Where to go in northern Thailand

After Bangkok, Chiang Mai is among Thailand’s most-visited cities, and a jaunt up north figures prominently on the itineraries of both first-time and repeat visitors. But there’s plenty more to see than Chiang Mai alone – not that the green northern capital doesn’t boast plenty of attractions of its own that make it more than worth a visit. Here are our recommendations of the spots to take in on a trip around northern Thailand.

Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai in northern Thailand - photo by Andrea Schaffer

For most visitors to northern Thailand, Chiang Mai is the first – if not the only – stop. The pace here is slower than in Bangkok, and the landscape is greener – though that’s not to say that Chiang Mai hasn’t grown and developed enormously as its tourism footprint has increased.

Still, it’s a great place to take in famous sights like the hilltop temple of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep and the mountainous greenery of surrounding Doi Suthep national park – both have great views over Chiang Mai city.

Chiang Mai is also home to countless stunning waterfalls and other natural attractions, as well as boasting endless choices when it comes to authentic northern Thai food, some of our favourite in the country. Tuck into staples like khao soi noodles, gaeng hunglay curry, and nam prik noom spicy chilli dip.

Read our other posts on Chiang Mai: 

Chiang Rai

Wat Rong Khun (the White Temple) in Chiang Rai, northern Thailand - photo by NuCastiel

Long since a popular spot for travellers keen on trekking to remote hilltribe villages, Chiang Rai – right at the very top of Thailand, and bordering both Laos and Myanmar – has nevertheless maintained a lower-key profile than neighbouring Chiang Mai, one that’s more closely attuned to the idea of eco-tourism.

These days, primary attractions in Chiang Rai include spectacular Wat Rong Khun, more affectionately known as the White Temple, which is undoubtedly one of the more unusual Buddhist temples you are likely to visit in Thailand. This all-white structure mixes traditional design associated with Buddhist temples alongside elements of pop culture that will stop you in your tracks – and which have certainly led to Wat Rong Khun’s existence prompting some degree of controversy.

Away from Wat Rong Khun, Chiang Mai has the usual mix of night markets, daytime fresh markets and cooking classes to keep visitors entertained, while the city and its surrounds also remain a popular centre for hiking and trekking. In particular, on the outskirts of the province, Phu Chee Fah and its surrounding mountaintops make for a worthwhile visit for those looking to take in some undeniably impressive vistas.

Pai

Pai in northern Thailand - photo by Maksim Million

Pai is probably more famous for the long, twisting and gut-wrenching road that connects it to Chiang Mai than it is for anything else. While in the past the city – in northern Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province – forged itself a reputation as a drug-fuelled home for hippies, these days Pai combines a persistent backpacker vibe with an increasing choice of health-conscious retreat-style activities like meditation, yoga, and various kinds of detoxes.

And though it’s now, more than anything else, a place to hang out and relax, visits to nearby waterfalls and hot springs remain popular, as does motorbiking the surrounding area. Just be warned: Pai can get ridiculously busy (and therefore also more expensive than usual) during the high season of the winter months, so you may wish to think carefully about when you travel here. 

Phayao

Phayao Lake in Phayao, northern Thailand - photo by Thanate Tan

Phayao doesn’t see much in the way of foreign visitors, but it’s a pleasant spot to while away some time and, as provinces go, it packs in much of what makes draws tourists to northern Thailand in the first place. As long as you don’t come expecting a fully developed traveller scene, you’ll find a laid-back city with a photogenic lake, and plenty national park action to keep you occupied, too.

If you’re truly looking to escape civilisation for a while, Phu Lang Ka is among our favourite places to do it. This truly isolated mountaintop village – it really is a bit of a pain to get to, but that’s half of the attraction – has some basic accommodation that puts you in a perfect spot to soak up some of the cool season’s beautiful fog-filled vistas over the ocean-like limestone karst landscape below (we wouldn’t recommend it so much the rest of the year, when it gets wet and much less pleasant).

Sukhothai

The ancient city and former Thai (then Siam) capital of Sukhothai province is another draw-card for visitors to northern Thailand. The heart of the attraction here is UNESCO-recognised Sukhothai Historical Park, a recreation of partially restored temple and palace ruins from the 13th- and 14th-century peak of the Sukhothai period.

Sukhothai is a fantastically romantic, atmospheric and photogenic destination in which to celebrate Thailand’s annual water-themed festival of Loy Krathong, but it’s equally a place that’s worth visiting year-round in order to take in the striking history conveyed by the impressively restored relics, which can be comfortably explored by bicycle.

Nan

Nan in northern Thailand - photo by Bart van Poll

Until just a few decades ago one of the last strongholds of Thailand’s communists, these days environmental concerns mean it’s a lot more difficult to use Nan as a base for trekking than it has been in the past – but that doesn’t stop it from being a place worth visiting.

Nan continues to play host to an excellent selection of national parks, and the provincial capital itself is a fine place to relax and do some low-level sightseeing at its many temples in-between caffeine pitstops at the numerous coffee shops and similar joints that have sprouted over years without ever really attracting the kind of numbers of overseas tourists that you might expect.

Lamphun

Lamphun in northern Thailand - photo by Jennifer

One stop before Chiang Mai on the railway line north from Bangkok, miniscule Lamphun is about as far off the tourist trail as you’ll get in northern Thailand, but it’s a province steeped in history. The lack of visitors is probably explained by the lack of much in the way of tourist attractions, aside from Mon-style temples dating to around the seventh century and countless monuments to Queen Chamathewi, an important figure from this period who founded the Haripunchai Kingdom in what is now Lamphun. All that said, history buffs will feel right at home here.

Expique tours and experiences to make the most of your stay in Thailand

Make the most of your visit to Thailand with a nighttime tour – get to the heart of Bangkok’s culture, food and sightseeing with one of our expert-led evening tuk tuk tours!

At Expique, we’re experts at showing you the unique parts of Bangkok and elsewhere in Thailand that most tours don’t take you to – and which you probably won’t discover on your own. Joining one of our tours or experiences (or having us create a custom tour for you) is a great way to make the most of your time in Thailand and ensure you leave with a memorable experience.

Essential information for your visit to Thailand

Are you visiting Thailand? Take a look at our expert recommendations for:

Where are your favourite places to travel in northern Thailand? Let us know in the comments!

Photos by Andrea Schaffer; NuCastiel; Maksim Million; Thanate Tan; SurLaRoute.fr; Bart van Poll; Jennifer

Want to explore more of Thailand? Contact us about arranging to come on a custom-curated adventure with Expique.


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