Ringed by the Dawna Range to the west, the Daen Lao Range to the north and part of the Luang Prabang range to the east, Northern Thailand is surrounded by Myanmar and Laos respectively. This mountainous land is covered in teak forests and presents travellers with an opportunity to get away from the party lifestyle in the south and enjoy some amazing views and trekking.
The original home of the Thai people following their migration from Southern China, the region initially enjoyed independence as the Lan Na kingdom centered on Chiang Mai, before coming under alternating Burmese and Siamese domination, until finally becoming a permanent part of the Kingdom of Siam in 1805.
One of the many gorgeous temples in Chiang Mai
In stark contrast to the hectic beaches and parties of Southern Thailand, the people and culture here are decidedly more relaxed, with a focus that leans more towards authenticity and nature trekking than wild full moon parties on the beach. Tai Yuan (Northern Thai) form a clear ethnic majority, but minorities like the Hmong, Akha, Lawa and others are present in sizeable numbers up in the hills and mountains.
The dry season lasts from November to May, with the first four months being cool, averaging 20 to 23 degrees, and the subsequent three warm, with temperatures sometimes rising above 40 degrees. It cools down to an average of around 30 degrees during the rainy season, but the heavy showers make it a bad time to visit if you’re here for the region’s many trekking opportunities.
Acting as the central hub of Northern Thailand as it has for centuries, Chiang Mai and its surroundings contains a plethora of ancient temples. The star attraction among these is easily Wat Doi Suthep, with its golden spire, but many others like Wat Phra Sing, Wat Chedi Luang, and Wat Chiang Man can be found not far from town.
The city also houses some great museums, with the Chiang Mai Historical Centre and Lanna Folklife Museum the true standouts.
Northern Thailand is the premier trekking destination in the country
Of course, since this is northern Thailand, the real highlight is the amazing trekking opportunities. Truly the trekking hub of Thailand, Chiang Mai offers all styles, from short day trips to long multi-day adventures deep into the forest. If you want to spend a day or more pretending to be a monkey as you fly through the treetops, book a visit to the “Flight of the Gibbon” experience for a truly unique time.
Another place to set out on amazing mountain and valley treks is Chiang Rai. With a much more rugged and authentic feel than Chiang Mai, the province is littered with various ethnic minorities that can be visited. The famous “white temple” of Wat Rong Khun is also located here, which is a sight to behold even to the most temple-weary traveller.
For the temple-enthusiast, a visit to Sukhothai is definitely warranted. This ancient Thai capital boasts as many as 193 different ruins and historical sites, and is especially exciting in November when the Loy Krathong Festival is held.
Finally, the sleepy mountain town of Pai has been steadily growing in popularity. While there are fewer sights than in Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai, it’s a great place to relax and enjoy some incredibly varied food options, from perfectly made western cuisine to cheap local favourites at the nightly food market. Due to the recently paved roads and lack of traffic, it’s also a fantastic opportunity to rent a motorbike and explore the countryside. A drive westwards into the mountains towards Mae Hong Son town is a highlight, and lets you stop at several viewpoints and the amazing Lod Caves along the way. Pai is also home to a wonderful organization called “Conserve Natural Forests”. This non-profit organization is primarily concerned with reforestation as the name suggests, but they also rescue elephants who have suffered abuse at one of the many elephant riding camps in the country, and give them a better life free of exploitation.
Cycling is a great way to experience the amazing nature and culture of Northern Thailand
In terms of cuisine, Northern Thailand shares much with its neighbours in eastern Myanmar, Northern Laos and Southern China. Lao staples like Larb and Khow Soi are common, albeit with a distinct Thai twist, usually in the form of spice. Fried insects act as a common snack sold by street vendors, popular with the local people here.
In summary, Northern Thailand is a great place to go to unwind after the madness of the South, or simply to enjoy its natural beauty, relaxed vibes and rich history.