The praises of southern Thailand have been sung for years; now it's time to explore the north! Starting at the shimmering White Temple in Chiang Rai, you’ll visit a Risu village and prepare traditional dishes alongside indigenous residents. You’ll also head to the city of Chiang Mai, home to artisan markets and elephant sanctuaries and where nearby you'll find the many waterfalls of the unforgettable Doi Inthanon National Park.

Highlights

  • Dine on a lunch cooked with bamboo as you lounge near a waterfall in Chiang Rai
  • Learn not only how to cook authentic Thai cuisine at the Muang Guert Village
  • Care for and make new friends with the gentle giants of Kanta Elephant Sanctuary

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrival in Chiang Rai - Evening City Tour Chiang Rai
Day 2 Nature Walk and Waterfall Picnic Chiang Rai
Day 3 Highlights of Chiang Rai Chiang Rai
Day 4 Lisu Lodge & Eco-Tourism Chiang Rai
Day 5 Biking, Tea Garden, River Rafting & Thai Cooking Class Chiang Rai
Day 6 Lisu Lodge – transfer to Pai Pai
Day 7 Sunrise at Yuan Lai - Tham Lod Caves - Ja Bo - Kiew Lom Pai
Day 8 Pai - transfer to Chiang Mai Pai
Day 9 Half-Day Kanta Elephant Sanctuary Experience Chiang Rai
Day 10 Nature Excursion at Doi Inthanon National Park Chiang Rai
Day 11 Half-Day at Baan Kang Wat & Wat Umong Chiang Mai
Day 12 Chiang Mai departure  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrival in Chiang Rai - Evening City Tour

See the city by tuk-tuk

Welcome to Thailand!

Upon arrival in the northern city of Chiang Rai, a local guide will meet you and you'll transfer by private vehicle to your hotel. You may be tired from the flights, but that's no excuse to stay in! Tonight, take to the streets of this charming city on three wheels and explore Chiang Rai in a tuk-tuk. This moto-taxi will shuttle you to and from incredible landmarks that are equally (if not more) stunning at night. 

One stop is the iconic Golden Clock Tower, which was designed by a local artist and displays a light and sound show. There's also the statue of King Mengrai, a place of reverence for locals. (Make an offer of incense and flowers to ensure smooth and prosperous travels!) Finally, enjoy a tasty meal in a local restaurant at Chiang Rai’s night bazaar followed by a leisurely stroll before returning to your hotel.

Day 2: Nature Walk and Waterfall Picnic

Members of the Akha Hill Tribe

In the morning, you’ll drive to an indigenous village, which is located just outside of Chiang Rai and is home to the Akha hill tribe. After an introduction to their culture and customs, you'll set off on a light trek through the surrounding forests and farms. Passing rice fields, pineapple, and rubber plantations, your Akha guides will lead you to the final destination: a secluded waterfall. While you splash in the cool lagoon waters, your hosts will cook a delicious lunch over an open fire using all-natural implements like bamboo and banana leaves. You'll then enjoy this picnic amidst the singularly beautiful natural surroundings.

Day 3: Highlights of Chiang Rai

White Temple
The iconic White Temple

In the morning, you'll pay a visit to the infamous Golden Triangle, the point at which Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos meet, and where the Mekong River flows into the Ruak River. This was once one a prime location for opium production, and a fascinating museum documents the history of the narcotics trade over the centuries. After a bit of this history, sit down and enjoy lunch at a local restaurant.

In the afternoon, you’ll continue to some of the most stunning sites around Chiang Rai. It starts with a visit to Huay Pla Kang, a temple complex home to a 23-story-high statue of Guan Yin, a Buddhist deity of mercy and compassion. Then, make your way to Baan Dam or the "Black House," a spiritually-inspired art project that's at once modern, traditional, surreal, and macabre. It was the brainchild of famed Thai painter/sculptor Thawan Duchanee.

Finally, drive on to the famous Wat Rong Khun, also known as the "White Temple." This is probably the most iconic and beautiful temple in Northern Thailand. The jagged spires of this gleaming architectural marvel emerge from a grassy garden like flames rising from a white-hot fire, and the glassy waters of the adjacent pond reflect a mirror image of the temple's brilliance. This intricate work of art is a combination of ancient design and contemporary architecture undertaken by a local artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat. 

Day 4: Lisu Lodge & Eco-Tourism

Tour the rice paddies of Northern Thailand

In the morning, you'll transfer to the Lisu Lodge, an eco-lodge near to a hill-tribe village. Arriving at around 10 am, you will be greeted with a refreshing welcome drink after which your indigenous Lisu guide will take you for a walk through the village. Your first stop is the Ton Lung Temple, where locals flock for spiritual guidance. The temple’s herbal garden also boasts many medicinal plants that are used by the villagers. You'll next pay a visit to a shaman's house to chat over tea and glean insight into his fascinating spiritual rites and rituals. 

Afterward, you'll return to Lisu Lodge for a home-cooked lunch. Then, you’ll explore some rural scenery on a guided tour. Besides strolling through the fertile green (or golden, depending on the season) paddy rice, you'll roll up your sleeves and participate in rice cultivation using traditional Thai techniques. You'll also visit the Himmapaan Nursery, where you'll learn about the flora of northern Thailand and how this tree nursery helps restore the forest eco-system. 

In addition to these activities, you can also embark on a guided bike tour, soak in a steam bath, or indulge in a traditional Thai massage. In the evening, enjoy another delicious Thai dinner while villagers perform a traditional Lisu dance.

Day 5: Biking, Tea Garden, River Rafting & Thai Cooking Class

The art of tea cultivation in Thailand

After breakfast at the Lodge, you'll hit the road on an easy but scenic eight-mile (13 km) cycling tour from the Lisu Lodge to Muang Guert Village. En route, you'll stop at a tea plantation where an expert guide will introduce you to the process of growing/harvesting tea as well as take you to the nursery to demonstrate the vegetation propagation that produces tea seedlings. You'll learn not only how to pluck the best tea leaves but how to properly enjoy a cup of freshly-roasted tea as well.  

After a healthy picnic lunch by the river, you'll embark on an exciting white-water rafting journey that takes you down a scenic river to a rural Thai village. From there, you will return to Lisu Lodge. After arriving at the lodge, relax at your leisure and save some energy, because you've got a  cooking class to attend later in the evening.

Bring your appetite because this evening you're going to prepare an authentic Thai meal comprised of four dishes. The instructor will introduce the major ingredients as well as explain the nation's focus on balancing the five flavors commonly found in Thai dishes: sweet, sour, salty, creamy, and spicy. Thus you'll be armed with all the information needed to replicate the dishes at home. At the end of the evening, you'll receive a Thai cooking book that details the recipes and also includes information about local herbs and their nutritional benefits.

But first thing's first: after class is over, sit back and enjoy the dishes that you have carefully prepared!

Day 6: Lisu Lodge – Transfer to Pai

Pai
The river village of Pai

After breakfast at the lodge, you'll enjoy another culinary adventure. This second cooking class begins with a history of rice cultivation in Thailand, which focuses on the different types of rice as well as the tools used to farm them. Then, you'll learn how to cook Thai sticky rice—a deceptively tricky task! Be sure to visit the lodge’s organic vegetable garden, as here you can pick herbs and veggies to use during the cooking class.

Finally, enjoy the lunch you’ve lovingly prepared earlier. After that, you'll check out from the lodge and transfer to the river town of Pai, where you'll check into your new resort accommodations. The rest of the day is free to enjoy at your leisure.

Day 7:  Sunrise at Yuan Lai - Tham Lod Caves - Ja Bo - Kiew Lom

Tham Lod Cave
Tham Lod Caves

Wake up around 6 am and travel 15 minutes from the town center to the Yun Lai Viewpoint, which offers the best vantage point to witness the warm golden sunrise over Pai and its surrounding green valley. You'll return to the resort for breakfast at 7.30 am. 

After breakfast, at around 8:30 am, you'll embark on an hour-long drive to the famous caves of Tham Lod. Head right in and explore the 1.5-km-long underground system on guided bamboo rafts as you float on the river that runs through the massive network of caves.  

Close to the Tham Lod caves is the village of Ban Jabo, which is inhabited by members of the colorful and welcoming Black Lahu hill tribe. This community established its own tourism initiative to educate people about the tenets of their culture: traditional values, natural medicine, and a focus on living harmoniously with nature rather than employing destructive farming practices.  

On the way to Ban Jabo, you’ll make a brief stop at the Kiew Lom Viewpoint, where you'll witness breathtaking 360° panoramas of the misty mountains that stretch across Northern Thailand and through to Myanmar. 

Day 8: Transfer to Chiang Mai

Huay Nam Dang National park
Huay Nam Dang National park

In the morning, you'll journey to Chiang Mai by minivan, traveling along winding mountain roads. You'll have opportunities to stop along the way to snap pics of some of the incredible sites on this route, like the cascading streams of the Mork Fah Waterfall as well as the Pong Dued Hot Springs, which are part of Huai Nam Dang National Park. Here, you can meander around and soak up the tropical environment; and, of course, you can indulge in a hot mineral bath. You will also stop for a tasty lunch in a local restaurant en route to Chiang Mai.

Day 9:  Half-Day Kanta Elephant Sanctuary Experience

Kanta Elephant Sanctuary
Kanta Elephant Sanctuary

After a 7 am pickup from your hotel, you'll drive approximately 50 minutes North of Chiang Mai through rolling hills, native forests, and local farms to the Kanta Elephant Sanctuary. Upon arrival, a host will lead you on a tour of the grounds and explain a bit about the process of caring for these rescued animals, many of whom are enjoying a nice retirement after years of work and/or mistreatment. You'll then change into a work uniform and prepare bananas and sugar cane for the elephants to snack on.

At around 9 am you'll meet the elephants, at which point you can feed them, get to know them, and play with them in their natural environment. It's a great opportunity to learn about these animals' behavior and their history while also snapping great pictures; just know that you're going to get muddy!

At around 10 am you'll lead the elephants to a river where you'll bathe them—an activity they love. After an hour or so of splashing around in the water with your new friends, it will be time to dry off and refresh yourself with some tea, coffee, and fruit. Then you'll say a melancholy goodbye to the elephants and the Kanta staff, leave the sanctuary, and return to Chiang Mai.

Day 10: Nature Excursion at Doi Inthanon National Park

Doi Inthanon
Sunrise over Doi Inthanon National Park

You'll spend today at Doi Inthanon National Park, which is famous for its temperate climate, flourishing nature, cascading waterfalls, various hill tribe villages and Doi Inthanon Mountain, which is Thailand’s highest at 8,415 feet (2,565 meters).

Located about an hour west of Chiang Mai, this 482-square-km park enjoys a misty environment that compliments its well-manicured gardens. It's a paradise for nature lovers and features panoramic views of the surrounding mountains. The temperature is almost always pleasant, sometimes even a little cold, which can be a welcome relief after the steamy lowlands—be sure to bring cold-weather clothing!

Epic waterfalls are an added highlight to the national park, as are the peaceful and scenic Buddhist temples nestled high in these mountains. As you stroll the green nature trails you'll likely spot monkeys, gibbons, and colorful butterflies as well as hear the songs of some of the 385 bird species that call the park home. You'll end the excursion by tasting locally grown coffee and meeting some members of the Karen hill tribe that lives on the mountain slopes. 

Day 11: Half-Day at Baan Kang Wat & Wat Umong

Umong temple
Umong Temple

You'll have the morning free to relax at your hotel in Chiang Mai. In the afternoon, prepare to get crafty as you make your way into the nearby forest and the Baan Kang Wat artisan village. Meandering paths lead to cafes, teahouses, juice stands, funky shops, and craft studios selling everything from handmade paper goods to baby clothes. Follow the sound of hammer-tapping to Saprang, where the award-winning jewelry designer Supat Suwannasing makes delicate earrings and bracelets that often employ nature motifs like leaves and vines. You'll also visit Bookoo Studio, which sells wooden and ceramic creations like bowls and chopping boards.

After browsing the incredible crafts, head to Wat Umong, a forested network of temples, pavilions, statues, fountains, and lakes. Founded in the late 13th century, and still home to many Buddhist monks, the complex is best known for its bell-shaped, 14th-century stone pagoda. You reach it by a flight of stone stairs lined with beast sculptures and rock caverns filled with Buddha statues.

Here you can take a meditative stroll amid the temples accompanied by the sound of birdsong and the chants of monks. By late afternoon, the tourist masses will have already left the temple grounds and dusk will reveal an unbeatable sunset view. After taking part in a private blessing ceremony, bear witness to the magical evening-chanting of the monks. 

Day 12: Chiang Mai Departure

Farewell, Thailand!

After breakfast at the hotel and at the scheduled time, you will transfer to the airport for your flight home. This concludes your grand Thailand adventure. See you soon!

Ha
Written by Ha Thu, updated Apr 19, 2019