For a taste of authentic Thai culture, exploring Northern Thailand is an ideal alternative to the crowded and westernised Southern islands. This genuine and fascinating area is the birthplace of the first Thai kingdom, the Lanna Kingdom (meaning “land of a million rice fields”). It is thus historically at the crossroads of several civilisations and cultures, the traces of which are still to be found.
Although reasons to visit this region are countless, the 5 following hit the top of the list.
Breath-taking landscapes and wildlife
Nature is undeniably the highlight of the North. The forested hills landscapes and national parks offer many possible activities for visitors. A 1-day trek to the Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s highest spot with an elevation gain of 2,565m (also said to be the bottom of the Himalayan mountain range), is definitely a must-do. The arduous trail to the summit goes through outstanding high-flow waterfalls (such as the Wachirathan or Mae Klang waterfalls), coffee plantations, and small villages. Climbing up the Naphamethinidon & Naphaphonphumisiri stupas (built as a tribute to the Kind and Queen’s 60th anniversary) will reward you with a view over rice fields as far as your eyes can see. Encounters with typical birds and insects are also to be expected!
If traveling by car, scenic routes such as the Mae Hong Son Loop will take you on a 600km-ride through lovely cities to reach the most remote locations.
Impressive (old & new) temples
In Chiang Mai, the walled capital city in the North, dozens of lanna-architecture temples dominate the old fortified city. Dating as far back to the 13th century, they are particular in terms of shapes, colours, materials or ornaments. Enjoy a day touring the temples all reachable by foot and do not miss: Wat Chiang Man (the oldest in Chiang Mai), Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chedi Luang, and Wat Lok Moli (my preferred Wat).
This province not only features old temples, but also more recently initiated contemporary temples. Near Chiang Rai, one can admire picture-perfect architectural creations, still to be completed.
The renovation of the White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) began in 1997 as a tribute to Thailand’s King and is expected to be completed in some 70 years. It was designed and is privately funded by Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, whose peculiar creativity and attention to details is reflected in this imposing all-white and shiny temple representing the purity of buddhism. The exterior facade features mirror fragments while the entrance bridge is surrounded by mysterious reaching arms symbolizing desire. The artist’s museum is worth a visit to apprehend his works and style.
Of different style, the Blue Temple (Wat Long Suea Ten) is another not-to-be-missed contemporary temple. The construction began in 2004, but being publicly funded, full completion might take many years. Visitors attention is caught from the exterior: striking mix of intense blue and gold with 2 great dragons guarding the entrance. Words cannot describe the stunning interior, probably the most beautiful in Thailand, where the magnificent paintings and the huge white Buddha create a peace of mind atmosphere.
Northern Thailand shares historical ties with its neighbouring countries. The strong cultural influence is visible on many aspects such as the typical clothes, language, or food. Going up to the Golden Triangle (former prosperous region for opium trade) provides a better understanding of the relations and trade between Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and China. From the viewpoint, one can see the border between the 3 countries materialised by the Mekong River. From the northernmost city of Mae Sai, it is possible to cross the border with Myanmar and spend 1 day in Tachileik (500TB will be charged at the immigration office).
Many hill tribes originating from China, Tibet or Myanmar (the famous Karen or “Long Neck”, Akha, Lisu, Lahu, Yao, Hmong, and Lawa) have migrated to Thailand and still preserve their traditional way of living. Tourist-targeted villages have emerged and became very popular attractions, thus loosing their authenticity. To visit the genuine hill tribe villages and for a unique experience, it is advised to take part in a volunteering programme.
If compared to chaotic Bangkok, cities in Northern Thailand are becoming a tourist favourite for their walkable size, less polluted air, quieter traffic, and friendly atmosphere. Locals are extremely kind and willing to help despite some language-barrier misunderstandings. Even being the only foreigner in some situations feels safe.
All conditions are thus met to fully appreciate your stay, so sip a nice cocktail or party hard at Zoe in Yellow (Chiang Mai), enjoy a cup of freshly brewed coffee at Akha Ama Cafe or Wawee Coffee (Chiang Mai), treat yourself with a day at the spa and appreciate a Thai Massage or shop natural herbal products at Herb Basics.
Local products & crafts
Food is a witness and relic of history and cultural influence. Burmese/Chinese-influenced Northern Thai cuisine is no exception. Strolling around the night market stalls is the best way to discover the wide range of typical dishes such as Khao Soi Curry, Thai sausage, and many other pork and noodle-based dishes. Chiang Mai is thus a logical place to take a Thai cooking class. For a fun experience, pick a farm school outside the city such as Smile Organic Farm Cooking School. The class usually starts with shopping ingredients at a local market, and continues with a tour of the organic garden where people get to choose their fresh herbs. Depending on the duration of the class, learners cook a 5 or 6-course menu of choice including an appetizer, a soup, a stir-fried, a curry and a dessert.
Crafts and its preservation is also a way of perpetrating traditional savoir-faire. Night bazars are filled with hill tribes objects and little souvenirs of all sorts. The weekend market in Chiang Mai is the most famous and eclectic market in Northern Thailand for local crafts items, street food and music. Yet Chiang Mai boasts a rich creative scene. The trendy arts & crafts area of Nimmanhaemin (West of the city centre) has now many galleries, ateliers, boutiques or coffee places where one can shop unique crafts items as souvenirs.