Cycling Northern Thailand

We cycled from Tak to the Laos border via Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai in late December/early January. Northern Thailand is full of fascinating cultural sites and towns, and the weather is generally much cooler than Southern Thailand, making it a fairly popular bike touring destination.

Our Bicycle Touring Route

bicycle touring northern thailand route map
Bicycle touring Northern Thailand route map.

Download the GPX track of our Northern Thailand bicycle tour. NOTE: This is not a polished route and is intended for research and planning purposes only. If you are interested in other areas of Thailand, you can check out our posts about Central and Southern Thailand.


The town of Tak is a charming city located along the Ping River in northwestern Thailand. The highlight of our evening in town was walking around Ban Chin Alley, which is a long row of beautiful historic teak houses, some of which had ornate wooden carvings. As we got further north we started to see large teak forests, and consequently more and more houses made of teak wood.

teak houses in tak thailand
Cat peeking out from its hiding place in Ban Chin Alley.
ban chin alley
Heritage building in Ban Chin Alley.
bicycle touring northern thailand
Pretty town with lots of teak houses and shops.


The highlight of our time in Lamphun was running into an American expat at a restaurant and chatting with him and his wife, who invited us to their house for coffee the next day. We had a great time sharing stories and relaxing at their beautiful home, and it had been awhile since we’d been able to have a long conversation in English!

Always grateful for such wonderful hospitality!

We ended up in the town of Lamphun for Christmas and had a fun dinner at the expansive night market.

temple in lamphun thailand
Temple in Lamphun.
lamphun night market
Chowing down on some sushi at the Lamphun night market. Merry Christmas!
Sleepy dog at the market.
Love seeing the huge platters of Thai chilies.

Chiang Mai

We took a week off in Chiang Mai to rest and stick around for the New Year’s Eve festivities. Many people use Chiang Mai as a base for exploring Northern Thailand, but it didn’t really feel overrun with tourists or inauthentic. It was a great place to relax and check out some markets and temples, and the city center is relatively compact and easy to get around.

chiang mai at night
Walking around Chiang Mai at night.
The Silver Temple – very neat to see it lit up at night.
Silver Temple closer up.
chiang mai gate market
Chiang Mai Gate Market. We ate dinner here several times – there were so many stalls to try!
Getting some banana chocolate roti, a frequent treat.
We found the best pour over coffee place – Gallery Drip Coffee. By far the most amazing coffee we had in Asia.

For New Year’s Eve, we went to Tha Phae Gate to watch people set off paper lanterns. It was pretty entertaining, and there were also tons of food stalls set up along the road.

paper lanters thailand new year
The big send off at midnight.
Sometimes things don’t go as planned…
Happy New Year!

Chiang Dao and Fang Valleys

After leaving Chiang Mai, we were on a relatively busy road through the Chiang Dao valley. The scenery was nice but it was hard to appreciate with all the traffic and minimal shoulder. The valley to the east (through Phrao) might have been less busy but we can’t speak to that personally.

bicycle touring northern thailand
Highway riding on the way into Chiang Dao.
Walked to the Chiang Dao night market at dusk on a road with no shoulder. Did not feel very safe but gotta eat somehow.
Another sleepy dog at a night market.
bicycle touring northern thailand
Temple on the way out of Chiang Dao.
bicycle touring northern thailand
Had to look for pull-outs to take a break and enjoy the scenery!
bicycle touring northern thailand
Trucks were a pretty popular vehicle choice and the drivers could be aggressive at times.

Once we got past Chai Prakan, the valley opened up a lot and there were more farm road options that were very enjoyable. We also ran into a British couple going the opposite direction that gave us some beta on the dirt road along the Kok River that we planned to try. A local restaurant owner convinced us all to stop at his place for a drink before going our separate ways, and it ended up being a nice rest and chat with a great view of the valley.

bicycle touring northern thailand
Finally found some fun dirt road alternatives to the highway!
Drink stop with the British cyclists we met on the road.
bicycle touring northern thailand
We really enjoyed these cute haystacks.
tha ton
View from our awesome guest house overlooking the river in Tha Ton. The chanting from the monastery across the way created a peaceful ambiance.
bicycle touring northern thailand
Had to stop at this colorful flower tunnel.

Backroad Along the Kok River

The dirt road along the Kok River wound up being a big highlight of our time in Northern Thailand. It was very steep and loose in places and we wound up having to push up several hills, but the scenery was beautiful and the small settlements were interesting to ride through.

bicycle touring northern thailand
Beginning of the dirt road route. A little bit bumpy but in pretty good condition apart from the steep sections!
bicycle touring northern thailand
There wasn’t much traffic, but when a car did come by they’d kick up quite a bit of dust.
bicycle touring northern thailand
This section definitely made the highway riding worth it!
bicycle touring northern thailand
There was a stream crossing near the end of the dirt section of the road. It wasn’t too deep when we crossed and a motorcycle made it through just before us.
This was our first time seeing elephants in Thailand. This one belonged to a tour company that organized elephant rides, which is not great, but it was nice to see them bathing in the river.

Chiang Rai

We took another break in Chiang Rai, and we were pleasantly surprised to realize that we’d arrived during the annual flower festival. There were so many incredible displays and flower sculptures, including an orchid tunnel! Entry was free and we went several times to admire the flowers at different times of the day.

chiang rai thailand
First night in Chiang Rai. We were surprised to find that the clock tower in the background did a light and music show on the hour.
chiang mai flower festival
The Chiang Mai Flower Festival was next level amazing.
So many cool corners and paths to explore at the flower festival.
chiang rai market
Everything you could want at the Chiang Rai Municipal Market.
These lottery booths were very common in Thailand.

The Golden Triangle

The Golden Triangle is where the borders of Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos meet at the intersection of the Ruak and Mekong Rivers. The area is infamous for drug trafficking, but these days it is also a thriving tourist trap. Since we were pretty close, we decided to take a detour to visit it. It was, as expected, kind of underwhelming and we wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to see it. But it was fun walking around all the weird sculptures and stuff at night when the rest of the tourists were gone.

the golden triangle
The Golden Triangle. Myanmar is the sliver of land where the two rivers converge, and Lao is on the far bank.
the golden triangle
Wandering around the touristy stuff at night.
The most interesting part of the Gold Triangle experience was seeing all the huge casinos on the Laos side of the river. It’s a Special Economic Zone and there’s apparently a lot of illicit activity that goes on over there.

Following the Mekong to the Laos Border

The ride along the Mekong to Chiang Khong was pretty mellow, apart from one crazy steep hill that we had to walk even though it was paved. The scenery was pleasant and it was fun to watch narrow fishing boats navigating up and down the river. We stayed in a teak wood hostel on our last night in Thailand that was charming, though teak doesn’t help much with sound proofing and we could hear our neighbors anytime they moved slightly.

bicycle touring northern thailand
Chill cycling along the Mekong River.
bicycle touring northern thailand
Pushing up the huge hill! At least it was a shady time of day.
bicycle touring northern thailand
Beautiful scenery along the Mekong near sunset.
Our typical yard sale in the hostel room.

We approached the Laos border the next morning and were informed that bicycles weren’t allowed on the Friendship Bridge between Thailand and Laos, so we’d have to take a bus across. We paid for our bus tickets and the driver loaded our bikes into the back of the bus along with another cyclist’s. Apart from all that, the visa-on-arrival process was easy and pretty quick!

Video from Northern Thailand

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