In a nutshell
A beautiful small city set on the eastern side of a nice lake, Phayao is the capital of the province with the same name located in north of Thailand, bordering Laos and Chiang Rai province.
Why go to Phayao
Despite being almost completely unknown to western tourism, it is quite a popular destination for domestic visitors, who come here for a few relaxing days in a wonderful natural setting, away from the hordes of backpackers visiting the neighbouring provinces any time of the year.
Phayao has a long history; established in 1095 it became the centre of a small state which succeeded somehow to remain independent until the 15th century when it became part of the Lanna Kingdom which was ruling over the north of Thailand at that time. Phayao became an independent province only in 1977 – until that it had been a part of Chiang Rai province.
The town is a great spot to stop for a couple of days while travelling in the region, with a few temples and an interesting museum easily reachable via a short walk from the lakefront. There are many restaurants and bars to hang out in a relaxed atmosphere, too. Sitting on the main route to Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, the town is well connected by bus with the rest of the country.
The province features several attractive natural parks and the little town of Chiang Kham, one of the last places where the traditions of Thai Lue people are still alive, is quite close.
When to go to Phayao
With temperatures a bit cooler than in the southern provinces, a visit to Phayao province is pleasant all year round. The rainy season, running from May to October, is not a reason to stay away from Phayao – storms can happen on a daily bases but normally last not more than a couple of hours. Try to avoid the period between August and October though if you’re too concerned about the rain.
The dry season from November till February is considered high season, so expect to find a lot of tourists especially during weekends.
The Yi Peng and Thai Lue Festival in November combines Loi Krathong, the lantern festival celebrated all around Thailand and particularly spectacular with the lake setting, with a more local affair focused on traditions and culture of Thai Lue ethnic group. Make sure you don’t miss it if travelling in the province at the right time.
Where to stay in Phayao
The lack of western tourism makes the standard of accommodation in Phayao quite different from the rest of Thailand. Few guesthouses can be found close to the lakefront but they’re definitely overpriced for what they offer. It’s pretty impossible to find anything decent for less than THB600, even if sometimes – especially if visiting during the week in low season – you could be able to obtain a slightly better deal.
To save some money and sleep in a better room, moving a few hundred meters away from the lake helps a lot. Hotels in anonymous concrete buildings will usually surprise you with quite modern and well-appointed rooms. Totally absent at this time any digs in the upscale market. Reservation is recommended during weekends in high season or public holidays only, but even in those periods finding a room in town will not be a big deal.
Where to eat in Phayao
A large night market is everything that street food lovers need to keep them happy for a night or two in town with plenty of different choices and everything coming cheap and tasty.
The more touristy lakefront road will offer you several restaurants and pubs to try local fish and to spend the evening with few cold beers, live music and great views over the lake. A few places around town offer traditional Northern Thai cuisine while several cafes are ideal for breakfast with some good coffee and home-made cake. Western food options are limited to French fries, chicken nuggets, decent pizza and horrible pasta.
How to get around Phayao
The city centre with the lakefront and the main attractions is quite compact and easy to be covered on foot. Almost all the hotels are found inside this area and you’ll hardly need to hire a motorbike taxi (which are available anyway) when moving around town.
To get to the opposite side of the lake (you can circumnavigate it all by yourself – it is quite a pleasant 30 km loop) you can hire a bicycle in many places in town (THB100 for a day).
Even if there are no shops to rent a motorbike, many guesthouses will be able to find one for you, but keep in mind that it is nothing official, and there will be probably no insurance covering the bike.
How to get to and from Phayao
The bus station is conveniently located in the northern part of the city centre, less than a km away from the lakefront. If you don’t want to walk, a motorbike taxi will take you to your hotel for less than THB50.
Several buses from different companies depart every day from Bangkok’s Morchit Bus Terminal to cover the 11 hours trip to Phayao with rates starting from THB450. Choose one of the overnight buses that will drop you off in town at around 9.00am with plenty of time to find a hotel and chill out and rest by the lake for the rest of the day.
If you want some extra space for your legs, the VIP bus by Sombat tour leaving from Bangkok at 8.00pm will cost you THB750.
Frequent buses connect daily Phayao with Chiang Rai (2 hours, rates start from THB60) and Chiang Mai (3 hours, rates star from THB110).
Other long distance destinations available directly from Phayao are Khorat, Khon Kaen and Udon Thani in the North-Eastern provinces, or Mae Sai on the border with Myanmar.
The bus station is also the place where public songthaews depart for regional destinations; one routes connects Phayao to Chiang Kham – in case you don’t have your own transport. Departures are frequent all day long.
Is Phayao a safe place to visit?
In town the normal common sense will be enough to keep you away from any trouble and the friendly locals, still not so much used to foreign visitors, will be happy to help you in every situation.
As everywhere in Thailand, be extra careful when renting a motorbike, always wear a helmet and don’t exceed with the speed.
A hospital is located in the north of town – ok for minor injuries, but for anything serious moving to Chiang Mai is recommended.
Phayao station guide
Phayao - Bus
Located in the mountainous north of Thailand, between Chiang Mai and Nan, is the picturesque town of Phayao. The Green Bus, which services all of northern Thailand, connects Phayao to all the major northern cities, including Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Nan and Mae Sai. The buses depart regularly but fill up quite quickly, so booking online is often a wise move.
There are three overnight buses from Bangkok’s Mo Chit Bus Terminal to Phayao, an 11 to 12 hour journey journey of just over 700kms, so it’s a good idea to stock up on refreshments before boarding. The bus will also stop at the halfway point between Bangkok and Phayao at a 24-hour service station where hot meals are served.
The bus station is located fairly centrally, just south of the main Phahonyothin Road, and has all the amenities found in similar-sized bus stations in Thailand such as a ticket office and food and drink stalls, while, as is the case with anywhere in Thailand, a 7-Eleven is a stone’s throw away.
Phayao is rarely frequented by Western travellers and backpackers, although its tranquil surroundings make it popular with Thais. Among its main draws is its sizable lake, which lies on the southwest side of the town. It is a popular picnic spot among locals and, along Chai Kwan Road, there are a number of lively bars and restaurants.
Chiang Kham - Bus
The bus station in Chiang Kham is a gateway to the Phu Sang National Park, Phu Lang Ka National Park and Phu Chee Fah National Park. It sits on a small cul-de-sac that runs off of Sakda Bannakit Alley close to Wat Saen Muang Ma and within minutes of the town centre.
From the bus station premium buses depart for Bangkok Mochit once every morning and once every evening. Due to the infrequent service buses regularly fill up, so booking a seat online in advance is recommended. Buses also make the reverse trip, departing Bangkok Mochit and arriving at Chiang Kham. These buses are more frequent, with one bus leaving each morning and three overnight.
Local buses run from the station to Phayao, Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai as well as other destinations in northern Thailand. Local buses also run within the province of Phayao, though these are predominantly used by locals.
Chiang Kham’s bus terminal is quite small, though there are a few shops surrounding it that sell everything from clothing to snacks and water. There is also an ATM close by and a 7-Eleven about 10-minute walk away. Lining the streets around the bus station and within the town itself are plenty of shops and local restaurants.
From the bus station it is easy to get a motorbike taxi to your hotel or jump on a local songthaew minibus into the town centre. It is also possible to walk pretty much anywhere in Chiang Kham, as it is quite small, but it may be tiresome with luggage in tow.
Chiang Rai International Airport is just over one hour from the town, and it is easy to take a taxi from there to Chiang Kham or to Chiang Rai’s Old Bus Station where a local bus can be taken into the town. The closest railway station is in Chiang Mai, which is around 220kms away.
Pong - Bus
Pong is a small district of just over 50,000 inhabitants in the northern Thai province of Phayao. Well off the beaten track, Pong boasts some stunning scenery such as the mountains and waterfalls within Doi Phu Nang National Park, which is located in the Phi Pan Nam mountain ranges.
Given the lack of tourists who visit the area, Pong is ideal for nature and trekking enthusiasts who want a sample northern Thailand at its most rural. Local and provincial second-class buses run from the city of Phayao daily for extremely cheap prices, while hiring a motorbike is also a great way to see the region. Buses run regularly from Chiang Mai to Phayao and there is also direct service to Phayao from Mochit terminal in Bangkok.
Dok Khamtai - Bus
Dok Khamtai is a district in northern Thailand whose name means 'sponge tree' in English. Bus passengers can travel directly between Bangkok, over 700kms to the south, and Dok Khamtai's own small bus station. However, more transportation options are available 22kms to the west in Phayao. Phayao offers direct bus service to Bangkok, Lampang, and Chiang Rai.
Before entering the Ban Tham Indigenous Cultural Centre, 15kms outside of the town of Dok Khamtai, visitors will encounter a park filled with caves, rock deposits, and large trees. Dok Khamtai's other main attraction is Doi Phu Nang National Park, where visitors can camp near the scenic Namtok Than Sawan waterfall. The district's main hotels are Dok Kham Tai Hotel, Chain Hotel, and Dok Kham Tai Bungalow.
Chun - Bus
Located in northern Thailand’s Phayao province close to the Laos border, the small town of Chun is around 615kms north of Bangkok and has its own bus station. An air-conditioned bus departs Bangkok’s Mochit terminal for Chun every morning, arriving into the town eight to nine hours later.
Chun’s bus station is close to the intersection of Highways 1091 and 1292 near the Chun Hospital. The town is surrounded by the Doi Phu Nang National Park and less than one-hour away from the Phu Sang National Park. There are a number of places to stay in the area, including Ban Na Fang Kam and Bamboo Resort.
Mae Chai - Bus
Mae Chai is a tiny town spread out along the main Highway 1 between Bangkok and the northern Thai border at Mae Sai. It is 30kms north of Phayao and 720kms from Bangkok. Mae Chai provides a gateway to Doi Luang, Kunchae and Mae Yom national parks.
Buses from the Mochit terminal in Bangkok heading up to Chiang Rai and Mae Sai call at Mae Chai en route. The journey from Bangkok averages 11 hours. It is usually quicker on VIP buses as they stop fewer times on the journey. Provincial buses between Phayao and Chiang Rai also stop in the town.