The mountainous northern region of Thailand draws plenty of visitors to its charming combination of genuine culture, wilderness adventure and unbeatable scenery. The province has the highest mountains and many of the largest waterfalls in Thailand, along with some of its oldest cities and a distinctive Lanna culture that predates the great kingdoms of Sukhothai and Ayuthaya. Tourists can experience the real Thailand here, where crumbling pagodas dot the city skylines, elephants trundle through the national parks and rugged terrain is seldom interrupted by development.
From Chiang Mai visitors begin trips into the mountains – trekking to remote mountain villages, riding elephants, relaxing in plush, isolated resorts and seeking out the wonderful waterfalls and breathtaking views of the many national parks nearby. One particularly distinctive character of Northern Thailand is the presence of the colourful and unique minority hilltribes, whose simple subsistence way of life adds fascination to the tourist appeal of Northern Thailand.
A quick guide to Northern Thailand travel highlights
Chiang Mai itself is a historic city with a 700-year-old town surrounded by a pretty moat, preserved gates and ramparts, and dotted with beautiful, ancient temples and chedis (pagodas). The atmosphere is decidedly laidback, the shopping at the famous Night Bazaar and handicraft villages excellent value, and the inexpensive hospitality make this city one of Asia’s most appealing tourist destinations.
A popular multi-day trip from Chiang Mai is to the isolated frontier town of Mae Hong Son – nestled among mountains on the Myanmar border. The five-hour journey follows a spectacular rollercoaster ride over rugged mountains and through the delightful bohemian town of Pai – a popular backpacker hangout. The return journey via the southern route passes through the lovely Doi Inthanon National Park, which boasts Thailand’s highest peak and some fantastic waterfalls.
Heading north from Chiang Mai is a rewarding drive as you come upon the unmistakeable peak of Chiang Dao – another lofty mountain with a remarkable complex of caves buried beneath it. Continuing north, you can turn off the main route and meander through mountain passes to seek out Doi Angkhang – one of the last wildernesses in Thailand before the Shan State hills of Myanmar roll out before you.
However, a popular option is to continue on to Tha Ton and catch an overnight raft trip to the older and quieter Northern Thailand city of Chiang Rai. Some prefer to seek out the intriguing tea-growing Chinese immigrant communities clustered on the hilltops around Mae Salong. From here, it’s not far to the touristy Golden Triangle, where the mighty Mekong demarcates the border of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos. Nearby is the ancient port city of Chiang Saen.
South of Chiang Mai is sleepy Lamphun, also boasting a moat and historic temples, and once the centre of the ancient Haripunchai Kingdom, predating Chiang Mai even. Farther south is Lampang; another town that attracts some tourists to its important temples.
To truly escape the tourist path of Northern Thailand, you may wish to venture farther to the unspoilt provinces of Nan in the east. Hiring an Enduro bike is one popular way of doing this.