The Northern region of Thailand differs considerably from the rest of the country, both in climate and geography as well as culturally and linguistically. This diversity has attracted travellers year after year since the late 1970s and over time the region has developed into one of the prime destinations in Thailand.
Many consider the north to be the birthplace of some of the earliest Thai-speaking kingdoms. The best-known of these was Lanna, with its capital at the seven-century-old city of Chiang Mai, which altered between independence and Burmese or Siamese control until Siam took hold of it for good in the late 1800s. Displaying hints of the Burmese influence in the temple architecture and cuisine, the northern region is still pervaded by an exceptionally elegant Thai traditional culture that reflects glimmers of this rich history.
Extremely mountainous and in some areas still blanketed in teak forests, travellers are attracted both to the cooler climate and the very popular trekking opportunities that can be experienced in the far north. The hills and mountains are populated by a great number of ethnic minority groups—Akha, Lisu, Hmong, Karen and Lahu to name a few—many of whom have traditional clothing, culture and language that are totally foreign not only to travellers but also to other Thais. The opportunity to go trekking in the north, spending an evening or two in a minority village is, for many, one of the most memorable experiences of their trip to Thailand.
Traditionally Chiang Mai has been the trekking centre of Northern Thailand, followed by Chiang Rai and Pai. But nowadays, with millions of tourists heading to the north, you can go trekking from just about any one of the provincial capitals. Many base themselves in an outlying destination in an attempt get a more "authentic" experience, but regardless of where people decide to trek from, they're pretty much guaranteed to see something special.
While there are many possible places to use as a trekking base aside from the above, Mae Hong Son, Nan, Soppong and Umphang are arguably the most popular alternative options.
Aside from the minority groups, the north also has a wealth of national parks. Nan province alone is home to six individual parks, including Doi Phukkha. Doi Inthanon is home to Thailand's highest peak, while the underrated Phu Chee Fah beckons you to venture further afield. For nature lovers planning on spending some time in the hinterland, Northern Thailand can be very rewarding.
There's a wide range of other activities that have appeared over the years—white water rafting, elephant riding, rock climbing and yoga to name but four. Pai has developed into one of the key destinations for those looking for a bit more activity and a little less hammock-resting. Or, if you really want to get off the trail, head to the old KMT hangout of Mae Salong—one of the least Thai towns in Thailand.
Then there's the cultural side of the north. The cities of Sukhothai and Kamphaeng Phet each have a rich heritage—and the ruins to prove it. Chiang Mai itself is overflowing with magnificent centuries-old temples and most of the other provincial capitals, including Lamphun, Lampang, Phrae and Phitsanulok, have at least one or two famous wats.
Northern Thailand is also one of the popular gateways to Laos. Many travellers head to the border crossing town of Chiang Khong, where they cross the border and take a two-day, one-night slow boat trip down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang.
One of the best things about the north though is that if you want to wander off by yourself and swim in the pool of a little known waterfall, you can. The big-ticket destinations are all well-touristed, but for every one of those, there's a half dozen other places nobody seems to know about. Don't forget to take your explorer hat with you.
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