Northern Thailand itinerary for backpackers and budget travelers (from $11 per day). See my route for 16 days in Thailand including Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Pai, and Chiang Rai.
Thailand is the ideal country to start if you’ve never traveled in SE Asia or if it’s your first trip abroad. I like to stay it’s backpacking for beginners but there is actually a lot more to Thailand including high-end luxury, family-friendly vacation spots, and a fun party scene.
Your travel style and budget level will influence which Thai destinations you choose. As my boyfriend, Max, and I were backpacking Thailand, we choose to stick to the north where costs are generally lower than the south. I had heard that in some southern beaches, the prices were to similar to Europe.
Also as we were starting in Bangkok and planning to travel north into Laos, the best route was Chiang (with a detour to Pai) and then onto Chiang Rai before crossing the border at Chiang Kong. You can also go to Laos straight from Bangkok by taking a bus or train to Nong Khai, and then cross over to the Lao capital city Vientiane. We took this route coming to the other direction back to Bangkok and spent 5 days relaxing in Nong Khai.
This Thailand backpacking article includes:
- Itinerary for 16 days in Thailand with stops in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Pai, and Chiang Rai
- Best places to stay and eat while backpacking Northern Thailand
- Recommendations for a Thailand 2 week itinerary (14 days)
- My Thailand trip costs.
Northern Thailand itinerary for 16 days in Thailand
Day 1-3: Bangkok
Where to stay in Bangkok: TT Guesthouse (200 Baht per night)
Where to eat in Bangkok: Bangrak Bazaar, 1522 Soi Charoen Krung 49, Khwaeng Bang Rak.
Max and I arrived in Bangkok by plane from Hanoi, Vietnam. As we had been backpacking Vietnam for 10 days. I needed to catch up on rest and work. Also, this wasn’t my first visit to the capital so it was okay to have some downtime. The great thing about Bangkok’s sprawling metropolitan region is that there are so many neighborhoods to discover.
We stayed at TT Guesthouse because it was the most budget-friendly option for a private room and it had laptop-friendly working spaces. It is also walking distance to the Bangkok train station, which was convenient as we would take an overnight train to Chiang Mai.
Each night we would go hunting for the best street food, and while walking around stumbled across Bangrak Bazaar. Here you can buy a Green Chicken Curry with two servings of rice for 70 Baht. The perfect portion for two people, at a great price.
Overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai
There are three main ways to get to Chiang Mai from Bangkok, which are by plane, bus, and train. I really wanted to travel by land as much as possible during our 4 months in South East Asia. Primarily because I wanted to reduce my carbon footprint but also because I find airports generally a hassle. The problem with my grand plan is that I get motion sickness so taking the bus was not an option.
Taking an overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai sounded like an adventure! Max and I had taken overnight trains in Vietnam and had learned not to choose the economic hard seat, the hard way (it’s a wooden bench!). But we thought it couldn’t be that bad in Thailand so we booked the economic tickets once again. Although the seats were more comfortable, one of my worst nightmares came true because the train was literally full of cockroaches.
I spent most of the night with my flip-flop in my hand trying to kill every crawling cockroach that came near me, while the locals smiled in amusement before easily slipping into sleep. I am not sure if it was that train in particular because one month later, we took an overnight train from Nong Khai to Bangkok and it was cockroach free. In any case, I recommend taking the bus or upgrading your train ticket.
We bought our tickets directly at the Bangkok train station for 271 Baht each.
Day 5-9: Chiang Mai
Where to stay in Chiang Mai: The Dorm Chiang Mai (160 Baht per night)
Where to eat in Chiang Mai: The Dorm for coffee and omelet with rice breakfast, Buathip for curry, weekend walking street for street food.
In contrast to Bangkok, Chiang Mai is smaller with a gorgeous Old City at its center. If it’s your first time in Chiang Mai and you want to get around on foot, then the Old City is the best place to stay. Max and I stayed at The Dorm which is on the edge, just outside the city walls.
For returning tourists or those who work online, the popular neighborhoods include Nimmanhaemin and Wiang Kum Kam. On our following visit, when Max and I spent two weeks in Chiang Mai, we stayed at Holiday Chiang Mai, which had a coworking space and was very affordable. Holiday Chiang Mai was north of the Old City but you could each it by bicycle in twenty minutes.
Chiang Mai is known for its temples with over 300 Buddhist temples in the city. Some require an admission fee but you can find beautiful temples with free entrance just while walking around. Personally, I tend to get “temple fatigue” pretty quickly so after seeing a couple, I was satisfied.
What I did love in Chiang Mai are the markets. The Chiang Mai Night Bazaar is open from 6pm-midnight every day. This is a great place to pick up some cheap clothes, have a drink, and listen to music. For food, the variety and prices are better at the Sunday Night Walking Street which starts at 4 pm and goes until midnight. Don’t eat before or you’ll regret it!
During the day there are a lot of food options in Chiang Mai, although I find the prices in the Old City to generally be higher. One great budget-friendly restaurant we found is Buathip. Here we ate green curry, yellow curry, and Kaeng Hung Lay (northern-style pork curry and rice with garlic). The portions are generous and prices for curry are 40-50 Baht.
Chiang Mai food tour (2019 update)
In December 2019, Max and I returned to Chiang Mai to spend a month in this charming city. As a chef, one of Max’s goals was to go on a serious food tour – which is exactly what he found with A Chef’s Tour. Watch what his four-hour foodie experience was like in this video “An insider’s look into Chiang Mai cuisine“.
Although I have become a vegetarian since my last visit to Chiang Mai, I was still able to enjoy all the desserts that Max bought home. A Chef’s Tour has multiple tours across Asia and Latin America.
Bus from Chiang Mai to Pai
The only way to get to Pai is on a three-hour bus ride from hell. The minibusses themselves are perfectly fine, it’s the route with 762 curves can be hard to handle. I already suffer from motion sickness and despite taking medicine on the way there, I was sick.
We paid 180 Baht each for the minibus to Pai, including pick up from our guesthouse, The Dorm. The manager of the guesthouse called and booked the pick up for us.
Day 10-12: Pai
Where to stay in Pai: PaiZen River Jam Hostel & Campground (150 Baht per night)
Where to eat in Pai: Breakfast and coffee at Ganesh Restaurant, Pai walking street for street food.
Pai is extremely popular with backpackers and travelers who like to escape reality. So this is a controversial opinion but I don’t think that there was anything authentic about the town, or at least what the typical tourist sees there. The reason that Pai is so well-loved is that it is a secluded spot that has had western culture transplanted into it. All our most hedonistic indulgences including eating fast food, drinking alcohol, and dabbling in drugs are clearly visible. But as free as you might feel in Pai, don’t forget that smoking marijuana is illegal in Thailand, as well as harder drugs.
I’m not saying that I didn’t enjoy my time in Pai but I think you can find a place to drink beers by a pool while listening to reggae in many other places that don’t require a hellish 3-hour bus ride. I also love a good party but when I am traveling, I like to experience the local culture. I didn’t see much of Thai culture in Pai except for the food, which is mostly catering to tourists.
For our time, Max and I stayed in a rustic bungalow at PaiZen River Jam Hostel & Campground. If you don’t mind “roughing it” this is a great experience, Our bungalow was literally four walls with a giant bed and a mosquito net, with a hammock in the small verandah. The floor feels like you are going to fall through it at any moment and there are gaps between the wood but if you like camping you won’t mind and the price is very affordable.
Our bungalow was next to the river and a short walk to the main street in Pai. Here you can find most of the restaurants and bars. Every night is the Pai Walking Street with street food and handicrafts. If you are vegetarian or vegan, then you will be thrilled because there are a lot of options at the night market and in restaurants. The bars usually close by midnight and then everyone crosses the river to Don’t Cry. They have tasty drunk food too! Max and I shared beers, fried chicken, and fries at Don’t Cry for 170 Baht.
An awesome thing about Pai is that they have really cheap scooter rental. We thought about renting a scooter for the day but then decided not to risk it as we met many travelers who had been stopped by police and had to pay a bribe.
We had our own experience with the Pai police but the side of the complainant. A laundry shop on the main street lost all of Max’s clothes after he left them to be cleaned. The owner refused to take any responsibility and we ended up at the tourist police. In the end, she paid 1000 Baht ($30 USD) which was only a percentage of the value. Luckily, the next day the other tourist who had mistakenly been given Max’s clothes returned them.
If you are looking for an affordable activity in Pai, then check out Fluid Swimming Pool. We spent one of our days here swimming, drinking beers, and just relaxing. It’s a great way to escape the heat and entry costs 80 Baht per person.
Day 13: Bus from Pai to Chiang Mai, then to Chiang Rai
To go to Chiang Rai from Pai, you need to go back to Chiang Mai first. You can buy your minibus tickets to the Chiang Mai bus station from one of the local travel agents near the Pai bus terminal (it’s very small). Then once you arrive at the bus station, you can buy your ticket to Chiang Rai.
Max and I paid 150 Baht each for the minibus from Pai to Chiang Mai bus station and 128 Baht to Chiang Rai from the same bus station.
Day 14-16: Chiang Rai
Where to stay in Chiang Rai: Baan Nukanong Guesthouse (144 Baht per night)
Where to eat in Chiang Rai: Chiang Rai Night Bazaar for hot pot soup.
Three nights in Chiang Rai is the perfect amount of time to tick off all the main tourist attractions. During the night, Max and I visited the Chiang Rai Night Bazaar which is next to the bus station. There is a huge selection of food and a big eating area facing a stage. The night we were there, they had traditional Thai dance and song performances. Try the hotpot with either chicken or seafood – it is delicious and a fun experience.
On our first day in Chiang Rai, we visited Elephant Valley Thailand (EVT) which is a legitimate sanctuary that lets elephants be as independent and natural as possible. I partnered with EVT to raise awareness about ethical alternatives for elephant experiences in Asia.
For our second day in Chiang Rai, we chose to visit the famous White Temple. There are is also the Blue Temple and Black House museum, but as we were on a budget we just chose one.
Entrance to The White Temple was 50 Baht each and well worth it to see such intricate art. The White Temple is not a traditional Thai temple and much younger than most at 22 years old. The artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat, has mixed modern pop culture references and still hasn’t finished working on the temple complex.
Thailand 2 week itinerary for 14 days
If you only have two weeks in Thailand, you could stay one day less in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Alternatively, you could consider skipping Pai and spend more time relaxing in each destination.
My Thailand trip costs
All costs are quoted in the local currency (Thai Baht). See below for the average daily spend per person including currency conversion to USD and AUD. I always try to find and negotiate the best prices to share with my readers. If you know of a better deal, tell me about it in the comments below.
Accommodation: My boyfriend and I searched for the best deals for private rooms with free wifi.
- Bangkok: Private room and shared bathroom for two people in a guest house (400 Baht per night for 4 nights). See prices at TT Guesthouse or look for other accommodation options in Bangkok.
- Chiang Mai: Private room and shared bathroom for two people in a hostel (320 Baht per night for 4 nights). See prices at The Dorm Chiang Mai or look for other accommodation options in Chiang Mai.
- Pai: Private room and shared bathroom for two people in a bungalow (300 Baht per night for 3 nights). See prices at PaiZen or look for other accommodation options in Pai.
- Chiang Rai: Private room and bathroom for two people in a guest house (289 Baht per night for 3 nights). See prices at Baan Nukanong Guesthouse or look for other accommodation options in Chiang Rai.
Food: All the places we stayed offered free cold water refills but only Baan Nukanong Guesthouse in Chiang Rai offered complimentary breakfast and it was very basic. Max and I purchased our own instant coffee and were able to use the cups and hot water in each place (at TT Guesthouse in Bangkok I would have to ask first). We mostly ate street food and at local restaurants. (157 Baht average per day on food and drink).
Activities: T-shirt purchased in Chiang Mai night bazaar (100 Baht), Entrance to Fluid Swimming Pool (80 Baht), Elephant Experience full-day program at Elephant Valley Thailand (sponsored), entrance to the white template (50 Baht).
Transport: Train from airport to Bangkok (45 Baht), overnight train to Chaing Mai (271 Baht), bus to Pai (180 Baht), bus to Chiang Mai (150 Baht), bus to Chiang Rai (128 Baht), bus to the White Temple (20 Baht), truck to Chiang Rai (30 Baht).
Average daily spend: 367 Baht per day each ($15 AUD / $11 USD as of 29 June 2018). This amount could be reduced by drinking less beer than we did.
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