Thailand is a perfect destination for backpackers. The country is budget friendly, easy to get around and offers loads of activities that will help you make friends. In this Northern Thailand Itinerary you will discover the backpacker loop that will take you to all the “must see” places as well as some incredible hidden gems.
Before we get into this jam packed itinerary be sure to check out 36 things to know before visiting Thailand. This will give you all the insider info that I found out along the way.
HOW TO SPEND 10 DAYS IN NORTHERN THAILAND
This backpacker guide will go into detail about where to stay, how to get there, activities and more!
Northern Thailand Itinerary Breakdown:
- DAY 1 & 2 – BANGKOK
- DAY 3, 4 & 5 – CHIANG MAI
- DAY 6, 7 & 8 – PAI
- DAY 9 & 10 – CHIANG RAI
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DAY 1 & 2 BANGKOK
Arriving in Bangkok
Your Northern Thailand Itinerary starts in the heart of Thailand, its capital Bangkok. A lot of travellers have mixed reviews about this city, but I feel 2 days is more than enough to explore the main sites.
If you are arriving in Bangkok by plane you will either be at Suvarnabhumi Airport or Don Mueang International Airport.
Suvarnabhumi has an airport train that will transport you into the city. This train goes every 10-15 minutes between 5.30am – Midnight and costs 45 THB (£1). The journey is around 25 minutes and will drop you off at 1 of 3 stations; Makkasan Station, Ratchaprarop Station or Phaya Thai Station. Alternatively you can book a Grab Taxi (like Uber) to your accommodation for around 390 THB (£9).
Don Mueang International Airport has a Limo bus service that can transport you into the city. The bus goes every 20/30 minutes between 9am – Midnight and costs 150 THB (£3.50). The journey is around 40/60 minutes and will drop you off at Khao San Road or Silom. Alternatively you could book a Grab Taxi to your accommodation for around 300 THB (£7).
Both airports also have public bus services.
Where to stay for 2 days in Bangkok
I highly recommend staying in the Bed Station Hostel, located 10 minutes from the bottom of Khao San Road, This hostel is centrally located with a chilled but social hang out vibe. The rooms are spacious with lockers, curtains, aircon, a lamp and plug sockets. The hostel has a pool and a bar on site making it an easy place to make friends. The only downside to this hostel is the bathrooms only have fans, not aircon so it can get very warm.
How to spend 2 days in Bangkok
Bangkok is a big city with lots to see and do. I recommend focusing your time exploring the temples.
Wat Arun (Wat Arun Ratchawararam Ratchawaramahawihan)
Situated on the other side of the Chao Phraya River is Wat Arun. You will need to get a 4 THB (9p) ferry ride over which takes no more than 5 minutes. Once there you will pay admission of 100 THB (£2.50) which includes a bottle of water. Wat Arun also known as the temple of dawn is open from 8am – 5.30pm. The site area is huge, make sure you take a picture of the map to avoid missing the other side. It feels like the temple is split into 3 areas.
The first area as you enter, is the place of worship with the grand golden Ordination Hall. Circled around the hall building are walls lined with golden Buddha’s.
Its second area is the Spires. Here you can climb up these colourful steeples and see how intricately detailed they are.
And the 3rd area is the grounds, a place to sit, relax and be in the energy of this sacred temple.
Every evening the Wat Arun temple spires lights up. With the foreground of the river and the light reflecting off the water it is a really magical site.
Wat Pho (Wat Phra Chetuphon)
The Wat Pho temple is home to the reclining Buddha as well as a 1000 other buddha’s images. This amount makes it the largest collection in Thailand. Wat Pho is also one of the oldest and largest temples in the Bangkok area. Visiting hours are between 8am – 6pm and entry costs 200 THB (£5) which includes a bottle of water.
Wat Sam Phran (Dragon Temple)
Situated 40 minutes out of the city, the Dragon temple is well worth a visit. It is free to enter and it is not a tourist hot spot (yet!). I had the place to myself at 11am which was somewhat creepy but also really cool. The place has a good amount of areas to explore and you can easily spend an hour or two there. You can walk up the dragon for a donation, which includes an offering you can give to the Buddha, when you reach the dragon face. The walk is steep and hot as there is no aircon but hey, it’s all part of the experience.
You can either visit this spot by bus or Taxi. Buses are inexpensive but the timetable is somewhat confusing. A taxi there and back will cost you around £15 (645 THB).
Visit Khao San Road
Arguably one of the most famous streets in Bangkok. This tourist destination is best known for its markets, its street food and its nightlife. Be careful with your “buckets” and stay alert as I have heard too many stories about robberies and spiking’s. But please do not let that put you off. The street is worth a visit, especially if you want to get to know your fellow hostel goers.
Maeklong Railway Market
A novelty experience to do in Bangkok is visit the Railway market. The stalls right next to the tracks are fresh produce and then little streets off the tracks have clothes and other market bits. But the main attraction is the train that runs through the middle of the market. Watch as the vendors frantically pull their tarpaulin to allow the train to go past.
The train times are:
- Train Arrival times: 8.30 a.m., 11.10 a.m., 2.30 p.m. and 5.40 p.m.
- Train Departure times: 6.20 a.m., 9.00 a.m., 11.30 a.m. and 3.30 p.m.
Do not be surprised if the train is late, Thailand transport times are never what they say they are. The market is open from 6.20am to 5.40pm.
How to get to Chiang Mai
To get to Chiang Mai, you will go by sleeper train, and that is an experience! The journey is 13 hours and there are 3 different cabin choices. In 3rd Class there is no aircon and only sitting seats (I would not recommend). In 2nd Class there are bunk beds with AC, there are around 40 beds in this carriage, but it is surprisingly quiet considering the circumstances. And lastly 1st Class with a private cabin and AC (2 bunk beds). You will need to head over to Hua Lamphong station (Bangkok Train Station) to catch the sleeper train. The best way to book this train is by using 12go.asia.
DAY 3, 4 & 5 CHIANG MAI
Arriving in Chiang Mai
Your second stop on this Northern Thailand Itinerary is Chiang Mai. The train will get to the platform around 7am which gives you the whole day to wander around this charming city. Although it is classed as a city it doesn’t feel busy and over crowded like the some of the others.
The train station is 10 minutes from the centre of Chiang Mai. There are a lot of taxi and Tuktuk drivers fighting to give you a ride outside. I chose to book a grab for 90 THB (£2.25). .
Where to stay for 3 days in Chiang Mai
I have 2 recommendations on where to stay in Chiang Mai:
- Hostel Lullaby. This hostel was voted the 2nd best hostel in the world for solo travellers and I found out why. This cute and cosy hostel is a, leave your shoes at the door social house vibe. Breakfast and snacks are free and there is a social area next to reception padded out with cushions and magazines. The rooms come with curtains, lockers, power sockets and lights. The only downside about this hostel is the room is very warm. The fan/aircon was not working very well when I visited. One thing I loved about this hostel (aside from the social element) was that you could check in straight away. So if you fancied a nap after coming off the sleeper train, if your bed was ready you were allowed in it.
- Hobnob Hostel. This hostel had a lovely grab a book, be a digital nomad vibe. The hostel was right next to the Sunday markets and was a great location. The rooms were spacious with a balcony, lamp, curtain and plug socket. The only downside was the unisex bathrooms. This hostel was not social but it was a really nice place to be.
How to spend 3 days in Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai has so many activities you can do, it is also a central hub for its sister city Chiang Rai and Pai. The great thing about Chiang Mai is whether you have a day or multiple you will have done something cool.
Visit an Elephant Sanctuary
One of the most popular things to do in Chiang Mai is visit an Elephant Sanctuary. Make sure to research the sanctuaries before parting with any money. You want to make sure the site is ethical, the elephants are well looked after and there is no riding involved.
I chose Into the Wild Elephant Camp. Out of all my research this camp came into the top 3 on every blog and website I looked at for ethical sanctuaries.
You get to feed the Elephants, walk in the jungle with them and wash them. This was such a surreal experience, I was honestly so anxious they are big animals!
We spent half a day there but could have easily stayed longer! Half day 1,700 THB (Roughly £40) Full day 2,400 TBH (Roughly £56).
Saturday and Sunday street markets
The main two Chiang Mai markets take place on the weekend.
The Saturday market is at Wua Lai Walking Street and consists of predominantly food stalls. Pre Covid this market was lively and although smaller than the Sunday one, it had just as much to offer. When I visited there was not much except for amazing food choices. The stalls are open from 5-10.30pm and in regular times there were food, clothes and souvenir stalls.
The Sunday market is at Tha Phae Walking Street. This market was the biggest and the best that I visited on my Thailand trip. The stalls start setting up ready for their opening time of 5pm – 10pm. However depending on the business of the market some stalls will stay open until later. The market itself is huge, you can very easily spend 2/3 hours there. They have a separate area within the market for food which helps to keep the hanger at bay. But it is also a great meeting place and a marker to keep your Barings. The markets offer a variety of different cuisines, lots of elephant pants, handmade jewellery, Stone Elephants, spices, clothes, bags, they literally have everything.
Explore the city
For a chilled day, explore the heart of Chiang Mai, its Old City. This area of Chiang Mai is in the shape of a square and bordered by a moat. Spend your time hopping around the free temples and monuments within the square.
Some popular spots are:
- Wat Chedi Luang – This temple used to be the home of the Emerald Buddha (Phra Kaew) that now resides in the Grand Palace in Bangkok.
- Wat Chiang Man – Also known as the Elephant temple, this is the oldest temple in Chiang Mai.
- Wat Phan Tao – The hall of assembly used to be a throne room for King Mahotara Prateth
If you want to visit one of Northern Thailand’s most sacred temples then head to Dio Suthep. Located on the outskirts of Chiang Mai this Temple is not for the faint hearted. In order to see the White Elephant statue, which represents the one that carried the Buddha relic to his resting place, you need to climb 306 stairs. The temple opens from 6am – 8pm and costs 100 THB (£2.50) to enter.
Doi Inthanon national park
If you want to get out of the city and into the nature around Chiang Mai then head to Doi Inthanon national park. Located 1 hour and 30 minutes out of the city, the best way to visit is by hiring a private driver or taking a Songtaew (a long truck but this takes at least 2/3 hours). Once there, you can visit multiple waterfalls, do short hikes and see summit views of the national park. There is an option to do multiple day hikes with tour groups if your itinerary gives you time. If you manage to come in January you might get to see the Siamese sakura flowers in full bloom. These flowers cover the trees in beautiful pink flowers.
The park is open from 5.30am – 6.30pm and costs £300 THB (£7.50) to visit.
How to get to Pai
To get to Pai from Chiang Mai you will need to take a bus. The journey is 3 hours and buses go every hour between 6.30am – 5.30pm. The company I used to book my tickets was Prempracha Transports, it costs 150 THB (£3.50) for the journey. The bus will pick you up from Chiang Mai Arcade station and be warned your luggage will be tied to the roof of the mini bus. You can also book your transport through 12go.asia.
DAY 6, 7 & 8 PAI
Arriving in Pai
The next stop on the Northern Thailand Itinerary is Pai. This cute hippy town has such a warm and small feel to it. If you chose to get one of the earlier buses go for breakfast at Lemon Thyme. This sweet little café may be small but it is popular! With indoor and outdoor seating it is such a gem to visit. The food is delicious and there is so much choice on the menu.
The bus will drop you off in the centre off Pai at “Pai Bus station”.
Where to stay for 3 days in Pai
Pai has some great hostels to choose from, I went with Pai Circus Hostel. Although a party hostel the area was quiet by 11pm. The hostel offers a transport service from the bus station, which consists of a man on a motorbike attached to a cart which you sit on with your stuff. I was very surprised the man made it up the hill with 3 of us.
You can choose to be in a dorm room or a little cabin. I chose the cabin because it gave me a double bed to myself, an extension cable with lots of plug sockets and a fan. The fan actually kept the room cool which I was happy with. The pool area is absolutely beautiful with views overlooking the mountains. The only downside was the toilet situation, there were only 5 in the bar area which didn’t seem enough for such a big place.
How to spend 3 days in Pai
One of the best activities to do in Pai is Tipsy Tubing. It is exactly what it says on the tin, you are in a rubber ring floating down the Pai river with some bevvies you brought from 7 Eleven. The trip starts at 1pm and finishes around 5pm. This activities is really good fun and guarantees you making friends with other travellers. Halfway through the tubing you will get off and have a “party” in the water. There is a DJ, a volleyball net, a beer pong table and some other games. There is also a BBQ (but you have to pay) and a stand for more booze and a joint if you fancy it. Then after an hour or 2 you will hop back into your rubber rings and float further down the river.
I booked this through Pai Circus hostel for around 200 THB (£5).
White Buddha (Wat Phra That Mae Yen)
The White Buddha sits on top of the hill overlooking Pai. You can see him from miles away due to his size and the contrast of white between the dark green trees. Wat Phra That Mae Yen (White Buddha) is free to visit and has the opening times of 6am to 6pm. However we were told to visit for sunset, so we risked it and found a bunch of people up there enjoying the view and waiting for the sun to go down. No one came to move us or stop us from sitting on the steps. So if you feel like testing it, stop up there and watch.
The walk up to the White Buddha is 30 minutes from town and then a further 15/20 minutes to walk up the 353 steps to reach the top.
Pai Walking Street night market
Every night street vendors gather on Pai’s walking street. They set up their stalls of handmade jewellery, souvenirs, clothing and food for passersby to enjoy. It is a very small market but worth a wander down to see. I highly recommend getting one of the waffles (Banana and Nutella) for 60 THB (£1.40).
If you feel confident, a lot of shops will rent their bikes out for 100 THB (£2.50) for 24 hours. Renting a bike will give you the freedom to explore different areas of Pai. I recommend going for a scooter/moped as they have less power and are easier to drive. As an insurance policy you will need to give your passport over to rent the bike. The passport is given back when the balance is paid. Always take photos of the bike before you take it out to ensure they don’t try and charge you for damage you didn’t create.
Located 12 minutes’ drive from the Walking Street is Pai Canyon. This canyon is another great spot to watch the sunset. It is free to enter and is open between 6am – 8pm. The Canyon is slightly sketchy due to its 30 meter sheer drops and very thin pathways. We wandered about 15 minutes along the path before we decided to turn back. The great thing about Pai Canyon is that you don’t have to walk far to be wowed by the beautiful valley views.
Secret Hot Springs (Sai Ngam Hot Spring) and Lum Nam Pai Wildlife Sanctuary
Everyone goes to the busy and touristy Ta Pai hot springs because it is closer to town. But for the cost of 300 THB (£7.50) I can give you a full day trip that is lesser known and more beautiful.
Sai Ngam Hot Springs are located in the Lum Nam Pai Wildlife Sanctuary which is a 25 minute drive out of Pai town. The entry to the park is 200 THB (£5.00) plus 20 THB (50p) to park the scooter. The hot springs are made up of 3 tiers with the top one being the hottest. The water is crystal clear and it is said the Sulphur in the water has healing properties.
After you have relaxed you can either go back to town or explore the sanctuary, there is a lot to do but it is all very spread out so it depends how much you want to drive.
This bar is pretty special because it offers shroom shakes. A shroom shake is a magic mushroom blended into shake form, it is a hallucinogenic. The bar also serves joints and alcohol and is almost broken into 3 sections so everyone can enjoy their different kind of buzz. To order, simply go up to the bar and ask. The bartender will then hand you a list of rules and a 330ml water bottle of the stuff. The price is 500 THB (£12) and the effects last 3 hours.
If it is your first time (it was mine), I recommend you half the bottle with someone. I am not encouraging you to go and try it but just giving you the information and details of my experience. PLEASE only think about doing this if you are surrounded with people you trust and feel comfortable with and have a clear head.
The Sunset bar have got the set up perfect, with red low lighting, chilled music, beds, hammocks and seating areas to chill and chat and enjoy the experience.
Going out for food
I always recommend going for street food as I find it is the best and cheapest option. But if you fancy a sit down meal then I found 2 restaurants I really liked (3 if you include Lemon Thyme café that I mentioned above).
1. Two Sisters Restaurant is 5 minutes down the road from Pai Circus Hostel. They have a big menu and reasonable prices. What I loved about this place is that you get free fruit to share with your table. I went for chicken noodles and paid 60 THB (£1.30), the restaurant has a nice feel with indoor and outdoor seating.
2. Duang Restaurant in the centre of Pai. After tipsy tubing we headed into town and because this restaurant had a cat, we had no choice but to go inside. The restaurant was big with lots of tables. The food was really tasty, I went for Pad Thai and my friend went for the Thai green curry. The staff were really friendly and even agreed to my friend’s request of replacing the rice with noodles for her curry.
How to get to Chiang Rai
Your best option is by bus. This will take around 7 hours and will be broken down into 3 and 4 hour buses. You will need to transfer in Chiang Mai. I suggest getting a late minivan around 4.30pm/5/30pm to give you the most time in Pai. Then stop in Chiang Mai for 1 night and get the 7am bus to Chiang Rai the following morning,
DAY 9 & 10 CHIANG RAI
Arriving in Chiang Rai
The last stop on our Northern Thailand itinerary is Chiang Rai. This little city is a bit of a hidden gem. Most visitors will only make time for a day trip from Chiang Mai and while that is an option, Thailand’s Northern Province has so much more to offer.
Read my Budget friendly 2 day Chiang Rai itinerary to discover in detail this underrated “sleepy” town.
Start the day by visiting Coffee Bright. This cute little café gave me the best smoothie of my entire Thailand trip. There are around 5/6 tables to choose from, aircon, a friendly cat and free WIFI. Make sure when you enter you walk around to the other side of the counter to find the cakes.
Where to stay for 2 days in Chiang Rai
Baan Mai Kradan Hostel is a lovely hostel located a couple of minutes from the walking street and 10 minutes from the bus station. This modern loft style house comes with a few different private and dorm options, the biggest being an 8 bed. Some rooms have balconies which allow you to dry towels and wet gear. Each bed comes with a table, light and power socket. The beds are super comfortable and breakfast is included.
How to spend 2 days in Chiang Rai
WAT RONG KHUN (WHITE TEMPLE)
This is one of the “must see” temples in Thailand, located 20 minutes outside of Chiang Rai town. This eccentric temple is a privately owned art exhibition that mixes traditional Buddhist beliefs with modern art. This weird and wonderful place is constantly under construction, with the overall project consisting of 9 areas (4 are currently open to the public). Each piece of mirror mosaic is glued on individually by local workers and the detail of these buildings are incredible. Be sure to keep a look out for Angry Birds, Pokémon and Marvel references.
The entrance fee to visit this eclectic temple is 100 THB (£2.50) and has the opening hours of 8am – 5pm. The white temple operates with a one way system. Make sure to take your photos and appreciate the architecture before you move on because they will not allow you to circle back.
WAT HUAY PLA KUNG (BIG BUDDHA)
A 20 minute drive from the White temple is Wat Huay Pla Kung, often called the Big Buddha. However the statue isn’t actually a Buddha. The figure is Guanyin, a representation of the goddess of mercy. This temple is unique because you can climb to the top of the goddess and have a birdseye view of the surrounding areas. There is no entrance fee to look around but there is a fee of 40 THB (90p) to see from the top. The opening hours are 7.30am – 9.30pm.
WAT RONG SUEA TEN (BLUE TEMPLE)
Located 10 minutes from the Big Buddha is Wat Rong Suea Ten the Blue temple. While this isn’t the typical traditional temple because of its vibrant colour, creator Putha Kabkaew has captured contemporary Buddhist art in a modern way. When comparing the Blue and White temple you may notice some similarities. This is because Putha was a student of Chalermchai Kositpipat, the designer of the famous white temple. This temple is free to enter.
KHUN KORN WATERFALL
Khun Korn waterfall is free to visit and a half an hour walk from the drop off point. The path is well marked and a relatively easy walk. There are 2 pathways from the toilets leading to the waterfall. From vague memory I believe we went right, over the bamboo bridge and through the jungle and then came back the other way. Both trails provide beautiful tropical scenery. When approaching the waterfall you will hear it before you see it due to its sheer size of 70m.
CAT ‘N’ A CUP CAFÉ
The staff at Cat ‘N’ A Cup make the experience well worth an hour or two of your time. Unlike other “cat cafes”, your general admission is the purchase of your food and drink. The prices for food are very reasonable, with drinks starting at 60 THB (£1.40), and for 40 THB (90p) you can buy the cats a treat. There is no time limit for being in the café and there is no booking system, so simply turn up and wait your turn. The café is very spacious giving tables a quick turnover ensuring you do not have to wait for a lengthy amount of time. The cats are well looked after with plenty of hiding spots and shaded areas if they do not want to be disturbed.
Cat ‘N’ A Cup is open 11.30am – 8pm.
CHIANG RAI NIGHT MARKET
There are a variety of different markets to discover in Chiang Rai, but the biggest one takes place every Saturday. So if your two days in Chiang Rai happen to fall on a Saturday, then you’re in luck! The Walking Street is filled with local vendors selling everything from traditional cuisine to sunglasses.
This market also provides entertainment with a dance group and a live band. The dancing is all inclusive and passersby are encouraged to join in. This experience was so wholesome.
Where to next?
Chiang Rai has an international airport, giving you the option to leave from there instead of Bangkok. If time allows I would recommend getting a flight down to Phuket and starting a Southern Thailand trip.
Frequently asked Questions
Is 10 days enough to visit North Thailand?
Yes of course! Travellers usually spend between 10 to 14 days exploring the North part of Thailand. This 10 day Northern Thailand Itinerary covers everything from the must see sites to the hidden gems. This Itinerary may seem jam packed but when you are on the trip it will be nicely passed with times to relax and enjoy the places you are in.
Is Northern Thailand worth visiting?
Absolutely! I loved my time in the North probably more than I did the South! The North of Thailand has so much to see and do, each day having something different to offer.
How much money do I need for a 10 day trip?
This question all depends on how lavish you want your 10 days to be. If you plan on following this itinerary you could get change out of £250 (10717 THB). I have a budget breakdown on my 36 things to know before visiting Thailand post.
In Summary, Northern Thailand has something to offer everyone. From bimbling in the markets, discovering the ancient temples to trekking in the jungle. This detailed Northern Thailand Itinerary is budget friendly and the perfect backpacker route.
As Always. Happy Exploring!