Northern Thailand is popular with backpackers; it’s an adventure destination, cheap and chilled, and you can easily escape the tourists. Many come for the trekking but end up staying weeks in the cool guesthouses tucked away down quiet lanes, and there are some great bars and restaurants with cheap beer and food, plus some kicking discos.
You can survive on 10 dollars a day here, having your own guesthouse room, three big meals a day and few beers. Renting a bike is really cheap (150 baht a day), so you can really explore the area, ride up Doi Suithep mountain to check out the brilliant waterfalls or admire the view. Many use Chiang Mai as a perfect base to go trekking, heading into the amazing mountains for a few days to stay in hill tribe villages, ride elephants and skiff down pristine rivers.
The great thing about Chiang Mai is that it is unpretentious and not full of expensive resorts and hotels, with buses full of filthy stinking rich tourists throwing money everywhere. The locals are friendly and everyone, no matter how scruffy and bohemian they are, is welcome. You can cross the city on foot, or hire a bicycle and explore the narrow, winding lanes of the 700-year-old town – which is uniquely surrounded by a moat. More details on Chiang Mai for backpackers.
Doing a course is also popular while you are here and it hardly breaks your budget to stay on a week to participate in cooking, massage and Thai kickboxing courses, or do a meditation retreat. There is loads to see, with historic temples and ruins liberally scattered about the city.
The atmosphere in Chiang Mai is really laid-back, a sure magnet for backpackers. But if you really want to get away from it all, head up to Pai. This has become somewhat of a pilgrim town for backpackers in Southeast Asia, known for its sleepy charm, set among mountains to the north and located in a gorgeous setting beside the Pai river. Many end up staying for weeks; it’s even cheaper than Chiang Mai and you really get the feeling you’re in a hippie community. Backpackers are attracted by the peaceful atmosphere and there are new age pursuits and yoga, healthy food, live music in the bars, cheap beer and lots of friendly, relaxed people. More on Pai.
In Pai, there are no kitsch tourist shops, noisy tuk-tuks, go-go bars, or package tourists. The journey there, over the mountains, is spectacular. From Pai, you can organise trekking, visit the hot springs and waterfall, or continue on to Mae Hong Son – a frontier town on the Burmese border. This is the best way to really witness the mountains of the North.