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If you’re thinking of backpacking Thailand but aren’t sure how to best venture around the country, here’s my guide to the best 10-day Northern Thailand itinerary. From Chiang Rai and Pai with a cool stop in Chiang Mai, this is the ultimate route.

Backpacking Thailand: the BEST 10-Day Northern Thailand Itinerary to see the best of the region.

Psst. This post contains affiliate links. Read our disclosure.

Unbelievably flavorful foods, crazy friendly locals, gorgeous Thai temples, breathtaking views, bustling cities, and more… the awesomeness of Thailand draws in thousands of eager backpackers every year.

And in the past few years, it’s drawn me in for multiple adventures I’ll never forget. Particularly, I fell head over backpacker boots for Northern Thailand, the cultural hub of the country.

While Southern Thailand is all about drinking, beach parties, raves, island hopping, and essentially having a wildly awesome time, Northern Thailand is more about the culture, food, views, mountains, temples, and more.

If you’re traveling Southeast Asia and need helping planning your visit to Thailand, this is the ultimate backpacking route for the northern part of the country.

Psst, before you head off to Thailand, don’t forget to check out the helpful Frommer’s Thailand Travel Guide and this Solo Thailand Guide.


For this particular itinerary, the best place to start is the cool city of Chiang Rai (that’s right, not Chiang Mai). Personally, I flew into Chiang Mai and then immediately hopped on a bus to Chiang Rai.

If you look at a map of Thailand, you’ll find it’s easy to start in Chiang Rai and then make a sort of “U” shape from Chiang Rai to Pai via Chiang Mai.

Once done in Pai, you can make the trip back to Chiang Mai and fly out of there or make your way down to Southern Thailand!

Northern Thailand Trip Overview:

  • Chiang Rai — 2-3 Days
  • Chiang Mai — 3-4 Days
  • Pai — 2-3 Days
  • Chiang Mai — 1 Day

Psst, before you head out on your Thailand backpacking trip, don’t forget to read my guide on what to wear (and what NOT to wear) in Thailand! You can find that HERE.

Day 1 — Chiang Mai, Thailand

This is most likely where you’ll fly into or arrive first. As mentioned above, I recommend making your way ASAP to Chiang Rai, which is a 3-4 hour bus ride from Chiang Mai.

If you arrive in the late evening, just wait to grab a bus until the next day. We (Dan and I) flew into Chiang Mai early in the morning so it was easy to grab a bus shortly afterwards to Chiang Rai.

Anywho, depending on your arrival, you’ll either spend the first night in Chiang Mai or the first day traveling to Chiang Rai.

Day 1-3 — Chiang Rai, Thailand

Plan for 2 full days in Chiang Rai. This allows you enough time to explore the city, as well as the surrounding area, which is super duper pretty.

Best Things to Do in Chiang Rai, Thailand

  • Explore the many temples — A few are the best to visit are the White Temple (you can see my visit guide here), Blue Temple (Wat Rong Seua Ten), Monkey Temple (Wat Tham Pla), and Wat Phra Kaew (one of the most famous in Chiang Rai).
  • Spend a night at the gorgeous (and ethical) Elephant Valley Thailand sanctuary.
  • Check out the Clock Tower.
  • Rent a motorbike and visit some nearby waterfalls.
  • Take a trip to Thailand’s northernmost point.
  • Visit the notorious Golden Triangle (the spot where the Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar border meet).
  • Relax in one of the many hot springs around Chiang Rai — Huay Mak Lium Hot Spring, Pong Phra Soet Hot Spring, and Fang Hot Spring.

For a more comprehensive list of awesome things to do in Chiang Rai, take a look at this list here. Additionally, don’t forget to read my vegan guide to Chiang Rai, featuring 3 fantastic places for vegan food in the city!

Furthermore, on day 3, hop back on a bus and make the journey down from Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai. Again, this’ll take about 3-4 hours, depending on the traffic and road construction.

Psst, I’ll discuss transportation between the 3 destinations below!

Want to visit the White Temple and wander the notorious “Golden Triangle” with an expert? Head out on this highly-rated day trip tour!

Where to Stay in Chiang Rai

Find more great accommodation options on Booking! My all-time favorite site for checking into perfect places.

Giant Buddha just outside of Chiang Rai.

Day 3-7 — Chiang Mai, Thailand

Plan for 3 full days in Chiang Mai on your Thailand trip, as this will give you ample time to explore this cultural hub and the surrounding area.

This city is steeped in history and has tons of fantastic things to do, including over 300 temples (no, you won’t be able to see them all!), waterfalls, delicious eateries, and more.

Best Things to Do in Chiang Mai, Thailand

  • Temple hop for a day. A few awesome ones to visit are:
    • Doi Suthep
    • Wat Chedi Luang
    • Wat Phra Singh
    • Wat Suan Dok
  • Visit the highest mountain in Thailand at Doi Inthanon National Park.
  • Eat some delicious vegan eats (view my guide here) — Khao Soi is a must.
  • Explore Chiang Mai’s very own so-called “Grand Canyon.”
  • Stroll Chang Klan Road (aka Chiang Mai’s bustling Night Bazaar).
  • Chill out at the Bai Orchid And Butterfly Farm.
  • Enjoy a cheeky Thai massage (a must when traveling Thailand, as they’re super cheap!).
  • Go on a major adventure! Trekking in Thailand is a top thing to do and Chiang Mai is a great jumping off point.
  • Learn how to cook traditional dishes in an awesome Thai cooking class (check out the BEST vegan Thai cooking class here!).

Next up is heading to the gorgeous town of Pai!

This is where the infamous drive from Chiang Mai to Pai comes into play… with over 750 curves and turns, it’s a twisty turvy road that’ll have your stomach in knots. But believe me, it’s worth it!

Want to make things easy? See the best of Chiang Mai’s Old City on this awesome 4-hour bike tour!

Where to Stay in Chiang Mai

Find more great accommodation options on Booking! My all-time favorite site for checking into perfect places.

Learning how to cook traditional Thai food (and looking like Mario while at it!).

If you’re planning on backpacking Southeast Asia, don’t forget to take a look at my 4-part travel guide HERE!

Day 7-10 — Pai, Thailand

My personal favorite on this Northern Thailand itinerary, Pai is a quaint, quirky little town with lots and lots of character (as well as fantastic things to do).

In fact, this little town is so awesome, it’s become known as a place where travelers fall in the “Pai hole” because you just never want to leave and end up getting stuck here for longer than expected!

Plan to spend at least 2 full days here, if not 3. While you can see the town in no time at all, the all-time best thing to do here is explore the area around Pai!

Best Things to Do in Pai, Thailand

  • Stroll through the magnificent Pai night market (packed with delicious food, trinkets, local stands, and more — it’s awesome!).
  • Eat some delicious vegan food — Pai is awesome for veggies! Click HERE to check out my veg guide.
  • Check out the giant White Buddha on the hill (crazy awesome views from here!).
  • Hang out and explore the Pai Canyon.
  • Rent a scooter and cool off at one of the many nearby waterfalls.
    • Pambok Waterfall
    • Mo Paeng Waterfalls
    • Mae Yen Waterfall
    • Khun Korn Waterfall
    • Mae Sa Waterfall
  • Head out on a scooter and do a day trip to explore the Tham Lod Cave (click here to read how).
  • Get your yoga on — since Pai is so relaxed, it’s a great place to do so!
  • Simply chill and hang out in a hammock.

Where to Stay in Pai

Find more great accommodation options on Booking! My all-time favorite site for checking into perfect places.

The infamous Pai Canyon.

Day 10 — Chiang Mai, Thailand

The last day in this Thailand trip itinerary, it’s time to head back to Chiang Mai and make way towards your next destination!

Transportation Between Destinations

Getting between cities in Thailand is relatively straightforward. Most of the time, there’s no need to book things ahead of time but if you’d like, you can usually book a couple days in advance through your accommodation.

Chiang Mai → Chiang Rai: The easiest way to get from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai is by bus (or by private car, if you have the budget).

Head straight to the Arcade Bus Station in northwest Chiang Mai and find the Green Bus Ticket Office, where you can buy your ticket. The bus takes around 3-4 hours.

Find out more about getting from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai here.

(Tip: This is also the same when going from Chiang Rai back to Chiang Mai. Just head to the Chiang Rai bus station — which is in the center of town — and buy a ticket at the Green Bus Ticket Office.)

Chiang Mai → Pai: This is the notorious 750+ curved road that most backpackers dread but heck, it’s totally worth it! Pai is amazing and you’re going to love this place.

The easiest way to get from Chiang Mai to Pai is to hop on a minibus. You can easily book one through your hostel or hotel, or you can head to the bus station and book transportation there.

(Again, this is the same when traveling back from Pai to Chiang Mai. Book your transportation through your accommodation or the small Pai bus station!)

Glorious temple in Chiang Rai.

Northern Thailand Itinerary Map

Need to look at a helpful map to get a better idea of this Thailand itinerary? I’ve gotchu! Here’s a handy dandy map of a visual of my backpacking route.

Booking Your Thailand Flights

Hands down my favorite booking site is Skyscanner — especially for Southeast Asia, as this site tends to show little-known flight companies that show more affordable prices.

You can use this handy flight widget to find the best price!

Backpacker Travel Insurance

If there’s one thing you should do before heading off to backpack Thailand, it’s arming yourself with reputable travel insurance to stay safe.

Sure, you could fail to find accommodation ahead of time, skimp out on booking flights in-advance, or even pass on creating a general Thailand outline…

But do not — do not — leave yourself at mercy to unexpected accidents without covering yourself with travel insurance.

On my last trip to Thailand I had an unfortunate motorbike accident and while I didn’t get super hurt or need hospital assistance, I made sure a good travel insurance company had my back just in case I did.

Personally, I like SafetyWing.

A rather new travel insurance specifically made for backpackers, remote works, freelancers, and digital nomads, it’s super affordable, has great coverage, and nails all of the insurance essentials.

Click here to check out SafetyWing.

On the other hand, I used World Nomads Travel Insurance for years. They’re super reputable, have thousands of good reviews, and provide in-depth, reliable coverage.

Click here to check out World Nomads.

Was all fun and games until I fell off my scooter… ouch.

Ready to eat some delicious Thai food, explore temples, motorbike around mountains, venture through caves, and hang out with amazing locals?

This crazy awesome Northern Thailand itinerary features the best of the region and it’ll help you plan the ultimate adventure.

Are you backpacking Northern Thailand soon? Or just looking for some travel inspiration? Share your thoughts or tell me your plan in the comments below!

Sophie xx

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If you're looking for the BEST 10-day Northern Thailand itinerary, here it is! From Chiang Rai to Pai with a cool stop in Chiang Mai, you can see it all with this adventure guide. Whether you want to stroll through Pai Canyon or waterfall hunt around Chiang Mai, or heck, even stop at an elephant sanctuary, this is your Northern Thailand travel guide.
From Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai and Pai, this Northern Thailand backpacking itinerary helps you see the best of this beautiful country. Featuring mountains, waterfalls, temples, caves, and more, this 10-day Thailand adventure can help you plan the ultimate Thailand trip.

As mentioned earlier, this post contains affiliate links. Which means if you make a purchase through the links, this site receives a small commission at no extra cost to you. This helps us to continue bringing you wanderful inspiration! Read our full disclosure here.

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