The Northern part of Thailand was once part of the ancient Lanna Kingdom. The word Lanna meaning land of million rice fields…. And that’s what the lush countryside is like: rice paddy fields and fruit orchards, steamy jungles, rivers, waterfalls and verdant forests, and up in the misty mountains, amongst the stunning scenery and breathtaking beauty, there are a myriad of different hill tribe villages with bright colourful costumes that have their own languages, cultures, history and traditions. Elephants used to work in the teak forests in this part of the country, and nowadays we have several elephant camps to visit to see how these gentle giants were trained.
This part of the country is bordered by to the West and North by Myanmar, and to the East by Laos. The local people up here and the local people here are known for their warmth, and the ladies for their fair complexions, beauty and grace. The northern weather can be deliciously cool in the winter months and you may need a sweater or jersey in the evenings.
The North has some of the widest choices of hotels to choose from at some of the best value prices you will find in Thailand. There’s small family style boutique and chic hotels secreted away in the back streets of the towns, to typical downtown city hotels, to lovely mountain retreats and resorts tucked away up in the hills. Most hotels up here have pools, so if catching the sun’s rays is a concern, it is still possible to enjoy all that this gorgeous part of Thailand has to offer and yet go home looking brown and tanned!
Although nowadays well-travelled, the Northern provinces still have some secret and unknown hideaways to tempt adventurous travellers where you might prove to be the only foreign faces for miles around.
Thailand’s second city is Chiang Mai, an hour or so’s flight to the North of Bangkok. The city is affectionately known as “The Rose of the North”. The city is over 900 years old, and was once the capital of the Lanna Kingdom.
Take a walk and lose yourself in the tiny streets of the old city within the moat and old city walls where you can come across 36 active temples, each totally unique and different. Chiang Mai’s Night Bazaar is a must see, with many stalls of handicrafts and souvenirs to shop at. Have a look for the local artists who compose the most beautiful and amazing pencil and charcoal drawings that have as much detail as a photograph.
Take a trip out of town up to see the city’s most famous and beautiful temple on Doi Suthep for beautiful views over the city. Further up the same road lies the Royal Family’s winter residence, the Phuping Palace, which has a beautiful botanical garden to see. Climb up further still to visit an interesting White Meo hill tribe village.
Taking the road due North of the city towards Fang and the border with Burma, it’s well worth visiting the Chiang Dao Elephant Camp. In a jungle setting you can see elephant bathing time, feeding time, elephant logging demonstration, and have an elephant ride through the jungle to a Lisu hill tribe village, return walking up the Ping river, and returning back downstream by bamboo raft. Some say this being the most exceptional day trip they have experienced in Thailand.
Chiang Mai is THE place to visit during two of Thailand’s most famous festivals.
During the hottest time of the year, in mid-April, it is Thai New Year, and the water festival in Chiang Mai is celebrated with more verve and passion than in any other place, and it is huge fun (for a while anyway!). As a visitor, simply leaving the safety of your hotel during the festival days will guarantee you a good natured thorough soaking, sometimes with icy cold filthy water from the moat, so be prepared and dress accordingly. Covering valuables (from phones to cameras to money and credit cards) in waterproof protection is an absolute must!
The evening of the full moon in November sees the beautiful Loy Krathong festival. Here in Chiang Mai it is also known as the Yi Peng festival. It is a truly spectacular sight to behold. The skies are filled with thousands upon thousands of ‘Khom Lois’ (floating lanterns) carrying the wishes of the local people heavenward.
This province lay at the heart of the notorious Golden Triangle with its drug trade in former times. The region lies at the confluence of two rivers: the Ruak coming from Burma, and the mighty Mekong River, the most important waterway in this part of Asia, flowing down from its source in China through Thailand and Laos and onto Cambodia and Vietnam.
As you will see from all this descriptive text, this really is one of our favourite places to visit in the Kingdom!
The northernmost point of Thailand is in the small market town of Mae Sai in Chiang Rai province where a fascinating day trip to visit the small Burmese town of Tachilek is possible. It’s quite amazing how the atmosphere changes as you cross the border over the small river. Tachilek has a number of temples and monasteries to explore by tuk tuk, and the market has goods at exceptionally good prices. Add on an afternoon boat ride on the Mekong River and you can visit a small island in Laos called Don Sao… so you get to visit all three countries all in one day.
Chiang Saen, just south of the Golden Triangle, is a curious juxtaposition of the ancient and the new. Ruins of the ancient kingdom that date back many centuries sit check by jowl with modern day villagers’ homes. A stroll through the streets and you can discover the old city walls and ancient temples alongside a nice place for noodles at lunchtime.
Where the two rivers meet, at the Golden Triangle itself, opposite the Anantara Golden Triangle Resort, you will find one of the most remarkable museums you can see in the world. The amazing interactive Hall of Opium is well worth its entrance fee and you should allow at least 2 hours to visit it. Developed by the late Princess Mother, this interactive museum is an extraordinary sobering experience showcasing the history of Opium and the drug trade that went on in this part of the world in former times.
For many years, the late Princess Mother (The mother of His Majesty the King) spent much of her time in Switzerland near Lausanne. Her last home and residence, the Doi Tung Royal Villa was built in the style of a Swiss Chalet mixed with local Lanna architecture. From her base on the mountain, the Princess Mother oversaw many projects to help local villagers eradicate opium cultivation and developing new sources of income, new crops and new ways of helping the poorest people. A visit to see the Royal Villa, which is now a museum, is most worthwhile and to visit the lovely Mae Fah Luang Arboretum and Gardens on the slopes below, as well as the twin Chedis of Doi Tung Temple further up the hill. Try some of the locally grown coffee while you are up there.
One of the most interesting places in the province is the small village of Doi Mae Salong. Kuomintang troops and their families fled to this area of Thailand after Mao Tse Tung’s victorious long march and revolution in China. Still very Chinese in character to this day, the people have brought with them tea cultivation. The hills at the top of the pass are covered in tea plantations. It’s worth trying some of the local varieties of white and green tea produced here as well as learning the finer points of Chinese tea making!
The small provincial town is charming, and has an interesting night market to explore. The original Wat Phra Kheow is here that once housed Thailand’s most sacred Buddha image, the Emerald Buddha, before it was brought to Bangkok. One of the province’s most famous sons, and now one Thailand’s foremost National Artists, Chalermchai Kositpipat’s work can be seen throughout the small town. He painted the remarkable mural at the Thai Temple in Wimbledon in the UK. And his work is evident at the shrine to King Mengrai (the founder of both Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai), and in the town’s clock tower. Please be sure to see the dazzling sound and light display at the clock tower at 7, 8 or 9 o clock every evening.
On his return from London, Chalermchai started construction of his tour de force: the stunning and remarkable White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) a few kilometres to the South of Chiang Rai. Perhaps the most amazing temple in the Kingdom, it is simply awesome to behold. Mostly white and silver, it has just one room of another colour: the public toilet, which is gold. He started construction of it in 1996, he has 3 teams of artisan workers working on the building (old, medium and young), and it is due for final completion some 74 years later in 2070 which will be after his own passing. But what a remarkable legacy to leave this town!
The small border town of Chiang Khong on the banks of the Mekong River make for a pleasant stay and provide the jumping off point for crossing into Laos and the town of Huay Xai. From here you have a choice of various boats & speeds (from 7 hours to 2 days) that will take you down the Mekong to the beautiful town of Luang Prabang. Chiang Khong is also famous on this stretch of the river for a species of giant catfish called Pla Buek. Sadly this giant fish’s existence is now severely threatened with extinction as various dams are built upstream in China and Laos.
Trucked away inland is one sight that foreigners rarely get to visit: Phu Chee Fah (Point to the Sky Mountain) where people come to witness the sunrise. It’s a mountain with a sheer cliff face that seems to point to the sky. Thailand is at the top, and Laos, if you fell down it, at the bottom. You climb the path in the dark to the top of the cliff and watch the sunrise through the mist at the top. It’s cold up there, but what a wonderful experience. Not to be missed!
Visitors taking the overland route with its tortuous bends through the mountains, used to be welcomed by the Mayor in Mae Hong Son and presented with a certificate to show that they had achieved this feat of endurance. Nowadays people take a short prop plane ride from Chiang Mai across these mountains, or they a break on the journey at the small quaint and pleasant town of Pai on the way.
Pai became famous in Thailand after a movie was made called “Pai in Love” which attracted so many visitors that many new hotels, inns and guest houses were built to keep up with demand. The number of hotel rooms per head of population in Pai must be the greatest number in Thailand! But it is such a lovely place to see.
Before getting to Pai, there is a small turn off down that so few people know about to see the hot springs and geysers (yes, we have some in Thailand): the bathing waters are incredibly hot, but it’s such a beautiful location. Come see it with us, we will show you the way!
Mae Hong itself is a quiet, small sleepy provincial town; it nestles on the border with Burma, and shows a lot of Burmese influence in its temples and architecture. It’s the land of misty mountains where dotting the hills around the town in autumn and early winter are the wild golden sunflowers (Dok Bua Thong). The morning market is worth a visit at dawn, but the best day trip here includes an elephant safari through a teak forest, exploring the small town and its two temples (one by the lake, one on a small hill), seeing the fish cave and some of the surrounding forests, and a long tail boat ride along the river to visit the incredible long necked Karen hill tribes village.
Taking the southern route back overland to Chiang Mai if you have the time is worthwhile, pausing at another charming and little visited town, Mae Sariang.