Mountains, forests, waterfalls, Buddhist temples, trekking, elephant rides, small towns and ancient cities: Northern Thailand is, to many visitors, the “real Thailand”. From the old temples in Chiang Mai to the national parks and mountains around Mae Hong Son, North Thailand is a fascinating place to visit. If you are used to the Southern beaches, the North offers a completely different view into Thailand, its history and its culture.

Chiang Mai: Temples, Markets and Thai Massage

Chiang Mai is the capital of Northern Thailand and very popular with tourists and expats, who see it as a quieter alternative to Bangkok. Surrounded by forests, mountains and national parks, Chiang Mai is famous for its Buddhist temples, its Thai massage schools and its excellent street markets. Once the centre of the Lanna Kingdom that ruled this part of Thailand for hundreds of years, Chiang Mai is known for its hundreds of Buddhist temples. Many are located in Chiang Mai’s old town, where narrow lanes are lined with old wooden houses and where ancient temples stand next to modern guesthouses.

The most famous temple in the area, however, is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep (wat is the Thai word for a temple or a monastery). Located on the Doi Suthep mountain just outside Chiang Mai, this temple was originally built in the 14th century and is one of the holiest Buddhist shrines in North Thailand.

Chiang Mai’s Night Bazaar is where most visitors go shopping and there are few things you cannot find at this giant street market, but you will need to bargain hard. When your feet are tired from walking around the market stalls, enjoy a traditional Thai massage. Chiang Mai is a centre for learning Thai massage but although nearly every hotel, guesthouse and shop offers massage treatments, one of the most traditional and reputable places to get a massage is the Old Medicine Hospital.

A good destination for a daytrip is the picturesque Mae Sa valley with its waterfalls, elephant camps and botanic gardens.

Pai: Waterfalls, Elephant Safaris and Backpackers

Pai is a lively small town in the middle of an idyllic valley, surrounded by rice fields, forests and waterfalls. When the first foreign tourists arrived in Pai years ago, it was just a small village that attracted mainly those who travelled on a shoestring budget. Today rows of guesthouses and shops line the streets and the banks of the Pai River.

Elephant safaris are popular with visitors, and several elephant camps around Pai offer elephant rides and chances to bathe the animals in the river. The waterfalls around Pai are good places to go for a swim on hot days when the water is refreshingly cool. An easy way to explore the surroundings is to rent a small motorbike for a day.

Buses and minibuses travel the 130 km between Chiang Mai and Pai several times a day.  Those prone to travel sickness may want to consider the regular, slower buses. The minivans drive fast and tackle the curves in a way that is guaranteed to make you carsick.

Landscape view of Pai city, Thailand.

Landscape view of Pai city, Thailand.

Mae Hong Son: Treks and Temples

Mae Hong Son is a small town built around the Jong Kham Lake and it is also the capital of the Mae Hong Son province. Daily flights from Chiang Mai bring a growing number of visitors to Mae Hong Son, but it has avoided over development and has retained a small town feeling.

Two 19th century Buddhist temples stand by the Jong Kham Lake: the gilded pagodas of Wat Chong Kham and Wat Chong Klang rise above the lake and make a dramatic sight at night when the temples are fully lit. Both are built in the Burmese style and contain wooden statues and other artifacts that originate from the Myanmar side of the border. Another fascinating Burmese-style Buddhist temple is Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu that looks over Mae Hong Son from the top of a nearby hill.

Treks to the surrounding mountains are another big tourist attraction. Hill tribes, including Shan, Karen, Lahu, Lisu and Musoe, live in the mountain villages, and members of some of the hill tribes come to Mae Hong Son to sell arts and crafts at markets. Although many live a traditional lifestyle, the amount of tourist visiting the villages on their treks has led to an increasing Western influence on the old ways of life.

The famous “long neck women” belong to the Padaung tribe and have crossed the border from Myanmar (Burma) to escape repression by the Myanmar government. The women wear brass rings around their necks, and although it looks like the necks are stretched, the rings actually crush the women’s collarbones. Western pressure groups have called the long neck villages “human zoos” and have pointed out that treks may help to keep the custom alive. Some tour operators still offer treks to the “long neck villages” but others have stopped the practice because of ethical concerns.

Thailand meets Laos and Myanmar in the “Golden Triangle” and if you want to visit the border and the border markets, Mae Hong Son is a good place to arrange trips.

The Mae Hong Son Loop

The Mae Hong Son Loop is a 600 km route that connects Chiang Mai, Pai and Mae Hong Son. This circular road travels through the Mae Hong Son Province from Chiang Mai via Pai and Mae Hong Son before returning to Chiang Mai. Other attractions along the route include the Doi Inthanon National Park and the small town of Mae Sariang, and motorcyclists enjoy the route for its 1864 curves. Public buses and private minivans connect Chiang Mai, Pai, Mae Hong Son and Mae Sariang.

When to Visit North Thailand

The best time to visit North Thailand is between November and March, when the weather is pleasant and not too hot during the day (although nights can be surprisingly chilled, especially in the mountains). The hot season from March to May can get uncomfortably hot. June to October is the rainy season, and heavy rains can sometimes affect travel in the mountainous areas.