The north of Thailand is a mountainous region inhabited by several hill tribes, each with its own dialect and culture near the borders of Laos and Myanmar. The region is best known for its ethnic and cultural diversity, natural beauty, temples, artisans, food and overall laid back atmosphere. Many provincial towns have “walking street” markets to enable visitors to soak up the local culture and enjoy the best of what each town has to offer.
When considering a Northern Thailand tour, whether organized or independent, there are some places worth highlighting:
The provincial capital Chiang Mai is one of the most popular tourist destinations because it is best known for its mountains and hill tribes, 300 temples, elephants and artisan markets. However, the area has become increasingly popular for contemporary arts, night bazaars, boutique hotels, buzzing culinary scene, friendly locals, and cheaper prices. It contains an ancient city referred to as the old city with temples dating to the 14th-century Lanna Kingdom.
Just under three hours north of Chiang Mai, is the even more relaxed version of Chiang Mai, known as the quaint town of Pai. It has gained a reputation amongst travellers as the holistic health capital of this region, packed with organic fooderies, vegan and vegetarian cafes, yoga retreats and healing arts centres. A visit to Pai canyon at sunset offers a tranquil end to a day exploring the town followed by a dip in the nearby Pai Hot Springs.
Chiang Mai’s smaller town cousin, Chiang Rai is best known for its dazzling White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) created by Chiang Rai-born visual artist Chalermchai Kositpipat. Located south of Chiang Rai City, this elaborate temple and complex combine elements of modernity with Buddhist symbolism to comment on humanity. It features detailed sculptures, reminiscent of Gaudi which create a unique surrealistic impression in pure white plaster with white small glass inserts so it glimmers in the sunlight.
At the other end of the spectrum, you can visit the Black House (Baan Dam Museum) created by artist Thawan Duchanee. This macabre work combines contemporary art rooted in Buddhist traditions and features installations, sculptures and paintings, all themed in black. The “museum” is made up of around 40 artistic structures in the complex and inside some of the halls, banquet tables are set for a meeting of demons. Animal bones, skulls, horns and skins provide a Gothic overtone.
South of Chiang Mai is the third-largest town of Lampang. Here you will find the only government-owned Thai Elephant Conservation Centre in Thailand who is home to 50 elephants along with an elephant nursery/hospital. There is also a thriving weekend market where you can pick up unique artisanal gifts from the region such as ceramics.
Bordering Myanmar, Mae Hong Son is located on a picturesque lake, ethnically diverse and home to hill tribes such as the Shan and Hmong. Jong Kham Lake, in the heart of Mae Hong Son, is a great place to go for people-watching and relaxation. The town also has charming Walking Street Market during the months of October through to February on the surrounds of Jong Kham Lake. Full of local handicrafts and exotic foods; this market has an authentic northern Thai vibe. For breath-taking views, visit the town’s landmark Shan-style Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu temple with its two stupas and a stunning golden Buddha sitting on a large hill overlooking the lake.
A two-hour drive southwest of Chiang Mai, you will discover Doi Inthanon mountain and national park. It is the highest mountain in Thailand with an elevation of 2,565 metres and it’s best known for its two iconic gold-tipped stupas perched on its summit. The park covers an area of 482 square kilometres and is part of the Himalayan mountain range. It has many hiking trails and magnificent waterfalls. Bird watchers will be in awe with over 360 bird species to sight.
This provincial town only integrated into Thailand 100 years ago so it still maintains a quiet serenity, tiny culturally rich villages, vast rice patties and majestic mountains. Here you will find Doi Phu Kha National Park. It is a wonderful place to go hiking and exploring in the caves, as its valleys spill into the Luang Prabang Range.
The Nan National Museum showcases an impressive collection of traditional arts and artefacts from the various ethnic groups in the north of Thailand. You can view local archaeological finds, royal regalia and weaponry, religious artefacts, silverwork, textiles and tribal costumes.
Climb the 300 odd steps to enjoy sweeping views of Nan and the striking 29 foot Golden Buddha (also known as the Blessing Buddha) at Wat Phra That Khao Noi. The best times to go are at sunrise or sunset. Or visit the peaceful 14th century Wat Phra That Chae Haeng and the onsite meditation centre, located on a hill just across the river from Nan town that houses a famous Buddha relic.
Another important temple to learn about Nan culture is Wat Phumin which was originally built in 1596 in Thai Lü architecture. The external temple is decorated by large ornate mythical Naga serpent heads at the front, with their serpentine bodies extending over the balustrades towards the entrance. Inside you can find ancient vegetable-dyed frescoes depicting the life and times of the 19th century as well as portrayals of the epic tales of the Buddha.
This area is where the mighty Mekong and Ruak Rivers meet. This rich rainforest mountainous area is steeped in history and is famous for its opium-growing past. You can learn more about its poppy-growing history at the Hall of Opium museum or see the ancient Phra That Doi Pu Khao temple. You can hire a boat and explore the surrounding countryside along the Ruak, visiting Don Sao, a small island in Laos and head down the Mekong River to the towns of Chiang Saen or Chiang Khong.
If you look at a northern Thailand map you will see that the region is divided into 17 provinces which includes Thailand’s second-largest city- Chiang Mai.
Absolutely! It offers another perspective on Thai culture, history and the interplay with its neighbouring countries. You may venture into the mountains for trekking or visit ethnic tribe villages. Stroll through ancient ruins and former empires, shop for all kinds of handicrafts in the town night market of Chiang Mai, relax in jungle hot springs, visit the notorious Golden Triangle, do some Thai cooking classes, help out at an elephant sanctuary and just enjoy the overall mystical and rich cultural vibe that the region has to offer. Northern Thailand tours will tailor itineraries to take in the major sites in what time you have.
Although there are no islands of beaches in this region due to it being landlocked, the green mountainous landscape has many charms spearheaded by the friendly local indigenous ethnic groups such as the Lanna, Shan, Karen, and their cultural richness. The cooler climate and fertile land produce quality coffee, tea, wine, and strawberries.
No, Bangkok is located in central Thailand about 600 kilometres south of the northern region.
There are all sorts of transportation available. From tuk-tuk, trains, taxis, and motorcycles with the safest and most common method being travel by bus. There is an airport in Chiang Mai that services some international flights.
There are no beaches in this region. It is known for its valleys and mountainous landscapes and sits along the borders with Laos and Myanmar.
During the cool season between November and February or March, one of the most popular times visit, as it is not too wet, humid or hot.
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