Lampang: Wat Chaloem Phra Kiat
Lampang is a rather odd shaped province, which somehow borders 7 other provinces in northern Thailand (Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Phayao, Lamphun and Phrae) and central Thailand (Sukhothai and Tak). But the best entry point would be leaving Lamphun, and travelling towards the main city of Lampang. Then the must-see attraction in this wide-ranging province, is around one hour north (60km) of the town, at the hilltop temple of Wat Chaloem Phra Kiat. A temple top which can only be reached by a ridiculously steep climb, only by Songtaew, which is a bit like a rollercoaster ride, as you’re shaken in all directions, when the driver darts up and round the steep hills and turns. Hold on tight. From the Songtaew it is then a 300 step trek, up, which does take its toll following a merry night out at the riverside restaurants of Lampang town. But it is undoubtedly worth the effort as the scenes on the top of this karst-top temple are enchanting, when enshrined with mists, and chimes of bells and fluttering Lanna prayer flags. It reminds me more of our travels in the Himalayas, than Chiang Mai. And we were the only souls there during our visit.
8. Phrae: Phae Mueang Phi Forest Park
Phrae is back again in the eastern regions of the north, sandwiched between Lampang and Nan, and it does work well as an in between of the two. The best-known attraction of the province would likely be the unique rock structures, columns, and ‘mushroom rocks’ of Phae Mueang Phi Forest Park, which is found just a short drive from nearby Phrae town. The name Phae Mueang Phi actually means ‘Forest City of Ghosts’, and while there is some adjoining folklore to this small forest park, it didn’t feel haunted or ghostly whatsoever. It’s great for pictures though. That being said, there are relatively similar landscapes in Northern Thailand (like Pai Canyon, which helped Mae Hong Song take the road trip top spot). Otherwise it’s a great, and quiet spot for a picnic, but it won’t take long explore. I would then add in Phra That Suthon Mongkhon Khiri (below left and right) a rather fascinating, and in parts bizarre, temple on the road leading to Uttaradit.
9. Uttaradit: Durian
Uttaradit is where the northern landscapes transform from hilly and mountainous, to nothing but flat land and rice fields. In fact the province reminds me more of Isaan, than the north, which isn’t a good thing when travelling for forest and mountain scenes (although the terrain’s a lot easier on the petrol). But on our visit we are fortunate to arrive to Uttaradit during Durian season (June – July), to find every roadside and junction set-up with stalls hawking Thailand’s infamous stinky fruit. As the province is famous in the region for its durian, and more so the Longlaplae and Linlaplae strains, which are both named after the Uttaradit’s Laplae District, which also hosts an annual Durian festival. I know this a very niche interest, and seasonal with travel, but otherwise I struggled to find any highlights in the province. There were no challenging drives, no scenic mountain views, and no new cultures to me. But, if all else fails, there is always the city temple tour.
10. And Beyond
Uttaradit was more of a waypoint on our last road trip, as we continued further to Petchabun, and then on to Phitsanulok. Also Sukhothai is in this area, although I would suggest visiting this ancient city specifically, for a weekend or longer, rather than a quick stop on a road trip. But these provinces are otherwise no longer in Northern Thailand, as they are in north-central Thailand, where only the nine provinces highlighted above make up the official North. And that’s why I’m summing them up quickly. So, following Uttaradit, the scenery does become more mountainous, and scenic, and more so in the Petchabun mountains where Khao Kho is a big destination domestically (it’s similar to Khao Yai near Bangkok / Korat). And, while it doesn’t quite compare to the north, the Phasornkaew Temple is definitely worth a visit (below-right). Otherwise Phitsanulok (below and left) would have to be the best road trip destination on these near borders, as it adds a lot of history and overall interest, having some of the most beautiful architecture and old temples I’ve come across in the region. And it can easily be covered in a day. There’s also Loei, a beautiful province, but I really need to come back to these in further posts.
The Road Trip Itinerary
So the final road trip itinerary has changed slightly from the list above, as many of the northern attractions should be included long before Uttaradit (sorry Uttaradit). So Uttaradit is out, and Chiang Rai’s Golden Triangle is in. Because the Golden Triangle is too geographically important to miss out, given it’s the meeting point of the three border countries (Thailand, Laos and Myanmar) and, along with Yunnan slightly north, these countries all contribute to the cultural make-up and intrigue of Northern Thailand. Plus the drive is more fun when traversing the far-flung borders. I would also include a bunch of other destinations in nearer Chiang Mai, like Doi Inthanon, which is the highest mountain in Thailand, and Chiang Dao, with its mountain views and fascinating cave complex. So it’s probably best to check our Top 10 Attractions in Chiang Mai first, and the same goes for our Chiang Rai attractions.