Northern Thailand, bordering Myanmar and Laos, is an area characterized by dense forests and misty mountainous terrain, called home by Westerners and ancient hill tribes. Home of the alluring capital city of Chiang Mai, travellers can explore bustling street markets, glorious temples, trekking tours, wildlife experiences, and some of the best Thai food you can get your hands on.
Some of the world’s most striking natural beauty can be found in Asia, and the long list of natural wonders can have you hiking the mountains of Northern Thailand for months. Visit Doi Inthanon, near Chiang Mai, the highest mountain in Thailand at 2565metres. It is also a national park with forests and cascading waterfalls, including Mae Pan Falls, the highest in Chiang Mai. More explorations will lead you to Tham Lot in Mae Hong Son Province. This massive cave network was once used as a dwelling for pre-historic man and is filled with spectacular stalagmites and stalactites – along with a platoon of bats. Phu Phra Bat is a forest park in Udan Thani Province, named after two Buddha footprints carved into rocks. Take the time to explore this park, known for its fascinating archaeological finds, from ancient objects to early buildings.
Fascinating Hill Tribes
Leave the Western world behind for the mystical hill tribes of Thailand. There are seven major hill tribes in the region, including Akha, Lahu, Yao, Hmong, Karen, Lawa, and Lisu. Most of the tribes are set high up in the mountains, so it takes some effort to get there, but a home-cooked meal, tribal dancing, and a bed in a local home is well worth it. Since most of the areas are rural, responsible tourism and community upliftment is valued.
Shop Til’ You Drop
Retail therapy can be enjoyed in well-stocked Westernized shopping malls, side streets, and open-air markets. Visit the night markets of Mae Hong Son and Chiang Rai, explore Kad Nan, the open-air mall in Mueang Nan with local goods and clothing, and browse the Borderline Shop in Mae Sot for arts and crafts made by refugee women (proceeds go to charity). The Night Bazaar in Chiang Mai offers souvenirs, while the Municipal Market in Mae Sot has Burmese bookshops and Mandalay slippers. Try weird and wonderful street food while shopping at Thung Kwiang Market in Lampang, and head to the Sunday street market, Thanon Khon Muan, in Chiang Rai, for beautiful handcrafts. The famous Warorot Market in Chiang Mai offers a selection of fabrics, spices, and Thai teas. Make sure you pick up some of the beautiful silks the region is known for.
The mountainous regions of Northern Thailand are fairly unchartered territory. While you won’t find wild elephants, you’ll find plenty of other species in the national parks of Doi Inthanon and Doi Suthep-Pui. Both are home to gibbons, leaf monkeys, Asiatic black bear, Indian civet, barking deer, giant flying squirrel, Chinese pangolin, and over 300 species of birds. Venture to Phu Hin Rong Kla National Park to find tiger, leopard, wild boar, fox, and many smaller mammals. If you prefer to see wildlife in a zoo, visit Chiang Mai Zoo & Aquarium, which has 400 species of animals, including panda, koala, giraffe, camel, lion, elephant, and the only rhino in Thailand.
Elephant tours are popular in Northern Thailand, but make sure you do plenty of responsible research beforehand. Experiences include bathing elephants, elephant rides, and a lesson in basic commands.
The city of Chiang Mai has over 300 temples in Burmese, Sri Lankan, and Lanna Thai styles. They are all within walking distance of each other and free to enter. Take the time to explore and admire the intricate wood carvings, Naga staircases, angelic sculptures, and sophisticated pagodas. Visit the most famous temple, Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, which stands watch above the city, as well as Wat Phra Singh (one of the most beautiful), Wat Suan Dok which means “flower garden temple” in Thai, and the iconic Buddhist temple in Phrae. Show respect by wearing appropriate clothing and removing your shoes before entering.
While cuisine in Northern Thailand is very different from the rest of the country, it’s believed by many to be the best. Look forward to dishes of sticky rice, bitter flavours, and plenty of pork. The best way to taste Northern food is by enjoying a “khantoke” dinner and show. Literally meaning “small bowl, low table,” Khantoke is the art of gathering around a low table laden with a variety of dishes. Local favourites include kaeng hang le (Burmese-style pork curry), khao soi (curry noodle soup), khao soi (yellow wheat noodles in curry broth, served with chicken or beef), and hang ley (Lanna-style pork curry). Take the recipes home with you by taking an unforgettable Thai cooking class.