The Best of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai in One Week
The cities of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai are located in Northern Thailand and one week is perfect for visiting both cities. If you don’t have a week, the trip can definitely be done in just 4-5 days and on a budget. I usually recommend staying a few extra days in case the weather doesn’t play right, especially during the rainy season. This itinerary assumes you literally have 7 days (one-day arrival, one-day departure), so realistically, you have only 5 full days. I’d suggest leaving as late as possible on your departure date, or at least after 3PM as you will be back in Chiang Mai around noon on the last day. There will not be any physically strenuous activities, but do keep in mind there is a bit of travelling around.
Make sure to read this post on things to know before you go!
Day 1: Settle In
I usually spend the first day settling in. Nothing too exciting, but you’ll probably be tired, jet-lagged, or travelled out. If you are arriving at the airport, find your way to your accommodation (some hotels provide pick-up ) and get settled in. Once you get to your hotel, go pick up a SIM card if you haven’t picked one up already. If you came in early in the morning and you have energy, feel free to explore the city and roam around for the day!
Day 2: Explore the Old City
For day two, you will want to wake up early and make your way to Wat Doi Suthep for sunrise to beat the crowds. It opens at 6AM in the morning (last time I went), and it’s on the outskirts of the city, so schedule accordingly. I can’t remember the entrance fee.
Day two will be spent exploring the old city of Chiang Mai, so once you’re done exploring Doi Suthep, make your way back to the old city and grab some breakfast/lunch. Spend the rest of the day roaming through the streets and the various temples around, try local food, and go shopping! I’d suggest visiting Wat Phra Singh (20 THB entrance fee) and Wat Chedi Luang, and in the evening, hit up the Chiang Mai night bazaar.
Day 3: Visit an Elephant Home
With only 3,500 elephants left in Thailand and the majority of them being in Northern Thailand, doing an elephant experience is a once in a lifetime experience and should definitely be on your list of things to do in Chiang Mai.
Earlier in May 2019, I went to hang out with some elephants at Chiang Mai Elephant Home, and I absolutely had a blast! My friends and I went for a one-day elephant experience, and it was definitely worth it. A full day is 2,400 Baht/Person (about $80/person). We got picked up from our hotel around 9 in the morning, and after a 1.5-hour drive, we got to the elephant home. They provided uniforms to change into, and before we fed the elephants, the local guide shared with us the history of elephants in Thailand and some interesting facts about them. You would not believe how much an elephant eats a day!
We then made snacks for the elephants, and after feeding them meals, bananas, and sugar canes, we had a traditional buffet (they had vegan and vegetarian options!). After lunch, we took some photos with the elephants and then cooled them off in a mud spa. Once they cooled off, we then got to play with them in the river and washed them clean.
The day went by extremely fast, and before we knew it, our experience was over! We said goodbye to the elephants and went to the last spot on the itinerary, which was a waterfall. Personally, I didn’t enjoy the waterfall as much, but it’s a great way to cool off after the day! If I were to go again, I would probably consider doing the ATV tour (which is about $100/person).
If you’re interested in going I highly suggest going with Chiang Mai Elephant Home as my experience there was amazing! You can learn more about their different programs and their mission statement here. There are also other amazing companies, so before you book an elephant experience, please, please, please, make sure that the company you choose is an ethical one (no riding)! Do some research, ask questions, and look at reviews. The average price for an elephant experience is usually between $70-$100; anything lower is a bit sketchy.
The experience usually ends around 5PM, so you have the evening off to explore more of the old city if you want! If you’re into the party scene, hit up Zoe in Yellow, the best club in Chiang Mai in my opinion. Enjoy your night!
Day 4: Doi Inthanon
Doi Inthanon is my personal favourite attraction of Chiang Mai, and it is the highest point in Thailand located about two hours away from the city. The main attraction, the Twin Royal Pagodas, is absolutely stunning and there are a couple of beautiful treks around the area.
Option 1: do a tour.
This is a great way to meet other people while seeing the best attractions. They usually cost somewhere between $20-50 depending on the extent of the tour and which company you go with. I don’t really enjoy doing organized tours as you have to abide by their schedule, which means often missing sunrises and sunsets. As well, there are many spots around the Doi Inthanon area that you can explore so if you’re like me and you want to explore as much as possible on your own schedule, the best way to experience Doi Inthanon is to go there yourself. To join a tour, go to the reception desk of your accommodation and ask for their tour options and they will usually have organized tour packages available. If they’re not sure just look for one on TripAdvisor.
Option 2: go by scooter.
If you’re comfortable on a scooter, I would say that scooter is the cheapest way to get there, but definitely not the most comfortable. Make sure the bike is strong enough (at least 125cc) as the ride up is quite uphill. You can get one delivered to your accommodation or find a local rental shop, and it should cost around $15-25. You would rather have a good bike that’s a bit more expensive than a cheap one with brakes that don’t work! You might need an International Drivers Permit depending on which rental company you go with, and keep in mind that driving in Thailand is a bit hectic and you drive on the left side of the road!
Option 3. Rent a car
This is my preferred method of getting to Doi Inthanon despite it not being the easiest or cheapest. I would highly suggest renting a car as it will be the best way to get around for the next few days and you can store your luggage in the back if need be. It would be best to rent one at the airport.
Option 4: Hire a private driver
The first time I went to Doi Inthanon, I hired a private driver for the day, which I don’t think was necessary. I can’t remember how much it is, but it is definitely the most expensive option. If you have a comfortable budget, considering hiring a private driver.
Option 5: Public Transportation
I personally have never taken this method so I can verify this is 100% possible, but apparently, you can board a yellow songthaew at Chiang Mai Gate for 30 THB ($1), and from there catch another one to the summit of Doi Inthanon for 80 THB ($3). I heard that they leave almost hourly until late afternoon, but I would definitely ask around to see if this is true! If it is, this is definitely the cheapest option. It also might be hard to get a ride back after sunset, so I don’t really support this option but again, ask around. Good luck!
How to get the best out of Doi Inthanon
Check out of your accommodation around noon, have lunch, then go to the airport to rent a car around 2 PM and start making your way to Doi Inthanon. After 2 hours of driving you’ll get to your first stop: Ang Ka. You can park your car/scooter at the top of Doi Inthanon for free and start from there. On the way to the park you will encounter a checkpoint where you will be charged a fee for your vehicle. You will also be charged 300 THB ($10) for the entrance fee.
Get to Ang Ka around 4 PM and spend the next hour exploring the forest. Then, make your way to the Twin Pagodas around 5PM, And spend the next hour and a half exploring the park and enjoying the sunset. There is another entrance fee for the park which should be around 40 THB ($1.30).
If you are visiting between November to July and you like hiking, I’d suggest going earlier in the day and reserving some time to explore Kew Mae Pan Nature Trail (It’s closed during the rainy season). It’s a 3.2 km trek and you will need a guide which is about 200 THB ($6.50) per group (not more than 10 people), but apparently it’s pretty nice. I have only visited Thailand during the rainy season so I have not yet done the trek myself, so if you go, let me know how it is! It should take about 2-4 hours to explore the area, so it’d probably be best to leave Chiang Mai around 10 AM to get to the Kew Mae Pan around noon.
There are other things in the area that you can do, such as visiting waterfalls or going on other treks. To be honest, nothing in this area is too exciting compared to the pagodas and Ang Ka. The park closes around 6:30 PM I believe (you can stay longer until the sun sets) so after sunset, it’s time to head back!
Visiting Ban Pa Pong Piang
For those who are visiting around May-/Sept and are keen on seeing some of the most beautiful rice terraces ever, consider visiting Ban Pa Pong Piang. I personally have not been there myself, but apparently, it’s gorgeous and quite the cultural experience. It’s a bit of a mission to get there, but I think it would be worth it. I can’t suggest the exact best time to visit (harvest and planting season is weather dependent) but usually, those months are the best months to visit, according to my research.
To see this place, you will have to either stay at a guesthouse overnight (which means you will have to drive there the day before in the evening after the elephant experience) or rent a car the evening before and starting your drive at 2-3 AM to get there in time for sunrise. The guesthouses there are not the most glamorous, and there are not many of them.
The last few kilometres of the drive are on muddy trails accessible only by off-road vehicles, so no matter what, unless you have a 4x4, you will have to contact a guesthouse and ask for transportation once you’re near the fields (organize this in advance). Because of this, driving the evening before and staying at a guesthouse is probably the best option. When I looked up places to stay, Kowit Maechaem Farmhouse seemed to be the best (yet most expensive) choice, which is around $70 (a bit pricey) and they will pick you up from a nearby car-park. Feel free to contact some other guesthouses around the GPS coordinates below and ask if they provide pick-up/transportation to the fields.
Punch in these coordinates (18° 31'55.3 "N 98° 26'52.3 "E). Typing in 'Ban Pa Pong Piang' on Google Maps will give you the wrong location.
There is usually no electricity or service in the area so charge everything and bring a power bank
Bring warm clothes as it gets incredibly chilly at night due to the high elevation
If you are driving, plan for a 30m-1hr buffer as the road conditions aren't the greatest, and you might be driving slower than normal
If you have more time, spend two nights here in case one of the sunrises doesn't pan out
This is apparently the most cultural, natural, and fantastic experience with no distractions from the outside world. Just you, local farmers, fresh food, and a beautiful view. After the morning at Ban Pa Pong Piang, you can continue the day off at Doi Inthanon.
Day 5: The Floating Pagodas/Chiang Rai
These "floating pagodas" are one of Thailand's most underrated places and best-kept secret, in my opinion. It's a bit of a hike up and down but nothing too extreme, and once you are on top you will experience true serenity. It's a slight detour, but a great spot to visit!
Best: by car/bike
Day 5 is a travel day! Spend your day making your way up to Chiang Rai, stopping by the hidden floating pagodas along the way. If you have already rented a car from the day before, keep it. I would say renting a car is a much better idea due to how long you will be driving, but if you're keen on ripping it on a motorcycle I won't stop ya!
expensive + safe: hire a driver
If driving long distances isn't your thing your best bet is to hire a private driver. It's a tad more expensive, but you'll get there safely.
cheap: Bus to Chiang Rai
Another option is to take a bus to Chiang Rai, but you will have to skip the floating pagodas and take the day off to travel. It costs around $5-10, depending on the comfort level. This is usually how backpackers make their way up, departing from the Arcade Bus Station in Chiang Mai. It'll take about 3-4 hours, and there is some stunning scenery along the way! I'd suggest investing a little extra in a VIP ticket on a Green Bus ($10) for a much more comfortable and safe experience (with a toilet). If you choose this option, I would suggest staying two nights in Chiang Rai, and visiting Pai the next day, or heading back to Chiang Mai and visiting the sticky waterfalls.
fun: go on a tour
Same as above: if you choose to do a tour, then you can skip today's schedule as no tours will visit the floating pagodas. They will most likely bring you straight to Chiang Rai, and you will spend a day there and come back. That means you have more time to explore Chiang Mai tomorrow! Or, you can go on a tour but don't go back to Chiang Mai with the group, and instead take a bus back on the last day. That means you can do Chiang Rai today, and visit Pai/sticky waterfalls the next. I've personally never done either, so I can't say much about it.
How I did it
For the ultimate trip, start your drive anytime during the morning or mid-day. I would suggest heading out around noon. You will want to set your GPS to Wat Chaloem Phra Kiat (there are couple with the same name so click this link!), which is about 2.5 hours east of Chiang Mai. Try to make it there around 2PM, and park near the entrance. When you get there, you will have to take a communal truck up the hill, and from there it's about a 20-30 minute walk up to the top (it's pretty steep). There's an entrance fee (I forgot how much it is), but it's around $2 if memory serves me right.
After your hike you will want to continue your way towards Chiang. From Wat Chaloem Phra Kiat it's another 3 hours to Chiang Rai. Once you get to your accommodation, grab some food if you haven't eaten yet and go to bed. It's going to be an early wake-up call tomorrow!
Day 6: Chiang Rai
Wake up super early (AGAIN?!) in the morning before sunrise and make your way to Wat Rong Khun (The White Temple) for 6:30AM when it opens. This temple gets crowded, so you definitely want to be the first one there, and you get to experience it during golden hour, making it all that more magical. Spend the next hour or two exploring the beautiful white marble temple, then grab some breakfast. The temple's entrance fee is about 50 THB ($1.64), and remember to wear proper attire. If crowds/lighting aren't important to you, then you don't have to wake up early. Unfortunately, I went during the rainy season and didn't get any good pics so here's some from my buddy @JoshuaFoo, and blogger/photographer @adreaminasuitcase.
Grab some grub after your magical sunrise, and get ready to explore the rest of the city today! Make your way towards Rong Sear Tean (The Blue Temple) and make sure to go inside! The temple is absolutely stunning.
If you haven't gone shopping yet, there are a lot of excellent markets around, and here you can haggle. You usually can bring them down to 40% of their original offer. Just keep in mind this is their living, so if you are feeling nice, don't haggle too hard!
In the afternoon, make your way to Wat Phra Kaew (The Temple of the Emerald Buddha).
When you're done exploring the temples, head on over to the Kaad Luang Market (Central Market), and get ready to gorge yourself out! This market is filled with all kinds of snacks you might find along a roadside market in northern Thailand, such as fresh vegetables, fruits, grilled seafood, northern delicacies, ready-to-eat meals and desserts. You can even try deep-fried grasshoppers, silk worms and beetles!
Unfortunately, Chiang Rai doesn't have any great sunset spots, so the rest of the evening is free!
Note: If you ended visiting the Chiang Rai the day before, you could consider visiting Pai, or explore the sticky waterfalls instead (both are excellent day trips).
Day 7: DEPARTURE!
Today's your last day! After a quiet sunrise at one of the most beautiful temples of Thailand, it will be time to make your way back to Chiang Mai.
Unless you have an early flight, you can sleep in! You deserve it :) After a hearty breakfast, it's time to head back to Chiang Mai to catch your flight! Keep in mind that it will take about 3.5 hours to get to the Chiang Mai airport. The airport is pretty small, so you won't need more than an hour or so to get through security and check-in, but just to be safe, get to the airport 1.5-2 hours early and return your car if you rented one.
That's about it! I hope you enjoyed the read, and if you tried out any part of this itinerary I would love to hear about it!
WITh A CAR
day 1 (arrive in Chiang Mai)
Arrival in Chiang Mai (CNX)
day 2 (Chiang Mai)
Exploring the Old City
day 3 (Chiang Mai/ BAN PA PONG PIANG)
Visit an elephant home
Rent a car and drive to Ban Pa Pong Piang (optional)
day 4 (Chiang Mai)
Sunrise over the rice terraces of Ban Pa Pong Piang (optional)
Rent a car and drive to Ang Ka
Nature walk at Ang Ka
Sunset at the Twin Royal Pagodas
Drive back to Chiang Mai
day 5 (Chiang Rai)
Drive to Wat Chaloem Phra Kiat
Hike the floating pagodas
Drive to Chiang Rai
day 6 (Chiang Rai)
Sunrise at Wat Rong Khun
Explore Rong Sear Tean and Wat Phra Kaew
Eat at Kaad Luang Market
day 7 (Departure)
Return to Chiang Mai (CNX)
WITHOUT A CAR
day 1 (arrive in Chiang Mai)
Arrival in Chiang Mai
day 2 (Chiang Mai)
Exploring the Old City
day 3 (Chiang Mai)
Visit an elephant home
Explore the old city in the evening
day 4 (Chiang Mai)
Join a tour group/hire a private driver to Doi Inthanon
day 5 (Chiang Rai)
Either take a tour to Chiang Rai or take a bus
If you took a bus, visit Rong Sear Tean and Wat Phra Kaew for sunset, stay in Chiang Rai, and see Wat Rong Khun for sunrise the next day
If you went with a tour, you can either stay in Chiang Rai or go back to Chiang Mai
day 6 (Chiang Rai/Chiang Mai)
Spend the day exploring Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai (sticky waterfalls are cool), or Pai
day 7 (Departure)
If you haven’t yet, return to Chiang Mai