Three weeks road-tripping in Northern Thailand.

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This trip was our fifth visit to Thailand, and we wanted something different. We have done our days of Khao San Road and been excited by the attractions of Southeast Asia that used to be so authentically Thailand… We wanted to try Thailand differently. We had never been further north than Bangkok, so this time booked flights in to Chiang Mai directly. We wondered how we would enjoy Northern Thailand, without the iconically touristic beaches and sights of the south…

The verdict? We were very pleasantly surprised by the north!

On the trail to Pu Kaeng Waterfall, Northern Thailand

What we loved:

Chasing Waterfalls

As far as getting lost-in-the-right-direction goes, I’m claiming Northern Thailand as a win. It really surprised us! We have so many memories from finding trails and bush tracks, and pulling over when we saw a sign for a waterfall or a hike signposted from the roadside.

Pu Kaeng was particularly stunning. We had no intentions of stopping, and knew nothing of Pu Kaeng previously, but it was past lunchtime when we spotted the small signpost all in Thai, with a tiny picture of a waterfall on it… and a sought picnic-spot turned into a grand jungle adventure!

Lampang

Lampang is the third largest city in northern Thailand and capital of Lampang Province. I hadn’t honestly heard of Lampang before. But on the map the geographic location of the city looked as if it would work out as a last stop on our Northern Thailand roadtrip. I looked it up, and the first image of Lampang was of the stunning Wat Chalermprakiat high above the clouds.

Things to do in Lampang

  • Hike to Wat Chalermprakiat: A temple high above the clouds in Lampang. Right about the time when I didn’t think we could actually climb much further (and Oscar definitely didn’t) that we finally heard the jingling sound of prayer bells ringing in the wind from the summit temple. You emerge out above the clouds surrounded by pagodas perched on all angles of the cliff tops! It’s a magical spot.
  • Visit Wat Chiang Rai: Yes, you read that right. There is a Wat Chiang Rai in Lampang, and it looks strikingly similar to the renowned White Temple in Chiang Rai.
  • Eat street food at the market: If you are in Lampang on a Friday, the place to be is the Tha Mai Lampang Cultural Road. This night market runs from 4:30pm til 9:00pm with all kinds of Thai street food and souvenirs.
  • Admire the City Walls: They aren’t quite as impressively preserved at Chiang Mai, but the walls of Lampang’s ancient city date back to the seventh century and are still standing strong in parts.

Hiking in Lampang

Can you see me?

PS. The hike to Wat Chalermprakiat turned out to be well worth the extra early start. And the snake sighting, and the concerning number of jungle roads that even the GPS didn’t seem to know about… It was even worth the grumbles at the final 800 metre climb! It’s a beautiful walk. I highly recommend adding this to your Northern Thailand roadtrip itinerary.


Roadtrip to the Golden Triangle

We loved the days road trip to far Northern Thailand. It took us about 1.5 hours from Chiang Rai to reach the Golden Triangle – the point in Thailand where you can see Laos and Myanmar from the one spot on the river bank. An interesting spot, and a place for us with a whole lot of memories from each country; but in truth, the actual site of the Golden Triangle was slightly underwhelming, and filled with tourist buses and cheap little market stalls and vendors touting their far-from-authentic wares.

However, our day had only just begun, and from there we wound out into some of the back roads with plans to find one of the the highest villages of the Akha hilltribe, where the lookout spans right down over the entirety of the Golden Triangle: Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand.

Looking down the valley towards Laos (across the river), with Myanmar over to the left of the photo.

Highlight of the mission to climb up into the hills and find the hilltop village was definitely the chance to ride the old tractor up the last part, AND discovering a couple of different Akha swings made out of four bamboo poles and a swing with a view!


Chiang Mai and Muay Thai Boxing

We found a great AirBnB in Chiang Mai, and felt so relaxed with our own space after the rush of the past months travelling. We explored the Old City, and made sure to check out Wat Chedi Luang, but in honesty we loved relaxing in to the local neighbourhood and finding out bearings for a few days of stability. There was a small vegetable market within five minutes walk, and after five days of daily market-ventures we had found our favourite stalls and were recognised by the stall-holders who loved meeting the boys and gave them little sweets and treats when we returned!

We made one chore-run to a mall to sort out a few errands, but happily and quickly retreated to our little neighbourhood, pleased by the sense of familiar in staying put for more than a few days.

Gavin met the local owner of a Muay Thai boxing gym just around the corner from our house, and ended up having a few morning sessions which he really enjoyed!


Fishing for Harry’s Birthday

I sometimes wonder how we luck out and find ourselves in these situations, meeting such incredible people on our travels and seeing such beautiful places; but this time I credit it to Harry…

Once again his passion for fishing has led him to make connections with a group of fishermen. And this time we ended up out in the middle of nowhere, on Gea’s farm, fishing for catfish and tilapia for his sixth birthday.


An unforgettable day.


One thing that challenged us…

Finding culture underneath the tourism.

We were wary. The changes even we have seen in Thailand over the last ten years are massive. It doesn’t feel authentic to us, or like people on a general scale have a huge tolerance for tourism, aside from the much-anticipated money that comes from the size of the industry. It takes a bit more digging to find genuine culture amongst the mass tourism now. But we did find it. We felt both very lucky that we did, and happy that it is still there. And, that tourism hasn’t destroyed a culture so beautiful underneath. Northern Thailand felt like a great choice to seek culture beneath the tourism overload.


Where we stayed

  • Chiang Mai: AirBnB [3 bedroom house, good location, self-contained; very clean and spacious; within five minutes walk to convenience stores and vegetable market; we stayed here twice!].
  • Phayao: The Cozy Nest [a huge room, nice breakfast, bikes to borrow, restaurant across the road].
  • Chiang Rai: Na Na Doo Homestay [Amazing! Our favourite place to stay in Thailand. The host, Moo, is fantastic and suggested perfect outings that really did suit us and the kids – not just standard packages. We loved the swimming pool, and Moo’s breakfast each day. We stayed twice and highly recommend!].
  • Lampang: Martin Place Lampang [very basic, easy to find; fine for base to explore from].
Staying with host Moo at Na Na Doo Homestay in Chiang Rai was one of our favourite spots in Thailand!

We returned to the same spot in Lake Phayao after touring Northern Thailand, and I was doubling Oscar on my bike through the neighbourhood. As we rode past a cafe we heard, “Oscar… Osssscaaaar!” and the hotel receptionists were all out having dinner. The next day Gavin was back at the same Muay Thai boxing class and the guys are all waving out to Harry. 

It is always special to return to the same place and feel that comfort in the familiar.


Getting around

Thailand is easy to get around! In Chiang Mai we used tuk tuks and Grab taxis to get around, and walked a lot from the neighbourhood we were staying in, into the Old City Walls of Chiang Mai.

We hired a car for two weeks from rentalcars.com and this turned out to be the best decision for us to explore Northern Thailand with the freedom to stop whenever we pleased!


Budget

  • Average accommodation per night: $85 NZD
  • Average daily spend (food, transport, necessities): $83 NZD

If we went again we would…

Explore more of the North and Central regions of Thailand. We loved the chance to find places that we hadn’t heard of, and learn so much more about the culture in different states and regions that are less travelled.

The North is totally worth it!

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