Northern Thailand: Pai, Mae Hong Son, Chiang Rai, & Sukhothai

Pai & Mae Hong Son:

After an overnight bus to Chiang Mai, we took a 3 hour mini van to Pai, another very popular Northern Thailand town. Chiang Mai is the most touristy and popular of the Northern Thailand cities, and it’s also the biggest. We loved it when we visited with my parents last year but we never really got the beautiful mountain views that Northern Thailand are so famous for. We also didn’t get the chance to trek in this area (though Dave trekked out of Chaing Mai when he visited 15 years ago). So, our midterm break trip was all about the nature of Northern Thailand.

We read three things about the mini van ride from Chiang Mai to Pai. First, the road is supposed to be very treacherous with hundreds or maybe thousands of curves. Many people ride motorbikes in between the two cities (and then some continue on to do a whole 1,000km loop starting and ending in Chiang Mai) but since we were unsure about the roads, we opted for a mini van to be safe. The second thing we heard was that everyone in the vans along the way throws up. We couldn’t wait for that one. Lastly, we heard that the ride was supposed to be gorgeous and have amazing views. So, even though we were exhausted after our overnight bus ride, we kept ourselves awake to take in the views. Well, it turns out that only one of the three things we’d read was true. And only partially. The road was definitely curvy but treacherous is definitely not the word I would use to describe it. We could have easily rode a motorbike (and when I say we, I mean Dave). The mini vans hold about 12 people. The two girls sitting behind us were throwing up pretty much the whole time. We’re not sure exactly why and wondered why they would take such a trip if they got car sick like it seemed they did, but I guess better to have just 2 people throwing up than a whole van-full. The most disappointing, however, was the lack of beautiful views. The whole ride is along a curved road that’s pretty much enclosed in the jungle. You can’t see much other than tall trees on either side.

As we were pulling into Pai, we knew immediately that we’d like it. As you drive into the city there are about a dozen of the quirkiest looking hotels that we’ve ever seen. They are very colorful and all look as though they’re made specifically for the purpose of a good photo opp.

We got into the bus station, which was right in the middle of town (which is very unusual – usually the bus drops you off a few kilometers outside of town and then you have to take an unreasonably priced taxi the last couple km). We found a great place to stay, a bungalow right on the Pai River, for $10/night and after dropping our stuff off, we rented a motorbike for the afternoon to see some of the sights around Pai. We stopped at some of the cute and quirky hotels we’d seen, the memorial bridge, a strawberry farm, and a nearby hot springs. We were very excited to get the “Thai price” instead of the “foreigner price” at the hot springs (our Thai lessons are finally starting to pay off!). We paid 40 baht per person instead of 200, so that was a steal. Besides the fact that it was really way too hot for a dip in the hot springs, it was actually a really nice stop. There were several different pools, all of which were different temperatures, ranging from 35 degrees Celsius to 80 degrees Celsius. The 80 degree pool was hot enough to cook eggs in, which was pretty cool. We opted for a dip in the 35 degree pool and that was more than hot enough for us.

The most exciting event of the day actually happened when we were heading to our last stop, the nearby Chinese village (which turned out to not be anything very special). We were riding there, when we got stuck in a little bit of traffic. While we’d never think twice about traffic in Bangkok, for Pai it seemed unusual. A couple minutes later though, we found out the cause. There was a man laying on the side of the road and he looked like he was dead. Another Western guy had pulled over to help and said the man was still breathing. He’d called the police and was waiting for them to arrive, but Dave and I had seen a hospital just a couple of minutes back and we volunteered to go tell them about the man. So we rode our motorbike back to the hospital and got an ambulance to follow us back to the accident scene. We left shortly thereafter but hopefully they were able to save this man (though we were skeptical that he was still alive in the first place). We suspect that maybe he’d been walking along the road and was hit by a passing car or van. We hope he’s ok and we hope we played some part in saving his life. Dave said the whole scene reminded him of the scene in Stand By Me when they find the kid’s body towards the end of the movie. Very eerie.

After that, we rode around exploring for a little while longer (namely to the viewpoint overlooking the town) and then headed back to the main part of town. Like Chiang Mai, Pai is filled with tons of cute restaurants and shops (though of course, it’s much smaller than Chiang Mai). It’s very quaint, cute, laid back and even a little bit hippy-ish. We loved it from the moment we drove into town, but loved it even more as we drove back later in the evening as they were setting up a massive night market all up and down the main streets. The Pai night market is an every night event. It has all of the usual night market stuff such as touristy t-shirts and souvenirs (in fact, as we were walking up to it, my sandal broke and I immediately was able to find a new pair), Thai food and snacks. But, what made this night market different and better than most we’ve been to was the huge selection of Western food being sold at all of the food stalls. There were burritos, nachos, lasagna, stuffed baked potatoes, pizza, bruchetta, burgers, sushi, salads, and that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. Basically, we were in heaven. After walking up and down all of the streets to check out our options, we decided on nachos, a burrito, some sushi, and a couple of other snacks. Since there wasn’t really anywhere to sit, we took our feast back to our bungalow and ate our dinner on our balcony.

For the next day, originally, we had planned to take a rafting trip from Pai to Mae Hong Son, another supposedly very cute town a three hour drive from Pai. When we first started planning our trip, we had only planned to visit Pai and Chiang Rai, but after Dave read about Mae Hong Son, he added it to our itinerary as well, which ended up being a great move.

Since it was the end of the rainy season in Thailand, we figured it would be a great time for white water rafting, which is supposed to be really good in this part of the country as it is. After we learned that we could raft all the way from Pai to Mae Hong Son (MHS – which we wanted to visit anyway), we figured it made sense. But, after reaching out to the rafting company in Pai, they told us that it hadn’t actually been raining very much so the rafting was not great. We were still considering it since it would act as our transport as well, but after seeing that the road from Chiang Mai to Pai was not as bad as we had originally anticipated and learning that the road from Pai to MHS was pretty much the same, we changed our plans and decided to rent a motorbike and drive the 106 km there, through what was supposed to be some gorgeous scenery.

We got up early, had a really delicious local breakfast of a pork porridge (which sounds kind of gross but is actually awesome), traded in our motorbike from our day in Pai for a more powerful one for our longer journey, and hit the road. The drive from Pai to MHS was supposed to take about 3 hours, but we planned to make some stops along the way and really take our time so we figured we’d do it in about 6.

As soon as we got on the road, we were able to see why people say that this is the most beautiful part of Thailand. The whole ride was gorgeous with views of mountains, rice fields, and more green than I’ve seen in a long time. As we were driving, Dave and I were talking about which we think is more beautiful, the mountains in the north or the beaches in the south of Thailand. He couldn’t choose since they’re so different, but I think I have to go with the north mostly because you can see beaches in so many places, but there are few places with scenery like we saw during our two days of biking.

Our first attempted stop was about 15 km out of Pai at a wildlife sanctuary. When we hear this, we think that there will be animals but apparently it means something different in Thai. After asking several people who worked at the wildlife sanctuary where we could find the wildlife, no one seemed to have any idea what we were talking about. Oh well.

Next, we made a quick stop for a bathroom break at a rest area. We got nervous when we saw a police checkpoint after our fines in Bali this summer. After scoping out the situation and watching a couple of other tourists go through, we realized that they wouldn’t stop us. They were letting all the Western people go through and stopping only the Thai people (we think maybe to look for illegal Burmese immigrants).

The next stop was Lod Cave, about 45 km from Pai. We’d seen lots of day trips going there from Pai, so we figured it had to be good. It was supposed to be an hour long tour through a cave on a bamboo raft. Well, it was actually only 30 minutes and only about 2 of those were on the raft. The highlight though, was at the end. They had been selling fish food at the entrance so we bought a bag and at the exit of the cave, there was a big pool filled with hundreds of fish pretty much all piled on top of each other. When you threw in food they’d all jump and flop around to get it, which was a pretty funny and weird sight. All in all, the cave wasn’t great but it was still a nice pit stop.

There were a bunch of food stands right outside of the cave and we were debating eating lunch, but in the end decided to wait. We wanted to get a little further along on our trip before taking more time to eat. Plus, since it’s Thailand, we figured we’d have no problem finding food further along the way. Well, we were wrong. For those of you who have been to Thailand, you know they’re obsessed with food here (which is probably why we fit in so well). Anywhere you go, anytime of the day, people are eating and selling more food than you can even imagine. So, we’re used to never having to worry about being able to find a good meal. Usually, we just worry that we’ll eat something and then a few minutes later we’ll see something that looks even better. Well, this was the first time maybe ever that we literally could not find one place to eat lunch.

So, we ended up making a few stops. The first was at a viewpoint where we thought there was a restaurant, but we were wrong. The people who owned the shop were eating but they didn’t have any food for lunch. All they were selling was sweet potatoes and ears of corn. We had one of each, and they were both actually really good. Then, the corn lady told us that there was another little town where we could get food about 7km down the road, so we continued on to find that. When we got there, once again, we thought we’d be able to eat, but there was really nothing there. This time all we could find was a papaya salad and some hard boiled quail eggs. Again, not exactly what we’d had in mind for lunch, but actually really good. The third and final stop was an actual restaurant about another 5km where we could have gotten a full meal (but of course by then we’d pretty much had a full meal) but instead, we just picked up a few sausages from their street-side stand. These were some of the best sausages we’ve ever had. They were filled with rice, noodles, and pork and they were so good that we wished we could have taken the little sausage lady home with us so she could make them for us all the time. And they were 5 baht a piece (15 cents). So, not exactly the lunch we’d drawn up, but it was still really good.

We didn’t stop again until we reached MHS. As we started to drive through the town, we realized that this was probably one of the most local towns we’ve visited since arriving in Thailand. After driving around for 20 minutes or so, we didn’t really even find a guesthouse to stay in. Then, finally, we found the tourist area which was near the very pretty lake at the edge of town. There was a street going all around the lake with some restaurants, guest houses, and a night market which they were setting up as we arrived. This town was very cute and just like Pai, we liked it immediately.

After finding a place to stay (this time for $8/night, overlooking the lake), we had a couple of drinks on the guest house’s rooftop (which was also overlooking the lake) and then headed back out to explore the night market and find a dinner spot. All along the lake, were food stalls with different types of meat and seafood. Behind them (right on the lake) were tables to sit at. We picked a spot and picked up food from a bunch of the different stands. We feasted on a whole fish, a grilled squid, grilled pork, and pork intestines. It was all delicious and the view/atmosphere was amazing.

We got up early again the next morning and went for a run around the lake before setting out for our ride back to Pai. First, we rode up to the viewpoint in MHS where there’s a wat at the top, and then we hit the road. After about 30 minutes of driving, we made our first and only very long detour of the day. We took another road off of the main road leading back to Pai to stop at a waterfall and then another 30 minute drive away was a Chinese village. We had been debating whether or not to go there since it was so far out of the way, but in the end, it was definitely worth it. The waterfall was just okay but the village was surrounding a lake and was very quaint and adorable. I felt like we were in a Monet painting. We had an awesome lunch (and tea) at a local noodle shop (for $2) and then got back on the road.

Our last stop on our detour was at a palace. We don’t know whose but it was actually more like a farm than a palace. We saw tons of sheep and a huge hornbill bird, but no palace. Just like the wildlife sanctuary, we think palace is another word that might mean something a bit different to the Thai people (perhaps just somewhere where royalty live, irrespective of size).

After our detour, it was smooth sailing back to Pai, once again through the same gorgeous scenery we’d seen the day before. We of course had to make one more stop on the way back to visit our amazing sausage lady and made it back to Pai at around 5pm.

Our two days of biking had been amazing. Definitely some of the best Thailand travel days we’ve had (though there have been a lot). When we got back to Pai, we booked our van back to Chiang Mai for the next day (which we had to go back through to get to Chiang Rai) and then we hit the night market one last time, but this time decided to sit at a restaurant for dinner. We had an awesome burger, one of the best pumpkin soups we’ve ever had, and then a greek salad (I definitely can’t remember the last time I had feta cheese).

Pai and MHS were both great. Most people visit Chiang Mai when they come to Thailand, but very few tourists (and by this I mean people taking their yearly 2 week vacation to Thailand) get to Pai, and even fewer (if any) to MHS. MHS is a bit out of the way but between the beautiful scenery on the drive from Pai (which you don’t really get in and around Chiang Mai) and the adorable town, both Dave and I think that if you have more than the typical 2 weeks to visit Thailand, then both Pai and MHS should be on your radar, especially if you’re comfortable driving a motorbike, which fortunately Dave is, now more than ever.


Chiang Rai:

After a 6 hour bus ride (3 hours from Pai back to Chiang Mai and then another 3 to Chiang Rai) we arrived in Chiang Rai. First on our to-do list was finding a place to stay and then finding an overnight trek that started the following morning. As we were walking around looking for a guesthouse, we passed a few tour companies so we popped into one. We spoke to a woman who was offering us the trek we wanted for the price we wanted so we agreed that we’d come back in 30 minutes after dropping off our stuff to pay her and figure out the details for the morning.

We quickly found a great place to stay right on the main backpacker street (near the big clock tower in town), dropped our stuff off and then went back to our tour company. In the 30 minutes or so that we’d been gone, the woman working there had called her boss and realized that she’d made a mistake about the price she told us. Of course, we thought that she’d honor her word and give us what we’d agreed upon, but she wouldn’t budge. We knew we probably still wouldn’t find a better deal but after that, we didn’t really trust this woman to keep her word, so we moved on to find another trek. Luckily, every single company is pretty much offering the same thing.

We found another company with a similar trekking package and signed up to start the following morning. We told the woman that we’d be ok with having 2 other people in our group (but no more) and agreed that she’d pick us up at our guesthouse the following morning at 9:50am (we said 10, but she wanted earlier). Dave had told me all about the trek he’d done on his last visit to Northern Thailand so I was very excited to experience it for myself. Plus, he was getting me the trek as my birthday present, which of course, only added to my excitement.

After that was all sorted out, we headed out on our motorbike (which we’d rented for the afternoon from our guesthouse) to go see the White Temple, pretty much the one tourist attraction that there is to see in Chiang Rai. The temple is 15km away from the city and as soon as we saw it we were amazed by how beautiful it was. We’ve seen a lot of temples since arriving in Thailand, but none quite like this. The entire building was painted white and had silver shiny, mirror-like pieces all over it, which made it almost sparkly. As beautiful as it was though, it’s also very dark. The carvings and statues all around the temple are of devils and monsters and hands coming out of the ground. So, up close, it’s very strange (though very interesting) but from afar, it’s really gorgeous. Apparently, in the main temple building (which we went into) there are murals of cartoons and pop culture references painted all over the walls. Somehow, though, we missed them, though I have no idea how (we read that they were destroyed by an earthquake a few months ago, but some other people we met who visited a day after us said they saw some of the murals).

After walking around the temple, we headed back to Chiang Rai (CR) and headed out to find dinner. In the city, there’s a cute little backpacker street, which is where we were staying, with several bars and restaurants. Other than that, there’s a night bazaar a few blocks away and that’s where we decided to start our search. At first, we were a bit confused because as we were walking through the market, we didn’t see any food, only clothes and souvenirs. Then, we saw it. A huge food court/hawker center type place with tons of food stalls. Obviously, this would be our dinner spot.

After walking all around and checking out all of our options (which were surprisingly mostly different fried foods and not really many regular Thai dishes), we decided on a plate of assorted fried things (veggies, fish, seafood, etc.), a plate of assorted nuts, and a khao soi kai, which is a very popular and very delicious dish that you can only really find in Northern Thailand. It’s a noodle soup with a peanuty, coconuty broth. We tried it for the first time in Chiang Mai last year and have been looking forward to having it again ever since. Unfortunately though, we still haven’t been able to find one quite as delicious as the one we tried in Chiang Mai, but the search continues đŸ™‚

We woke up the next morning and were ready to trek. Unfortunately though, it was about 6:30am and we had 3 hours to kill until we were being picked up. We caught up on some things, finished grading our midterms, Dave went for a run, and finally, it was time to go. We went outside to wait at 9:50 (just as we were instructed to do) and by 10:15, we were still waiting. We called our tour company and she assured us that our guide was on our way. By 10:30, we decided to just walk over to the tour company (2 blocks away – we weren’t sure why she insisted on picking us up anyway). At this point, we had been waiting for an hour and we were pretty much ready to call the whole thing off. We were pissed.

Finally, our guide came to get us and told us that there were actually 3 other people joining our trek – a family of 3 with a mom and 2 daughters. The lady who sold it to us PROMISED that we’d have no more than 4, so on top of already being 1 hour late, she was going back on her word regarding the amount of people. We were very annoyed but finally our guide convinced us to come along. We were still skeptical because we weren’t too keen on trekking with a family, but our guide told us to at least come check them out and then decide. It was actually not a mom and 2 daughters at all. It was 2 girls who’d just graduated from college and then another girl who was a little older (30), but definitely not their mom. They were all from Germany and had met a few days earlier. Later on in the trek (once we were all friends) we told them what the guide had said and all had a good laugh about it (though I think the “mom” was a bit offended).

Even though we got off to a rough start, the trek ended up being awesome. We started off with an hour-long boat ride to an elephant camp in the jungle. Dave and I rode an elephant for 30 minutes and after this, we were very glad that we’d had such an awesome elephant camp experience in Chiang Mai with my parents. This one was short, rushed, uncomfortable, and just all around not so great. But it was only 100 baht ($3) more to add the elephant camp to our trek, so we figured why not. After that, we had lunch at a local restaurant near the elephant camp. In talking to the three German girls in our group, we learned that all 3 were vegetarian and one was vegan. For us, this was actually great news as it meant we’d get all their meat!:).

After lunch, we went to check out a local village, and then we started our “trek.” I’m not sure you can consider what we did on the first day of our trip actually trekking. It was more driving around from place to place with a 2 hour walk in the middle. But, it was still fun, and of course, still very beautiful. During the walk, we stopped at one local village and all the kids came out to play. They must have visitors their every day, because as soon as we got there, a few of them came up to us, grabbed our hands, and wanted us to swing them around. Clearly this wasn’t their first rodeo – they knew exactly what they wanted. I couldn’t get over how much energy they had though. For almost an hour, we were playing with the kids, picking them up, spinning them around and they still wanted more. It was very cute but they seemed so sad when we had to leave them (one in particular, who really took a liking to Dave). Maybe it was because they really liked us, or maybe it was because we gave them all some of our snacks (cookies and nuts).

From there, we headed to a nearby waterfall where everyone went for a swim (except for me because it was too cold). Then, our last stop was our guide’s village. We were actually spending the night in her house with her family, which was pretty cool. As far as village houses go, hers was very nice. We set up our stuff (Dave and I actually had a private (enclosed) room in her house so we didn’t have to worry as much about animals or bugs), and then we all hung out while her and her family made us dinner. Then, after dinner, Pat (our guide) made a run to the local mini mart. It was very funny because she took our “orders” on a piece of paper and it felt like we were at sleepaway camp asking our counselors to get us things on their day off (except for this time it was alcohol we were asking for – not candy or snacks:).

Later in the night, Pat took us over to her friend’s house in another local village. We hung out there for a few hours and I’ll just say that it was a very interesting and local Northern Thailand/Burmese experience. We didn’t get home until around midnight (which was a very nice change from most of our treks where after 7pm we have nothing to do) and then went to sleep. I slept very well, though unfortunately Dave wasn’t as lucky.

The next morning, we slept in a little (until 8am), had breakfast at Pat’s house, and then headed out on our “trek” for the day. We started and ended in Pat’s village, but walked for about 3 hours through some very beautiful scenery, including rice fields (which we now know how to say in Thai!), local villages and pineapple fields. We stopped for a very long lunch along the way where we saw how to cook rice in bamboo. It was cool to see, but considering the rest of our lunch only took about 15 minutes to cook and the rice took over an hour, it probably wasn’t worth the lesson. But, we did get some cool bamboo shot glasses out of it, made by our guide’s friend.

By the time we got back from our walk, it was getting late and we were all tired. We were supposed to stop at a hot springs at the end of the day, but we decided to skip it. Dave and I had been to one a few days earlier and the other girls didn’t seem that interested either.

We said our goodbye’s to Pat when she dropped us back at our guesthouse. She was an awesome guide and definitely went out of her way to make the trek great for us. Even though it was not as much of a “trek” as we’re used to, it was a lot of fun and an awesome birthday present. The area around Chiang Rai is beautiful and it was really fun meeting the other girls we trekked with (2 of which we’re actually traveling to Sukhothai with next).

The guesthouse we were staying at in Chiang Rai (Moon House) had a great shower in it, which was very nice after not showering for a couple days. We were exhausted and it was raining, so we went to a great dinner in town (pizza, pasta and soup) and called it an early night.

Next up, the historic town of Sukhotai with its over 200 temples. It’s supposedly similar to Ayutthaya but even better.


The last stop on our trip was Sukhothai, which is pretty much exactly half way between Chiang Rai and Bangkok (about 6-7 hours from each). It’s a historic town which has been designated a World Heritage Site for its over 200 ancient temples, so we thought it would be a nice stop to break up our trip back. We took a bus from Chiang Rai in the morning with our two new German friends from our trek and made it to Sukhothai by 5pm. After checking into our guesthouse for the night, we went to the night market for dinner, which is really just tons of different street stalls lining pretty much every street in New Sukhothai (the temples are all in Old Sukhothai, which is about 30 minutes away but has far less to do at night, which is why we didn’t stay there).

We all wanted to be on a 2pm bus back to Bangkok the next day (there was only a bus at 2pm and then 10pm, which we didn’t want to stick around for) so the four of us woke up early and were on a songthaew to Old Sukhotai by 7:30am. When we arrived, we each rented a bike (30 baht for the day) to ride around to see all the temples. This is the most popular way to see the temples.

In the Sukhothai Historical Park, there are several zones, each of which charge a 100 baht entrance fee. Dave and I, of course, did our best to get the local prices (20 baht) but were only successful in one case. The Central Zone of Sukhothai is the main zone with the most popular and best preserved temples. Wat Mahathat is the biggest and most impressive, and the three other big ones are Wat Si Sawai, Wat Sa Si, and Wat Trapang Thong. We spent about an hour biking between the 4.

Then, we headed 2km to the Northern Zone to see Wat Si Chum and the giant seated Buddha. Our last stop on the temple tour was to the Western Zone to see Wat Saphaan Hin which sits on top of a big hill with a nice view (though unfortunately the view doesn’t overlook any of the other temples, just some rice fields).

All in all, it took us about 3 hours to get through all of the zones (though we only stopped to see the biggest temples in each zone, not all 200). The timing really worked out perfectly for us. Not only did we have just enough time to sit down for a nice lunch when we were finished (we introduced our new friends to penang curry:), we also just missed the rain.

On the way back, instead of taking the songthaew for 30 baht each, we hired a tuk tuk to take us back to our guesthouse to pick up our bags and then to the bus station. Since we didn’t have to walk back to our guesthouse from the songthaew stop, we were even able to get on an earlier bus back to Bangkok. And it started to pour on our way back to New Sukhothai, so the tuk tuk turned out to be a really good decision.

Sukhothai was a really nice pit stop on our way back from Chiang Rai, however, we’re not sure we’d ever recommend taking the 6 hour trip from Bangkok just to visit there. It was very nice seeing all the beautiful temples and ruins, but we think Ayutthaya is actually just as good, (or probably better) and only a third of the distance from Bangkok. The thing we like better about Ayutthaya is that the ruins/temples are all around you in the city (very similar to Rome where you can just be walking down the street and see some amazing piece of history). In Sukhotai, on the other hand, the temples are all in a park, which for us, , made the experience a little less authentic. But, like I said, it was a great stop for us on our way back to Bangkok and it was a very nice end to our midterm break. It’s very hard to believe that our next trip is going to be our visit to the US in December!

One thought on “Northern Thailand: Pai, Mae Hong Son, Chiang Rai, & Sukhothai

  1. Pingback: Road Tripping Through Northern Thailand | The Stave Diaries

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