Warmer than Norway and greener than Greenland; as “norths” go, northern Thailand is pretty brilliant.
Getting there is pretty simple as the Bangkok – Chiang Mai train is not only cheap, it’s also a . Choose first class and a private air-conditioned sleeper compartment. Go second to sit or sleep, or go third class and enjoy the fact that you’ve saved a bit of dough (plus you sit up for hours on a flight anyway, right?)
Travel overnight to make the most of your time, or travel by day to soak in the scenery. Bordering Laos and Myanmar, Northern Thailand is slightly cooler in temperature than the hot south, and rivers and rice fields meet rolling shades of green countryside throughout this ancient and luscious land. It’s a romantic notion sitting on a train, watching the scenery go by and reading a book or contemplating the rest of your adventure. Take the time to just take in the scenes around you.
Just like the rest of its Thailand counterparts, Northern Thailand is hugely diverse, with tons of different experiences. Be open to the new shades of Thailand, and you won’t regret it.
CHIANG MAI PROVINCE
Although Chiang Mai itself can be busy and feel over-crowded at times, if you take your time you’ll still get a feel for the laid-back lifestyles of the locals. There is a big student scene giving it a buzz, plus loads of ancient historic sites to check out. The moated old quarter for one is less built-up, as new buildings cannot be built higher than four storeys. The old quarter is also where you’ll find the bustling night market, held on a Sunday, where you can sample loads of mouth-watering street food, and pick up a few souvenirs. But if you want to do it properly, opt for a street food tour, which takes you to all the evening street food vendors in Chiang Mai… what’s not to love?!
Then there are the Buddhist temples that will give you an insight into the teachings and rituals of Buddhism. The oldest temple in the city is called Wat Chiang Man, the most revered Wat Phra Singh, and the humblest and (arguably) the prettiest is Wat Phan Tao.
Chiang Mai is also a perfect base for trips deeper into the northern jungles. You can visit varying hill tribe villages like Ban Mae Jok, with low-rise houses made of wood and surrounded by quiet green gardens.
One of the most popular things to do in Chiang Mai is to visit an elephant sanctuary, however do your research, as you want to make sure the sanctuaries don’t allow riding, have the elephants chained up, or use or use bullhooks or prods to control them. Some sanctuaries have actually saved the elephants from a lifetime of hard-work and servitude to the local tribes, so just ask your hostel or hotel about which one is best.
Whereas Chiang Mai is a brilliant hub for the more well-known treks and excursions, Chiang Rai is the jumping off point for the more undiscovered parts of the north, close to the border with Laos. Here you can sail down the Mekong river, see the town of Mai Sai which is the border-crossing into Myanmar, or learn about the history of the area at the Opium Museum.
Chiang Rai itself is small but beautiful, the architectural highlight being the ghostly but ornate white temple of Wat Rong Khun. If you fancy taking something better than knick-knacks home with you, this is also a great place to take on a cooking course ready to impress everyone back home.
Chiang Rai itself is small but beautiful, the architectural highlight being the ghostly but ornate white temple of Wat Rong Khun. If you fancy taking something better than knick-knacks home with you this is also a great place to take on a cooking course ready to impress everyone back home.
Lampang is the third largest town in Northern Thailand and capital of Lampang Province. The large town is another good base for day trips or to revive from a mountain hike. It’s still relatively quiet in terms of tourism compared to Chiang Mai, so you’ll feel you’ve strayed into an undiscovered Thai town.
If you’re in Chiang Mai but looking to visit the Lampang Province for a day, opt for a cultural trip to Lamphun (old capital of the Hariphunchai Empire) and Lampang to explore their temples and ancient ruins – giving you a glimpse into the history of Thailand.
Again there isn’t a lack of temples to visit here, and the architecture and history of these lanna-era temples will stay with you for the rest of your trip. You’re probably starting to get the picture of how important religion and temples are to Thailand, especially in the North.
If you’d like to check both Chiang Mai & Lampang off the list in one trip, check out our 14-day tour departing from Bangkok.
MAE HONG SON PROVINCE
Mae Hong Son is a lot more laid-back than some of its Northern Thailand neighbors, with a strong Burmese influence (it’s just on the border) and a secluded feel to it, the area feels a lot more like you’ve escaped from the tourist-trodden path. This four-hour tour can show you the highlights of Mae Hong Son before you figure out where you’d like to delve in deeper for the rest of your stay.
The hippy town of Pai is also in the Mae Hong Son Province, and is a hotspot for backpackers who want to visit Northern Thailand. With a bustling centre that hosts nightly food markets (with diverse foods from all across the globe, not just Asia) this place has the best of both worlds. The remote-feel that travellers often crave once they’ve visited busy cities, with hostels and hotels in amongst fields and mountains, and a spattering of quirky bars and restaurants to fuel the sociable aspects of traveling in a new country. Hop on a scooter, and you can explore the various landmarks and sites of interest around the main centre, such as the Pam Bok Waterfall or the famous Land Split.
STUNNING MOUNTAIN TRIPS AND BEYOND
Go east of Chiang Mai and you’ll find the beautiful marked trails of Doi Khun Tan National Park. Go west, and you’ll discover Mae Hong Son which means “the city of three mists” and is surrounded by the Shan Hills. If breath-taking mountain scenery is your thing take the time to get out to places like Pai, a small hill station town that is popular with treks and activities within the Mae Hong Son Province and near the Myanmar border. And if rivers are your cup of Thai tea then head further north to the Kok River.