An Epic Adventure Through Northern Thailand
Planning an epic 3-week Thailand adventure? Read on, friend!
This 3-week Thailand itinerary has you hitting all of Northern Thailand’s highlights, as well as the opportunity to step a little off the well-trodden tourist trail.
You might not be island hopping or relaxing on Thailand’s gram-worthy beaches, but you will be playing with elephants, cycling around ancient temples and eating all the Pad Thai you can handle. Northern Thailand has so much to offer the intrepid explorer, and I have a feeling you’re going to fall in love with the Land of Smiles.
BUT WAIT, WHAT ABOUT SOUTHERN THAILAND?
This itinerary focuses solely on Northern Thailand, and here’s why.
I visited Thailand at the start of a 3-month adventure through Southeast Asia. Practically, moving flying from Chiang Mai to Yangon (the next country on our trip was Myanmar) made a lot more sense.
But Northern Thailand also appealed to my sense of adventure. Though nowhere in Thailand is fully ‘off the beaten path’, Northern Thailand isn’t as overrun by tourists as Southern Thailand can be. Sure, it lacks a certain island-appeal, but Northern Thailand has a lot to offer. Northern Thailand is, really, the more authentic, less crowded version of Thailand.
A lot of Northern Thailand itineraries focus on Bangkok, Ayutthaya, and Chiang Mai. You should include all of these destinations, but take the time to visit lesser-known towns like Nan and you’ll be rewarded with a Thailand less touched by mass tourism.
Use this 3-week Northern Thailand itinerary as a starting point and feel free to add places that interest you. This is the itinerary we used and I’ve made sure to point out where I would have made any changes.
WHEN TO GO TO THAILAND
The best time to visit is between November and February when temperatures are lower and there’s not as much rain. We went in January and with the exception of Bangkok, which is hot and sticky, the country saw temperatures in the mid to late 20’s and clear blue skies.
THAILAND ON A BUDGET
In 3 weeks in Thailand we spent 12,575 baht ($400 USD) on accommodation, staying in private rooms at a range of hostels, hotels and guest houses. That’s an average of 660 baht per night ($21 USD), and you could do it a lot cheaper if you were staying in dorm rooms in hostels.
Food in Thailand is incredibly cheap and incredibly delicious. Street food is the way to go; on average you’ll spend 35-50 baht ($1-$1.50 USD) per meal.
Activities in Thailand are also very affordable. Our biggest expense was an overnight stay at Elephant Nature Park. At 5800 baht ($180 USD) it was a little pricey on a backpacker’s budget, but it was well worth it. For other activities you could expect to pay 500-1,200 baht ($15-$36 USD) depending on the activity.
|Thailand Daily Budget|
Budgets vary a lot depending on your travel style, but $25-$30 USD is a pretty reasonable daily budget in Thailand.
THAILAND QUICK TIPS
Currency: Thai baht (THB) is Thailand’s official currency. 1 USD is equivalent to roughly 31.32 THB.
Language: The official language of Thailand is Thai. While locals in big cities like Bangkok or Chiang Mai will likely speak English, it pays to learn a few basic phrases before you go.
Credit Cards & ATM’s: In Thailand’s larger cities you won’t have any trouble finding an ATM, and even in smaller towns like Sukhothai or Nan there are ATM’s available. If you go to any local markets take cash as cards likely won’t be accepted.
Plugs: The plus in Thailand are A, B and C. Plug A has two flat parallel pins, plug B has two flat parallel pins and a grounding pin and plug C has two round pins. Thailand operates on a 230V supply voltage and 50Hz.
Safety: I never felt unsafe when I was in Thailand, and I’d consider it a great country for solo female travellers. Like any country there’s always risks, so make sure to check your local travel advisory before you go.
The Ultimate 3-Week Thailand Itinerary: An Epic Adventure Through Northern Thailand
- Bangkok: 4 Nights
- Ayutthaya: 1 Night
- Lopburi: 1 Night
- Khao Yai National Park: 2 Nights
- Sukhothai: 2 Nights
- Nan: 3 Nights
- Chiang Rai: 3 Nights
- Chiang Mai: 4 Nights
Bangkok: 4 Nights
For the uninitiated to Southeast Asia (as I was), Bangkok is a colourful, overwhelming, delicious, sprawling mess of a city.
Home to eleven million people, in this Southeast Asian hub you’ll find seedy ping pong shows, incredible street food, a traffic jam of tuk tuks, and skyscrapers and luxury malls next to markets and temples.
While in Bangkok make sure to check out the Jim Thompson House, a museum housing the art collection of the ‘Thai Silk King’. For a great view of the city head up the Golden Mount, or keep an eye out for water monitors at Lumpini Park. Wat Pho and Wat Arun are also top attractions in Bangkok and will give you your first taste of a Thai temple.
Try the street food! It’s famous in Bangkok for a reason, and it really is phenomenal.
Stay: U-Baan Guesthouse. We paid 625 baht per night (approximately $19.50 USD) for a private bedroom with ensuite. I’d fully recommend it as it was cheap and comfortable, and close to the sky train. Our host Joy helped us plan our days and it was also close to a great food market.
Ayutthaya: 1 Night
For a taste of Thailand’s rich history catch a $1 train from Bangkok to Ayutthaya.
This ancient city flourished from the 14th to 18th centuries and became one of the largest cities in the world before being destroyed by the Burmese in 1767.
Today you should take time to explore the incredible ruins left behind. Don’t miss Wat Phra Mahathat, famous for the buddha’s head entwined in tree roots (but also home to other ruined temples). Make sure to also check out Wat Phra Si Sanphet and Wat Chaiwattaranaram. There are 9 temple sites to visit in Ayutthaya. Some are free and some have a small entrance fee of 50 baht ($1.50 USD approx.).
Ayutthaya is frequently done as a Bangkok day trip but if you have time spend the night in town and grab dinner at Bang Lan Night Market for a taste of some delicious street food. But beware the fried chicken stand; I think it gave me mild food poisoning.
Lopburi: 1 Night
There’s only one real reason to visit Lopburi; the monkeys.
Thailand’s ‘Monkey City’ is known for it’s Khmer temple ruins that are overrun with these cheeky animals. Cute, maybe, until you see one grab a tourists drink bottle and get aggressive when the tourist wants it back.
I have a friend who went during the Lopburi Monkey Festival in November and loved it, but if you’re not a huge monkey enthusiast I’d say you could easily skip Lopburi and spend the day somewhere else instead.
Khao Yai National Park: 2 Nights
Next on your 3-week Thailand itinerary head east into Khao Yai National Park. To get there you can easily catch a train from Lopburi to Pak Chong, and then a tuk tuk to your accommodation.
A week into our trip it was nice to get away from the cities to have time to decompress in nature and experience some wildlife. And there was some really, really great wildlife (including the hand-sized spider in our guesthouse bathroom).
While in Khao Yai we stayed at Greenleaf Guesthouse & Tour. They offer half and full day jungle tours for 500 baht and 1500 baht respectively (roughly $16 & $47 USD). We did the full day tour, and got to see monkeys, gibbons, a snake, hornbills, and a crocodile. We also heard wild elephants in the distance!
Stay: Greenleaf Guesthouse. Basic yet comfortable rooms are only 300 baht per night (approx. $9.50 USD). If you stay at Greenleaf Guesthouse you can also arrange with them for a free pickup from the train station. While at the guesthouse try the chef’s chicken Penang curry; it was one of the best I tasted in Thailand (and that’s saying something).
Sukhothai: 2 Nights
Three taxis, two buses, one train and 415kms later, we arrived in Sukhothai. Honestly the journey wasn’t that bad, although you may have to learn how to use a squat toilet on a moving train.
The actual city of Sukhothai, or ‘New Sukhothai’, is located 12 km away from Old Sukhothai, where the historical park and ruins are located. Stay in Old Sukhothai and rent a bicycle to see the the ruins.
Sukhothai Historical Park contains an impressive 21 historical sites and 4 large ponds.Some of the best preserved and most beautiful temples in the area include Wat Sri Chum, an iconic temple housing one of the largest sitting Buddha statues in the world. Wat Mahathat, the largest wat in Sukhothai, and Wat Si Sawai, a temple complex with a Khmer influence are both worth checking out as well.
The sites are divided into 5 zones, and admission to each zone is 100 baht ($2.60 USD) or you can purchase a pass for all 5 zones for 350 baht (approx. $9 USD).
Stay: We stayed at Thai Thai Sukhothai and paid 1000 baht per night (roughly $31.30 USD) for a private double room with ensuite. The room was small but really comfortable, the staff welcoming, and there was a pool!
Nan: 3 Nights
At this point in your 3-week Northern Thailand itinerary take a step off the tourist trail into Nan, Thailand. Well, kind of.
Nan is definitely on tourist’s radar, but in the time I was there I saw only four other tourists. Nan is relatively easy to get to from Sukhothai, but will involve a long day (around 7.5 hours) of bus travel.
A laid back, beautiful town, Nan is a great place to relax and soak up some Thai culture. While there make sure to check out the Blessing Buddha at Wat Phra That Khao Noi and see the ‘whispering lovers’ at Wat Phumin. If you have a sweet tooth the Thai sticky rice pudding at Aunty Nim’s is highly recommended.
My favourite thing to do in Nan was the Kuang Mueng Nan Walking Street Market. The market is only on from Friday-Sunday, so make sure you time your visit to Nan to coincide with the weekend for incredible Thai street food and an array of colourful stalls. Seriously, this was my favourite market in Southeast Asia.
Stay: We stayed at The One House, where we paid 464 baht per night (approx. $14.50 USD) for a private room with ensuite. We found it clean and affordable, and also in a great location within walking distance of a lot of the town’s sights. The One House also offers cheap bicycle rental to get around town.
Chiang Rai: 3 Nights
After a relaxing few days in Nan get back on the road and head North to Chiang Rai. Chiang Rai surprised me with how much I enjoyed it. You could easily spend a full two days there, which will give you enough time to explore the beautiful Wat Song Khun, Baan Dam Black House, the Hill Tribe Museum and night market.
Take a Thai Cooking Class
The highlight of our time in Chiang Rai was taking part in Suwannee Thai Cooking Class. Suwannee’s cooking class began with a tour around a local produce market where we got to taste some Chiang Rai delicacies. We then went back to Suwannee’s house and a small group of us whipped up four Thai dishes. This cooking class is well worth adding to your Northern Thailand itinerary and will give you a chance to experience an important (and delicious) side of Thai culture.
The cooking class is 1,250 baht (roughly $39 USD).
Chiang Mai: 4 Nights
Finish your epic 3 weeks in Thailand in Chiang Mai. For a big city Chiang Mai has an endearing small town vibe that you’ll probably fall in love with a little bit.
There’s a lot to do in the historic town and surrounding Chiang Mai area so make sure to spend a few days here. Some of our Chiang Mai highlights included experiencing a fish foot massage, having a a massage by an ex-convict at Lila Thai massage and eating dinner at the night bazaar. For a fun day and a break from temples head to the ‘Grand Canyon’, though you really should check out some temples while in Chiang Mai.
Elephant Nature Park
One of the best experiences we had in Southeast Asia was a trip to Elephant Nature Park. Spending time with these remarkable animals was high on my Thailand bucket list, but I knew I wanted to do it in an ethical way.
Elephant Nature Park is a rescue and rehabilitation centre, where the elephant’s care and safety is paramount. We spend the night at the park and got to feed, bathe and play with the elephants. At around 5800 baht (or $180 USD) an overnight stay at the park is an indulgence on a backpacker’s budget, but it really is a once in a lifetime opportunity!
Read More: The Ultimate Southeast Asia Bucket List
Stay: We stayed at Bed and Terrace Guesthouse. We paid 650 baht per night (roughly $20 USD) for a really nice double room with private ensuite. It’s in a good area and within walking distance of all the main sites and some great restaurants.
Eat: For market fare and the chance to try a worm or cricket head to the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar. For a higher end restaurant that still sells reasonably priced and delicious food head to Dash! (we ate there twice, the food was that good). For amazing Northern Thai cuisine where the locals actually eat, Aroon Rai does great curries.
How About a 2-Week Thailand Itinerary?
If you only have 2 weeks in Northern Thailand you can still hit most of the spots I’ve suggested above. Try this itinerary:
- Bangkok: 3 Nights
- Ayutthaya: 1 Night
- Sukhothai: 2 Nights
- Nan: 3 Nights
- Chiang Rai: 2 Nights
- Chiang Mai: 3 Nights
What If I’m Only in Thailand For 1 Week?
A week in Thailand isn’t nearly enough to see it all, but you’ll still see the highlights! I recommend this 1-week Northern Thailand itinerary:
- Bangkok: 3 Nights (with Ayutthaya Day Trip)
- Sukhothai: 1 Night
- Chiang Mai: 3 Nights
I Love Your 3-Week Thailand Itinerary! But I Really Want To Go To Southern Thailand…
I’m not saying don’t go to Southern Thailand. Trust me, I’m dying to get back and explore some of Thailand’s beaches and islands! But if you only have 3 weeks in Thailand, I’d say exploring Northern Thailand is the best way to make the most of your time.
Still, if you’re dying to include Southern Thailand in your itinerary, you could check out these places.
Krabi, located a short distance from Phuket on Thailand’s west coast, is one of the most relaxing places in Thailand. Famous for it’s azure waters and dramatic karst mountains jutting out from the sea, Krabi is what you imagine Southern Thailand to be. Fancy a bit of island hopping? From Krabi it’s easy to get to Ko Phi-Phi, Ko Lanta, or any of other 150+ islands off Krabi’s coast.
Ko where now? Not many travellers have heard of Ko Jum, and that’s all to the good. According to my sister, Ko Jum is the kind of place you can have the beach all to yourself. Trust me, that’s a pretty rare thing in Southern Thailand.
Northern Thailand really does have it all (well, we didn’t make it to any beaches, but it has that too!). Tantalising street food, friendly people, colourful temples, elephants… even writing about it has me wanting to go back. A second trip to Thailand is definitely on the cards for the future – and next time I’ll have to make it down south to the islands. It’s just such an incredible country to explore.