The Ultimate Northern Thailand Route
In March this year we set off to travel around South East Asia again with Thailand being the first country on the list. We’d already explored the islands in Southern Thailand including Phuket and Koh Phi Phi, so this time we wanted to experience the beauty of the mainland. After travelling around Northern Thailand for 6 weeks on a budget, and taking heaps of notes along the way, we’ve put together the ultimate Northern Thailand route to help you plan your trip and also save a few bucks.
Here’s the route we took and all our travel tips for each destination…
1. Bangkok, Thailand
The very first stop was Bangkok where we stayed for a week to settle in to the nomadic lifestyle again. It’s a common starting point for a lot of travellers coming to South East Asia for the first time as there are many international flight connections to get here. We recommend using Skyscanner to compare the best flight deals.
Check out my full guide to Bangkok here to find out what to see and do in this crazy capital city.
2. Pattaya, Thailand
In Bangkok we coincidentally bumped into an American couple who we met online 4 years ago through our Facebook Travel Page (before we had the blog). They ended up cancelling their flight so we spontaneously took a trip to Pattaya for a few nights together. This wasn’t on our original route and if you have the time I recommend skipping Pattaya and going to the islands in the South of Thailand instead. But if you’re on a tight schedule or only travelling in the North but still want to see this ocean, Pattaya is the closest beach city to Bangkok.
There are many tour desks around Khao San Road where you can organise transport to get to the next destination. We booked a mini van at the desk just outside our hostel in Bangkok, which had good prices compared to others. Though later we realised mini vans are a lot more expensive than public transport!
We stayed in a private room at Jomtien Hostel in Jomtien, which is the quieter and nicer beach area. It was a good and cheap place to stay and only 10 Baht ($0.40AUD) to catch the 20 minute ‘Songthaew‘ bus into town.
After searching around, we couldn’t find any places for breakfast that were reasonably priced on the beach front of Jomtien, the cheapest was 150 Baht ($6.30AUD) for basic eggs on toast. But on the side street near our accomodation there was a local place that did two pieces of toast with bacon, eggs, sausages, tomatoes, butter and jam, fruit juice and instant coffee for just 89 Baht ($3.75AUD).
Things To Do
While in Pattaya we mainly relaxed on the beach, partied on the busy main street (full of mainly Russian tourists) and visited the gorgeous Ko Long Island on a day trip.
3. Kanchanaburi, Thailand
The next stop inland was the town of Kanchanaburi for 3 nights, a place famous for the Bridge Over The River Kwai built during WWII and the very stunning and magical Erawan Waterfalls.
To get here we had to go back to Bangkok first where we stayed the night. Then the public transport options were to either catch an air conditioned bus from Mo Chit Station for 117 Baht ($5AUD) that takes 3-4 hours, or catch the train from Thonburi Railway Station that only leaves twice per day at 7:50am or 1:55pm for 100 baht ($4.20AUD). Since Kanchanaburi is a town famous for it’s railway line we chose the train option for the full experience and paid 60 Baht ($2.50AUD) for a taxi from Koh San Road to the station.
Tip: Always get taxis that are metered to avoid getting majorly ripped off!
We read some reviews online that said it was cheaper to just get to Kanchanaburi and walk around to find accommodation, but what we didn’t realise was that the main touristy area wasn’t close to the train station. Out of all booking engines, booking.com had much cheaper options so we ended up booking a last minute place nearby for three nights and hired a scooter from that hotel to get around.
Tip: If you’re not confident in riding a scooter, I recommend staying in the tourist area that is close to everything.
We paid 250 Baht ($10.50AUD) per day for a scooter and unlike busier cities in Thailand, no matter where we went the locals in Kanchanaburi weren’t keen on negotiating.
For cheap Western breakfast we went to Tara Bed & Breakfast each day which was really good – 70 Baht ($3AUD) for eggs and bacon on toast with tea or coffee.
Things To Do
Maenamkwai Road is the main touristy road in the quiet town of Kanchanaburi. There are restaurants nearby on Song Kwae Road along the river, and not far from where we were staying are the night markets which are worth visiting for street food. The most popular attractions are the River Kwae Bridge (also known as the Death Railway), the War Museum that’s located a 5 minute drive from town and only 40 Baht ($2.50AUD) for entry and the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery.
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The bridge over the #RiverKwai 🙌🏼 Who’s heard of this place before? Or seen the Oscar winning movie? I surprisingly didn’t know any of the history about #Kanchanaburi before we got here and I’m now really glad we added this stop to our Thailand itinerary. The amount of Australians, along with mostly English and Dutch prisoners of war who died building this bridge/railway line is insane (thousands). It was under the control of the Japanese military during World War II and the conditions were horrendous. It’s only since travelling that I’ve become super nerdy when it comes to learning history about the places I visit 🤓, if you’re interested in learning more google the ‘Death Railway.’ 🛤🚂
Another museum I really wanted to visit was the Hellfire Pass Museum, which is funded by the Australian government. Though since it’s over an hour drive away it’s usually visited on a day trip to the Sai Yak Noi Waterfall that’s a national park home to limestone caves and hot springs. Instead of joining a bus tour we decided to do the journey ourselves and took our time getting there. We spent a while at the waterfalls first so by the time we left we realised that the the Hellfire Pass Museum was actually closed since it is only opened from 9am-4pm. It was pretty disappointing considering these waterfalls themselves probably weren’t worth the effort to drive that far on a motorbike, so don’t make the same mistake as us!
On the other hand, the next day we drove 1 hour again in a different direction to the Erawan Waterfalls, and they were absolutely breathtakingly stunning. There are 6 levels of waterfalls so you need a few hours there to experience each level and they close at 3.30pm, so make sure to get there as early as possible. We highly recommend the trip to Kanchanaburi even if it’s just to see them – check out all our favourite photos from that day here.
9. Ayutthaya & Sukothai, Thailand
As we crossed the middle of the country to get to the mountainous North we made 2 stops over 3 nights to see Thailand’s historic cities and UNESCO World Hertiage Centre at Ayutthaya and Sukothai, to break up the long bus journeys. We started to realise that our travel standards were changing and that we’d much prefer to stay in guest houses or hotels over private rooms in hostels. And since we were in South East Asia this was very affordable considering private rooms in cheaper local hotels and guest houses only cost us $12-$20AUD per night (on average) when booking through Booking.com (get 10% discount through this link).
Ayutthaya either a 1.5 hour drive or 2 hour train journey from Bangkok. Since we were travelling from Kanchanaburi, a remote part of the country, there was no direct public transport there so we had to request a local to take us in their mini van that took 2.5 hours, though still worked out better than going backwards via Bangkok.
The main reason for visiting Ayutthaya is to cycle around the Ayutthaya Historical Park that’s full of temples including Wat Haha That, Wat Ratchaburana, Wat Phra Ran, Wat Lokkayasutharam and Wat Phra Sri. We recommend Toto House for breakfast – eggs on toast with sausage was only 100baht ($4.20AUD), whereas most other places were at least 150-200 Baht ($6-9AUD) for a meal.
Google maps says it’s only 4 hours to get from Ayutthaya to Sukhothai, though in reality it was about 8 hours via a public bus which is the only logical way there. It is common for travellers to skip Sukhothai and catch the overnight bus all the way to Chiang Mai (double the journey). Though since we had the time we much preferred to stop for the night in a comfortable bed and continue the other half of the journey the following day.
We stayed in a private room at the hostel right next to the bus station, which was very cheap, clean and convenient. However it was 12km from the main town that’s famous for the impressive ruins at Sukhothai Historic Park (the main reason people visit). To get there you can easily catch the bus for 30baht ($1AUD). We were so exhausted that day that we just went out for food nearby, and since we only had 1 night in Sukhothai we missed out on seeing them. Looking back now it would have been good to stay another night because the hostel was really nice and later we met people who said the historic park is definitely worth the visit.
10. Chaing Mai, Thailand
We were very excited to finally get to Chiang Mai as this was where we would tick off a bucket list experience of visiting rescued elephants at an ethical Elephant Sanctuary and see the Sticky Waterfalls which were also a highlight. Check out my full guide to Chiang Mai here.
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Such a unique experience with these rescued elephants at @elephantnaturepark 🐘 Learning about how horribly mistreated elephants are in the tourism industry in Thailand and how much abuse + torture they have to go through to perform for trainers (out of fear of getting tortured again) is very heart breaking! The hidden truths aren’t promoted, and not many people know what happens behind the scenes to make an elephant unnaturally do what their trainers want. Many people who choose to ride elephants ‘for fun’ or see them in a show have no idea what pain and suffering those elephants go through every day (I certainly didn’t 4 years ago when I took my first trip to SEAsia). It’s only recently that I’ve taken an interest in watching documentaries about this topic, and if you choose to learn more I can assure you you’ll never want to contribute money to this abuse again. But thankfully the team at #elephantnaturepark have done such an incredible job at rescuing as many of these poor elephants as they can and created a protected sanctuary for them to rehabilitate + happily enjoy the rest of their lives roaming free. From first-hand experienced I’ve seen how well the elephants get treated here and how patient the team is with them. They let them decide when they’re ready to interact with other elephants again and when they’re prepared, if ever, to interact with humans again. You can see it in the elephant’s eyes that they’re happy + grateful to be here and it’s heart-warming to see. We had the opportunity to feed + bathe these gentle giants at the sanctuary whilst respecting how much time they wanted to spend around us. This kind of ethical interaction with elephants beats ANY other kind of elephant encounter (even if they WERE ethical), so if you ever want to get close to elephants when in to Asia please do it this way. And be sure to do your research (other companies claim to be ethical and offer ‘no riding’ but still use hooks to hurt their elephants). @elephantnaturepark is the only good one I know and it’s truly a great place with genuine values. It’s rewarding to be part of a great cause. Without people donating to visit they wound’t be able to fund the sanctuary.
11. Pai, Thailand
After 10 days of exploring the areas surrounding Chiang Mai and extending our tourist visas, it was time to take the 3 hour windey road up further North through the mountains to the small hippy town of Pai. It’s one of those places where you can see everything within a day, but the cheap living costs and slow pace of life really draws you in. So a lot of backpackers end up staying here longer to take a break from constant travel.
We absolutely loved relaxing in Pai so we decided to extend our stay…then extended again…and again…until 2 weeks flew by. We highly recommend adding Pai to your Thailand itinerary and we even wrote a full Guide to Pai to help in planning your trip.
12. Chiang Rai, Thailand
The journey ahead to was to travel to Laos, a country we’d never been to before, and to get there we travelled by bus via Chiang Rai in Thailand for a short visit to see the insta-famous White Temple.
The Clock Tower is the major landmark in Chiang Rai city centre and was designed by same guy who designed the White Temple. There’s a light and sound show there each night at 7pm and the Night Bazaar is the place to go afterwards for dinner. Other places of interest within walking distance are the Art Bridge, Wat Klang Wieng (a really pretty temple), King Mengrai the Great Monument and The Naval City Pillar.
There’s quite a lot to see and do in the areas outside of Chiang Rai but we only had 2 full days there and Will was sick at the time. So I ended up joining a group day tour organised by our hotel to see all of the main sights, which fit a lot into one day. We drove to many far away places that would have taken a few days to self-drive to on a scooter so this really was the best way to see Chiang Rai in a short time frame.
The places we stopped at included Wat Rong Khun (White Temple), Rong Suea Ten (Blue Temple), Black House Museum, Choui Fong Tea Plantation, the Monkey Cave to see wild monkeys, the Tachileik Border where we could see stunning views of Myanmar, and to The Golden Triangle which is the point where 3 countries meet: Thailand, Myanmar and Laos.
From Chiang Rai we took a local bus to a town called Chiang Khong on the border of Thailand and Laos to get the connecting bus over the border. The plan was to spend a night in the Laos border town of Huay Xai. However at the time we were very exhausted from an uncomfortable journey and too tired to go through immigration paperwork, so we booked a nice hotel in Chiang Khong to relax for the evening instead. Tip: If you ever find yourself in Chiang Khong, you must go to The Hub Pub!
And that’s it! The Ultimate Northern Thailand Route. If you haven’t already, check out my guide to Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Pai as I only briefly touched on those destinations in this post. If you are travelling on a budget or simply want to save some money on you travels throughout Thailand be sure to read our 30 Day Thailand Travel Budget for Couples post, as we share costs of travelling in Thailand in a lot more detail. I hope this post was of value to you in helping plan your Northern Thailand adventure…
Have you been to any of the places on this route? Or any destinations you would add? Leave us a comment below…
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Read Next: A Guide To Chiang Mai