Home Thailand Travel Guide10 Off-the-Beaten-Path Places to Visit in Northern Thailand

10 Off-the-Beaten-Path Places to Visit in Northern Thailand Before They Get Too Crowded

When most tourists think of Thailand, they envisage tropical islands with picture-perfect white sandy beaches. More and more tourists these days, however, are looking to the country’s beautiful northern Lanna region, which boasts a lush green jungle, vast mountain ranges, and majestic waterfalls, for their next Thai adventure.

The main northern Thai cities of Chiang Mai and the less visited but still very tourist-friendly Chiang Rai immediately come to mind. Dig a little deeper, however, and you will be rewarded with a truly amazing holiday to remember in some really off the beaten path places.

1. Camping in Doi Inthanon National Park, Chiang Mai Province

Doi Inthanon National Park is located a 2-hour drive away from Chiang Mai, making it an accessible and easy day trip for tourists from Chiang Mai. So why include it in a guide to off the beaten path places?

Well, even though Doi Inthanon gets a lot of tourists, most rush their visit and try to see all the sights in one day, spending a few minutes at each place and leaving feeling tired and depressed that they haven’t spent longer there.

Camping overnight there, for some reason, is still not massively popular but give the park the time it deserves and you’ll be treated to a sunset that you have only dreamed about or seen in movies.

On top of the ultra impressive waterfalls, as you begin to reach the top of the mountain you will see the Royal Twin Pagodas. There, you’ll find the most immaculately kept gardens. Standing at over 2,000 meters above sea level, you will be treated to as good a view as you will find anywhere in Northern Thailand.

Being so high up, it does get chilly so remember to take a jumper and jacket to keep warm. We know that it sounds strange to say that about Thailand but you’ll thank us later!

Best time to visit: November until February

Duration: 1–2 days

2. Huay Tung Tao Lake, Chiang Mai Province

There’s so much more to Chiang Mai than endless temples and night markets. A lot of people go there, spend a couple of days walking around, maybe do a jungle trek or take a trip to see some elephants, then leave. You will be missing out if you don’t get out and see the locals’ side of the city.

In our opinion, there is no better place to do this than at Huay Tung Tao Lake. It is situated about 10 kilometers, or a 30-minute drive, from Chiang Mai city. Huay Tung Tao Lake, or just ‘the lake’ as it’s often referred to, is a large reservoir set at the bottom of the beautiful Doi Suthep mountain.

Its banks are surrounded by little wooden huts, where locals and expats eat and drink the day away while soaking up the peaceful and serene surroundings. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your outlook, not many tourists seem to know about this little gem so going there still feels like you’ve stumbled across your own little hideaway.

Best time to visit: November until February

Duration: half a day to a full day trip

3. Chiang Dao Caves, Chiang Mai Province

The Chiang Dao Caves are situated 70 kilometers north or 1½ hours away from Chiang Mai, making them another great getaway from the city. The caves are one of the main attractions in the Chiang Dao National Park and the drive itself to the park is one of the better highway drives you will experience in Thailand. It gets more impressive the closer you get as the Doi Chiang Dao mountain range starts to come into view.

There are said to be over 100 caves covering a distance of 10 to 12 kilometers inside the mountain range but only five main caves are currently open to the public. Locals believe these caves have mystical powers and, after witnessing them for ourselves, it’s hard to disagree.

The main attractions at the caves are the numerous natural formations made of limestone, crystal, stalactites, and stalagmites. For any cave lover, a visit to the Chiang Dao Caves is an absolute must. They are some of the best we’ve come across in Asia.

Best time to visit: November until February

Duration: full day to overnight

4. Tea and Coffee Plantations, Chiang Rai Province

Coffee: Mae Sai District

Unbeknownst to most people in the West, Thailand produces some very fine quality coffee, the best of which is grown in the hills of Chiang Rai. The reason Thailand isn’t a well-known coffee producer is that the country doesn’t export a lot of it. The Thai people keep all the good stuff for themselves!

For any coffee lover, the chance to go to a plantation and sample the coffee straight from farm to cup should not be missed. Most coffee farms have on-site coffee shops and restaurants but if you want a truly memorable morning latte, head to Pha Mee Coffee for amazing views over the coffee fields below.

Tea: Mae Chan District

Don’t worry if coffee isn’t your thing as tea also flourishes in the cool northern climate. Take a drive into the Chiang Rai countryside to sip on some high quality oolong at the scenic Choui Fong Tea Plantation. There, you can take a tour to see how the tea is grown and also get a little background information on the area. You could also simply chill out on the terrace that overlooks this huge, scenic plantation and cool off with a nice cha yen at the modern on-site café.

Best time to visit: November until February

Duration: 2–3 days including Chiang Rai city

5. Mae Salong (Santikhiri), Chiang Rai Province

Located 80 kilometers above Chiang Rai city, Mae Salong, or Santikhiri as it’s known officially, has the nickname of Little Yunnan. This is because the town was set up by anti-communist troops from southern China in the 1960s, who fled after suffering defeat in the Chinese Civil War.

This is definitely not your typical Thai town — it looks and feels like it belongs in southern China. The old Chinese houses that once stood there are slowly being replaced with more modern buildings but you will still hear a lot of Chinese being spoken along with Thai.

Oolong tea is big business there and a trip to one of the many tea shops in town is an absolute must. As far as towns go, Mae Salong is definitely one of the most unique you will come across in Thailand.

Best time to visit: November until February

Duration: 2–3 days including Chiang Rai city

6. Mae Hong Son, Mae Hong Son Province

Mae Hong Son is an extremely picturesque, mountainous province in Northern Thailand, bordering Myanmar. It is extremely remote and very ethnically diverse. It is home to the Hmong and Shan hill tribes, which gives you a chance to get a glimpse of real village life.

In Mae Hong Son town, there are virtually no tuk tuks, no tacky tourist shops, hardly any Western restaurants, and hardly any people trying to sell you souvenirs. This is the quintessential northern Thai town where you can really immerse yourself into rural Thai life.

Due to the town’s close proximity to the Myanmar border, you will have the chance to sample some traditional Burmese food, such as the famous tea leaf salad.

It is also a great place to base yourself to explore the province’s other unique towns and attractions.

Other attractions in the province include the small towns of Mae Sariang and Sa Pong, and a trip to see the awe-inspiring Mae Surin Waterfall, which is located in Surin National Park.

Best time to visit: November until February

Duration: 3–4 days including visiting the surrounding areas

7. Nan Town, Nan Province

Have you ever heard of Nan in Northern Thailand? If not, don’t worry, not many tourists have. Nan isn’t top of many people’s lists when planning a Thailand trip. This is surely going to change as more and more people hear about this charming riverside town, deep in the valleys of Northern Thailand.

Step back in time and explore Nan’s old wooden teak houses and stunning ancient Buddhist temples dotted around town. A visit to see the ancient murals painted on the walls of Wat Phumin is one of the town’s must-see attractions.

You can find out more about the history of the area by visiting the National Museum of Nan before stopping for some delicious local Lanna food, such as the famous khao soi curry noodles at Wanda Restaurant, or sampling some amazing locally grown coffee at one of the town’s many charming coffee shops.

The town of Nan is a fantastic place to base yourself to explore all of the beautiful surrounding countryside and mountain ranges the area has to offer.

Best time to visit: November until February

Duration: 3–4 days including tours in Nan Province

8. Nam Muap, Nan Province

Head to the village of Nam Muap, which is about an hour south of Nan town by the border of Laos, where you can get a real sense of local life. The village is very secluded and many residents still live by following their century-old traditions.

You can start the day by meeting a local farmer and learning how to prepare a jungle fruit known locally as look chit. In the village square, a group of women usually weave bamboo baskets by hand to sell at the markets. The patterns they can create are incredible. You might want to grab a few for your house back home.

If you are feeling really adventurous, you can head to the rice paddies to harvest your own crop. This gives you a newfound respect for rice farmers as it’s backbreaking work!

Once you’ve picked your rice, it’s time to cook it. You can take part in a very unique cooking class in a local home using ingredients solely sourced from the surrounding forest and jungle.

Nam Muap is a small community where everyone knows each other so you get a sense that you are seeing real village life going on around you, unlike a lot of set up ‘hill tribe’ tours that have popped up around Northern Thailand in recent years.

9. Chiang Khan, Loei Province

Pretty much as far north as you can go in Thailand, this quaint riverside town sits on the banks of the mighty Mekong River, overlooking Laos. It’s famous among Thai tourists who visit for the cool climate and the town’s rustic charm. Chiang Khan has, so far, managed to avoid the mass of backpackers and Western tourists that have descended upon Pai in Mae Hong Son, which used to have a similar, laid-back vibe.

Chiang Khan’s main attraction is its walking street, which runs adjacent to the riverfront promenade. The streets are lined with local teak houses that have been converted into guesthouses and tourist shops.

The main street comes alive after sunset, with street food vendors serving up delicious local food. Grab yourself a snack and take a leisurely stroll alongside the Mekong River to take in the amazing sunset over neighboring Laos.

Best time to visit: November until February

Duration: 1–3 days

10. Suan Pha Hin Ngam and Phaeng Din Waterfall, Loei Province

Suan Pha Hin Ngam translates to Forest Park of Beautiful Stones in Thai. The ‘beautiful stones’ part refers to the stunning limestone cliffs and karsts that line the park.

It is nicknamed ‘Loei’s Kunming’ due to these rock formations and you could be forgiven for thinking that you have stumbled across the border into southern China.

Most tourists in Thailand go south to Phang Nga Bay or Krabi to see these rock formations and it’s likely you will be the only foreign visitor in sight at Suan Pha Hin Ngam.

Also inside the park sits Nam Tok Phaeng Din, a beautiful, multitiered waterfall made up of individual pools that allow for a dip to cool off after walking around the park.

Best time to visit: November until February

Duration: a full day trip combined with Chiang Khan

Discover Northern Thailand with Us

There are definitely places on this list that you can do by yourself but some of the areas in Northern Thailand are better suited to traveling with a guide. Public transport in the more rural parts of Northern Thailand is virtually nonexistent, making it very difficult to travel independently.

Our premade itineraries can easily accommodate a trip to one or more of these amazing provinces. Alternatively, why not let our knowledgeable travel advisers take on the planning and help you create your own customized trip. Take a look at some of our most popular Thailand tours below and start dreaming about your trip to Thailand’s beautiful north.

13-Day Essence of Thailand Tour: Far More beyond Temples

14-Day Myanmar and Thailand Essence Tour: Travel in Smiles

15-Day Myanmar, Thailand and Bali Honeymoon: Creating Memories Together