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This part of Thailand borders Myanmar to the north-west Laos to the north-east and China is very close and influences trade here. It belonged to the Lanna Kingdom from the 13-18th century, the 'Kingdom of a million rice fields' and was also ruled several times by Burmese. Northern Thailand is ringed by high mountains, teak tree forests and well stocked rivers and its fertile valleys and plains are a rich source of agriculture. Until today there are still many different hill tribes (Karen, Lahu, Hmong, Lisu, Lua, Akha and Palong). They all have their own customs, language, dress and spiritual beliefs. Opium cultivation was a major source of income for many of the hill tribes and the government worked hard to eradicate this cultivation by successfully substituting it with other crops, such as cabbages, fruits and tea. This is known as the 'Royal Project', initiated by King Rama IX, and commended internationally for its success. Another source of income is tourism. Unfortunately there are parts of Northern Thailand where mass tourism destroyed the genuine character of some villages
Chiang Rai and Golden Triangle
To the very north of Thailand, you find Chiang Rai, Chiang Saen and the 'Golden Triangle'. This is where the 3 borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet and until 1980 notorious for it's opium trade, the biggest grower in the world and it was a rebel-controlled area. Today it's a very popular destination for day tourists, where you will find an endless parade of tour buses to see the border, the nice town of Chiang Saen and the 'House of Opium'.
Chiang Rai is is small provincial town along the Nam Kok river and often a base to explore the northern region. It has several beautiful temples, the most famous is located in the south of the city, the bizarre Wat Rong Khun (White Temple). A Thai artist started constructing the temple in 1997 and it is a white glittering porcelain temple, with many symbols of contemporary Buddhist and controversial modern scenes.
From Chiang Rai there are many tours and treks to tribal villages, although many are very touristic. Especially the 'Long necks', sometimes referred to as 'human zoos'.
Thaton is a pitoresque village and Mae Salong is one of the most scenic places with rolling hills and you find tea plantations here.
Pai - Mae Hong Son - Mae Sariang
West of Chiang Mai, along the border with Myanmar, you find the province of Mae Hong Son. It's a remote province with windy mountain roads and a cross road for etnic minorities. Most tourists don't make it further than Pai, which has become quite touristic. The area around Pai has scenic views, waterfalls (after rainy season) and hot springs. You can go trekking, rafting or kayaking. Going on to Mae Hong Son village, you will see that roads get quieter. You can go trekking, see villages and Burmese-style temples. It's best to visit this region from Nov-Febr, when it's cool and beautiful (and cold at night). March-May can be very hot here. Mae Sariang has an attractive riverside setting, with hill tribes around, a lot of jungle and few tourists.
Phayao - Nan - Prae - Lampang
East of Chiang Mai, along the border with Laos you find an area, unknown to foreign tourists. Phayao is a quiet city on the shore of big Phayao Lake and is an important wetland. It's surrounded by mountains and rice fields and can be a nice stop between Chiang Rai and Nan. The ancient city of Nan lies in the wide Nan River valley with rough mountains and beautiful scenery, inhabited by hilltribes like Yao, Hmong, Htin, Khamu and Mabri. Nan has a rich culture and history, as it was an isolated independent kingdom. Phrae and Lampang are both surrounded by city walls and prospered by it's lucrative teak trade and have a lot of antique teakwood mansions. There are also some beautiful temples in both cities, inhabited by many monks. Lampang is known for the horse carriages. Nan, Phrae and Lampang are all earmarked by government as 'hidden gems' and will be promoted as tourist destination. Don't wait too long to discover these so far untouched cities!
The Sukhothai Kingdom flourished from 1238 for 200 years and had 9 kings and had an area even larger than that of Thailand nowadays. It is viewed as the Golden Age of Thai civilisation. Sukhothai Historical Park is Unesco World Heritage site and one of Thailand's most impressive. The total park is 70 km² and the central area alone contains 21 temples. The ruins of the main temple is Wat Mahathat, the spiritual focus of the king and has several huge Buddha statues. Other interesting temples are Wat Phra Phai Luang (one of the oldest temples in Sukhothai), Wat Sri Chum (enormous Buddha image (15m high)), Wat Chang Lom ('Temple Surrounded by Elephants) and Wat Saphan Hin ('Temple of the Stone Bridge'). Sukhothai Historical Park is the best place in Thailand to celebrate Loy Krathong, a traditional festival of light held over nine nights around the full moon of the 12th lunar month (October or November).