When I think of a trip to Northern Thailand and particularly of planning a tour in this area of the country, I go back in time to when, prior to the trip, my imagination was sparked by the pages of Tiziano Terzani, the documentaries of Folco Quilici and the diaries of Giuseppe Tucci. I used to watch Asia from afar like those children who daydream about adult stories, imagining that they would soon become grown-ups enough to begin their own journey. Eventually, I became an adult and Northen Thailand a dream come true: I actually had a chance to go there, so what was I missing? A guidebook. You can solo travel, go backpacking, wear good shoes and have plenty of time, and after all, that’s what I did.
Yet, experience has taught me that a tour of northern Thailand, or a trip to discover the remote temples of Cambodia, requires a lot of time to overcome the unexpected, to adapt to the culture, to the relationships with the local populations. And, if the plan is to go trekking to get close to the local ethnic groups ,then a guide on what to see in northern Thailand is essential. A knowledgeable guide, who won’t push too hard or rush things, in short, a guide who is patient and can be trusted.
Finally, I got to northern Thailand by visiting surreal locations such as the Black House in Chiang Rai, passing through freaky villages such as Pai, surrounded by the river and rice paddies; I visited the Tham Lot Caves, captured in the beautiful photographs of John Spies; at last, I followed the flow of the Mekong River to Luang Prabang.
That was my tour of Northern Thailand, a trip that over the following years gave me more than I could have imagined; it was an adventure that still feeds my imagination and keeps shaping the tours I organize. As hard as I try, there is no set itinerary for your trip to Northern Thailand: you build the trip and we take care of the rest.
What to see in northern Thailand: highlights
Sukhothai: the ancient capital
Even if you are not a history buff a visit to the Sukhothai Archaeological Park is well worth it. The whole site is impressive, a complex of temples surrounded by nature, among trees, ponds and villages. The ancient capital that would give birth to a nation, Thailand as we know it today, is one of the most interesting places in northern Thailand. There are over 190 sites to visit, not all worthy of note, but the extent of the territory on which the archaeological complex stands is truly impressive. The main attractions are the Wat Mahathat and Wat Si Chum embellished with bas-reliefs depicting religious scenes. Brick towers frame a huge Buddha statue over 12 meters high, while the ubiquitous rain trees (Samanea Saman) with their characteristic roots sticking out of the ground are a perfect sunshade on hot days.
Chiang Mai: the new city
In Thai language Chiang Mai means “the new city” and is certainly one of the main highlights of northern Thailand. Relatively small, with a population of 150 thousand, it was founded at the end of the 13th century amidst the imposing mountains of Doi Suthep and Pui to the west, while a few kilometers to the east are the rolling hills of Doi Saket. In addition to the must-see Wat (temples) of which Chiang Mai is rich, there are plenty of sites to explore in this city. The Wat Chedi Luang is the ancient royal temple built over 700 years ago and located not far from the museum district. Wat Phra Singh is one of the most popular worship places among the people of Chiang Mai, located a short distance from the market street. There are also some outstanding museums such as the Chiang Mai Historical Museum and the Lanna Folk Traditions Center.
Chiang Rai: the northernmost city in Thailand
Chiang Rai is an ideal base from where your trips can begin to get in touch with the local ethnic groups of northern Thailand, however, Chiang Rai is also a location that is worth a few days visit to appreciate its unique religious buildings and much more. The Wat Rong Khnu is known as the White Temple, designed by the visionary painter and national artist whose name is unpronounceable, Chalermchai Kositpipat. It is white as a celebration of the purity and perfection of Buddhist doctrine. Within the gate, hundreds of outreaching hands greet visitors, along with gruesome statues of monsters symbolizing the transience of life as well as colossal demons with swords ready to intimidate humans. Completely different is Baan Dam, the famous Black House, a surreal and impressive museum created by Thai artist Thawan Duchanee.
Northern Thailand Excursions
Chiang Mai is one of the best locations to start a trek in northern Thailand. The ability to adapt to the context in which the excursion takes place is fundamental, whether the excursion is more or less challenging. The Doi Inthanon National Park gets its name after Doi Inthanon Mountain, one of the highest in Thailand with an altitude of 2,565 meters. The Park is home to 365 species of birds with villages of the Karen and Mae Hmong ethnic minorities. The rushing Wachirathan waterfalls with a drop of 80 meters and the impressive caves are just some of the natural highlights that you can see in this park, one of the largest in Thailand.
The city of Chiang Rai is an excellent starting point for a northern Thailand tour. Starting from the city, the itinerary leads to the tribal villages of the Akha and Yao ethnic groups, while riding an elephant along the Rim-Kok River, we reach the villages of the Karen tribe. Departing from Chiang Rai, on board of a motor launch and along the Mekong River, we reach the picturesque island of Don Xao, where it is possible to find the most curious and unusual handicrafts.
Northern Thailand: tours in the legendary Golden Triangle
The Mekong is the backdrop to the unmissable souvenir photo, as being in Northern Thailand, in the Golden Triangle, means being in a legendary location, which has sparked the imagination of more than one director and writer back in the days when this territory was the crossroads of trafficking of all kinds. The states of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos meet here amidst a unique natural setting – the best way to end this Northern Thailand tour.
When to visit Northern Thailand
The best time for a trip to Northern Thailand is from November to the end of March. Keep in mind that the weather in Asia, just like the rest of the world, may be changing. This means that you could extend your stay or even consider taking your Northern Thailand trip beyond April. During the dry season, the weather is not affected by monsoon currents and temperatures are pleasant between 20 and 25 degrees. Northern Thailand is mountainous; therefore, temperatures may drop significantly at night in some areas along the Laotian border or at higher altitudes. Appropriate clothing, such as thermal sweatshirts and k-way (raincoat) is the ideal solution to enjoy your excursions in Northern Thailand without discomfort.