Awesome Places in Northern Thailand (That Aren't Chiang Mai)

Wat Sa Si is a core attraction at Sukhothai Historical Park in northern Thailand
Wat Sa Si is a core attraction at Sukhothai Historical Park in northern Thailand | © Prasit Rodphan / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Iona Proebst
3 September 2021

Done Chiang Mai and wondering where else to go? There’s plenty of lesser-known destinations to explore in northern Thailand. From hippie-happy Pai to Chiang Saen, the oldest city in the country, here’s where else to visit.

If you’re interested in scratching beneath the surface of Northern Thailand, let Culture Trip be your guide on our specially curated 10-day trip.

Mae Hong Son

Mae Hong Son is a charming town close to the Myanmar-Thailand border. It’s grown around a lake where you can watch locals practise tai chi. It’s fairly small; but, it still has a good collection of cafe and restaurants, plus an evening street market. There is plenty to explore here, from climbing the hill up to the golden Buddha to visiting local community projects.

Mae Hong Son is a quiet, relaxed town close to Myanmar | © John Elk III / Alamy Stock Photo

Pai

If you’re in search of a tropical, hippie sanctuary, Pai should be top of your north Thailand itinerary. It’s a great place to relax and recharge with plenty of health-conscious eateries, yoga classes and massage parlours, plus a thriving nightlife with plenty of bars. The area around Pai is beautiful with waterfalls, a canyon and hill tribe villages.

Chilled-out Pai has a lively nightlife with plenty of bars | © Image Professionals GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo

Nan

Nan is a charming town that is also a great place to experience authentic Thai culture. Check out the Blessing Buddha at Wat Phra That Khao Noi for breathtaking views over Nan and beyond; marvel at the Thai Lu murals at Wat Phumin, the most important landmark in town; or visit the Nan National Museum. In the evening, take a relaxing stroll along the banks of the Nan River or enjoy tasting new flavours at the street market.

Wat Phumin is the most important landmark in Nan

Phrae

Head off the main tourist trail to visit the town of Phrae. Discover the mushroom rock formations at Phae Mueang Phi Forest Park, immerse in history at Khum Chao Luang museum or get some culture at Wat Luang. Try new dishes at the Saturday street market or see local artisans at work at Ban Thung Hong, which specializes in indigo-dyed fabrics.

Head to Phae Mueang Phi Forest Park to see the mushroom rock formations | © Anirut Rassameesritrakool / Alamy Stock Photo

Chiang Rai

Chiang Rai, not to be confused with Chiang Mai, is well worth a visit. Gain a deeper cultural insight into the area, relax in a refreshing pool at the foot of a cascading waterfall, discover diverse hill tribes and much more. Chiang Rai is renowned for attractions such as the quirky Wat Rong Khun (the White Temple) and the morbid yet fascinating Baan Dam Museum (the Black House).

The White Temple in Chiang Rai is an ornately decorated structure that’s well worth a visit | © Pavel Szabo / Alamy Stock Photo

Chiang Saen

Chiang Saen (once known as Wiang Hiran Nakhon) is the oldest city in Thailand. It was once the capital of the Lanna kingdom, before Chiang Rai was established by King Mengrai in 1262. Chiang Saen, on the banks of the Mekong River, close to the Golden Triangle, offers plenty to explore. Check out the lake, the Chiang Saen National Museum, or some of the impressive temples such as Wat Pa Sak, Wat Phra Chao Lan Thong or Wat Phra That Pha Ngao.

Visit the seated Buddha figure on the Mekong River esplanade in Chiang Saen | © John Elk III / Alamy Stock Photo

Chiang Dao

Chiang Dao is the ideal place to come if you like the great outdoors. From hiking to caving and everything in between, it’s a nature lover’s dream. It’s also home to natural hot springs and the Japanese hippie Shambhala In Your Heart Festival.

Phayao

Phayao is a peaceful and enchanting lakeside town in the Phayao province. Make a trip to the sunken temple of Wat Tilok Aram, try your hand at fishing or take a leisurely stroll along the lakeshore. Phayao is also a great place to try regional foods and mingle with the residents over a few drinks.

Wat Tilok Aram is a floating platform with a Buddha statue | © Poonsak Pornnatwuttikul / Alamy Stock Photo

Sukhothai

Sukhothai, which translates to the dawn of happiness, is a popular destination for those wanting to explore the ruins of an ancient Thai city. It was the capital during the 13th century; head to the Unesco-badged Sukhothai Historical Park to see ancient temples and monuments. Other places of interest include Ramkhamhaeng National Museum, Ramkhamhaeng National Park, Sri Satchanalai National Park, and the Royal Palace and Wat Mahathat.

You can see an ancient Buddha statue at Sukhothai Historical Park | © Prasit Rodphan / Alamy Stock Photo

Phitsanulok

Phitsanulok was briefly the capital in the 14th century, after the decline of Sukhothai and before the rise of Ayutthaya. Here you’ll find Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat and the sacred Phra Buddha Chinnarat image. The traditional architecture of the local houses is intriguing and the wild west feel of the town is alluring.

Wat Phra Sri Rattana Mahathat is one of the top things to see in Phitsanulok | © travelbild / Alamy Stock Photo

Mae Sai

Mae Sai is a bustling, edgy border town frequented by expats on a visa run and ambitious travellers looking to go hiking to see Myanmar’s diverse hill tribes in the Eastern Shan state. Mae Sai is right on the border with Myanmar and is a thriving town for exports and imports of all kinds. Wander around the local market to sample regional cuisine or pick up knick-knacks at rock bottom prices. If you want to have a peek at what’s across the border, grab a day pass to explore the town of Tachileik on the Myanmar side.

Visit the Mae Sai market to sample delicious regional cuisine | © Art Kowalsky / Alamy Stock Photo

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