We have travelled a lot of Thailand since our first trip in 2015; in fact we now live here in Ayutthaya as English teachers!
The kingdom can basically be divided into five main areas – Bangkok and the eastern seaboard, the south, the northeast (Isan), the central region and northern Thailand. Our favourite part of the country will always be the north with its lush mountains and hill-tribe cultures, bordering Myanmar and Laos.
In this blog I will share Six Highlights of Northern Thailand.
1. Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is both a city and a province and is firmly on the traveller and tourist trails. The laid-back city is a melting pot of old and new; inside the moated, partially walled old quarter lie numerous temples that reflect Chiang Mai’s traditional heart.
The city is very traveller friendly, offering cuisine from every corner of the world, museums, night markets, boutique stores, shopping malls and a bustling art scene. In Chiang Mai you can take a cooking course, do a yoga class and learn Thai massage or language, all in one day!
There are also many places around Chiang Mai which provide opportunities to interact with elephants; some are better than others so do your research first. Elephant Nature Park comes highly recommended; it offers one to ten day packages and allows visitors to fully interact and care for the elephants in a meaningful way. The park does not allow elephants to be ridden.
Doi Suthep-Pui National Park
Just a short drive outside the urban sphere is a stunning landscape of mist-shrouded peaks, rural farms and minority villages. Don’t miss visiting Doi Suthep-Pui National Park (1676m), home to Chiang Mai’s sacred peaks – Doi Suthep and Doi Pui.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep overlooks the city from its mountain throne and is one of the north’s most scared temples. Waterfalls, the winter palace of the royal family and Hmong villages are also worth exploring within the park.
Doi Inthanon National Park
Doi Inthanon is another national park within Chiang Mai province that Ollie and I really enjoyed; Doi Inthanon is Thailand’s highest peak at 2565m above sea level. Surrounding the peak are hiking trails, waterfalls and two monumental pagodas erected in honour of the king and queen.
The two chedi were built by the Royal Thai Air Force to commemorate the 60th birthdays of the king and queen in 1989 and 1992 respectively. When we visited the park in April 2016, the cool mountain climate was such a relief from the sweltering plains below!
Chiang Mai Temples
There are so many beautiful Thai temples within and outside the old city to name them all but two highlights that stood out for us were Wat Phra Singh, the city’s most revered temple, and Wat Chedi Luang, built around a crumbling Lanna-style chedi that was one of the tallest structures in ancient Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai Markets
Chiang Mai has a fantastic Walking Street every Saturday and Sunday evening; these evening street markets sell everything from handicrafts to an abundance of street food. Talat Warorot is another fascinating market that makes for an intriguing stroll; it is the city’s oldest and most famous market, a smaller and less hectic version of Bangkok’s Chatuchak.
Chiang Mai Restaurant Recommendation
As well as visiting Chiang Mai on more than one occasion, Ollie and I also lived in the city for a month whilst we studied for our TESOL certifications. Our favourite restaurant in Chiang Mai, which we would highly recommend, is Taste From Heaven, a vegetarian and vegan Thai restaurant located in the old city. We ate there pretty much every night – the quality of the food never faltered and we became good friends with the Thai owner.
For a full guide to Chiang Mai check out: The Perfect Chiang Mai Itinerary!
2. Chiang Rai
Chiang Rai is the name for Thailand’s northern-most province and also for the province’s capital. Sharing borders with Myanmar and Laos, the Chiang Rai region is one of the country’s most ethnically diverse provinces, home to a significant number of hill-tribes, Shan and Tai groups.
Ollie and I actually preferred Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai; the former is less busy and less commercialised and also offers easier access to green surroundings and rugged nature. We hired a scooter for a couple of days and headed out of the city; the rural roads are quiet and scenic and make for some fantastic driving. We visited viewpoints, waterfalls and hot springs, as well as Baan Dum (Black House).
This rather bizarre attraction consists of several black stained buildings, ominously decked out with animal pelts and bones. The structures have discernible northern Thai influences but the dark undercurrent and dead animals come together in a way that is more fantasy than reality.
Chiang Rai city itself is small and unhurried, with many temples and museums to explore; travel agencies in town also offer trekking trips into hill-tribe country.
A highlight of Chiang Rai for us was our visit to Wat Rong Khun, otherwise known as the White Temple. Unfortunately, it was closed for repairs at the time of our visit though it was still a worthwhile spectacle from the outside.
3. Tha Ton
The small northern town of Tha Ton, which sits almost on the Burmese border, is one of the few places that we’ve been to in Thailand where we felt like we were off-the-beaten-track. We didn’t see another western face whilst we were in town! We loved the rural feel of Tha Ton; it was peaceful and scenic, sitting on the banks of the Nam Kok River, which was especially picturesque at sunset.
Whilst we were there we did a day hike with a local guide, which, to this day, remains the best hike we’ve done in Thailand. We hiked through rice fields to small villages, enjoying a tasty lunch in one small settlement.
The Tha Ton area is a melting pot of different ethnicities; within 20km of town are six hill-tribe villages inhabited by Palaung, Black Lahu, Akha, Karen and Yunnanese peoples.
Trekking from this overlooked part of Thailand made our experience feel more authentic; every guesthouse and travel agency in Chiang Mai offers various trekking trips, all to the same area of the province, which was enough to put us off from the start.
Wat Tha Ton is also worth a visit; this hillside temple has nine levels, each one offering stunning views of the mountainous valley towards Myanmar, the Tha Ton plains and the winding river.
It is possible to take a long-tail boat from Tha Ton to Chiang Rai; we, however, journeyed on from Tha Ton to Mae Salong, a hilltop Chinese settlement, before continuing to Chiang Rai.
Pai is undoubtedly on the tourist trail, yet it is hard not to love this small town in a picture-perfect mountain valley. Guesthouses can be found both in and outside town, including rustic bamboo cottages along the riverside.
Ollie and I have visited Pai twice, once when we were travelling Thailand and once when we were living in Chiang Mai, from where Pai is just a three hour mini-van ride, along some rather windy mountain roads.
It is easy to escape the crowds by hiring a motorbike and heading into the rolling hills and countryside that surround the town. The surrounds of Pai offer temples, waterfalls, hot springs, a nature reserve and even a Chinese settlement; there are also many rather kitsch photo-ops along the main highway just outside town!
For us, though, it was the natural scenery of the area that we liked best and spending days exploring by scooter, stopping off at the numerous sights, gave us a great sense of freedom. Travel agencies in town can also arrange trekking, rafting and kayaking trips and yoga, cooking courses and massage are also available.
5. Mae Hong Son
From Chiang Mai it is possible to do the famed ‘Mae Hong Son Loop‘, passing through Pai, Soppong, Mae Hong Son, Khun Yuam, Mae Sariang and finally back to Chiang Mai, either driving yourself or by taking public transport. Unfortunately, Ollie and I have only ever made it as far as Mae Hong Son, halfway through the loop!
Mae Hong Son remains one of our favourite destinations in northern Thailand; unlike Pai, remote Mae Hong Son is quiet and relatively untouristed. It is a very pretty town, centred on a lake and surrounded by mountains.
There is also a palpable Burmese influence, thanks to its close proximity to Myanmar. At night Wat Jong Kham and Wat Jong Klang are lit up, their reflections dancing on the lakeside waters.
There are many temples that can be visited in and around town, including Wat Hua Wiang, which houses a bronze Buddha statue from Mandalay. Activities outside of town abound, from trekking to boat trips. Again Ollie and I set off on two wheels to get out and explore the area by ourselves!
Mae Aw (Ban Rak Thai)
Two highlights for us included the hot springs 11km outside of town and Mae Aw, otherwise known as Ban Rak Thai, an atmospheric Chinese settlement right on the Myanmar border, 43km north of Mae Hong Son.
The long and winding road up to the village is very beautiful, passing through some stunning mountain scenery. There is also a refreshing waterfall and peaceful Pang Ung Reservoir to detour to along the way.
Mae Aw itself sits on the edge of a reservoir and is surrounded by tea plantations; the town’s faces and architecture are very much Chinese. Several restaurants serve Yunnanese cuisine and there are plenty of opportunities to taste the local brew.
If you love seeing old temple ruins, like Ollie and I, you’ll love Sukhothai! The Sukhothai kingdom flourished from the mid 13th Century to the late 14th Century; this period is often regarded as the golden age of Thai civilisation. The religious art and architecture of this era are considered to be the most classic of Thai styles.
The Sukhothai of today consists of the modern new town, where all the commercial services can be found, and the old city, around 45 square kilometres of partially rebuilt ruins.
The Sukhothai Historical Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is comprised of five zones; the central, northern and western zones each require a separate ticket. The central zone is home to the most well-preserved and impressive ruins.
We spent two days exploring the area by bicycle, which is the best way to reach the ruins that are further afield. On our third day in Sukhothai we took a bus 50km north to Si Satchanalai-Chaliang Historical Park, the 13th to 15th Century ruins of Si Satchanalai and Chaliang old cities.
Although the architecture is similar in style to that of Sukhothai, the setting is a lot more rural and peaceful; there are also far fewer visitors. We spent an enjoyable day cycling around the ruins. It is definitely worth visiting both historical parks and using Sukhothai new town as your base to do so. Despite their similarities, the historical parks are very different.
Northern Thailand is a stunning part of the kingdom to explore. In this blog I’ve focused on six of our favourite places in the region though there are other, more off-the-beaten-track destinations that are worth journeying to. Um Phang, Mae Sot, Phrae, Phayao, Nan, Lampang and Chiang Saen are a few that we would recommend.
On your way north you’ll almost certainly pass through central Thailand, so don’t forget to drop by Ayutthaya, another fantastic old city, and come and say hello to Ollie and I!
Interested in teaching English in Thailand? Click to read about our experience Teaching English in Bangkok!