1 Week in Chiang Mai and Pai: Travel Itinerary

I finally made it to Thailand! After spending a month exploring Indonesia, I decided to meet my friend Yuting in Chiang Mai for a week. While 7 days isn’t nearly enough time to explore all of Thailand or even Northern Thailand, we were able to get a good feel for both Chiang Mai and its northern neighbor, Pai.

In this post, I’ve broken down a sample 1 week travel itinerary for anyone who’s interested in seeing Chiang Mai and Pai, but isn’t sure how to do so with limited time. At the end of this post, I’ve also included information on where to stay in Chiang Mai and Pai, and what to do if you have an extra day to spare.

Feel free to drop a comment at the end of this post if you’re left with any remaining questions. :)

Waiting for the sun to go down at Pai Canyon

Waiting for the sun to go down at Pai Canyon

Day 1: Arrive in Chiang Mai

To make the most of 1 week in Northern Thailand, I recommend flying directly into Chiang Mai. If that option is a little too pricey, then fly into Bangkok and grab a flight from there to Chiang Mai.

After you get settled at your accommodation, take the rest of the day to explore the area on foot. Get to know your surroundings, have your first authentic Thai meal, and take care of any first day travel logistics. Whenever I first arrive in a new country, my top priorities are usually exchanging money and getting a local SIM card for my phone.

Trying my first Thai tea in Chiang Mai

Trying my first Thai tea in Chiang Mai

Tips for your first day in chiang mai:

  • Head to 7/11 and pick up a SIM card for your phone. If you need to break any large bills you got from the ATM, 7/11 is a good place to do that too.

  • For your first Thai meal, I recommend trying Chiang Mai’s regional dish: Khao Soi.

  • Drop off any laundry you might need done if you’ve been traveling for awhile before this.

Day 2: Take a Thai cooking class + visit temples

I took my first Thai cooking class while I was in Chiang Mai, and had such a good experience! For 650 Baht (about $20 USD), I got to learn about produce at a local market, tour an organic garden, and make/eat four different Thai dishes. It was a really relaxing way to spend the day and I left the class having actually learned a thing or two about Thai cooking. Read more about the cooking class I took here.

A dish I learned how to make at a Thai cooking class in Chiang Mai

A dish I learned how to make at a Thai cooking class in Chiang Mai

If you decide to take the class, you’ll be picked up from your accommodation around 9 am and be dropped back off around 2 pm. After you return from the class, you might want to rest for awhile and let your food baby settle.

Exploring an organic garden during our Thai cooking class

Exploring an organic garden during our Thai cooking class

Later, you might want to check out one of the many Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai. At the Wat Suan Dok temple, you can actually talk to a monk and ask them questions about Buddhism, what their life is like, what their take is on social issues, etc. To do this, show up at Wat Suan Dok on a Monday, Wednesday, or Friday between 5 and 7 pm. Other temples worth checking out are Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Phra Singh Woramahawihan.

Singing bowl set from a market in Chiang Mai

Singing bowl set from a market in Chiang Mai

Tips for day 2:

  • Try not to eat a large breakfast. You’re going to eat a ton at the cooking class!

  • Dress appropriately for the temples. Most require you to have your legs, shoulders, and feet covered (no flip flops).

  • Keep an eye out for night markets and little food trucks around dinner time. The food they serve is delicious and super cheap.

Day 3: Visit an ethical elephant sanctuary

If this is your first time in Thailand, then you’re probably itching to check out an elephant sanctuary. Chiang Mai is famous for them, although not necessarily in a good way. Many of the elephant, ‘sanctuaries,’ in Chiang Mai do not treat their elephants well and may offer packages that let guests ride them (read more about why riding elephants is bad).

However, there are a few organizations in Chiang Mai who are trying to change this. If spending the day with elephants is on your bucket list, check out Elephant Nature Park or Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. Neither of these companies allow guests to ride their elephants and both make an effort to promote elephant-friendly tourism.

Hanging out with elephants ethically in Chiang Mai

Hanging out with elephants ethically in Chiang Mai

While I was in Chiang Mai, I ended up booking a half-day, afternoon visit with Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. The tour cost 1700 Baht (about $52 USD) and lasted from noon to 6:30 pm, although a decent portion of that time included driving to and from the elephant park. The experience as a whole was a little touristy, but I enjoyed getting to see and touch elephants up close.

Tips for day 3:

  • If you don’t want to visit an elephant sanctuary, I recommend checking out Doi Suthep - a large temple on top of a nearby mountain in Chiang Mai. Here you can go hiking or rent a mountain bike for the day.

  • Not sure what to do before your tour? Grab a smoothie from Amazing Alleyway or homemade cinnamon roll from Blue Diamond

Day 4: Head to Pai

As lovely as Chiang Mai is, you may get bored if you don’t get out of the city while you’re there. For a change of scenery and a more relaxing vibe, head to Pai. Pai is a little town about 3 hours north of Chiang Mai.

To get to Pai, you can either arrange a shuttle bus through your accommodation or ride a scooter there. If you’re traveling with friends and looking for an adventure, definitely ride a scooter! The road from Chiang Mai to Pai has 762 curves - beautiful if you’re on a scooter and vomit-inducing if you’re stuck on a bus.

Whichever you decide though, I recommend leaving Chiang Mai by noon so you can get to Pai and get settled before it gets dark. Once in Pai, treat yourself to a massage and then check out the famous night market on Pai Walking Street.

Live music at the night market in Pai, Thailand

Live music at the night market in Pai, Thailand

Tips for day 4:

  • If you plan on riding a scooter to Pai, wake up early and rent one in Chiang Mai.

  • If you end up taking the bus to Pai, rent a scooter in Pai.

  • Stay in a bungalow while you’re in Pai. They’re super cheap, yet so luxurious!

Day 5: White Buddha Statue and Pai Canyon

Keep an eye out while you drive into Pai and you may notice a large, white Buddha statue up on the hill. This statue’s official name is Wat Phra That Mae Yen, but most people know it simply as the White Buddha. It’s located just 5 minutes by scooter from downtown Pai and makes for a nice morning trip before the sun gets too hot. Once at the White Buddha statue, you can climb up a flight of stairs for a view of Pai from above.

Sitting in front of the White Buddha statue in Pai, Thailand

Sitting in front of the White Buddha statue in Pai, Thailand

This afternoon, check out Charlie and Lek’s for lunch. It was recommended to me by a local as, “the best, authentic Thai food in Pai,” - big statement, I know. I ate there twice though, so I obviously liked it. ;)

About an hour or two before sunset, ride your scooter out to Pai Canyon. It’s only about 10-15 minutes out of town, and offers a gorgeous place to explore and watch the sunset. If you’re into picnics, Pai Canyon would be a great spot for that too!

Tips for day 5:

  • If you can wake up in time for sunrise, that’s the best time to visit the White Buddha. If not, after breakfast is fine. It just might be pretty hot feeling weather-wise.

  • Pack your tennis shoes for Pai Canyon. The trails there are a little narrow and slippery in some areas.

  • Hungry for dinner? Check out the night market on Pai Walking Street if you didn’t yesterday.

Day 6: Return to Chiang Mai

Since the drive back to Chiang Mai is a little lengthy, I recommend heading back today so you’re stress free on the day of your flight. On the way back, consider taking a detour and visiting the Bua Tong Waterfalls (a.k.a. Sticky Waterfalls). Due to mineral deposits in the water, the rocks that make up Sticky Waterfalls are porous and slightly spongy, making it easy to walk up them with bare feet.

My friend Cynthia enjoying our luxurious bungalow in Pai

My friend Cynthia enjoying our luxurious bungalow in Pai

Want to skip the detour and get back to Chiang Mai sooner? I totally get it! If that’s the case, maybe consider making your last, full day a pool day at Center of the Universe. Here, a day pass to go swimming costs 200 Baht (about $6).

Tips for day 6:

  • Hit the road sooner than later today, especially if you’re going to be stopping by the waterfalls. The last thing you want is to be driving back in the dark.

Day 7: Say ‘goodbye’ to Chiang Mai

If you only have a week it’s time to go. :( Hopefully your flight is in the late afternoon or evening so you can squeeze in one last massage and mango sticky rice (I was shoving my face full of Thai food up until the last minute).

Tips for day 7:

  • Take a tuk tuk to the airport. They’re often times quicker than taxis and a whole lot cheaper. I only paid 90 Baht (less than $3) for a ride from the main tourist center to the airport.

Have an extra day?

If you have little more time in Northern Thailand, I recommend staying at least one more day in Pai. Since the drive to and from Pai is a little long, it’s nice to stay there and relax for at least three nights.

With that extra day, consider taking a day trip to Tham Lod Cave from Pai. The drive to the cave is a little more scenic than the drive from Chiang Mai, and the cave tour is a nice way to switch things up.

View from the Tham Lod Cave opening near Pai, Thailand

View from the Tham Lod Cave opening near Pai, Thailand

If weather conditions are decent, you can tour three different cave chambers at the Tham Lod Cave. Unfortunately for us, only one was open while we were there due to heavy rains.

One of the Tham Lod Cave guides lighting a lantern

One of the Tham Lod Cave guides lighting a lantern

Where to stay in Chiang Mai and Pai

Chiang Mai:

I stayed at Lanna Hostel and enjoyed my time there. The women who runs the place is incredibly nice and gave me all sorts of Chiang Mai recommendations. Her staff also kept the place really clean which is always appreciated.

Pai:

Definitely stay in a bungalow! You can get a private bungalow for around $13 USD at Pai Country Hut. Not only do you get your own hammock, but breakfast and coffee is included!

Chiang Mai Sunday Night Market

If you happen to be in Chiang Mai on a Sunday, make sure and add the Sunday night market to your itinerary. It’s a lot cheaper and more authentic than the night market in Pai, and covers the length of multiple streets.

Checking out the food options at the Chiang Mai Sunday night market

Checking out the food options at the Chiang Mai Sunday night market


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