a budget travellers guide to northern thailand

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Bangkok is considered the heart and soul of Thailand. Located in the southern part of the country, the city is non-stop city chaos. Travel to the northern region of Thailand, and you will find something completely different, calm and less maddening.

Chiang Mai is Thailand's second city, and it offers visitors everything that Bangkok doesn't. The city plays host to budget travellers and expats from all walks of life, who look for a quieter Thailand experience.

Situated northeast of Chiang Mai is Chiang Rai. The city is full of attractions to absorb. From temples to historical buildings, Chiang Rai is a sleepy city that offers peace and quiet.

Forming a geographical triangle with the two other cities is Pai. Situated on Pai River, the city has been growing ever since becoming a favourite budget traveller destination. Many love it due to its laidback atmosphere, which seems to continually improve the further north you go in Thailand.

Chiang Mai

As far as Buddhist temples go, the Wat Doi Suthep is quite important in Chiang Mai. One of the city's most visited attractions, the Wat Doi Suthep contains a seated Buddha inside. The hike up to the temple is a great bit of exercise before you reach the main event.

If you are hungry, the Chiang Mai Gate Market has the best street food in the city. Whether it is a noodle dish for dinner or a Thai dessert you crave, the market has plenty of exciting items to try. It doesn't get more authentic in Thailand when it comes to food.

Elephants are cool and in Chiang Mai, you have a fantastic opportunity to see elephant camps. Many of the camps house elephants that have been rescued after a life of being in a circus or show biz. Many budget travellers inquire about volunteering with the camps, so you may find a spot with a group when you arrive.

Chiang Rai

Chiang Rai is one of Thailand's oldest cities and its beautiful historical buildings are a testament to its age. The regions ethnic culture is still very strong, and a walk down the street gives visitors a glimpse into Chiang Rai's past.

The most famous place to go in the city is the White Temple. While not a true temple, it is an art exhibit that resembles a true Buddhist sanctuary. The exhibit is open year round and it is a gorgeous piece of art you can walk through.

For a bit of local history in the Chiang Rai region, Oub Kham Museum offers a healthy dose of this and that. The area's history and culture is displayed in the museum for you to view.

If you fancy something completely different, you can rent a motorcycle and explore Chiang Rai. The Chiang Rai Loop is well-known for having limited amounts of traffic, which make it perfect for speeding around with the wind in your hair. The route offers stunning views you won't be able to get enough of.

Pai

Thanks to the close location to the Pai River, the opportunities to spend a day tubing or kayaking down the waterway are endless. There is also the chance to go bamboo rafting down the Pai River. It isn't often you can say you went bamboo rafting in Thailand.

The nearby jungle landscape provides limitless hiking and trekking options. Through the trees of the jungle and out into the farmland of rice paddies you will find plenty of natural landscapes different than anything back in Bangkok.

After you have worked your legs trekking through the local natural landscape, head to the hot springs located just southeast of Pai. Warm and relaxing, you can rest those leg and back muscles before you set out on your next journey.

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Due to Pai's relative rural location there are a number of great outdoor activities to try. Go quad bike riding in the fields and over hills, mountain bike down a steep terrain or rock climb a rocky crest. The outdoor activities will leave you with so much do to in Pai.

Nightlife

As Thailand's second city, Chiang Mai has a lot to offer visitors when the sun goes down. If you are looking for a beer bar to relax and watch sports in, Chiang Mai has it. If you want a dance club with loud, pulsating music, Chiang Mai has that too. It is likely you will find whatever you want when hitting the town after dark. Nimmanheimin Road has many of the best venues that young travellers flock to. One of the favourite spots to sit and drink is near the Ping River. In summer, you can catch the cool breezes off the river and sip beer with a range of travellers and expats.

Although Chiang Mai's nightlife can be exciting, Chiang Rai's is much more low-key. The city has a few great areas for bars and restaurants, and knowing which ones are the best will enable you to enjoy your nights out. For cheap food and beer the night bazaar is a great place to start. From there, you can find some interesting local bars that line the streets and alleys nearby. For drinks, live music and a young crowd, grab a taxi to Tawan Daeng. Just a little bit out of town, this area offers more great fun.

Pai has three popular main streets with a lot of its life centred around them. The area is a complete slow down from the other major cities in Thailand and anyone looking for the same nightlife enjoyed in Bangkok, or even Chiang Mai, will be disappointed. Pai's nightlife varies and you can find streetside bars and clubs that play live music and serve cold drinks. The city also has a vibrant night market that offers food and drinks for cheap.