Northern Thailand

Northern Thailand

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.

Elsewhere on Travelfish: Highlights of Northern 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.

37 destinations in Northern Thailand

Learn more about Chiang Dao
Chiang Dao

Caves and mountains

Learn more about Phu Lang Ka
Phu Lang Ka

Clouds amid the karsts

Learn more about Pai

Busy trekking centre

Learn more about Phu Chee Fah
Phu Chee Fah

Quite a view

Learn more about Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai

Thailand’s northern capital

Learn more about Tha Ton
Tha Ton

Famous for the Kok River trip

Learn more about Chiang Rai
Chiang Rai

Plenty to see and do

Learn more about Mae Salong
Mae Salong

Least Thai town in Thailand

Learn more about Umphang

Gateway to an impressive waterfall

Learn more about Nan

Well worth the side trip

Learn more about Kamphaeng Phet
Kamphaeng Phet

An ancient fortress

Learn more about Sukhothai

An ancient Thai capital

Learn more about Soppong

Spectacular mountain scenery

Learn more about Si Satchanalai
Si Satchanalai

Ancient satellite of Sukhothai

Learn more about Bo Kluea
Bo Kluea

Ancient salt mines and mountain views

Learn more about Wiang Haeng
Wiang Haeng

Remote border region

Learn more about Mae Sariang
Mae Sariang

Bucolic mountain outpost

Learn more about Mae Sot
Mae Sot

Bustling on the Burma border

Learn more about Phrao

Scenic stopover

Learn more about Lampang

Elephants and horse carts

Learn more about Pua

Launching point for Doi Phuka

Learn more about Doi Inthanon
Doi Inthanon

Thailand’s highest peak

Learn more about Mae Wang
Mae Wang

River trips and hill tribes

Learn more about Lamphun

The history runs deep

Learn more about Doi Khun Tan National Park
Doi Khun Tan National Park

Undisturbed forest

Learn more about Mae Hong Son
Mae Hong Son

Tranquil temple town

Learn more about Fang

Odd name, great scenery

Learn more about Chiang Saen
Chiang Saen

A sleepy historic centre

Learn more about Chiang Khong
Chiang Khong

A popular border town

Learn more about Phayao

Take a load off by the river

Learn more about Phrae

Steeped in history

Learn more about Phitsanulok

P’lok will do just fine

Learn more about Sob Ruak
Sob Ruak

The Golden Triange

Learn more about Khun Yuam
Khun Yuam

Sunflowers and a waterfall

Learn more about Mae Sai
Mae Sai

Infamous border town

Learn more about Tak

A low-key river town

Learn more about Hot

Cool off in Hot