Thailand Travel Diary 1: Bangkok & Northern Thailand

Two weeks in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, the Mae Hong Son loop, Pai, & Chiang Rai

The Cambodia – Thailand Border

In our modern world, online reviews are a bit of a double-edged sword. During our travels, they’ve been an invaluable tool to answer logistical questions, such as bus ride conditions, but they can also curse you with too much knowledge – things you perhaps didn’t want to know. Such was the case as we made our way from Battambang, Cambodia, to Bangkok, Thailand, and to what I had decided to call “the bad border”. Of the numerous border crossings into Thailand, our shuttle bus was headed straight for the one with hundreds of online comments documenting the “border from hell” – three hour wait times in a small, non-air conditioned room, with one grumpy official sorting through hundreds upon hundreds of foreigners’ passports. And now that I’ve been through it, I can confirm: that is exactly what it’s like. While we foolishly picked a weekend to cross, and so got stuck in a massive crush of travelers, there was only a single border official available to process us, and we did wait in line for three hours.

After the exhausting border crossing, we loaded into a mini-van from the 1970’s and embarked on a five-hour drive into the center of Bangkok.


Arriving after dark in big cities is a lot of fun. The huge buildings, elaborate lights, and vibrant night life as people grab dinner, meet friends, or head home after work is a treat to see, and usually provides me with a jolt of energy after a long trip. My first impression of Bangkok – a city I had expected to be a chaotic collision of Asian culture and city frenzy – was significantly more tame than I expected. Drivers were calm and respectful, and the thousands of motorbikes usually crawling the sidewalks and shoulders of big Vietnamese roads were replaced mostly by cars neatly staying in their own lanes.

The magnificent Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn, is one of Bangkok’s most famous landmarks. This Buddhist temple is encrusted with elaborate art made of coloured porcelain.

In order to recreate Chris’ childhood, we elected to stay near the ultra-famous Khao San Road, known for decades as the center of backpacking culture in Asia. Chris had passed through here as a child with his family on a long trip to Myanmar, and was eager to see the area again. We had reports, however, that Khao San was nothing like it used to be.

Every travel destination goes through phases. First, they start undiscovered to the rest of the world, with no tourist infrastructure. Some adventurous travelers find something they love, then some tour companies move in, some English-speaking restaurants, some shops. When travel gets too easy, and the area too famous, it becomes overrun with tourists, and quickly loses all charm. This is the stage Khao San Road is in now. It’s packed with so many Asia travel cliches it’s embarrassing: the elephant pants, the weed shops, the pad thai stands, the Thai massage shops… Everything was marketed to extract as much money as possible from gullible travelers lacking the experience to know that this isn’t the real Thailand.

Rambuttri Street, a neighbour to Khao San Road, apparently captures the vibe of what Khao San used to be. It was a pleasant street, full of trees, with lots of little restaurants and some small souvenir tables.

While Khao San Road was not to our liking, I found the rest of Bangkok quite charming. The massive temples were much grander than I expected, full of intricate artwork and stunning gold reliefs that would give any cathedral a run for its money. The 24-hour flower market, a common tourist stop, was actually full of locals buying and selling things (unlike Khao San). We spent hours walking around downtown Bangkok near Chinatown, and this felt like a city people actually lived in, not just a place built to support tourism (I’m looking at you Siem Reap!).

The Bangkok temples far exceeded my expectations: simple and extravagant at the same time, with a sedate quietness about them.
We never figured out exactly what this creature is, but I found his statue everywhere. We settled on calling him a frog-lion. I love him.
The turtle temple in Bangkok, across the river from the famous flower market. The shrine is surrounded by a pond filled with hundreds of turtles.
Wat Arun was built around the 17th century, and is supposed to represent the holy Mt Meru, believed to be the centre of the universe in Hindu cosmology.
A view of Wat Arun from the surrounding park.
A sub-temple on the Wat Arun grounds.
The inside of one of the temples. They all feature elaborate art and a Buddha shrine.
So many temples…
Chris enjoying a short ferry ride across the Chao Phraya River.

My favourite activity in Bangkok was a trip to a bouldering gym for some climbing. We took the metro, which was cheap and easy to navigate. After riding for a dozen or so stops, we got off at a massive shopping mall to begin our ten minute walk to the gym. Seeing the modern mall was very refreshing (plus such a sharp contrast to our time in rural, less-developed Cambodia); I appreciated seeing regular people living in Bangkok doing their regular thing. The bouldering gym was a similar experience: it was nice to feel almost like a local for a day.

A modern mall in Bangkok. Some things are the same everywhere…
Chris hanging around at the bouldering gym. I am happy to report that several months of noodles and beer didn’t weigh us down too much.

Chiang Mai

After spending a few days in Bangkok, our plan was to head to northern Thailand. While we heard that Thailand has an amazing rail system offering comfy rides all over the country, we soon found out that you need to book tickets months in advance to secure a spot! After struggling with websites and sold-out ticket offices, we gave up, and took a long bus ride north to Chiang Mai, the center of the north.

Chiang Mai is another of these famous Thai travel destinations. As well as containing countless tour companies, hotels, and western-style restaurants, Chiang Mai is also very famous for the amount of ex-pats it houses. Call me a little jaded from months of travel, but I honestly couldn’t figure out why everyone seemed to love this town so much. While the city itself has some interesting history as the capital of the Lanna empire, including a historic Old Town and temples, it really just felt a like an ordinary Thai city to me, except with a downtown that was overrun with businesses catering to tourists (sooooo many spas, hotels, and tour companies! Geeeze!). I thought it was overrated personally.

An impressive wood carving we saw in the Old Town museum in Chiang Mai.

We spent about four days in Chiang Mai, visiting the Old Town museum, trying the famous night market street food, and signing up for a city walking tour at night. We also signed up for our first (of hopefully many) Muay Thai classes. Muay Thai, aka Thai Boxing, is sort of like kickboxing, except fists, elbows, and knees are all in play in addition to kicks. The group class we took was really intense but a lot of fun. We learned the basic technique, and got some one-on-one time with the instructors as they held up pads for us to attack. After months of travel without routine exercise, I was humbled, but eager to take some more classes in the future.

Chiang Mai does have lots of nice lights near the Old Town gates. It’s a pleasant place to walk around after dark.
On our walking tour, we visited the local wholesale farmers market with our guide. We enjoyed seeing the sheer volume of fruits and vegetables for sale. We were told that, for vendors from the countryside, it could be such a long drive in to the market that they’d stay until they sold everything – sometimes up to 48 hours! Many trucks had hammocks strung in the back.
Some yummy banana dessert grilled in a banana leaf.

Mae Hong Son Loop

From Chiang Mai, we decided to do the Mae Hong Son motorbike loop, a 600 kilometer loop through the northern Thai highlands. The route features something like 1500 turns through winding mountain passes, and is regarded by some as one of the best motorcycle rides in the world. The route begins from Chiang Mai and passes through numerous small Thai towns, including the famous backpacker haven of Pai, before looping back to Chiang Mai. Most people take about four days to complete the ride (we elected for five days), while some take up to a week in order to spend more time in each location.

In Chiang Mai, we rented a couple 125cc Honda motorbikes for about $10 CAD a day. Plus full tanks of gas, we were in this for only $15 a day. We headed off in the morning through the traffic of the city. While we had driven motorbikes many times before on this trip, I was nervous – this was our first time driving in Thailand, and Thailand is a left-hand drive country. Left! But while I was worried about this supposed flip in all my driving routines and habits, it was actually really easy. You just keep left. It really is that simple.

Day one of the loop was perhaps the least interesting. A very long and very straight highway leads out of Chiang Mai, and it’s pretty busy in some spots (Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand, in fact). After nearly 100 km of driving south on highway 108 (around the halfway point for the day), we stopped in the small town of Hot for a quick lunch at a local restaurant. No English, but the thing I pointed at on the menu was absolutely delicious.

Continuing west now, still along highway 108, the road became more interesting, with plenty of hill climbs, twists, and turns. It even got downright cold on the bikes as we sped along the road, high up in the mountains. We stopped a few times at viewpoints, and once at a national park full of pine trees (an unusual and exotic tree here in tropical Thailand, but it smelled like home to us!).

Discovered these creepy statues at a viewpoint near the end of our ride.
The path into this perfectly spaced out pine forest. There’s even a little campsite. Cute.

We spent the night in Mae Sariang, a very small and very local town in the highlands next to a wide river. We had outstanding pork buns (bao) at a small Chinese restaurant, and visited the local night market at sunset for some street food (we were perplexed that all the restaurants in town seemed deserted until we accidentally found the market and discovered that this was where the whole town was hanging out). Mae Sariang was very enjoyable simply due to its lack of tourists and English. It was a welcome change from the well-travelled, developed Thailand we had been experiencing, a Thailand where everyone speaks English, and that is almost uncomfortably western.

In the morning, we grabbed an excellent coffee from a small shop and began our drive through a beautiful, shady jungle canopy. The road was beginning to get more twisted, with frequent climbs that showcased stunning views of the countryside. Near the end of our drive on day two, the drive became downright fun, with super sharp bends and a lot of turns. The Mae Hong Son province highway department has done a simply fantastic job maintaining that road (perhaps because it’s so famous) – it was smooth, well-paved and well-painted, with adequate camber on the sharp turns, extra grip applied to the pavement, and good signage indicating speeds, surprise corners, and distances to landmarks, towns, and attractions. Along the way, we encountered hundreds of other motorbikers on the road, although most of them seemed to be Thai visitors for the time being.

One of many viewpoints along the drive – rolling hills and blue skies everywhere!

Night two was spent in the town of Mae Hong Son, the provincial capital. It felt very small to me, but was very clean and sharp, featuring lots of government offices and even a small airport. For dinner, we again stumbled across the local night market. I even found some $4 “Ray Ban” sunglasses to replace the sunglasses I had lost somewhere in Chiang Mai – the logo is all that matters anyway!

The pond and temple (with stupa – the tall pointy tip) next to the night market in Mae Hong Son.

Day three was the single most fun day of the drive. Although it was the shortest by distance (about 130 km to our next town, Pai), the drive was by far the most involved, featuring non-stop curves and climbs, accompanied by simply stunning views of deep valleys, high peaks, quaint countryside, small villages, and lush jungle plants. I wish I had been able to capture more of the jaw-dropping views on camera, but the drive was sometimes simply too much fun to stop; it was like a go-cart track. My favourite moment? Playing a game of chicken with an actual chicken: it ran out on the road in front of me, and I went left and sped up to not hit it, but it did the same, and for one gut-wrenching moment, I was certain I was going to run over this stupid chicken, but we both miraculously made it. That brain-dead chicken was absurdly funny.

The Mae Hong Son loop is full of random sightseeing stops, such as this stop, the “bamboo bridge” and temple on the hill.
Every day, we’d stop for lunch in a random small town. One day, we discovered this unbelievably good dish: crunchy deep fried catfish with green mango salad.
Me hanging out at another awesome viewpoint.

On our third evening, we rolled into Pai, a famous backpacker town not too far from Chiang Mai. Many people make Pai their only other stop in northern Thailand. The town itself isn’t very Thai – its full of young Europeans looking to drink cheap beer and tube in the river. In fact, the walking street night market was full of vegan food – nothing screams western so much as vegan pastries….

The walking street in Pai is full of lanterns and tourists. It actually was more charming than I expected though. There’s some pretty good food in town too.

Despite the town not really feeling like Thailand, I have to admit that Pai is absolutely stunning. It’s perhaps the most beautiful place we’ve visited in Asia so far. We booked a remote bungalow in the countryside for a few nights in order to explore the town, and nothing was as enjoyable as simply driving around the quiet roads to soak up the mountains and sky.

The sun lowering as we drive into town to grab some dinner.

The next day, we headed down to Pai Canyon for a little hike. I don’t know exactly how this place formed geologically, but it’s a super interesting series of steep, sharp ridges, each with a flat path along the top, perfect for walking! While most stop at the beginning for a few key viewpoints, if you’re not afraid of a little climbing (and of getting very, very dirty), you can continue along any number of these ridges to explore.

Chris on one of the ridges, soaking up some views.
Chris down-climbing a sandy chimney. While the ‘rock’ looks pretty solid from a distance, we realized as we started to climb it that it’s really just sand that’s loosely held together into these fake rock-faces and ridges.
Looking down on one of the curving ridges. The park is full of these features.

Once back in Pai, we headed off into the countryside again to seek out a mini-golf place we found online. “Bamboo Golf” ended up being a fun afternoon activity. A Scottish guy and his wife created a little mini-golf putting course on their property. The game is played with big bamboo mallets and a tennis ball on slightly springy grass, and makes for a fun challenge – a little like a combo of mini-golf and croquet!

No, Chris isn’t actually that fashionable – the owner gave us those huge hats to wear for sun protection. Plus, can you see how dirty he got in the canyon that morning?!

On our fifth morning of the Mae Hong Son loop, we got up bright and early – or, it would have bright except for the heavy blanket of low clouds covering the region. We had to be back in Chiang Mai by mid-day to return the bikes and catch a bus onward to Chiang Rai, near the border of Laos. After grabbing coffee at the only shop open in town at that hour, we set off into the mist.

Driving in the early morning meant we had the roads pretty much all to ourselves. Well, except the dogs we frequently found sleeping all over the roads. Not sure if the pavement is warm or something, but they seem to think ideal sleeping spots are those that put them in the way of oncoming traffic. We also had a brief encounter with a herd of cows, who perhaps thought the same thing.

Some typical curves on the road from Pai.

The drive out from Pai was nearly as twisty as the drive in had been. The main difference this morning was that is was absolutely freezing! I ended up putting on nearly everything I brought to stay warm, but driving fast on a motorbike through wet clouds in the early morning mountain air is a recipe for being chilled to the bone. Although it was worth it for those moments when we emerged above the clouds and were treated to a stunning view of the golden morning illuminating the white sea below.

Although this viewpoint sucked.

Chiang Rai

We made it back to Chiang Mai and returned our bikes without incident, and that afternoon, took a shortish bus ride (only 4 hours) to the northern tip of Thailand to Chiang Rai, right next to Laos and Myanmar. While we spent a few days here, we didn’t end up doing much – I think we needed a break after the bike loop. Some highlights from Chiang Rai were a mildly amusing clocktower show, and a great night market famous for cheap hotpot.

Chiang Rai’s famous clocktower puts on a music and lightshow three times a night for about 15 minutes.
Eating our way through this enormous plate of meat at the hotpot market. This massive hotpot meal – full of meat, seafood, egg, veggies, and noodles – was only $8 CAD.

After spending only about 2 weeks in Thailand, mostly in the north, we decided to move on to Laos. Our plan, roughly, was to spend much of December in Laos, including Christmas, and then grab a flight to the south of Thailand to spend News Years Eve in Phuket, a town known for its extravagant NYE party. With our flights and accommodation for the holiday booked well in advance (booking in advance is generally challenging on an open-ended trip like ours, but we pretty much had to book ahead for the holidays, as the post-pandemic world has gone travel-crazy!), we wanted to allocate enough time for Laos before we had to head south. Crossing over to the town of Huay Xai, we were onto our next country!

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