Northern Thailand reveals some of the country’s most breathtaking natural wonders. Steeped in the roots of the ancient kingdom of Lanna, the region’s culture is rich and unique, while its unique cuisine dazzles with exquisite flavours. With its majestic nature, captivating cultures and refined cuisine, what more could you want?
If you’re looking for a travel experience steeped in culture and authenticity in Northern Thailand, this article will plunge you into the heart of this region, providing you with a comprehensive overview before you leave.
Map of Northern Thailand
Northern Thailand is a destination in its own right when it comes to exploring the country’s less beaten track. However, with over 17 provinces, it can be difficult to decide which places are worth a visit. If you’re planning to explore this region, it’s essential to familiarise yourself with the map of Northern Thailand, which is made up of multiple provinces, each offering its own distinctive tourist attractions and cultural features.
Best time to visit Northern Thailand
If you’re planning a trip to Northern Thailand, you may be wondering when is the best time to go. The answer depends on your personal preferences and what you want to do during your stay.
The best time to visit Northern Thailand is from November to February. During this period, temperatures are cooler and more pleasant, with sunny days and cool nights. It’s also the dry season, which means there’s little rain and conditions are ideal for exploring the mountains and forests.
This is also the season for festivals, notably Loy Krathong and Yi Peng, which take place in November.
Outside this period, northern Thailand can be very hot and humid during the rainy season, which lasts from June to October. However, if you’re looking to avoid the crowds of tourists, visiting during the rainy season can be a good option. March to May are the hottest months of the year in northern Thailand.
Best places to visit in Northern Thailand
Among the must-sees in Northern Thailand are Chiang Rai, Pai, Mae Hong Son, Chiang Mai and Sukhothai. But there are also other, lesser-known and less-frequented gems that have lost none of their unique charm. We’ve compiled a list of must-see places in northern Thailand below:
Chiang Mai – the cultural centre of the North
We start our list with one of Northern Thailand’s most renowned provinces: Chiang Mai. Once the thriving capital of the 700-year-old kingdom of Lanna, which dominated the region at the time, Chiang Mai remains one of Thailand’s top destinations for those seeking a place steeped in history, a relaxed atmosphere and nestled among mountains and nature.
Surrounded by the ancient Lanna Walls, Chiang Mai’s old town is home to many stunning centuries-old structures, some of which have survived for more than seven centuries. Exploring the surrounding mountains is within easy reach, as is hiking or visiting hill tribe villages. Gems such as Wat Lok Moli, Wat Chiang Man, Wat Phra Singh and Wat Doi Suthep, perched atop the imposing Doi Suthep mountain, are waiting to be discovered.
Chiang Mai’s historic district is a fascinating place to discover. It is packed with ancient temples, cobbled streets and traditional wooden buildings. Visitors can stroll through the narrow streets, immersing themselves in the city’s history and culture.
Chiang Mai also boasts one of the best night markets and pedestrian streets in the country. Every Sunday, the old town’s main thoroughfare is transformed into a vibrant pedestrian area, offering great opportunities to pick up bargains on goods and souvenirs. And let’s not forget the culinary delights: Khao Soi, the delicious noodle dish specific to this region, and Chiang Mai’s spicy sausages, called Sai Au, are must-tries during your stay in northern Thailand.
Doi Inthanon National Park – the roof of Thailand!
Rising to an altitude of 2,565 metres and located around two hours’ drive from Chiang Mai, Doi Inthanon National Park is home to Thailand’s highest peak, offering spectacular views of its natural surroundings. Visitors are invited to explore the many hiking trails, contemplate the majestic waterfalls and discover the temples nestling in the heart of the park.
Doi Inthanon National Park is home to some of the most breathtaking waterfalls in Chiang Mai province, including the mighty Wachirathan Falls and the magnificent Mae Ya Falls.
At the summit, there are several hiking routes to choose from, including the exceptional Kew Mae Pan trail, which allows you to walk along the mountain ridge. From this privileged spot, you can witness the ocean of clouds hovering over the valley below, a unique sight and Thailand’s highest point. Doi Inthanon is packed with exciting activities, and given its natural beauty and accessibility, it’s definitely one of the places you don’t want to miss.
Mae Hong Son or City of the Three Mists
Discovering Mae Hong Son, this remote province in northern Thailand, opens the door to some of the most enchanting and authentic landscapes Thailand has to offer, in a way that is incomparable to any other region of the country.
Mae Hong Son still retains its authenticity and unspoilt charm, renowned for its lush nature, sumptuous Buddhist temples, colourful markets and traditional villages. Nestling in the heart of a picturesque valley, surrounded by mountains and bordering Burma, it offers spectacular views of the surrounding countryside.
The region is home to a variety of ethnic tribes, including the Karen, Hmong and Lisu. These communities live in traditional villages such as the Chinese ethnic village of Baan Rak Thai, or Ban Nai Soi, a Karen refugee village, where their customs and crafts have been passed down from generation to generation.
Mae Hong Son is surrounded by mountains and lush forests. Hiking enthusiasts can explore trails such as Doi Mae U-Kho National Park, which offers breathtaking views of the region. For the more adventurous, Mae Hong Son National Park offers magnificent hiking trails through mountains and forests, where unique flora and fauna can be discovered, accompanied by picturesque waterfalls.
Pai – a town with a relaxed atmosphere
When you were planning a trip to Thailand, the name Pai probably rang in your ears. Nestled serenely between the valleys of the mountainous region of Mae Hong Son province, Pai is a small village renowned for its breathtaking scenery, natural hot springs and soothing atmosphere.
Visitors are invited to embark on hikes in the surrounding mountains, explore the waterfalls or relax in the hot springs. If you’re looking for places to explore in Paï, you won’t be disappointed, as this charming locality is packed with captivating sites.
For a more active experience, don’t miss the opportunity to hike to the Paï waterfall. This moderate walk will guide you through lush forest to a refreshing waterfall. Another option is to explore Tham Lod, a 1.6km-long network of caves through which a river flows. Studies have revealed that Tham Lod served as a burial site for the prehistoric populations who lived in this region from the late Pleistocene to the late Holocene.
For a panoramic view of the city, visit the Pai Canyon viewpoint. This spectacular natural site offers incredible views of the surrounding mountains and rice terraces. For an insight into the local culture, explore the hill tribe village of Pai. You will have the opportunity to learn about the daily life of the inhabitants, their crafts and their traditional cuisine.
Chiang Rai – temples, markets & Golden Triangle Park
Chiang Rai may appear to be a quiet provincial town with little to do, but in reality there is much more to it than meets the eye.
For one thing, Chiang Rai is home to the White Temple, a veritable jewel among the country’s temples. This architectural masterpiece is entirely covered in extremely fine sculptures and engravings, fashioned in glass and highlighted in a dazzling white. It’s a unique creation, unlike anything you’ve seen before. Not far away, the Blue Temple painted entirely in blue stands like another work of art.
For outdoor enthusiasts, Khun Korn National Park offers great hiking terrain, with breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains. If you fancy a more serene experience, the botanical garden at Mae Fah Luang invites you to marvel at a plethora of shimmering flowers and exotic plants.
For an authentic immersion in the local culture, don’t miss the tribal villages in the surrounding hills, particularly the village of Doi Mae Salong. Here, you can immerse yourself in the daily life and customs of the local ethnic minorities.
Finally, for a unique culinary experience, head to Chiang Rai’s night market. Here you can savour local delicacies such as khao soi, a spicy and tasty noodle dish that will awaken your taste buds to a palette of exquisite flavours.
Talk about Golden Triangle, this name still conjures up images of poppy fields, opium-smoking hilltribes and clandestine laboratories hidden in the jungle. The Golden Triangle is 9 kilometers from Chiang Saen city and 70 kilometers from Chiang Rai.
The truth is that, currently, the dangerous border air of this region survives only in the past (at least in the Thai part), and the Golden Triangle of Thailand is a region that attracts many travelers, who decide to include this region within their route – often as a day trip from Chiang Rai city – lured by the myth.
Sukhothai and its historic ruins
Sukhothai is an ancient city in the province of the same name. It is famous as a must-see destination for its historic ruins, dating back to the 13th century, and for travellers keen to discover Thai history and culture.
When visiting Sukhothai, it’s impossible to miss the city’s historic park. This is one of Thailand’s largest and most renowned parks, home to numerous temples and historic monuments. The park is divided into five main zones, each offering a unique experience. The central area, which includes temples such as Wat Mahathat and Wat Si Chum, is the largest and most popular.
Apart from the historic sites, Sukhothai also offers a variety of outdoor activities. Travellers can explore the surrounding mountains on mountain bikes or go hiking in Ramkhamhaeng National Park. The local cuisine is also a highlight, renowned for being both delicious and affordable.
Unlocking the secrets of Thailand’s northern mountains
Far from the golden beaches of the south, the north of Thailand fascinates with its high peaks covered in dense vegetation. From Chiang Mai, you can set off to meet the country’s mountain ethnic groups. In Pha Daeng National Park, formerly known as Chiang Dao, you will come across the Lahu people. The traditional outfits of these hunters, which vary according to the ethnic group to which they belong, colour the surrounding villages.
If you love hiking and trekking, the summit of Doi Luang Chiang Dao, at an altitude of more than 2,000 m, is also in your sights. Accompanied by a guide on a moderate to difficult trek, you tread the tropical forest floor, which clears from time to time to reveal a panoramic view over the valley. In the early hours of the morning, the pink hues of the rising sun envelop the peaks and offer a magical moment.
Around 70 km from Chiang Mai, Doi Inthanon National Park is home to Thailand’s highest peak, at 2,565 m, and is full of natural wonders! Here, you can watch the rock form the path of the Mae Ya and Wachirathan waterfalls. But above all, don’t hesitate to visit the Hmong or Karen populations, to better understand their way of life and their relationship with nature.
Northern Thailand itinerary – How many days?
First of all, it’s essential to understand that Northern Thailand is a vast and diverse region, captivating, steeped in culture and history, with plenty of sights to explore. If a trip to Northern Thailand is in your plans, it is highly recommended that you plan your itinerary carefully and allow several days to fully savour this enriching experience.
A typical itinerary for a visit to Northern Thailand might include stops in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Pai and Mae Hong Son. Here is a suggested itinerary that will allow you to discover the region’s must-sees:
Naturally, this itinerary is flexible according to your wishes and the time you have available. The length of your stay in the North will depend on your interests and your budget. If you’re passionate about culture and history, you might prefer to spend more time in historic cities such as Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. On the other hand, if you’re drawn to nature and outdoor activities, spending more days in national parks or rural areas might be preferable.
How can visit Northern Thailand?
There are several options for organising your trip. For a start, you can opt for a tour organised by a travel agency. This approach may be a good idea if you want to follow a pre-planned itinerary and be accompanied by a local guide who will provide you with information about the sites you will be exploring.
Alternatively, you can hire a car or motorbike and set off on your own. This option can be more economical and gives you the opportunity to discover less-frequented and more authentic places. Nevertheless, it is crucial to bear in mind the risks associated with driving in Thailand, particularly the density of traffic and sometimes the poor condition of the roads.
Public transport is also available to get you around Northern Thailand. Buses are often affordable and reliable, but can be slow and uncomfortable. Trains are another option, although the rail network is not very well developed in this region.
It’s important to consider a few tips to make the most of your trip. By following these tips, you can make the most of your trip to Northern Thailand and discover the beauty and cultural richness of this fascinating region.
First of all, it’s a good idea to find out about the weather before you leave, as conditions can vary considerably depending on the season. It’s also advisable to bring clothing that’s suited to the heat and humidity, as well as any rain that may fall.
Next, it’s important to choose the right means of transport to get around the region. Trains and buses are economical and practical options for getting between towns, while hiring a scooter, tuk tuk or bicycle can be a good option for exploring rural areas. However, it is important to drive carefully and obey traffic regulations.
It is also advisable to find out about the customs and traditions of the region so that you can respect the local culture during your trip. This includes respecting temples and shrines, as well as cultural practices such as wearing appropriate clothing when visiting religious sites. It’s also important to respect local customs when it comes to food and behaviour.
In conclusion, Northern Thailand is a region rich in culture and beautiful scenery, packed with fascinating destinations to discover. Whether you’re interested in spectacular history, architecture, culture or nature, you’re sure to find something to your liking in this region. So go ahead and plan your next trip to Northern Thailand now! Enjoy your trip!