Most trips to Thailand centre around the bustling capital of Bangkok or the nation’s paradise islands, like Koh Samui, but I think there’s a lot to be said for visiting the north. It’s here that you’ll find some of the nation’s most incredible scenery, great locations for trekking, and cities brimming with cultural attractions.
If the idea of exploring Thailand’s lesser-trod north appeals to you, read my brief introduction to the region – hopefully, it’ll give you a little inspiration when creating your itinerary!
Ask most travellers to name a destination in northern Thailand and you can pretty much bank on them saying Chiang Mai. Once upon a time, this city acted as a convenient base for hikers planning on trekking through the northern hills and, while it still acts in this capacity to a certain extent, it’s also become a destination in its own right.
The genius of Chiang Mai lies in its juxtaposition of old and new. Here, you can see historic temples standing side-by-side with swish hotels – and this really does reflect the culture of the place as a whole. There’s so much traditional culture to discover, but Chiang Mai is also, in many ways, a very modern city.
Among the top things to do while you’re here is head into the mountains to trek among rice paddies and meet hill tribes, visit some of its 300-plus temples, explore the old city and hit the Night Bazaar. A sprawling market, the Night Bazaar provides an unforgettable experience, comprising shops and stalls selling everything from designer goods to traditional hill crafts.
Not yet as popular as its larger neighbour, Chiang Rai is nonetheless slowly becoming known to more and more travellers. Part of Chiang Rai’s appeal is that it’s a quieter place to experience the history and culture of the north (compared to Chiang Mai), while it is also home to amazing natural landscapes.
The mountains lining the north of the city are loaded with brilliant treks, so this is every bit as good a base for walkers as Chiang Mai. Plus, Chiang Rai is fantastic for tackling jungle hikes and wildlife spotting. One thing you should remember, though, is that you ought to visit the Population Development Association’s Hill Tribe Education Centre before planning a hike to a hill tribe (unless you’re travelling as part of a tour group, that is).
Translating as ‘dawn of happiness’, Sukhothai is famous for its spectacular ruins, which have been so well restored that it’s easy not to think of them as ruins at all. Dating back to the 13th century, this city experienced its heyday under the rule of King Ramkhamhaeng and these days is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A visit here is a real must during your time in the north, since the number of temples and monuments to see is pretty unbelievable. If you can, go at night to view them lit up in all their glory; that said, the area is usually open from 08:30 to 16:30 local time, so you need to check whether there will be any late openings during your stay.
While stunning, Sukhothai can get very busy. Kamphaeng Phet, however, is much less so. The ruins here date back to around the 14th century and, as this is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, you should expect to be just as awed here as you would be at Sukhothai.
The ruins are not far from the modern city, with some just north of it. The bulk of them, though, are a few km away – but they’re well worth the trip!
The city of Phayao, meanwhile, is a real hidden gem, with its pretty lakeside setting and traditional wooden houses. The star of the show, however, is Kwan Phayao – northern Thailand’s largest swamp. Yes, I realise ‘swamp’ doesn’t exactly sound appealing, but it’s actually very pretty, and the sunsets here are to die for. So, add it to your to-do list!