Frangipani trees, delicious food, lush jungle landscapes... Not selling you yet? How about beautifully designed temples, elephants, interesting culture and amazing artworks. No? What about world class café culture, waterfalls and fantastic trekking? Thought that would get you there!
Unlike the busy south, where tourists flock to drink vodka buckets on white sandy beaches of the Thai Islands, or visit the bustling cosmopolitan capital of Bangkok - Northern Thailand moves at a slower pace. Life in North Thailand is relaxed, the people are more welcoming and the food is undeniably better! If you’re after of glimpse of what Thailand was like 30 years ago, point your compass due north and head for the hills.
The main base for North Thailand is Chiang Mai. This lush, green city is surrounded by temples, sprawling hills and has some of the best café culture in the world! Chiang Mai is infamous for its elephants, artwork and food. With the crackdown on the treatment of elephants, there has been an overhaul of elephant sanctuaries. Instead of riding elephants, the focus has been shifted to interacting with them ethically, such as helping feed and bathes them. A good ethical one is the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary.
If you’re more of a foodie than an animal lover, head to the trendy Nimman district to have excellent coffee in Instagram-worthy cafés! There’s a never ending list of cafés and restaurants to try. My favourites were Rustic & Blue and Ristr8to – they give the Aussie café scene a serious run for their money! For more authentic Thai food head to the Old Town where Saturday and Sunday nights are abuzz with streets stalls and you can sample local dishes for cheap. Definitely try the famous Thai dessert, mango sticky rice – you won't be disappointed! The markets are also a great place to pick up locally made artwork and jewellery - you’ll be wanting a bigger suitcase to bring everything home!
For a more cultural experience, you can visit one of the many temples that are sprinkled around the country. Must-visits include Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai’s main temple complex that overlooks the city. Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chedi Luang located in Chiang Mai’s old town are both stunning but the most eye-catching temple in North Thailand is Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai.
More commonly known as the ‘White Temple’, this intricately designed temple glows so brightly it hurts your eyes. This contemporary and unconventional work of art is the reconstruction of an old temple by a local artist as an offering to Buddha. Whilst it’s not the most sacred of temples in Thailand, it is hands down the prettiest! At first glance you won’t know what part of the temple to focus on. It is a truly extraordinary temple to visit and you will never lack for new ornate, gothic and entirely extravagant details to examine. Beyond its blindingly white exterior, the main temple is right by a large pond that reflects the details of the temples in its waters. Be sure to have plenty of memory on your camera or rolls of film on hand for this visit as you could fill books with photos of the numerous sculptures and tiny details the White Temple is comprised of. You can take a day trip to the White Temple from Chiang Mai or stay in Chiang Rai, quoted as being the ‘up and coming Chiang Mai’.
To see North Thailand on foot, you can arrange a hiking trip that can take you high in the hills where you might get the opportunity to witness how the secretive hill tribes live. Be aware that many travel agents will use the hill tribes as a lure into booking a trip. While tribes such as the Long Neck Karen tribes are fascinating, they are often treated like a human zoo. There are ways around this; you just have to search for an ethical tour group.
If you want to venture outside Chiang Mai, head to the small town of Pai for a laidback, backpacker vibe where most of the hill treks start from. Visit the Golden Triangle, where Myanmar, Laos and Thailand meet on the Mekong River. You can take a boat ride and claim that you visited three countries in one day - a clever option if you’re short on time! Hike up to the highest point in Thailand at Doi Inthanon National Park and see the beautiful temple gardens in a cooler climate. Or simply just relax and let the laidback vibe of north Thailand take take over.
Getting around is fairly easy whether you choose to venture out on foot, have a private driver or use public transport. Public transportation is everywhere, flooding the streets with taxis and smaller vehicles called tuk tuks. Thai taxis in particular stand out: instead of opting for the usual yellow, they paint their cabs bright neon colours of the rainbow, hence their nickname “Rainbow Cabs.”
Tuk tuks are an institution for Thai residents. The tuk tuks differ in style as you move around the country, but tuk tuks are used by residents to travel short distances. If it is your first tuk tuk experience be sure to snap a photo from within the small vehicle or, if you prefer spectating, snap a photo of a loaded down tuk tuk to show your friends. Keep in mind that prices are usually negotiable so have a go at getting yourself the best deal when hitching a ride.
There is no shortage of things to see and experience in Northern Thailand. Thailand is a friendly country with rituals, buildings and ways of life that are sacred to them and they are happy to share with you. Bring your camera and be ready to capture uniquely Thai scenes everywhere you go. If you’re looking to do more than just lie on a beach, the north is for you. It gives a better perspective of the Thai people and their kindness and generosity, and you’ll come home with a whole new appreciation for them.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by the author and those providing comments are theirs alone, and are meant as travel inspiration only. They do not reflect the opinions of Cover-More Insurance. You should always read the PDS available from your travel insurance provider to understand the limits, exclusions and conditions of your policy and to ensure any activities you undertake are covered by your policy.