Warmer than Norway and greener than Greenland; as “norths” go, the north of Thailand is pretty brilliant.
Getting there is pretty simple as the Bangkok – Chiang Mai train is not only fast, efficient and cheap, it’s also a Southeast Asian travel rite of passage. Choose first class and a private air-conditioned sleeper compartment. Go second to sit or sleep, or go third and enjoy the fact that you’ve saved a a bit of doh and you sit up for hours on a flight anyway, right?
Travel overnight to make the most of your time, but travel by day to soak in the scenery. Bordering Laos and Myanmar, Northern Thailand is slightly cooler in temperature than the hot south and rivers and rice fields meet rolling shades of green that cover hillsides throughout this ancient and luscious land. It’s a romantic notion sitting on a train, watching the scenery go by and reading a book or contemplating life, but the time is yours, the scenery free so enjoy yourself with all you see.
Although Chiang Mai itself can be busy and feel over-crowded at times, you’ll get a feel for the laid-back atmosphere of place. There is a big student scene giving it a buzz plus loads of ancient historic sites to check out. The moated old quarter for one is less built-up because any new buildings cannot be built higher than four storeys high.
Then there are the Buddhist temples that will give you an insight into the teachings and rituals of Buddhism. The oldest temple is called Wat Chiang Man, the most revered Wat Phra Singh, and the humblest and (arguably) the prettiest is Wat Phan Tao.
Chiang Mai is also a perfect base for trips deeper into the northern jungles. You can visit diverse hill tribe villages like Ban Mae Jok, low-rise houses made of wood and surrounded by quiet green gardens.
Whereas Chiang Mai is a brilliant hub for the more well-known treks and excursions, Chiang Rai is the jumping off point for the more undiscovered parts of the north, close to the border with Laos. Here you can sail down the Mekong river, see the town of Mai Sai which is the border crossing into Myanmar, or learn about the history of the area at the Hall of Opium.
Chiang Rai itself is small but beautiful, the architectural highlight being the ghostly but ornate white temple of Wat Rong Khun. If you fancy taking something better than knick-knacks home with you this is also a great place to take on a cooking course ready to impress everyone back home.
Lampang is the third largest town in Northern Thailand and capital of Lampang Province. The large town is another good base for day trips or to revive from a mountain hike. It’s still relatively quiet in terms of tourism compared to Chiang Mai, so you’ll feel you’ve strayed into an undiscovered Thai town.
Again there isn’t a lack of temples to visit, and the architecture and history of these Lana-era temples will stay with you for the rest of your trip. You’re probably starting to get the picture of how important religion and temples are to Thailand, especially in the North.
But it’s not all temples and treks, because you can’t forget the most important part of visiting a country…the food! (See, we hadn’t forgotten your stomach). Gaang hanglair is a pork belly dish that literally melts in your mouth, and we can’t forget the Northern Thai sausage (aka Sai Oua). Or give Sukhothai’s signature dish a go – it combines rice noodles, sweet broth, pork, green beans, and so much goodness. Yes, our mouths are salivating too!
STUNNING MOUNTAIN TRIPS AND BEYOND
Go East of Chiang Mai and you’ll find the beautiful marked trails of Doi Khun Tan National Park. Go West and you’ll discover Mae Hong Son which means “the city of three mists” and is surrounded by the Shan Hills. If breath-taking mountain scenery is your thing take the time to get out to places like Pai, a small hill station town that is popular with treks and activities within the Mae Hong Son Province and near the Myanmar border. And if rivers are your cup of Thai tea then head further north to the Kok River.