Thailand: North vs South

Magnificent palaces, pristine beaches, stunning skyscrapers, and beguiling cultures, Thailand is a dream destination for adventurous travellers. The country boasts a striking range of cultural traditions within its borders. From the ancient hill tribes set in spectacular mountains in northern Thailand to the laid-back beach culture in the south, you’ll find a wealth of people, customs, and one-of-a-kind experiences on Thailand travel explorations.

The bustling city of Bangkok at sunset.
The bustling city of Bangkok at sunset, and gateway to northern and southern Thailand.

Northern Thailand

The vast mountains rising above the rice paddies around Bangkok mark the entry to northern Thailand, a region the size of the U.S. state of Kentucky, and borders Laos and Myanmar. The mountains are perhaps the most significant feature of northern Thailand, serving as a geographic boundary that once protected the hill tribes from outside invasions. They are central to the way of life in northern Thailand; many serve as Buddhist religious sites and places of worship.

Mae Hong Son trival woman (Photo courtesy of Tourism Authority of Thailand)
Mae Hong Son trival woman (Photo courtesy of Tourism Authority of Thailand)

Some of the most popular Thailand tours include trekking through the hill tribe villages. The Lisu, descendants of Tibetan nomads, are known for their colourful and exotic clothing worn by the women. The Karen people came to Thailand from Burma in the 18th-century and are known for their uncanny abilities with elephants. For many visitors, a northern Thailand vacation would be incomplete without an elephant adventure. The Hmong people represent one of the most ancient tribal cultures. This group lived peacefully in China for thousands of years before escaping the terrors of the Qing Dynasty in the 17th-century.

White Temple, Chiang Rai
White Temple, Chiang Rai

Northern Thailand language, culture, customs, and cuisine are starkly different from other regions in the country. Chiang Mai, the region’s cultural centre, is considered the hub for northern Thailand tours, although other cities such as Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son are often more popular with adrenaline-charged travellers seeking adventure on their Thailand vacation. These regions are best known for their beautiful national parks, whitewater rafting, and spectacular hiking.

Unlike the Malaysian-influenced cuisine of southern Thailand, northern Thailand’s cuisine finds its unique flavour from the abundant jungle herbs and vegetation. Classic northern Thai dishes feature freshwater fish and proteins, such as chicken and pork from domesticated livestock. These dishes tend to be both bitter and spicy, and foods occasionally include ingredients such as offal, that less intrepid diners should steer clear of.

Suggested Itineraries for Northern Thailand:
8-Day Explore Northern Thailand
2-Day Chiang Mai Adventure Trek
4-Day Hilltribe Trekking, Elephants and Rafting

Elephant orphanage in Chiang Mai
Elephant orphanage in Chiang Mai

Southern Thailand

The Andaman Coast and the islands of Thailand are to the south of Bangkok, on the Malay Peninsula. Phuket, one of the most popular destinations in the region, offers magnificent powdery beaches, secluded coves, and sparkling emerald waters. Its status as a favoured destination of the international crowd means visitors can find a stellar assortment of hotels, restaurants, and nightlife. Modern beach culture reigns supreme in southern Thailand.

Koh Samui
Koh Samui

Beyond Phuket, however, the islands are a haven for thrill seekers and rock climbers, and are a must-see for their magnificent limestone cliffs. On the east side of Thailand, Koh Tao is a favourite locale, especially with divers and snorkelers, as is Koh Lanta, found off Thailand’s west coast. Visitors who time their trip right can experience the majesty of a Buffalo Fighting Festival on the heavenly Thai island of Koh Samui. Koh Samui is the most popular destination on Thailand’s eastern coast, perhaps due to its endless beaches and casual style.

Thai Green Curry
Thai Green Curry

As Southern Thailand is located on the Malay Peninsula, its culture is heavily influenced by its border country, Malaysia. Its cuisine is rich in seafood and extremely spicy; red and yellow curries generously laced with coconut milk are popular southern Thai staples. Kaeng tai pla, perhaps the region’s most famous dish, is an incendiary curry, flavoured with fermented fish stomach and intestines.

While the majority of Thailand’s inhabitants practice Buddhism, the southern Thai provinces are predominantly Muslim. Many customs and practices, such as wearing the hijab, reflect the Islamic faith.

When planning southern Thailand tours, it’s helpful to remember that the two main island destinations, Phuket and Koh Samui, feature alternate peak travel seasons. The best time to visit Phuket is between November and April, while Koh Samui enjoys its best weather between February and October. The entire southern peninsula is known for year-round intermittent rain showers.

Suggested Itineraries for Southern Thailand:
8-Day Phuket Beach Escapes
10-Day East Thai Island Hopper
10-Day West Thai Island Hopper
4-Day Koh Samui Stopover
8-Day Samui Beach Escapes

Kata and Karon Beach in Phuket
Kata and Karon Beach in Phuket

If you’re ready to check a trip to Thailand off your bucket list, check our website for information on planning the perfect Thailand vacation package.

Suggested Thailand Itineraries:
10-Day Classic Thailand Featuring Koh Samui
10-Day Classic Thailand Featuring Phuket

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Globetrotting Editor
Globetrotting Editor
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