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Northern Thailand

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Northern Thailand shares borders with Myanmar and Laos, as well as with the Central Plains and Isaan.


From north to south:

Regions of Northern Thailand
Chiang Rai Province
The Golden Triangle, ethnic minorities, mountain trekkings, opium warlords, etc.
Chiang Mai Province
Home to Lanna culture, and the gateway to the northern region.
Mae Hong Son Province
The great Mae Hong Son loop with Pai, hill-tribes, spectacular mountains and lush valleys.
Northern River Valleys
Mountainous valleys and interesting towns that are mostly unexplored.
Lower Northern Thailand
The North-Central Plains, the ancient centre of Thailand, with Sukhothai, Si Satchanalai and Kamphaeng Phet.


  • Chiang Mai — the largest city in the north, well known for its temples
  • Chiang Rai — the usual access point for the Golden Triangle
  • Mae Hong Son — a picturesque little town with lush valleys
  • Nakhon Sawan — one of the larger cities in the lower end, gateway to the north
  • Nan — former capital of a small kingdom, filled with history and temples and surrounded by mountains
  • Pai — a laid-back backpacker atmosphere and a good starting point for trekking tours
  • Phitsanulok — a good overnight stop between Bangkok and Chiang Mai and a gateway to the Sukhothai historical park
  • Sukhothai — Thailand's original capital, now famed for the ancient Sukhothai ruins
  • Kamphaeng Phet — the ancient city of the Diamond Walls, springboard for the rise of Sukothai

Other destinations[edit]

  • Mae Sariang- Hidden gem of the north, a peaceful small town valley, off the tourist trail high in authenticity and hilltribe culture
  • Mae Hong Son- Most mountainous and forested province in Thailand, with unique cultural identity due to borders with Myanmar and Shan ethnic minority population
  • Doi Ang Khang — mountain resort northwest of Chiang Mai
  • Doi Inthanon National Park — Thailand's tallest mountain with beautiful nature and waterfalls, frost in winter
  • Doi Tung — royal villas and a mountaintop temple with stunning views and (so they say) the Buddha's collarbone
  • Golden Triangle — a bit of a tourist trap, but the opium museums are worth a visit
  • Mae Sai — Thailand's northernmost town, daytrips to Myanmar
  • Mae Salong — famous for oolong tea, founded by Chinese Nationalists fleeing after their defeat in the war
  • Thaton — also spelled "Tha Ton", small village on the banks of the Kok river with good guest houses, nice view
  • Thungyai-Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuaries — the largest protected area in Southeast Asia, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991


Wat Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai

Surrounded by the tallest mountains in Thailand, Northern Thailand is cooler than the rest of the usually sweltering country and thus particularly popular in December and January. In the mountains at night temperatures occasionally dip below freezing, although in the plains the daily average is rarely less than 25 Centigrade.

Culturally, Northern Thailand shows heavy influences from the neighboring cultures of Myanmar and Yunnan (China). The kingdoms of Lanna (centered at Chiang Mai) and Sukhothai were the first historical Thai nations.

Much of northern Thailand was for a long time off limits due to a series of Communist insurgencies and Myanmar's drug battles and civil wars spilling over the border. Both problems have been largely resolved, although caution is still advised near the border with Myanmar in the provinces of Tak and Mae Hong Son.


Temple sign in Thai (upper) and Lanna (lower), Chiang Rai

The people of Northern Thailand speak their own dialect of Thai called Kham Meaung (or Kham Muang; คำเมือง), however standard Thai is widely understood. In addition, the hill tribes speak their own languages.

Here and there, especially at temples, you may spot signs written in a curious rounded script that looks more like Burmese than Thai. This is Lanna, the ancient script of the Lanna kingdom, and while very few people can read or write it anymore, it's still popular in ceremonial usage.

Get in[edit]

By plane[edit]

The main airport in Northern Thailand is Chiang Mai, which has connections throughout Thailand and some international links too. Domestic flights (some of which may be seasonal) connect with Bangkok, Chiang Rai, Ko Samui, Mae Hong Son, Nan, Pai, Phitsanulok, Phuket, Sukhothai and Udon Thani.

By train[edit]

Trains from Bangkok go regularly to Chiang Mai via Phitsanulok.

By bus[edit]

There is an extensive bus network with the main backbone being between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. From Chiang Mai, buses head north-west to Mae Hong Son and Pai, and further north to Chiang Rai. Bus from phitsanulok to mae hong son

Get around[edit]

By plane[edit]

Regular flights connect Chiang Mai with Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son, Pai, Hat Yai,Phitsanulok and Sukhothai.

By train[edit]

The only railway line within Northern Thailand runs between Chiang Mai and Sukhothai (and further on to Bangkok).

By road[edit]

There is an extensive network of public bus services with major hubs in Phitsanulok, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai.

Minibuses, songthaews and tuk-tuks also serve many places which are not directly accessible by bus. Cheap but not always comfortable.

By car[edit]

There are many car rental companies but driving in Thailand is not for the faint hearted. The driving etiquette and rules take some getting used to. The rural parts of northern Thailand are mountainous, and whilst most main roads are in good condition and asphalt covered, there can be some sharp and steep curves to navigate especially in Mae Hong Son. A driver can be added onto the daily rental for only a few hundred baht extra per day. This takes the stress out of driving, so you can enjoy the ride.

By bike[edit]

Northern Thailand has some of the best biking roads in the world, which pass through some stunning scenery. For the more adventurous traveler the best way to explore the area is by motorbike. There are a number of places in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai where one can hire bikes or you can use a tour company to remove all the 'red tape' freeing you to simply enjoy your vacation.

The most reputable motorcycle tour company is Thai Motorcycle Tours [5] (Tel: +66 (0) 86 231 0097) who run bike tours in both Chiang Rai and the Mae Hong Son loop. For renting your own bikes, try Mr. Mechanic at 4 Soi 5, Moonmuang Rd, Chiang Mai, Tel: +66 (0) 5321 4708, [6].

See[edit][add listing]

Mae Sariang Valley on the Mae Hong Son Loop Itinerary
Chiang Dao National Park
Phu Chi Fa Mountain North Thailand

The rolling hills and sweeping mountains, lush green forests and nature, are some of the visual delights of Northern Thailand.

The mix of ethnic people such as the hill tribes, Shan (Tai Yai), Burmese and mainland Thais make it a rich melting pot of cultures. The rich cultural and historical tapestry of Northern Thailand one of the most authentic places to visit in Thailand.

North Thailand also shares many borders with Myanmar and Laos, so its possible to see these borders or even visit for the day. Such as at the Golden Triangle, the meeting point of 3 countries (Thailand, Laos, Myanmar) on the confluence of the Mekong River.

Temples in Chiang Mai and historical sites in Sukhothai are the major cultural attractions of Northern Thailand, the birthplace of Thai civilization. When invaders pushed a Thai prince from Chiang Saen and the Golden Triangle in 1015, he moved his court to Kampangphet, a city that coalesced into the Thai Sukothai kingdom battling Ankor kings for control of the Thai plains, and then a key plank in Thai deffence against Burmese invasion.


Do[edit][add listing]

  • Asian Motorcycle Adventures Co. Ltd. (Motorcycle tours across Thailand and the Asian continent), 50 Moo 6, Tambon Huaysai, Amphur Sankampheng, Chiang Mai, 50130, Thailand (hang Dong Road to Sankampheng Highway), (66-[0]80) 493-1012, [1]. 8:00-20:00. Guided motorcycle tours across Thailand and the Asian continent. Company-owned rentals: BMW f800GS and Kawasaki KLX 250. Various. (N18 45.937,E98 56.581) edit
  • Hill tribes, +66 85 548 0884 (), [2]. It is a major attraction. There are about 7 main hill tribe groups (Akha, Lisu, Lahu, Yao, Hmong, Karen and Lawa), who migrated from neighboring China, Tibet and Myanmar to the rural highlands of northern Thailand. Their traditional way of life as farmers in the mountains is a fascination to many travelers in the region. There are touristic hill tribe villages in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, which have been visibly set up for the purpose of tourism, requiring an entrance fee and with villagers selling souvenirs. These are widely advertised as part of 1day package tours from Chiang Mai. Or there are 'Hill tribe trekking' package tours from 1-5days are available. This involves walking in the forest, visiting hill tribe villages and may include elephant riding and rafting. These will mostly be a very commercial and 'canned' experience, a few tour operators and providers do offer more authentic experiences. To visit authentic hill tribe villages, the best way is to hire a local guide and your own transport. This will allow you to venture off the main tourist trail where you will find there are many hill tribes still living traditionally. Whilst some operators attempt to limit the damage by restricting the number of visitors and employing local hill tribesmen as guides, the competition is tough and many simply aim to minimize costs and maximize profits.  edit
  • Trekking, +66 083 152 3621 (), [3]. It is one of the main attractions in northern Thailand, there are trekking tours suiting everybody's needs. From one-day-all-inclusive to tours which last several days you can choose whatever fits you best. Many tours include rafting and elephant riding.  edit
  • Volunteering, [4]. It is a great way to experience the real culture of north Thailand as it exposes you to local people and children, and often offers the traveler a chance to live in a Thai community for anywhere between a few days and a few months.  edit

Eat[edit][add listing]

A bowl of khao soi kai, with pickled cabbage and lime to add to taste, in Chiang Rai

Northern Thai food is somewhat different to that eaten in the rest of the country. Northerners prefer sticky rice over steamed, bitter flavors to hot ones, and avoid using coconut milk. The favored meat is pork, which finds it way into a variety of sausages (cooked or fermented) and whose skin is fried as the ubiquitous snack khaep muu. The traditional way of sampling Northern food is a low round table known as a khan tok, laden with dishes. Some favorites include:

  • kaeng hang le - a Burmese-style pork curry
  • kaeng khae - a soupy curry flavored with bitter herbs
  • khao soi - a curry noodle soup reputedly of Burmese origin much favored in Chiang Mai, served with shallots, lime and pickles to add as you like
  • khanom jiin naam ngiew - rice noodles with pork ribs and a complex tomatoes and black bean sauce
  • nam phrik - covering a variety of spicy dips for rice and vegetables

Drink[edit][add listing]

Sleep[edit][add listing]

While the larger towns (Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Phitsanulok) offer a broad range of accommodation, in the smaller villages the tourist has to refer to guest houses and smaller hotels. Prices are usually lower than in Bangkok. Booking ahead (using the Internet or travel agencies) may give you better rates at some hotels.

Get out[edit]

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