Northern Thailand with its rugged mountainous landscape, unique hill tribes and vast cultural heritage makes for one of Thailand’s most rewarding destination. For once because the mix of cultures here in the North has created a unique atmosphere. The festivals such as Loi Krathong ( where candles get sent into the sky) and Songkran ( the Thai New Year most popular for crazy waterfights) are celebrated bigger than anywhere else in the country. Hill tribes such as Karen, Shan and Lanna mingle with Thais in the city bringing together an even more relaxed and peaceful feel to it than in the busy south.
The weather is in general more pleasant than in the Bangkok or Phuket area. And only in Northern Thailand can you find tea, coffee and orchid plantations. Even local strawberries might come with your breakfast buffet if you’re lucky.
The charisma of the place also comes with the closeness to Myanmar, Laos and the mighty Mekong River. In addition all highlights are easily reachable making a trip to the North an adventure be it for a few days or a month.
1. Chiang Mai
No trip to the North can be complete without spending some time in Chiang Mai. Often called the capital of the North it is contrary to popular belief not the second biggest city in Thailand but big enough to have all the amenities a modern traveller requires.
The must see is the old town right in the centre of town. Thick old walls arranged in a easily defendable square shape protect an abundance of alleys and temples. A medival style water way leads all the way around it. Just attached is the newer down town with the daily night market being the biggest attraction. Don’t forget to haggle for the beautiful handicrafts as you’ll surely find a gem among the many items sold but all ethnicities. Some of the best market food stalls of Thailand can be found at this market so bring some time and an empty belly.
Just withing scooter distance lies the university with the amazing Chiang Mai Zoo next to it. I saw my first Pandas in that zoo. You will also see signs advertising a close encounter with real tigers. The first time I went to Chiang Mai, being 19 and naive, I went to that place and couldn’t believe that I was actually petting a grown tiger. It was only later that I realized the nasty scheme behind that whole experience. Obviously, now I can say that, the tigers are heavily drugged and just lay there as if in a coma. I can only recommend now not to visit this place as the tigers are suffering for a cheap picture.
A bit further by scooter and up the mountain lies Chiang Mai’s most famous temple, Doi Suthep. The ride there is simply a joy through lush forests and the view at the top definitely makes up for having to share it with a lot of fellow travellers.
After you have explored Chiang Mai and had your chance to slowly adjust from Bangkok’s business to the a more chilled holiday in the North, take it one step further and head to Pai. The road there is already a legend itself. 762 turns make it one wild ride as bus drivers seem to be trying for records each time they go. Puking bags are available, not kidding. Pai is a legendary old hippie place, once famous for huge opium fields.
Nowadays once you arrive, a certain kind of peace will come over you. And that’s not only from the smell of Marihuana in the air. The place simply blends easily into the hilly landscape. Street cafes, art studios, backpacker lounges and original Spas share the city area with local houses and street food stalls. Forests, rivers and waterfalls surround the city. Hence within 5 minutes by scooter you can be straght in breathtaking nature.
Another amazing thing about Pai are the natural hot springs that smell a lot like rotten egg but actually feel so amazing once you enter into the hot water that just come out of the earth. Some of the spas in the area have set up tubs outside that feed directly from those springs.
With a few friends we stayed in an elephant camp for 2 weeks. It was called Thom’s Elephant camp and even had its own hot spring tubs. By helping with all kinds of chores we were allowed to stay there for free. It was a great experience taking care of the huge friendly giants. Daily we would clean the stable or cut banana trees to feed the 5 elephants. In the morning we would pick them up from their place on the mountain and lead them back in the evening. That was an amazing ritual for our usual days. And even the busy chores, like riding a scooter next to the elephant with tourists on it and filming them, was a pretty fun thing to do. Especially since once the whole caravan arrived at the river everybody was eventually in the water.
3. Mae Hong Son
Mae Hong Son is directly at the Myanmar border and that closeness is easily visible. Community projects and refugee camps lie not far from the city and offer a variety of opportunities to volunteer like teaching english for example. The city itself is fairly small but has a nice mixture of cafes, temples, restaurants and houses all places around a lake. Lots of outdoor activities are available once out of the city and compared to tours from Chiang Mai should be in general a good deal cheaper.
4. Chiang Rai
The capital before Chiang Mai took that place, Chiang Rai is approximately two hours north by bus. Quite a lot smaller than its big brother, the city hosts in my opinion Thailand’s most impressive temple. Wat Rong Kun,sometimes better known as the White Temple, was designed, built and funded entirely by local artist Chalermchai Kositpipat. Spending roughly 250.000 Euros on it, he opened the temple to visitors only in 1997 which explains the rather futuristic look of it. 50 THB (1.30 Euro) is all you have to pay if you are not Thai. Thais can enter for free. Baan Dam Museum, or Black House, is another slightly weird experience which you should no. Quite morbid in its artsniness it might not be suited for children as lots of bones, dead animals and pornographic drawings seem to have been the focus of the museums founders.
5. Chiang Dao
Chiang Dao is the ideal place for outdoor enthusiasts. Waterfalls, Caves and an abundance of mountains to hike on make this the perfect place to just have another reason for a massage again. One hour north of Chiang Mai, the city is said to become the second Pai. Chiang Dao however can still feel quite deserted if you are not there during peak season and it is there that a Japanese community has started a small hippie festival, The Shambala in your Heart Festival. Entrance fee is just 100 THB (2,50 Euros) which is a bargain for the cool and relaxed crowd with performances, food stalls and tipis to sleep in that you will find there.
6. Golden Triangle
The CIA coined this term that once described the worlds biggest heroin producer before Afghanistan took that spot. Most often the term describes the whole area of the North with borders to Myanmar and Laos. But actually there is a specific place for it too. There the rivers Ruak and Mekong meet and the Laos, Thailand and Myanmar landmasses touch in one spot. Take a bus from Chiang Rai and saying the word Golden Triangle will already be enough as it is a popular destination. Vendors with delicious snacks await you at river front and also a few restaurants. The Hall of Opium with interesting artifacts lies not far from the spot and can be easily combined with it.
7. Mae Sai – to go to Myanmar
The only reason to come to this busy little town at the border to Myanmar is to actually cross the border. I feel like adding this point to a list about Northers Thailand is well recommended as you can easily take 2 days to venture into Myanmar and make it a once in a lifetime experience. I simply walked up to the border and asked about the visa.
Most tourists come to Thailand on a Single-Entry Visa they get at the airport. To enter the first Burmese Town of Tachilek is equally simple. After the Thai customs just go to the Burmese immigration officers and pay 10 USD. They will stamp your passport and also keep it. You then have up to 14 days to spend in Myanmar, however only in Tachilek and the Kengtung District. When I did this trip I was required to hire a local guide to take me to the places I wanted to see. That might have changed by now but the officers will let you know. Tachilek does not offer too much in terms of attractions so I took a bus to Kengtung, the districts capitol.
The city lies on 2 beautiful hills the embrace a little lake. I saw absolutely no western influence in the town. All signs were in the local language and there was not one 7-11 or McDonalds. It was truly refreshing. My guide walked with me around town and we tried all kinds of local cuisine. The next day we visited a hill tribe village where I am sure not many visitors have been before. After that it was already time to head back to Thailand. Travelling by myself is always fun but in this case I enjoyed having the guide with me. So even if it is not mandatory I would advise you to hire one. It’s fairly cheap with just 15USD a day and will greatly enhance your experience in Myanmar.
Northern Thailand with a little side trip to Myanmar is one of the best places to visit in South East Asia, no doubt about it. It is still relatively unspoilt compared to the overpopulated beaches in the south or Bangkok’s Khao San Road.