Located on a beautiful silver shimmering lake (known as Kwan Phayao) surrounded by palm trees and mountains in the distance, Phayao is a very picturesque Thai town that receives surprisingly few tourists.
Just three hours by bus or motorbike from the hugely popular Chiang Mai, Phayao is a pleasant escape from the well-trodden backpacker trail of Southeast Asia. The town is becoming popular amongst ‘weekending’ Thais who walk under sun umbrellas in the ornate gardens and have extensive picnics in the well-maintained parks that surround the lake.
A number of fish restaurants, bars and pubs line the main Chai Kwan Road, but they do not deter from the laid-back, relaxing vibe of the lakeside town.
The surrounding area of Phayao is extremely rich and unspoiled in terms of natural beauty; fertile rice fields, gushing waterfalls and rolling hills dotted with ethnic-minority communities who live here as they have done for hundreds of years. All in all, Phayao is a great base to explore some unchartered Northern Thai countryside!
Where to stay in Phayao
Until recently, there wasn’t much choice in Phayao for accommodation with hotels tending to be a bit characterless and basic. However, recently, as tourist numbers have begun to rise, so has the quality of the accommodation with some cute little guesthouses and homestays popping up. Some of our favourites include:
Kwan Phayao Lake House: This charming old Thai house is a good choice for budget travellers located just a few minutes walk to the beautiful lake as well as several lakeside restaurants and bars. Rooms start from $18 USD (600 THB) for a twin or double room with private bathroom and they are clean and comfortable. The house is just a 10-15 minute walk from the bus station.
Oui Kaew Homestay: A friendly little place located a little way out of town, so it’s better for those who have their own transport. The breakfast gets rave reviews as does the home-cooked Thai food and the owners are super friendly. A standard double room costs just $13 USD per night (430 THB).
Sabuy Residence Phayao: This big, modern hotel offers good value for money rooms close to the lake, even if they are a little characterless. Comes with free breakfast, fast WIFI, large comfortable beds and free toiletries. A twin room costs $23 USD.
Things to do in Phayao:
Relax by the lake:
As the centre-piece of the town, most visitors spend time drinking a Singha, sampling the local fish at a restaurant and watching the sunset over the beautiful Kwan Phayao Lake. Watch the fishermen in the morning get their daily catch or chill out by the banks in the evening with a map and plan your next adventure in the gorgeous surrounding countryside. Relaxing is the order of the day here in Phayao!
Motorbiking the local area:
Exploring the nearby countryside by motorbike is one of the most enjoyable pursuits in Phayao as you come across waterfalls, incredible views and welcoming local villages. Don’t miss the Huai Ton Phueng Waterfall just an hour and a half’s beautiful drive away from the town.
Visit the National Parks:
Phaya is lodged in between two National Parks; Doi Phu Nang National Park and Mae Yom National Park, both of which are well worth a visit. Doi Phu Nang offers great hiking, beautiful waterfalls and camping facilities. There’s also a decent cheap restaurant on site for day trippers. Mae Yom also has trekking opportunities amidst its ancient teak forest.
Visit Wat Sri Khom Kham:
This very interesting temple on the banks of the lake is worth a visit. As well as a 17-metre statue of Buddha, there is an intriguing sculpture garden of ‘Dante style’ hell and heaven depictions. Some of the screaming figures in ‘hell’ are pretty gruesome, making anyone visiting the temple eager to repent their sins!
Visit Phayao Cultural Exhibition Hall:
Find out more about the history of the local area and the heritage of the people living here. With well-kept displays of local archaeology, literature and pottery, the museum is a must visit for all culture vultures!
How to get to Phayao:
One of the best ways of getting to Phayao is by motorcycle the 140km trip from Chiang Mai where you will pass spectacular mountain scenery, dotted with waterfalls and small wooden roadside market stops. The route is said to be one of the best motorbiking routes in Thailand!
If you’d rather travel there on a seat with four wheels instead of two, buses from the main bus station in Chiang Mai (Arcade) take two hours 35 minutes.
Where to go next?
Chiang Mai: The cultural capital of Thailand is just three hours away from Phayao, where you can organise cooking courses, try Thai massage, Muay Thau, yoga or even arrange treks into the surrounding countryside. Chiang Mai is a base for northern explorations.
Chiang Rai: Chiang Rai is three hours further north and is a smaller, quieter version of Chiang Rai. Many people claim that treks from here are wilder as the countryside is more accessible.
Chiang Dao: Dominated by the striking mountain ‘Doi Chang Dao’ Chiang Dao is a beautiful natural spot popular amongst trekkers and bird-watchers. Also, visit the interesting Chiang Dao cave from here.