Header image courtesy of @karlkreimer (Instagram)
Even if you’ve visited Thailand before, you’re probably far more familiar with the names Phuket and Koh Phi Phi than you are with Nan, Chiang Sean, and the Mai Sai border. The country might be gaining exponential backpacker popularity in recent years, but for whatever reason, most tourists head south of Bangkok rather than north. Of course, Chiang Mai serves as a haven for those wanting a break from island life, but not many venture further north than that. Ready to take on the challenge of some of Thailand’s northernmost places? Here are all the spots to add to your list.
You’ll almost definitely be familiar with the dazzling Wat Rong Khun (or “White Temple,” as it’s more commonly known) that makes up the backdrop of Chiang Rai. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not actually a Buddhist temple, but a privately-owned art exhibit designed to look like a temple. However, it’s still an unmissable spot and makes up a large chunk of the reason why people venture up to Chiang Rai.
If temples are your thing, you’ll find plenty of them nearby. The Blue Temple is an ornate structure worthy of many an Instagram shot. Wander around and take in the ambience before crossing the road to cool off with an iced coffee. Chiang Rai also has an excellent night market, which boasts stalls set up by local traders alongside a range of food and drink, clothes, jewellery, and souvenirs. If you’re travelling on a budget, the bazaar food court should be the place to head for dinner. If you’ve got a bit more money to spend, head to the nearby fine dining market. And don’t rush off when you’ve finished—stick around to watch an evening of Thai dance and music unravelling in front of your eyes.
Travelling by road is the common route between Chiang Mai to Pai and you’ve got two options at your disposal: catch a bus or ride a motorbike. While the former might be safer, the latter offers incredible views throughout the winding path up north. This small town in northern Thailand is known for its stunning landscapes and must-see waterfalls so make sure to save time to explore both.
While you’re there, take in the sheer size of the Lod cave, slip and slide your way down the Mor Paeng waterfall (just watch out for the slippery staircase at the bottom), and explore the stunning green countryside by motorbike.
Visiting outside of the hot season? Take a dip in the hot springs, wander through the Shandicun village and wave hello to the locals, and sit back and relax while watching a sunset or two. But the Mae Hong Son region isn’t just known for peace and tranquillity: It’s also home to a great party or two. Despite being a small town, Pai is home to many bars. Sip on 20 different types of mojito at Almost Famous or go all out with a bucket for a night to (maybe not) remember—all for ฿150.
Travel up the country in an almost entirely straight line from Bangkok and you’ll find yourself in the middle of the Nan province. Here lies Nan, a lush world of nature, art, and temples. Most people don’t venture up this far north and it’s fair to say the pace of life in Nan is a little slower. But that’s all part of the magic. You might not pin rural Thailand as a top spot for art but local artist, Winai Prabripoo, is often spotted in the town to prove you otherwise with a quick browse of his Riverside Art Gallery.
And that’s just one example of the kind-hearted nature of the locals in Nan. If you’re a morning person, you’ll spot the monks strolling through the town at about 5.30 am. Offer them some food and expect a blessing in return. Elsewhere in the town, admire the old wooden buildings, watch dragon boats float down the Nan river or bike around the rice fields that surround the area. You might not spot many tourists, but the friendliness around you will be more than enough to keep you socialising.
Technically, the Golden Triangle falls under the Chiang Rai province too, but it’s unique enough to definitely deserve its own special mention. There are plenty of bus companies that’ll offer you a guided tour of the area, or it’s also possible to hire a motorbike and do it yourself.
The Golden Triangle is essentially the corner of Thailand that borders Burma and Laos. If you take a tour, you’ll likely be able to sip on a beer in Laos and shop at a border market in Burma. You can snap some photos of the Mekong Delta and pop into the Hall of Opium museum to learn all about the history of the crop.
In return for a small donation, pose for a picture on top of the elephant statues by the water. If you decide to arrange the trip yourself, you’ll be in for more of a treat due to the extra time. Spend a few hours exploring Chiang Saen, a city just south of the Golden Triangle that served as little more than a ghost town for 100 years. Then, hire a boat and cruise down the Mekong, admiring the sights along the way.
The Mae Sai border is a popular haunt for travellers doing visa runs between Thailand and Burma, but it should also be somewhere on your list to check out for the beauty of the spot. If you hadn’t worked it out, the Mae Sai border is right at the northernmost point of the country. It’s a stop you should consider tacking on especially if you’re travelling from Chiang Rai, as buses are frequent and only cost ฿40. This border town is known for its tremendous natural beauty in the form of caves, mountains, and trees. Shopaholics should also check out the outdoor market, where it’s possible to trawl through clothes, jewellery, and more to grab a bargain.
Don’t fancy venturing too far north of Chiang Mai? It won’t take you long to get to Chiang Dao and it’s worth the trip to check out Pha Daeng National Park even if you don’t have time to see anything else. Take a look on the map and you’ll realise the province is almost exclusively green and jungle-esque. As a result, most of the activities you’ll find in this area take place outdoors.
Pha Daeng National Park covers just over 1,100 square kilometres of the Pha Daeng mountain areas near the border with Burma. Here, you can hike jungle trails to check out breathtaking waterfalls or spend a couple of days trekking and admiring the flora and fauna all around you.
Chiang Dao’s also home to the third-highest mountain in Thailand—Doi Luang Chiang Dao—which is well worth a visit despite the almost permanent fog surrounding the area. Found yourself with more time to spend here? Head to the Chiang Dao Caves for mesmerising views (and remember to bring a torch) or chill out at the Pong Arng Hot Springs. Remember to bring a picnic for the ultimate afternoon.