For me, Chiang Mai and Pai are the best places in Thailand to head for jungle trekking, nature, or to just chill out. As tourism grows in Northern Thailand, more and more activities are available, but I still believe Northern Thailand remains the best place to simply relax and learn about Thailand and Thai culture.
Chiang Mai is the main city in Northern Thailand and is often called the “Rose of the North”. Chiang Mai’s greater population is more than a million, but the city has a nice slow pace that makes it feel more like a city of 50,000.
My favourite thing to do in Chiang Mai is walk around the Tha Pae gate area, shop at the various markets, and seek out the excellent live music available at several of the area bars. I have seen some world-class electric guitarists in Chiang Mai and I would highly recommend trying to find a good rock n’ roll or blues bar if you enjoy that kind of music.
Over the years, Chiang Mai has greatly grown its tourism market and there is now a huge variety of activities to choose from. From Chiang Mai it is easy to organize jungle trekking, zip-lining, cooking classes, Muay Thai training, rock climbing, river rafting, massage school, and a variety of other options.
Chiang Mai is also a wonderful place to be for Songkran (Thai New Years). Songkran is an epic water festival in mid-April that will surely leave you smiling and soaked. Another event is the Chiang Mai flower festival, which happens the first weekend of February.
It is possible to get into Chiang Mai easily by air, by train, or by bus. All are good options and it all comes down to your timing, budget, and preferred mode of travel. For overnight sleeper trains, it is often worth booking in advance as they do fill up and spending 12 hours in the hard plastic budget chairs is not fun (do not ask me how I know!)
Once you arrive in Chiang Mai, you’ll notice songthaew’s, which are essentially pickup trucks that operate as taxis or buses. Many operate on fixed routes but some can be hired as if they are taxis. Prices usually have to be negotiated which can be a hassle if you do not know the going rate, but they are often a quick and easy way to get around. You’ll also find the usual assortment of tuk-tuks and motorbikes which are better options in Chiang Mai than Bangkok given the short distance between most places you’ll want to visit. There are also taxis available, but they’re usually only worthwhile if you plan to travel longer distances. My favourite way to get around Chiang Mai is simply to walk. You’ll discover all sorts of interesting “hole in the wall” places and there is generally much less traffic and pollution in Chiang Mai than Bangkok.
Chiang Mai’s historical center is surrounded by walls and it is best to stay near these walls to easily access many of the sites. I recommend staying between Tha Phae Gate and the river. Loi Kroh Road has a lot of the city’s best nightlife, so I find anywhere within the box of Chang Klan Road, Loi Kroh Road, and the fortress wall to be an excellent location.
My favourite place to stay is the Chiang Mai Thai House, which is the first place I ever stayed in Chiang Mai and is where I have always stayed on return visits. It is not the cheapest option, so if you are on a strict budget you can certainly find cheaper guesthouses upon arrival, but for the money, I have always enjoyed the Chiang Mai Thai House. The Chiang Mai Thai house is in a great location, has a nice swimming pool and area to lounge in the sun, and the guest house is owned and operated by a local family. They also serve a great breakfast and are able to book tourist activities from within their reception area. For more information, check out http://www.chiangmaithaihouse.com/
Pai (pronounced ‘bye’) is around 3-4 hours north of Chiang Mai by bus, with rates ranging from 80-200 baht depending on the type of service. It is also possible to rent motorcycles in Chiang Mai to drive to Pai on your own, but beware that the road has many hills and turns. Pai only has around 3,000 people, making it one of the smallest towns frequented by tourists and is filled with a mix of foreign hippies, Thai rastas, and muslims, giving it a very unique appeal.
Pai is the type of place I go to do nothing. There are lots of things you can do, but it is a wonderful place to just chill out, relax, enjoy nature, and ponder the meaning of life.
If you want to get out and do things, there are your usual options of zip lines, muay thai, cooking courses, and river rafting, but the biggest draw to Pai has to be its wonderful trekking. From Pai there are lots of treks to the nearby mountains, jungles, waterfalls, and caves. Many treks will also go to the small hill tribe communities that continue to survive on limited farming, sometimes including hidden opium fields.
Pai is meant for walking. The main tourist drag is Chaisongkran Road and it is filled with restaurants and bars. My favourite place to stay is in the bamboo huts on the river, which are just a short walk away.
It has been a while since I traveled to Pai, but when I was there the best budget accommodation could be found on the river. It is a small town so it does not take long to get a feel for your options and find the best value for your needs.